Stop speaking Shanghainese!

One thing I always notice when I go to Shanghai is how difficult is is to follow conversations. In Beijing, I can listen in on the table behind me and at least understand a decent chunk of the conversation. And I always hear little kids telling their parents on the street about the approaching laowai.

But not in Shanghai. The first time I went there, I could have sworn they were speaking a separate language, and indeed, Fudan and other universities offer courses in Putonghua and Shanghainese Chinese. Now it seems the government wants to curb the use of Shanghai-hua (is that what it’s called?) and improve their Putonghua — at least until the 2010 World Expo is over.

Residents of China’s richest and most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai, have been told to brush up their command of the national language ahead of the 2010 World Expo to avoid confusing visitors, state media said Wednesday.

The Shanghai government will require people who speak bad Mandarin to attend remedial classes in the run up to the exposition “to end the confusion,” the China Daily said.

Many Shanghainese prefer using their own dialect, unintelligible to other Chinese, and speak Mandarin with a thick accent hard to understand to other speakers.

“Chinese see Shanghainese as a foreign language,” Shanghai government spokeswoman Jiao Yang told reporters. “As we open up to the world, especially for the Expo, it’s vital to promote Mandarin.”

All service industry workers would also have to pass a Mandarin test before 2010 and greet customers in Mandarin, the newspaper added, though they can then chat to customers in Shanghainese.

China has been promoting Mandarin for decades to ensure national cohesion in a country where dialects as different as French and Spanish share a similar written form.

Regional television and radio stations — including those in Shanghai — produce some programs in dialects to meet local demand, though the vast majority of programming is in Mandarin, which is based on the language spoken in capital city Beijing.

Now, the government is demanding that hosts and news anchors avoid slang words, speak only in standard Mandarin and drop any affected Taiwan or Hong Kong accents, according to rules posted on the State Administration of Film, Radio, Television’s Web site.

Some presenters deliberately adjust their pronunciation to sound more like natives of Hong Kong or Taiwan, the cultures of which, if not the politics, are fashionable across the mainland.

The rules are a new fold to the Chinese government’s vice-like grip over the media, meant to prevent anything too racy or politically sensitive from making it to screens or into print.

Only just over half China’s 1.3 billion people can communicate in Mandarin, the official Xinhua news agency cited a national survey as showing last year, while almost 90 percent can speak dialects ranging from Cantonese to Hokkien and Hakka.

Can they do it? Can the Shanghainese get up to speed on Mandarin, and will they resent this rather odd request?

The Discussion: 30 Comments

ha! Try the Sichuan dialect.

Not only is it unintelligable from Putonghua, but their native Sichuan accent makes it even worse.

My speaking skills have suffered greatly from living in Chengdu because I have few people that I can practice with.

September 14, 2005 @ 9:39 pm | Comment

When I first read this article elsewhere, I was puzzled, most people in Shanghai actually CAN speak Mandarin, although many have an accent of course.

But that’s not really a problem, especially given that the Shanghai accent is so much more pleasant than that corny Beijing mock-pirate-talk (“Arrrrh, women yao hao-warrrrrrrh, shiver me timbers!”) ๐Ÿ˜‰

It’s pretty unusual to encounter a Shanghai local who doesn’t speak Mandarin, outside of very elderly people, who the average visitor to the World Expo is unlikely to encounter anyway.

All over the world dialects are disappearing. I think it would be a shame to lose Shanghaihua, like losing Deep South American English.

Zei-wei, a! (“zai jian”)! ๐Ÿ™‚

September 14, 2005 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

Average Putonghua speaking level in Shanghai is definitely higher than most places in China. Pretty much all of the residents born after the revolution are perfectly fluent in Putonghua.

The problem is that some Shanghainese are very proud of their heritage and look down on people from other parts of China and pretends not to be able to speak Putonghua when approached by an outsider, or purposefully reply in Shanghainese even though they can speak Putonghua and know the outsider cannot understand Shanghai dialect. Ironically, for a foreigner, this is less of a problem, since the Shanghainese are perfectly willing to speak Putonghua with foreigners.

September 14, 2005 @ 10:53 pm | Comment

Hui Mao, that’s true about Shanghainese attitudes, I think it’s not so different from attitudes in other Great Cities of the world. But more importantly, like everything else, it’s changing fast.

I’ve spoken with “waidiren” (“out-of-towners”) who lived in Shanghai a few years back and recently returned. They have noted the much more frequent use of Mandarin in stores, etc.

The perfect symbol of the change is that popular new phrase “xin Shanghairen” (“New Shanghainese”) that locals use to refer to “waidiren” that now reside in Shanghai. It has a positive, welcoming meaning.

September 14, 2005 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

Curiously, they are about two decades behind Singapore in implementing this. In S’pore it’s “Speak Good English” and “Mandarin, it’s an asset!” Dialects and Singlish were banned from the airwaves ages ago (whether this has helped the development of either English or Mandarin is debatable).

