Central government control over words for grandmother

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Recently there was quite a ruckus over the correct word to be used for "maternal grandmother" in second-graders' textbooks in Shanghai:

"Much Ado About Grandma: Textbook Change Sparks Linguistic Debate:  Critics call ‘waipo’ to ‘laolao’ change ‘cultural hegemony’ from the north", Kenrick Davis, Sixth Tone (6/22/18)

"A debate over the word for ‘grandmother’ in China exposes a linguistic and political rift", Echo Huang and Ziyi Tang, Quartz (6/26/18)

The big controversy was over whether students should be taught to say "lǎolao 姥姥" or "wàipó 外婆", both of which mean "maternal grandmother".

Let me begin by saying flat out that, in my Chinese family, we only said "wàipó 外婆", never "lǎolao 姥姥".  My relatives came from a small town near Qingdao, Shandong and spent more than ten years in Sichuan during World War II, before moving to Taiwan in 1948.  In fact, I called my mother-in-law "wàipó 外婆" because that's what my son called her, though in terms of my relationship to her, she was my yuèmǔ 岳母.

I was aware of the term "lǎolao 姥姥", but it had a sort of old-fashioned, earthy, northern topolectal air to it, since I knew it mainly from the mid-18th century vernacular novel, Dream of the Red Chamber and from northern oral and performing arts.

That's my own testimony, but I wanted to find out what others thought about the proposed change to drop "wàipó 外婆" from the second-grade textbooks and replace it with "lǎolao 姥姥", so I asked a number of native speakers of Mandarin from different parts of China what they thought about the change from "wàipó 外婆" to "lǎolao 姥姥".



The article is right:

Laolao = north and waipo = south, but it's a bit tricky where we should draw the line to split north and south.

In Hefei we say laolao, in Ningbo definitely waipo.

[VHM:  Hefei is in Anhui Province and Ningbo is in Zhejiang Province — both central, though Hefei is a bit more toward the north.]


I consider myself from the central region and have only used the term “waipo”. I definitely think “laolao” is a dialectal term that’s only used by people in the north. I personally don’t even like hearing the terms “laolao” and “laoye” [VHM:  "grandpa; gramps"].  Somehow I think these terms are fēicháng tǔ 非常土 [VHM:  "extremely earthy / colloquial / local"]. I don’t understand why the officials are making such a change; some of the comments about political reasons make sense. But I am not certain whether that’s the real purpose for such change. Even though terms will be changed in children’s textbook, I doubt kids in the south will adopt this term. If the parents at home still use the term “waipo”, I guess the kids will keep using it although it’s taught as “laolao” in textbooks.


I am so surprised to hear that Shanghai 2nd grade textbooks have made such ridiculous changes. I grew up in Shaoxing 绍兴, Zhejiang 浙江 Province and used the Wu dialect in my daily life, but I have never treated wàipó 外婆 as a term from the local dialect. I consider both wàipó 外婆 and lǎolao 姥姥 as "standard Mandarin," although I have never used the term lǎolao 姥姥 in my life and have had the general impression that lǎolao 姥姥 was not as widely used as wàipó 外婆 (it might be influenced by the fact that I lived in the south).  In fact, I only saw lǎolao 姥姥 in novels and other media, and thought this term appeared much later than wàipó 外婆.


This debate was reported in the news in Taiwan as well. In Taiwan, at school, we have always learned to use the word wàipó 外婆 for maternal grandmother. The word lǎolao 姥姥 is rarely heard and not commonly used at all. I have always thought that lǎolao 姥姥 is to address older women in the past (as in "Liú lǎolao jìn Dàguānyuán 劉姥姥進大觀園" ["Granny Liu Enters Grand Prospect Garden"] [VHM:  a famous comic scene from Dream of the Red Chamber]). It was not until I went to the US that I realized that people from northern China actually called their maternal grandma lǎolao 姥姥.  So here in Taiwan, Mandarin speakers always use wàipó 外婆 to refer to their maternal grandmother. However, in fact, most young people in Taiwan tend to use the Taiwanese term āmā 阿嬤 instead. Interestingly, in Taiwanese, āmā 阿嬤 simply means "grandmother." To specify, in Taiwanese, paternal grandma is nèimā 內嬤 while maternal grandma is wàimā 外嬤. Nowadays in daily life, most Taiwanese people use the Mandarin term nǎinai 奶奶 to refer to their paternal grandma and the Taiwanese term āmā 阿嬤 to refer to their maternal grandma, though the Mandarin term wàipó 外婆 is still used by some and is definitely understood by all.

