Background and Context

Shanghainese (also Shanghaiese) 上海话 today is spoken by 13 million people in China's largest city of Shanghai and serves as the city's lingua franca (Li, Rong 1997). It belongs to the northern branch of the family of dialects called Wu (吴语 or 吴方言), which has a total of over 77 million native speakers (Ethnologue 1984 data), making it the second largest Sinitic language after the 800 million speakers who claim Mandarin as their mother tongue. For perspective, the total population of Wu speakers slightly surpasses the population of native French, Italian or Korean speakers worldwide (Ethnologue 1987 data); while the number of native Shanghainese speakers is roughly equal to Hungarian or Swedish. Shanghainese is an integration of the various forms of Wu as millions of people throughout the Wu-speaking region of China settled in Shanghai during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The IANA language tag for the Wu language is zh-wuu and the ISO/DIS 639-3 code is wuu.

Huaihai Road, Luwan District, Shanghai

About Wu

The name 上海 (Shanghai) first appeared in 1077 AD on the store name of a winery in what is today the Nanshi district of Shanghai. Its name literally meaning "on the sea", Shanghai sits on the delta where China's longest river, the Yangtze, meets the Pacific Ocean. Shanghai became a county in 1292 and would gradually grow from a steady population of 500,000 in the 1800's to 4 million by World War II. Besides Shanghai, Wu speakers are concentrated in two small and adjacent coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu (the municipality of Shanghai is squeezed between the two provinces). This Wu-speaking region is also called the Lower Yangtze Delta, Jiangnan (江南) or Wuyue (吴越) and has been a key cultural center of China and East Asia for nearly two millennia. Major cities in the Wu-speaking region today include Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Shaoxing and Wenzhou.

The term Wu (吴, variant characters: 吳 or 呉) comes from the historic Kingdom of Wu (吴国) first united by Wu Taibo (吴太伯) as Gouwu (句吴) with its capital just 80km from present day Shanghai during the Autumn and Spring period 2500 years ago, founded again during the Three Kingdoms period 1700 years ago, and again during the Five Dynasties and Ten States period as the Kingdom of Wuyue (吴越国). Today's Wu-speaking region covers half of ancient Wu in Jiangsu province and most of the archrival Yue Kingdom (越国) in Zhejiang province. The famous treatise The Art of War is a collection of war stratagems written by generals of the Wu Kingdom, and combined with superior military technology, allowed for the tiny coastal kingdom to defeat the much larger Chu State 楚 of the Zhou Dynasty. Wu today descends from the languages spoken in Eastern Chu and the Wu and Yue kingdoms, along with northern and Han influences later on. The Wu dialects still retain characteristics of early Middle Chinese no longer found in any of the other Chinese forms (Chao 1928). Many linguists today are convinced that the Wu dialects have a Tai-Kadai language family substratum from phonological traits such as implosive initials to the large number of shared vocabulary (Li, Hui 2001), and possible Hmong-Mien substratum in Wu dialects have also been hypothesized (Ballard 1985).

Cafe and teahouse in Jing'an Park, Jing'an District, Shanghai. Photo from

Language or Dialect?

Map of Chinese topolects. The population data reflects native speakers, with all data except Cantonese (1999) collected before 1988. Mandarin*: Mandarin contains many regional variants itself (River, Northeastern, Southwestern, Northwestern). The Chinese Common Language (Putonghua) is derived from the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. Min Family**: Min is considered by many linguists to be a family of separate languages, as Northern Min (Minbei) and Southern Min (Minnan) are very much unintelligible with each other.

Wu Chinese is mutually unintelligible with key dialects of other Chinese topolects (Ramsey 1989, Mair 1991, Hannas 1997). Significant differences between Wu Chinese and the northern dialects were observed and recorded at least two thousand years ago and as mentioned above, the Wu dialects share considerable vocabulary and phonological traits with languages from different language families. The major forms of Chinese are either considered as Chinese dialects or separate Sinitic languages. Those who favor dialect classification factor in political considerations and the former existence of a common written language (文言, Classical Literary Chinese) in China (and even throughout Japan, Korea and Vietnam). On the other hand, linguists that favor separate language status for the topolects (the neutral term proposed by Mair) make their case based on mutual intelligibility data, and on phonetic and lexical differences. From these measures, the Chinese topolects are often more different than the Romance languages (which includes major languages of Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan). Supporters of language status also argue that the universality of Classical Literary Chinese (no longer practically used today) was no more different than that of formal Latin used in Western Europe after the fall of Rome, and that the characters today only create the illusion (through cultural identity) of uniting the various regionalects. Modern Mandarin vernacular writing (白话 is incompatible with non-Mandarin Chinese regionalects such as Wu Chinese. Below is an excerpt from William C. Hannas's recent book (2003); he is a firm supporter of language status for the regionalects and his views on this are shared by many other prominent linguists and sinologists:

Although few Chinese would agree with me, the term "Chinese" does not refer to a language but to a group or branch of related languages that have less in common than the Romance languages have with each other. Besides Mandarin spoken in the north, Chinese includes six or seven other major languages used in the remainder of the country and abroad, among which Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Min (which includes Taiwanese) are the most prominent. These "southern" varieties are primary languages for tens of millions of Chinese speakers. For Shanghainese it is closer to 100 million. Each has significant differences in phonology, vocabulary, and syntax and all are mutually unintelligible. In any other context these nonstandard varieties would be regarded as different languages. But in China they are treated as "dialects" (fa¯ngya´n) for political expediency and because, with the marginal exception of Cantonese, they lack writing. Orthography, besides its tangible effect on the development of a language and on the psychology of its speakers, confers legitimacy on a language and political status on its users. Since the non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese are mostly unwritten, they are portrayed as less than full-fledged languages, even though they qualify as languages by any linguistic measure. Since Cantonese, Shanghainese, and other nonstandard varieties differ from Mandarin not just in sound but also in vocabulary and grammar, the characters cannot bridge this gap by themselves, even with their relative neutrality toward sound. Much of the core vocabulary of non-Mandarin Chinese has no counterpart in Mandarin and no recognized character representation. Conversely, many Mandarin terms for which characters do exist are foreign to non-Mandarin speakers. The fact that nonstandard speakers can read a text in the standard language simply means that these speakers are bilingual.

Linguists who emphasize the dialect status of Chinese topolects (the bulk of whom are Chinese) counter-argue that the Chinese situation cannot be adequately judged by Western conventions precisely because of the existence of characters and their morphosyllabic nature (capable of representing both morphemes and words). Placing great importance on the characters and the vastly monosyllabic characteristic of Chinese's morphemes, they argue that the regionalects fundamentally differ only on the pronunciation of each character.

Within each topolect are further regional dialects with differences on par to the various English dialects. For example, the Shanghai (Taihu Pian) and Taizhou dialects are two of several regional dialects of Wu Chinese, they cannot be considered as dialects of Mandarin (which has its own plethora of regional dialects).

Two works by Mifu 米芾 (AD 1051-1108). Song Dynasty Chinese calligraphy (cursive script), Jiangsu province. The work on the left is titled 《論書》 Lunshu; on the right is 《臨沂使君》 Linjin Shijun. The cursive script has traditionally been very favored among painters, calligraphers and patrons of the Lower Yangtze Delta region; the style also served as a model for the hiragana syllabary in Japanese. Click on the images for full scan reproduction (~1 mb).

Overview of the phonology and grammar

Wu dialects have preserved the full Middle Chinese set of voiced initials that do not exist in Mandarin and Cantonese (Chao 1928). Like all Wu dialects, Shanghainese has 3-way consonant differentiation (voiced, voiceless unaspirated, and voiceless aspirated), for a large total of 30 consonants (Mandarin has 24, Cantonese 17). No other Chinese topolect has preserved the entire set of Middle Chinese initials. Wu has however been less faithful in its finals, having truncated most diphthongs and triphthongs still found in Cantonese and Mandarin into monophthongs (pure vowels), for a total of 14 pure vowels. This characteristic makes Shanghainese syllables quick and direct; the average Shanghainese syllable is 30% shorter than Mandarin (Duanmu 1994). The sections Consonants and Vowels and Tones and Accent contain more detailed information on the phonology and pronunciations of Shanghainese.

Shanghainese grammar is similar with the other Chinese topolects and has changed a lot over the past hundred years, becoming more Mandarinized. Compared to other Chinese dialects, Shanghainese and Wu is in general more Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) oriented (Qian 1997), although Mandarin influence has created many new SVO expressions as well. The circumstances at which they are used and the particles involved differ for SOV and SVO.

Shanghainese is also richer in aspect particles than Mandarin, and has some very precise particles that convey tense when placed in isolation (much like the Japanese -ta perfective). Onomatopoeia plays a larger role in Shanghainese, especially in expressing emotion and flavoring adjectives (Qian 1997).