September 15, 2005 @ 5:30 am | Comment

>The problem is that some Shanghainese are very proud of their heritage and look down on people from other parts of China

Change “some” to 96%. In any case, if you go anywhere outside of northern areas around Beijing, you won’t understand 2 words anyone says, because Chinese don’t use putonghua unless they absolutely have to (e.g., speaking with someone who is not from that area). You are only going to find a Mandarin environment in Beijing and surrounding areas where the dialects are very similar to Mandarin anyway.

Of course, as a foreigner, people will always use Mandarin with you. But eavesdropping in public — forget about it most of the time. I’ve gone months in parts of China without hearing a word of Mandarin except on TV or unless someone was speaking to me directly.

September 15, 2005 @ 6:34 am | Comment

No, myrick, you can not compare Shanghai with singapore. Yes, singapore is a English speaking country, but singapore keep changing its policies, one moment English is important, one moment Mandrain is important. as a result, Singaporeans are speaking only passable English and terrible Mandrain.
Two decades behind? you must be kidding. Most shanghainess can switch with dialect to Putonghua without too much hassle. Ask singaporeans, how many of them can easily switch their Singlish to English? How many of them can deliver a motivated speech in Mandrain?

September 15, 2005 @ 6:42 am | Comment

Most of the dialects of China are in fact separate languages and much older than Mandarin. It would be a shame to lose Shanghainese. On the other hand I hate when people try to use it as a barrier to exclude those who don’t speak it. It is the immigrants that make Shanghai the vibrant city that it is today certainly not the locals.

September 15, 2005 @ 8:57 am | Comment

It is quite funny that article highlighted “The rules are a new fold to the Chinese government’s vice-like grip over the media, meant to prevent anything too racy or politically sensitive from making it to screens or into print.” Do they always need to associate everything to the “grip over media” by CCP?

When I was still at elementary school, most teachers at my school would use dialect a lot in their teaching. The rule changed by the time I’m in high school, mandarin was enforced at school. Did I still always use local dialect outside school or talking to my classmates in school? Absolutely! Did the change improved my Mandarin so that there ain’t a communication barrier when I got to college? Absolutely!

September 15, 2005 @ 10:16 am | Comment

Personally, I don’t think this move has anything much to do with the attitudes of Shanghai people. It has to do with the attitudes of everyone else in China. Time and again … and yet again … I’ve listened to Chinese people tell me how much they hate Shanghaiese people … “repellent” was a word that particularly sticks in my mind. In fact … I can’t recall a single Chinese person I’ve spoken with on the subject of Shanghai who did NOT say something bad about the people.

And yeah yeah … I know what’ll happen now. There’ll be a chorus of people saying “oh I don’t hate Shanghaiese people” and “well, I’ve met people who don’t hate them” etc … but all the same, it doesn’t invalidate my own experience, and believe me I’m quite interested in this phenomenon and often ask people about their opinion on the matter, and I’m not just citing one or two examples. I couldn’t put a number on it, but let’s just call it MANY.

September 15, 2005 @ 10:40 am | Comment

Shanghaiese has a strange reputation of being obsessive (not sure if I translated it correctly here, maybe strict is a better word) about money. It is really a myth and I don’t really know how that reputation got around the country.

My opinion is that people don’t hate Shanghaiese, they just give it a second thought when engaging a Shanghaiese because of that reputation.

September 15, 2005 @ 10:51 am | Comment

Shanghai is like LA in some respects. (or let’s say California in general). Californians generally think California is the center of the known universe and the rest of the country is full of hicks and provincials. Having lived in LA, I can tell you the snob ratio there is probably the highest in the world. Shanghai is similar in some ways, which is why Shanghainese and Californians aren’t the most popular people in the world.

September 15, 2005 @ 11:00 am | Comment

hmmm, I see your point. But I think Shanghai is kind of different in a very strange way. People in Beijing probably will fit your description perfectly, but the rest of the country view Beijing folks in a much more positive way.

September 15, 2005 @ 11:09 am | Comment

Cracking down on dialects is nothing new. The KMT did it in Taiwan and their version of Minnamhua.

Frankly, I think the CCP should back off a bit on stuff like this, it’s bound to make unnecessary trouble, as other readers have pointed out, Shanghai hua is disappearing.

A Shanghaiese friend of mine said that during his last trip home, he didn’t use Shanghai hua at all because all of the cabbies and restaurant folks were xin shanghairen.

September 15, 2005 @ 11:28 am | Comment

zenbowl, cracking down on dialects? Maybe it is just me, but I don’t see in the article that speaking dialects is now illegal in China, otherwise the Chinese leaders probably will be cracking down on themself since most of them probably speak one dialect or another.