So, as a native Mandarin speaker who was born and grew up in Taiwan, it is hard to believe and to accept that the term wàipó 外婆 is not Mandarin. I don't see how this kind of textbook change could ever happen here in Taiwan.


This news raises an issue that I have confronted for more than 10 years. Since I was born in the Northeast of China, I only call my maternal grandma "laolao", but after I have moved to Guangzhou [VHM: in the far south — formerly Canton], my classmates did not understand its meaning. Maternal grandma in Guangzhou is named "waipo". So I thought waipo was exactly a kind of topolect. First, Mandarin is based on the language in and around Beijing in the north, and laolao belongs to this category. Second, waipo is the word taught by my Cantonese friends, so I regarded it as Cantonese.

Later, I changed to think that waipo is actually a term of standard Mandarin. First, when I say waipo, almost all people could get its meaning, but when I say laolao, most southern people do not understand it. When I was a little kid, I also learned a famous ballad in the Northeast which is "Yáo a yáo, yáo a yáo, yáo dào wàipó qiáo 摇啊摇,摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥" ("Rockabye, rockabye, rock all the way to Grandma Bridge"). So even though people in the Northeast say laolao, they also understand the meaning of waipo. Second, there are many famous names such as restaurant names and food names relating to waipo. For example, "Wàipó jiā, Wàipó cài, Wàipó de pēnghú wān 外婆家, 外婆菜, 外婆的澎湖湾" ("Grandma's family, Grandma's dish, Grandma's Penghu Bay"). Waipo is a widely-used word. Third, linguistically speaking, I think laolao sounds more like a term from oral language than does waipo. I cannot even think of any example of saying laolao in News Broadcast (xīnwén liánbò 新闻联播).

Basically, my problem is that I cannot figure out the relationship between Mandarin and topolects in and around Beijing. As a person who speaks Northeast topolect, I sometimes feel too confident about saying Mandarin, since northeast topolects are similar to Mandarin, and I believe that what I say should be understood by others. However, the truth is that Mandarin still has many differences from topolects in and around Beijing. Thus, it is unreasonable to simply categorize waipo as topolect and laolao as Mandarin just because laolao is based on northern languages. How to name relatives in Mandarin is an important matter because northern and southern people use different terms. For example, in the Northeast, I call my father's brother dàyé 大爷 ("uncle"), while in Guangzhou they call him dàbó 大伯. Once laolao is declared to be standard Mandarin, does that mean that all other terms of address for relatives in Northeastern topolects will become Mandarin too?

However, even though laolao is a Mandarin term, it is illegal to modify others' work without permission. The authorities explain that young kids have already learned wài 外, but they do not learn lǎo 姥. Thus, it would be good to change this phrase in order to teach a new phrase to students. It is nonsense. If this kind of modification continues, does that mean that works written by Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Lao She (1899-1966) will all have to be modified before they can appear in a textbook?

I have to say, though, that it is too much when netizens believe that such changes as these constitute a kind of cultural hegemony. Even though this phenomenon does exist, it will not be exposed from this phrase. But this modification is like a fuse to southern people because, in China, northern culture is always regarded as a dominant culture, and CCTV New Year's gala is the best example. I do not know too much about the culture, but for languages, the Northeastern languages are more influential. It is not easy to learn Cantonese, but it is easy to learn Northeast topolect. Netizens say that once there is a Northeastern person in your dorm, after one month, all people will become Northeasterners. It shows how the accents of Northeast topolects influence the speech of others.

In this case, the first thing that we should know is how to treat topolects in literature, and what the altitude should be when teaching these so-called topolects in literature. Second, what are the rules and procedures for categorizing Mandarin? Is that only up to authorities?


Coming from Hunan in the south, I mostly agree with the author, and think this change represents "cultural hegemony" from the north. And I also think it is the hegemony of modern and vernacular language on the ancient and written language. Here is an article by a Chinese linguist on this subject.


To be honest, I’m very mad at this change in the children's textbook. It seems so ridiculous to me.