Although Shanghainese is Sinitic, suggestions of a non-Sinitic indigenous substratum can still be found in Shanghainese word formation and structure. The core basic vocabulary in Shanghainese is significantly different from Mandarin, with many words instead being cognates with Tai-Kadai languages. Wu dialects in Shanghai's rural suburbs have as many as 100 cognates with Tai languages within one thousand common words surveyed (Li, Hui 2001). Many adjectives in Shanghainese end with -shishi, -lei or -leishi, while adverbs are usually uninflected. Morpheme order in words are also often reversed from Mandarin. In general, Shanghainese is more agglutinative and polysyllabic than Mandarin. There are also several illogical sentence constructions in Shanghainese that while negative literally, imply a positive statement (most popular example being "vio the"... 覅忒…). More information on grammar will be found in the Other Resources section (still in construction).

Cultural identity, conflicts with Putonghua, status, and bans

Suzhou and Shanghai Pingtan 评弹 (Shanghainese: Bindei). A traditional form of artistic story-telling with or without musical accompaniment (by the artists). In Wu Chinese. Stories range from military battles to love affairs; and can stretch for several weeks, usually 2 hrs a day. Performed in teahouses or special storytelling houses in Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region. Patrons there sip tea and relax under the atmosphere. The female shown is the famous pingtan performer 吴静 (Wu Jing).

Many Shanghainese see their mother tongue as an essential element of the Shanghainese identity. However, Shanghainese and other Wu dialects have been facing a slow and silent decline against the vast dominance of Mandarin in Chinese society over the past fifty years. If there's one non-Shanghainese speaker in a group of Shanghainese speakers, the entire group will speak in Mandarin. As speaking Shanghainese is considered extremely rude in other parts of China, Shanghainese speakers rarely speak it outside of Shanghai. Shanghainese is banned in schools, and until recently in newspapers, in labeled music, and the local media to this day is strongly discouraged to use Shanghainese. Shanghainese is never heard on national television, while various Mandarin dialects are frequently used on national CCTV programs (Qian 2004). Until recently, linguists were barred from assigning Chinese characters to indigenous Shanghainese and Wu words with no Mandarin equivalent (Qian 2004). Most Shanghainese cannot write simple thoughts down on paper in their mother tongue due to the lack of Wu Chinese education. In Shanghai, there are government sponsored billboards featuring celebrities exhorting slogans such as "speak Mandarin ... be a modern person" (Bodeen 2004). Consequently some speakers feel that their mother tongue must be extremely inferior and ill-suited for contemporary society.

The Common Chinese Language (Guoyu and later Putonghua) movement based on Mandarin was mainly started by Shanghainese intellectuals and writers during the early 20th century to create a common vernacular medium for national communication. Due to the existing large population size of Mandarin speakers in China (70% of all Chinese), its relative phonological simplicity, and its adoption as the court language of the Ming and Qing dynasties, Mandarin (specifically the Beijing dialect) was selected as the base for the new national common language. Since the bulk of the new vernacular Mandarin Chinese literature then were written by native Wu and Shanghainese speakers, a significant amount of today's Mandarin Chinese vocabulary come from Wu Chinese via these literary works. The words and usages have become so well adopted into Standard Mandarin, that most speakers assume they are indigenous to Mandarin, rather than cognates of Wu. The actual promotion of Standard Mandarin was achieved through the simultaneous neglect and often outright suppression of all other Chinese regionalects, most harshly on Wu and Shanghainese (Qian 2004). This was very much against the wishes of the early common language proponents, including Lu Xun, the pioneer of vernacular Mandarin literature and a native Wu speaker from Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. The interesting struggle between Mandarin and Wu (Kiangsu-Chekiang) in the development of the common language during the early 20th century is documented in DeFrancis's Nationalism and Language Reform in China (1950), excerpts of which can be found at

Current developments

Outside Gua'er, a music club in Hongkou District, northern Shanghai. Photo by

Without a recognizable standard and no Shanghainese education, Shanghainese today has also changed greatly from just fifty years ago. It has has lost many vowels, becoming harsher in quality and more simplified phonologically. The phonology has moved closer to modern Japanese; and like Japanese, conversational Shanghainese today has a pitch accent tonal system (Qian, 2003). In the past five years, Shanghainese youths have been giving more attention to their mother tongue than the generations before. Vernacular Shanghainese has become popular in Shanghai's underground music scene as something that brazenly challenges both Mandarin and Cantonese constraints in music. Taiwan is in the midst of a Shanghainese with over one million people from Taiwan living in and around Shanghai today. The fate of the dialect is still uncertain although it has become increasingly apparent that the unique identity attached with the Shanghainese dialect is something that will continue to be cherished by the Shanghainese as they try to re-carve a cultural niche for themselves.

Next: Pronunciation - Consonants and Vowels

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