September 15, 2005 @ 11:43 am | Comment

It’s not cracking down per se, but when you demand that local media avoid using Shanghaiese, HK or Taiwanese slang, it’s getting close.

Certainly there’s a goal here; the eventual phasing out of dialects and phasing in a standard national language. While old leaders like Deng certainly had affected mandarin, I think the days of a thick-accented rural party boss in Beijing are gone.

September 15, 2005 @ 12:04 pm | Comment

I think it’s more than just “normal” feelings about big cities. Can you imagine, for example, someone saying something similar to the following comment about any other city? “Oh, I lived there for 6 years, but I would NEVER make friends with a Shanghai person!”

In Sydney, there’s a suburb that’s practically a Shanghai-town (as opposed to China-town). I had a Chinese friend moving there, and I said as a joke “oh, watch out for the Shanghai people” and she replied “why does EVERYONE say that!?”

September 15, 2005 @ 12:07 pm | Comment

zenbowl, I think your stated goal is probably true. My nephew now don’t even speak the local dialect, he could understand it perfectly well but he always respond in Mandarin.

The country is so mobile nowadays, you could no longer assume people you talk to could speak the local dialect. Maybe sadly, after a few more generations, the dialects will just die out.

September 15, 2005 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

Californians are snobs? Sheesh. Keep in mind that only a small percentage of those you meet in LA are actually from California.

September 15, 2005 @ 1:14 pm | Comment

Other Lisa,

Are you seriously arguing that Californians aren’t famous for being snobs? Particularly those from LA. Maybe you aren’t aware of it if you are from California. I’m obviously not implying that all Californians are snobs, just that they have a (deserved) reputation for being snobs.

Anyway, as a native New Yorker, I have a natural antipathy to all things West coast. ๐Ÿ˜‰

September 15, 2005 @ 2:00 pm | Comment

New Yorkers, Parisians, Londonites – I bet most cosmopolitan centers have something of this kind of exaggerated reputation of “exclusivity”. I remember the first time I visited New York City, and was quite surprised to discover locals were far more polite than I anticipated.

As for “Watch out for Shanghairen!”, well, I bet most societies on earth have customary names to fill in the blank “Watch out for persons from ____!” or “Be careful doing business with people from ___!”

In some places in China, the blank is filled with “Shanghairen.” In Shanghai, it’s “Hennanren”. In Hennan, it’s probably “Uighurs”. For Uighurs, it’s probably “Zhongguoren”.

hmmm asked:

Are you seriously arguing that Californians aren’t famous for being snobs?

Spoken as a “bridge and tunnel person” methinks? ๐Ÿ˜‰

September 15, 2005 @ 2:44 pm | Comment

I’ve heard many stereotypes about Californians over the years, but to be honest with you, I’ve never heard that we’re snobs. It’s generally that we’re kinda weird and flakey, meditating, yoga, sushi-eating types.

September 15, 2005 @ 3:37 pm | Comment

When I was little my Dad told me that California might fall off into the Pacific one day. I think that summed up his feelings for California. I think a lot of people in China hope that Shanghai will just sink into the Pacific. As an employer I usually think twice before I hire someone from Shanghai and I usually try to balance it out by having enough people from other parts of China.

September 15, 2005 @ 7:20 pm | Comment

hmmm said “Of course, as a foreigner, people will always use Mandarin with you.”
Actually that’s not true. I spent years studying Mandarin, and now once it comes out of my mouth, people here try to speak Shanghaihua with me. I’ve also been told many times that I should learn Shanghainese. For what? It’s not like I wanna grow old here or something…

September 15, 2005 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

So, speaking Mandarin with a Hong Kong accent is now banned in the media. So much for “one-country-two-systems”. It’s like banning speakers with a native southern accent from the US media.

September 15, 2005 @ 9:31 pm | Comment

Hah, typical jealousy – Californians make the movies, the TV, great wine, enough food to practically feed the planet, we have gorgeous beaches, redwoods, and several of the nicest cities in the world…not to mention great weather.

Plus Angelenos I believe buy the most books per capita in the US. So there.

September 16, 2005 @ 2:29 am | Comment

Conrad, don’t forget that dyed hair on news anchors was recently banned as well. :-0 What if that rule was applied to politicians?

Other Lisa, jeez, how could you forget one of California’s greatest gifts to the world: Humboldt Gold? ๐Ÿ™‚

September 16, 2005 @ 8:17 am | Comment

OH. right. thanks for the reminder, slim!

September 16, 2005 @ 3:31 pm | Comment

I can understand people here in beijing fairly well, but i often travel to shanghai, where i find their language, and attitudes, unintelligable. i watched a poor young taxi driver ask 20 people for help before he found one who didnt shrug him off. bunch of stuck up snobs. i really dislike going to shanghai, and dont even want to understand them!

September 16, 2005 @ 11:15 pm | Comment

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