In my hometown, Yancheng ("Salt City" in northeastern Jiangsu Province, Central China), we call our maternal grandmother ‘waipo’. I know some people in northern areas say ‘laolao’. But the word ‘laolao’ means nothing to me. It’s only a cold and strange word in the dictionary. It has nothing to do with my personal life. I will never call my dear wàipó 外婆 as lǎolao ‘姥姥’.

I think when they say ‘laolao’ is Mandarin, and ‘waipo’ is dialect, they show no respect to people like me. I will only admit that people in different areas will have different words for maternal grandma.

You know what, the most ridiculous thing is that they even changed all the original occurrences of wàipó ‘外婆’ in Lǐ Tiānfāng 李天芳’s* essay "Dǎwǎnwǎnhuā" 打碗碗花 ("Calystegia hederacea") into 'lǎolao 姥姥’! Can you imagine this? If the government still insists in changing some so-called ‘dialect words’ to ‘standard Mandarin words’, we will lose so many beautiful expressions. In this way, many vernacular works will be ruined. For example, we also have a famous song 'Wàipó de pēnghú wān 外婆的澎湖湾' ("Grandma's Penghu Bay"), people in southern or northern areas all sing this song as ‘Wàipó de Pēnghú wān 外婆的澎湖湾’. It’s a famous song written by a Taiwan singer. But it’s also well known around the mainland. Some people ridicule that one day we will need to sing this song as ‘Lǎolao de Pēnghú wān 姥姥的澎湖湾’.

[*VHM: Li Tianfang (b. 1941) is from Xi'an in northwest China.]


Today, by chance, I read the news about the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission's final treatment of wàipó / lǎolao 外婆/姥姥 in the textbooks. They apologized and will revert the 2nd grade textbooks to the original version with wàipó 外婆. However, from this September, such textbooks will not be used any longer–they will be replaced by a nationally-used version. I think you might be interested in their strategies. The news is explained here.


In China, Provincial Education Commissions can choose to use local textbooks or national ones for their students. It means that Shanghai will no longer use a local text book, but has decided to use a national one. The contents/selected articles of these two textbooks are completely different. In the original Shanghai textbook, the wàipó / lǎolao 外婆/姥姥 topic appeared in the essay "Dǎwǎnwǎnhuā" 《打碗碗花》(Calystegia hederacea) — this essay will not necessarily appear in the national textbook. In this way, Shanghai Municipal Education Commission seems to have avoided this controversy.


Shanghai Bureau of Education apologized, but the winner of this battle is……the central government because the authorization of compilation of textbooks has been returned to central government 'according to work agenda' (ànzhào gōngzuò jìhuà 按照工作计划).  I don't know if this schedule was planned before or after this incident.  See here for an account.


Once again, we see the relentless struggle between "dialect" and "standard language", an ineluctable dyad that has preoccupied us on Language Log and in life since the beginning of time.  In autocratic China, "dialect" always seems to be on the losing side.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer, Philip Bowler, Bathrobe; thanks to Melvin Lee, Liwei Jiao, Fangyi Cheng, Xiuyuan Mi, Leqi Yu, Zeyao Wu, Jinyi Cai, and Tao Tang]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 11:22 am

    From a friend who was born in Sichuan, grew up in Suzhou, and went to college in Nanjing:

    We say wàipó 外婆 (mother's mother) in Sichuanese, and āpó 阿婆 in Suzhouese.

  2. david said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

    Independent of usage and from my naive point of view, the “foriegn” implication of 外 might be viewed as demeaning to some people, perhaps someone on the review board that made the pronouncement.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

    From a Singaporean friend:

    I’ve never heard “laolao” used in Singapore, only “waipo.” With the exception of my Cantonese friends in Singapore who called their grandmothers “Popo,” I and everyone I knew called our grandmothers on both sides “Mama.” There is perhaps a negative connotation to the “wai” part, making it seem like this is the “outsider” grandmother.

  4. Yao Liu said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    Wai 外 does not make me think of "foreign"; it is a "prefix" that signifies that it is *outside* one's paternal family. No one has commented on this, but I'm sure they all know that the formal term for grandmother is 外祖母 (lit. external grandmother), and that's the term used also colloquially in Dream of the Red Chamber. Indeed, po 婆 or popo 婆婆 does refer to paternal grandmother in some topolects (certain parts of Sichuan?). For another example, the formal (and rather archaic) term for wife's father would be waijiu 外舅, jiu 舅 being [arch.] husband's father. That may explain why many would think 外婆 to be the more "formal" term in Mandarin, while 姥姥, in contrast, to be too "earthy" and informal.

