Dialects disappearing in China

Modernization and the Three Gorges Dam are among the catalysts for vanishing dialects and greater adoption of putonghua.

The original 27,000 residents of Shenzhen, a former sleepy fishing village, have melted into today’s metropolis of four million – and so has the local dialect they used to speak.

Similarly, mass migration of entire villages along the Yangtze River to make way for the Three Gorges Dam project and the scattering of their residents, has sounded the death knell for the villagers’ local dialects.

Modernisation is posing a greater threat to China’s more than 1,000 dialects than the government’s efforts to popularise putonghua or Mandarin since 1955.

‘The modernisation process is a main reason for the decline of dialects,’ said assistant professor Jing Wendong of the Central University for Nationalities.

The popularisation of putonghua – the national language based on the Beijing dialect – only quickened the pace of decline, he added.

So is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s always sad to see aspects of local culture be wiped out by the bulldozer of progress. But in this case, I have to lean toward thinking this is a good thing. Ideally, those affected would be able to retain their dialects and adopt putonghua — just like the Shanghairen have done.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

This is a subject of discussion not unique to China.
Although the argument is usually framed in terms of losing local culture, this is really just part of the ongoing change of any dynamic society.

One thing that’s always bothered me about articles that talk about Chinese: I suspect politics are behind this, but I bet by normal definition (ie mutual intelligibility) these aren’t dialects, but languages we’re talking about.

August 18, 2004 @ 9:01 pm | Comment

In some cases it’s very hard to tell where the boundaries of ‘dialects’ end and a different ‘language’ begins. What is known is that nationalists like to employ the term ‘dialect’ to imply there is within the country (China) a ‘one-ness’ signify by a common language with only the regional variations of dialects. What has added to the confusion between the word ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ is the written form, which is of course common among the Chinese dialects (or languages), though there are minor ‘dialectal’ peculiarities. This second factor may well be the principal reason why most people refer to the various Chinese languages as ‘dialects’.

But I believe, together with the views of those who post their opinions on Chinese ‘dialectal’ group websites, that some so-called Chinese dialects are so different from each other that they are actually different languages, in the same way that Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are different languages.

Therefore, the loss will be more than just dialects but actually unique languages.

An example of an English dialect evolved through regional influence would be the Australian English (Strine), but in this case, it’s certainly a dialect. Dare we say American English is also another regional dialect? Will the English worry if both Australian and American “dialects” disappear? (ha! ha! ha!)

The Indonesian versus Malay question is even more difficult to answer. Leaving aside accent, syntax, and other characteristics of usage (sorry, I am NOT a linguist, but I do speak both), there are sufficient vocabulary and terminology differences between the two (one borrows from Javanese, Sanskrit and Dutch, while the other from Arabic, Persian and English) for each to be unique languages, but there are also indisputable and ample similarities within them for one to be a dialect of the other. I would hate for either to disappear, or one to swamp the other into extinction.

Then there is the case of the Fujian (Hokkien or Min) dialect/language, used in Taiwan, Fujian province and among some overseas Chinese, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia, on the island of Penang, the lingua franca is actually Fujian-ese, and strangely enough, not Malay – go there to see numbers of local Indians (Tamils, Malayalams, etc), Sikhs, Malays and Eurasians rattling away in fluent Fujian-ese. But it’s a Fujian-ese that’s clearly a dialect that is sufficiently different to confuse the Taiwanese or Mainland Fujian speakers, though not enough to render it totally incomprehensible to them. The women of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, very much to the chagrin of their men, affectionately describe Penang Fujian-ese as ‘sexy’. That in itself is more than justification to ensure it doesn’t die out.

August 18, 2004 @ 11:06 pm | Comment

sorry – typo with grammatical mistake

“…. a ‘one-ness’ signify by a common language …..” should correctly have “signified”

August 18, 2004 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

Certainly in some areas of China the dialects/languages are not very threatened as the article suggests. Take Fujian province as a for instance. It does not seem Fujinaese are giving up their mother tongue, whether it is called a dialect or a language. I used to be around the people from Taishan quite a bit. Taishanese is still strong for the locals and even more interesting is that many of the small villages in the Taishan city area have their own individual dialects. They are so, I will call it localized, that people from different parts of the Taishan area can’t understand the individual village dialects. Some of the people from that area use three or four means of verbalization, putonhua, cantonese, taishanese and their village dialect. They can switch from one to another seemingly without delay. I suspect this may be a situation throughtout China.

August 18, 2004 @ 11:23 pm | Comment

Jacky, I’ve often wondered about the written word. I keep hearing the official line that written Chinese is Chinese and understandable by all, but I once met an interpreter from Shanghai who claimed she couldn’t understand Chinese that was written in Hong Kong by locals for locals, and she said it wasn’t just a matter of simplified vs. traditional characters.

