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For decades, efforts to unify China’s language helped facilitate rapid economic and social changes. Now enthusiasts are working to preserve its vibrant regional dialects before they fall silent

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Men gather to watch a game of Chinese-style chess (xiangqi) in a Shanghai neighborhood

Delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s latest project, Blossoms Shanghai, began production in July. The show, Wong’s first foray into television, is adapted from the 2012 award-winning novel Blossoms by Shanghai author Jin Yucheng. 

There’s a reason Wong, a Shanghai native, picked Blossoms to pay homage to his birthplace. Written largely in the local dialect, the book captures Shanghai’s unique transition from the 1960s to the economic boom of the 1990s through the daily lives of its people.  

A standout feature of the novel is Jin’s sensitive use of Shanghainese, part of the regional Wu dialect group. The prose is short and choppy, reflecting the quick bursts of everyday speech. For non-native speakers of Shanghainese, the dialogue poses a bit of a challenge. 

Jin Yucheng told NewsChina that his writing in pure dialect counters the prevalent trend of translation-style narration, or translating dialect into standard language. Jin said dialects are not only a device to portray a regional culture but also more accurately communicate the complexity and diversity of people.  

“Dialects are like a happy stream: passing down and developing through word of mouth. They flow forward with vivacity, and provide a continuous supply for literary writers,” Jin told NewsChina.  

Most dialects stem from ancient Chinese, influenced by population movement, resettlement and political divisions. Over the millennia, dialects have been vessels of local culture and links to personalidentity for the people who speak them. 

There are 10 major dialect groups of Sinitic, the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Besides Wu (which includes Shanghainese) and the Beijing dialect that forms the basis of standard Chinese (or Putonghua), other regional dialects include Xiang in Central China’s Hunan Province, the Gan dialect concentrated in neighboring Jiangxi Province, Min dialect in what is now Fujian Province, and the Cantonese dialect of Guangdong Province and Hong Kong. 

Linguists recognize 97 dialect regions in China - many of which are facing extinction because of increased urbanization, population migrations and official promotion of Putonghua. Even widely spoken Wu, Min and Cantonese are struggling to survive another generation.  

The Chinese play The Peony Pavilion is staged in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province

A singer performs in a local dialect, Rui’an, Zhejiang Province, August 20, 2011

Changing Dialect
While writing Blossoms, Jin Yucheng felt a sense of freedom in his writing. He called dialectal narration a “gift from God,” as it gives authors a unique voice. Conversations are full of dialect. For example, the local expression “bu xiang” appears more than 1,500 times in the novel. Literally “without sound,” bu xiang means “don’t speak.”  

To make the book more accessible to non-Shanghainese speakers, Jin peppered his Putonghua prose with local expressions and vocabulary that highlight the dialect’s flavor. He injects dialect for common words like “things” (shiti) and “time” (shihou), as well as phases such as “3,000 nonsense words” to describe stupid or untrue talk and insults like “thirteen points,” or imbecile. 

Qian Nairong, a 75-year-old professor of Chinese at Shanghai University and Wu dialect expert, told NewsChina that dialects are more precise, detailed and varied in their descriptive power. 
Before Jin Yucheng, other successful novels written in the Wu dialect include Han Bangqing’s The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai and Eileen Chang’s The Golden Cangue. Dialects are even more prevalent in local operas and folk performances. 

An important port during the past century, Shanghai’s dialect emerged among the three most dominant dialects in China along with Beijing dialect and Cantonese. By the end of 1980s, it was still common to hear Shanghainese spoken in neighboring cities. According to Qian, Shanghainese absorbed other dialects as waves of migrants from neighboring provinces arrived in the city. For example, Qian explained, the pronoun ala (“we”) comes from the Ningbo dialect. 

Linguists see dialects as a connection between ancient and modern Chinese. For example, Hokkien, a dialect of southern Fujian Province, has kept features of ancient Chinese, mostly because of the region’s geographic isolation.  

According to Wang Jianshe, a Hokkien expert and former dean of the school of literature at Huaqiao University in Fujian Province, some historically popular local names used today like A Gua, A Long, and A Xiong date back to around 300 AD. Modern Hokkien also preserves some ancient pronunciations which have long since faded from other Chinese dialects. 

A shared characteristic among dialects is that as people migrate, they create unique accents while retaining their pronunciation, which can be traced chronologically. In the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), waves of migrants arrived in Lingnan, a southern area thatnow includes Guangdong and Hainan provinces and Hong Kong and Macao. This created a large Cantonese-speaking region that was protected from the frequent wars of the northern central plains by mountains. This geographical isolation allowed Cantonese to keep some elements of medieval Chinese. 

Sterile Environment
According to Jin, the official Putonghua used in modern literature more resembles an “artificial language” because it lacks the foundation of traditional culture that inspired the rich literary styles of the 1930s and 1940s. 