Anyway, I think you have the solution. Just brand the Shenzhen dialect as “sexy” and it’ll never die!

August 18, 2004 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

How the Dragon Lost Its 1,000 Tongues

“As languages disappear, cultures die. The world becomes inherently a less interesting place, but we also sacrifice raw knowledge, the intellectual achievements of millennia.”

August 18, 2004 @ 11:28 pm | Comment

How the Dragon Lost Its 1,000 Tongues

“As languages disappear, cultures die. The world becomes inherently a less interesting place, but we also sacrifice raw knowledge, the intellectual achievements of millennia.”

August 18, 2004 @ 11:28 pm | Comment

Boo is right. Even “dialect” in Chinese doesn’t usually mean what it means in English. There’s at least three different versions of Cantonese (Macao, Hong Kong, and somewhere called Huadu) I’ve run across that are practically mutually unintelligable.

August 18, 2004 @ 11:39 pm | Comment

written chinese can differ based on the sayings and vocabulary that is used, so the difference between mainland, taiwan, and hong kong writing is not necessarily just the characters. mainland chinese writing is fairly predictable and simplistic, in my opinion, so after studying chinese here in the mainland, i did have quite a few problems working as a document translator for a company with offices in taiwan and hong kong. i, personally, feel that the written language is more complex, rich, and lively in hong kong and taiwan, a conclusion that seems to make sense based on the recent history of the mainland.
and as for dialects, oh man, why do shanghai people always feel the need to speak to me in shanghai dialect, even when i am using putonghua? take a hint, i don’t understand!

August 18, 2004 @ 11:48 pm | Comment

Asia by Blog

Linking you with the best of Asian linkage… Hong Kong, Taiwan and China Hong Kong was titillated with when a LegCo candidate was arrested for soliciting a prostitute in China. ESWN notes significant differences between the English and Chinese languag…

August 19, 2004 @ 1:37 am | Comment

This is a bit off-topic, but I’m curious about something.

I’ve been watching the Olympics, and have noticed that the Chinese trainers have jackets with “China” (and some other words) written on them in traditional characters. Why is this? I thought the PRC used simplified characters exclusively.

August 19, 2004 @ 2:34 am | Comment

What is taught in schools in China? In Taiwan, it used to be the case that kids were punished for uttering a word of Taiwanese, but now everyone is taught Mandarin plus one dialect (Taiwanese, Hakka or an aborigine language) – plus English of course. If the schools are actively teaching local dialects, then they have much more chance of survival.

For written Chinese: Every Western linguistics expert I have spoken to claims that Taiwanese/Min/Fujian dialect is NOT a written language. In other words, while it is possible to map most words to standard Chinese characters, not all words have a mapping (you can see this in Taiwan – where sometimes signs are a mixture of characters and phonetic lettering). Even for those words which do have a mapping to characters, you’re not guaranteed it’s the same as for Mandarin. I don’t know if this is also the case for other dialects.

Incidentally, I think the dialects spoken in Taiwan and in Fujian, while officially the same, have drifted apart a bit in the same way as Adam describes for Cantonese.

August 19, 2004 @ 2:45 am | Comment

All of you are right in one way or another. I hope what I share with you below would be right too.

The Chinese written language (huawen) originally had about 50K to 80K characters in use, but today only 10% of this vast library of characters (approx. 8,000) are still employed, though language experts/academics may know a thousand or two more – some of these rare characters, though comprehensible to experts, can’t be pronounced anymore due to lack of use or knowledge of how they had ‘sounded’ – I guess it will be fun re-inventing ‘sounds’ for them.

The written language has been based on Mandarin, or putonghua.

Incidentally, the term ‘putonghua’ (or local speech) is only applicable in Mainland China today. There was a time when this would have been Cantonese in Kwangtung/Guangdong Province, and Fujian-ese in Fjian/Hokkien Province. But that term is now accepted in China as the Mandarin language.

Today, for overseas Chinese to call Mandarin ‘putonghua’ or ‘guoyue’ (national language), this would be deemed highly seditious in their countries – thus, they have diplomatically/politically called spoken Mandarin ‘huayue’ (language of the Chinese) and the written version as ‘huawen’.

The Cantonese language has an additional 200 unique/special characters to cater for its own use, hence we get the reading confusion for a Mainlander as mentioned by boo and Adam. Additionally, some regional peculiarities in syntax also add on to this confusion – that was why I had originally written (my previous message) “……which is of course common among the Chinese dialects (or languages), though there are minor ‘dialectal’ peculiarities …..”. Other regional languages also have their own ‘peculiarities’ and special characters.

Adam, spinner and David brought out an important truth about regional or even village differences – this is not unique to Chinese. My Dutch friend told me that in Holland, the vocabulary and other aspects of the Dutch language can vary even by a few kilometres (in next village), let alone regions. I have experienced this ‘village dialectal differences’, both for Malay and Chinese in Malaysia, just within a distance of 30 to 40 km.