Since 1956, the promotion of Putonghua helped overcome the regional communication barriers that linguistically separated China, increasing population mobility and accelerating economic development. But it also affected dialect use. Qian said that by the 1970s, use of Putonghua had become widespread. His daughter, who was born in 1976, would speak Putonghua at school and Shanghainese with family and friends. This bilingual environment continued until the late 1980s. In 1992, the Shanghai government banned primary and middle school students from speaking dialect at school. Broadcasters were forced to stop making television and radio programs in Shanghainese.  

The rule lasted for over a decade, said Qian Nairong, and left most children in a sterile linguistic environment. “This means that for children born after 1985, there is a gap in the inheritance of the Shanghai dialect,” Qian added. 

According to a survey of Shanghai students in 2012, only about 60 percent could understand and speak Shanghainese to varying degrees. The report, issued by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, surveyed 21 primary school classes and 24 junior middle school classes in seven schools in Shanghai.  

Chen Yanling, a professor at Quanzhou Normal University in Fujian Province, researched the use of dialects in Quanzhou’s urban and rural primary and middle school students in 2010 and 2011. Chen found that 24 percent of urban students spoke dialect.  

Wang Lining, deputy director of the China Language and Resource Conservation Research Center, sees the trend as an unavoidable consequence of urbanization. Wang said dialectologists are not only concerned about the dramatic changes to China’s dialects, but also that some will disappear before they can be recorded.  

At the end of 2018, Wang Lining and Cao Zhiyun, director of the China Language and Resource Conservation Research Center, led students to do field research into the She ethnicity dialect spoken in Tashi, Zhejiang Province. The She migrated from the coastal Guangdong and Fujian provinces to Tashi’s Dakeng Village over 14 generations ago. Today more than 140 registered residents claim She origins. Most under age 25 can speak little She dialect. Even though older villagers can speak She, most communicate in Wu.  

Unlike most dialects in China, Cantonese has shown a unique resilience. Zhuang Chusheng, professor of the Chinese History Research Center of Zhejiang University, attributes this strength to the open and inclusive culture of Guangzhou. Many of the city’s natives strongly identify with their local culture and find pride in speaking Cantonese, Zhuang said. 

When Britain colonized Hong Kong in the late Qing Dynasty(1644-1911), many from Guangzhou emigrated to Hong Kong. Cantonese, which is based on the Guangzhou dialect, soon became the city’s common tongue. After China’s reform and opening-up in the 1980s, migrant workers from across the country moved to Guangzhou. The province’s booming economy gave Cantonese the currency it needed to remain important. Music, film and pop culture from Hong Kong also arrived on the Chinese mainland, further cementing Cantonese’s influence.  

But now, according to Wang Lining, fewer young people speak Cantonese. Wang added that even though major dialect populations seem stable, sub-dialects are on the decline. For example, the Cantonese dialect spoken in Dongguan, a city 50 kilometers south of Guangzhou, is rapidly disappearing. 

Wang Lining (right) researches a dialect of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province

Jin Yucheng in the offices of Shanghai Literature

A volunteer uses a local dialect to discuss law with residents of Yuhang District in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, November 20, 2019

Primary school students learn Shanghainese at an event to promote the local dialect in Shanghai, January 18, 2014

Preservation Efforts
Launched in 2015, the Chinese Language Resource Conservation Project surveyed over 1,700 sub-dialects and ethnic languages at nearly 1,000 sites. In 2017, the Communist Party of China Central Committee and State Council issued a document that aimed to “vigorously promote and standardize the use of a common language and characters, while protecting the heritage of dialects.” 

Today, local dialect preservation efforts are underway across the country. Qian Nairong said that over the past 10 years, parents’ attitudes have changed about teaching their children the Shanghai dialect. Qian said it is important to create an environment for children to speak in dialect with their peers, which reinforces their vocabulary and proficiency. Encouraging students to speak in dialect with friends after class is key. 

In June 2019, the Chinese Language Resource Conservation Project published its landmark achievement, the China Endangered Language Records. Wang Lining and his team are considering how to present the collected data to attract more public attention, especially among young people. 

In the past few years, TV anchors Wang Han, Cui Yongyuan and others have held the country’s first dialect film festival in Zurong Village in Guangdong Province. Each year the organizing committee selects around 50 winners from a pool of up to 800 entrants.  

According to Zhuang, protection efforts should be tailored to fit the dialect’s specific conditions. Some dialects with a speaking population of up to three or four million are likely to disappear, which means creating audio and video records are a priority. But for more influential dialects such as Min, Wu and Cantonese, efforts should focus on promoting usage and inheritance.  

However, Wang Lining is uncertain whether their efforts will be effective. “Perhaps people haven’t yet realized that a hometown dialect is a precious resource, but can you imagine how impressive it would be if we could hear the voices of Chinese historical figures thousands of years ago like Zhuge Liang (the famous military strategist during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280)?” Wang said. 

“One or two thousand years from now, the work we are doing today may impress people that same way.”