But, in general, the majority of the Chinese characters are common, in the same way as the Japanese Kanji (characters borrowed from Chinese, but pronounced in Japanese of course) can be understood by a Chinese educated bloke, and vice versa.

I tried to find out what vaara brought out (I haven’t been that observant to detect that myself), why the Chinese Olympic team has the original (not simplified version) characters for ‘China’. No one could provide me with a definite answer though one informed me that she noticed this being frequently used at international meets of all sorts – perhaps it has to do with tradition and historical (?)pride.

August 19, 2004 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

Asia by Blog – Month in review

Thank you to everyone for the good wishes. Everyone is doing well. Now to keep you going…as part of the Winds of Change team I provide a monthly briefing on Asian goings-on, particularly China and SE Asia. I thought this would give me a good opportun…

August 23, 2004 @ 5:23 pm | Comment

Simon’s E. Asia Overview: Aug 25/04

It’s time to have a look at East Asia and what’s been making the news in Asian blogs over the past month. We cover China (in depth), as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore et. al).

August 24, 2004 @ 11:11 pm | Comment


There’s an interesting thread at The Peking Duck that takes off from an article about “vanishing dialects and greater adoption of putonghua” and turns into a discussion of whether there is in fact a unified writing system in China. (My…

August 26, 2004 @ 8:04 am | Comment

Someone explained once that Taiwan Mandarin is a dialect (Mandarin “shi” => “si”) but Taiwan Fukienese (Hokkien) is a language, though not a national language or a written language.

My guess is that the dialects/ languages of large areas and functional units (Shanghai, Beijing, the Cantonese area) but that the little niche dialects will disappear as their social unit becomes overwhelmed by the national culture. The case of relocation is a very strong case of that.

The delineation of subdialects knows no end. Old Portland Chinese say that their dialect is Chaozhou Cantonese.

My guess is that the “dialects” of China are MORE distant than Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian.

Singapore seems to be an originally multi-cultural nation which is developing it’s own culture and, to a degree, language. Besuides the Fukien dialect mentioned, there’s a famous Chinese-English pidgin that is widely used there.

August 26, 2004 @ 10:13 am | Comment

As a native spanish speaking chinese student I would like to add a couple of ideas: first, it is impossible to compare Chinese with Latin languages, because of the Chinese Character, the fundamental ingedient of Chinese languages, so the limit between languages and dialects is different. On the other hand, the same process happened with Spanish, which is actually Castillan one of the many languages/dialects spoken on the Iberian peninsula, but today based on the need to have a common language they all speak castillan, while the Cathalons and the Basque, try to preserve there own language as well. But that doesn’t end there, Spanish is spoken in many parts of latin america, and because of the evolution of the dialects it is very hard for an Argentinean, to be understood by a guy from Miami, Spain or Mexico, I suffer that myself. Anyway I think that as everything in this world the language of preferrence will always be that of use by the business community and that is the one that will prevail, in the case of China it’s Putonhua.

August 26, 2004 @ 9:24 pm | Comment

When I was studying Cantonese, I used to attend a lot of Hong Kong movies in San Francisco. Most of them were subtitled in English and Mandarin, and the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese would be quite apparent. It would also be quite disorienting (no pun intended) when the occasional movie would turn up with English and colloquial Cantonese subtitles, with characters such as (mouh, not have, as can be seen in the graphic at http://www.omniglot.com/writing/cantonese.htm ) and “D” or “Q” to represent words pronounced like the English letters D and Q.

I once ran across a book of differences between Cantonese and Mandarin. It ran at least 200 pages in 8 x 11 3-column format (Cantonese, Mandarin, English) and relatively small type.

A Cantonese co-worker once told me her Fukien husband could read the news section of their preferred Chinese-language San Francisco newspaper, but not the entertainment section as that was in colloquial Cantonese.

August 26, 2004 @ 11:36 pm | Comment

Addendum: If I recall correctly, the film The Queen of Temple Street had colloquial Cantonese subtitles along with the English. It can probably be rented from your local Chinese video rental store.

August 26, 2004 @ 11:42 pm | Comment

Forgive my ignorance, but I would really appreciate knowing what the correct pronunciation is of the word “putonghua”. A Chinese friend I asked about it, had either never heard of it or I was way off on the pronunciation, because he said it sounded like I was asking about the “don’t understand language”. I doubt this is the meaning of the word, but my “putong” sounds too much like “bu don”.
Xie xie.

June 7, 2005 @ 3:04 pm | Comment


June 7, 2005 @ 3:22 pm | Comment

how did peking duck dialect disappear?
when did it disappear?
what are the reasons of the disappearance of the dialect?

September 2, 2005 @ 4:22 pm | Comment

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