    I think it's indisputable that 外婆 has entered Modern Standard Mandarin—by way of the many authors of vernacular literature who came from the south. On the other hand, it has not displaced 姥姥 for people in the north.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

    From a Beijinger:

    I grow up calling my maternal grandmother ā pó (阿婆). Thus, I use the term lǎolao 姥姥 or wàipó 外婆 only very infrequently.

  6. Jacob said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

    David and Yao Liu: my wife grew up in Sichuan, and she said that her maternal grandmother would not countenance being called "外婆 wàipó" and insisted upon "婆 pó". My children call their maternal grandmother "外婆 wàipó", though, so that was probably just one person's idioscyncrasy.

    We lived in the northeast for a few years, so we heard 姥姥 and 姥爷 often but chalked it up to yet another of the different ways 关外 people spoke.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 6:14 pm

    I think this problem is related to the definition of "Mandarin", or more precisely, "Modern Standard Mandarin".

    The canonical definition of putonghua is that it that takes the pronunciation of Beijing as its norm of pronunciation, is based on the dialects of the North, and has the grammar of exemplary modern vernacular texts (baihua) as its normative grammar.

    To be quite honest, this is a bit of a fiction. Beijing vernacular pronunciation is somewhat different from putonghua, which you will soon realise if you live in Beijing. The 'dialects of the north' is a very wide catchall term. In reality, being used in some rustic northern dialect is no guarantee that a word will be accepted in putonghua. Even Beijing vernacular is frequently at odds with putonghua in terms of vocabulary. This is covered nicely at this web page (in Chinese): 老北京话的八个特点.

    What is probably at work in this case is the quiet but ongoing campaign that has been in place for over half a century to standardise the language according to the canonical definition of putonghua. The result is to marginalise southern styles of Mandarin in favour of northern varieties, even where this flies in the face of actual usage. The results of the campaign are plain to see in normative dictionaries like the 现代汉语词典. For example, the word for 'pelican' is standardised in the dictionary as 鹈鹕 tíhú, whereas 塘鹅 táng'é is widely used in Taiwan (and presumably other parts of southern China). 塘鹅 táng'é is simply legislated out of existence. It would be interesting to see whether the dictionary lists 外婆 (I suspect it does), and whether it marks it as dialect (方) or not. If 外婆 is marked as dialect, attempts to substitute 姥姥 for 外婆 are possibly just the inexorable workings of the linguistic bureaucracy setting northern vocabulary as the norm. (As I've pointed out previously, the same bureaucracy has done a lot of work standardising character readings, which is why Li Bo has now become Li Bai in China).

    For a discussion of the actualities of "Mandarin" rather than just the official definition of putonghua, the following paper may be of interest: Gěi ’give’ in Beijing and beyond by
    Ekaterina Chirkova, which looks at the complexity of 'Mandarin' starting at 1.2 and goes on to discuss the use 给 gěi with reference to this.

  8. Alex said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 8:26 pm

    My mother's family has been in Shandong for 150 years then went to 基隆 taiwan in the mid 40s. My father's Hunan and Wuhan and went to Taipei around the mid 40's too.

    They met in the states and I grew up with laolao for mothers side and nai nai on fathers.

  9. Michael Vnuk said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 8:37 pm

    I'm just wondering whether the words under discussion are the (formal) words used to name the relationship, ie 'maternal grandmother' (for which, incidentally, we don't appear to have a single word in English), or whether they are some sort of informal words (as 'gran', 'granny', 'grandma' that you might use in informal or colloquial English), or whether they are actual names that children use for address (as 'Grandma' (the one I used) or 'Granny', 'Nanna', 'Nan', 'Maminka', 'Nonna', etc, which I have heard people using, often depending on their own ethnic background).

  10. DMT said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 10:24 pm

    I was intrigued to see your Taiwanese respondent romanize 阿嬤 as āmā. The version I know has the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed with falling tone. I would romanize as āmà or perhaps even amà, although the latter obviously looks strange if you are used to standard MSM tone patterns. Does anybody actually pronounce it as āmā?

    The official pronunciation of 嬤 is either mā or mó, depending on which dictionary you check:

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 7:25 am

    From Tong Wang:

    I had never heard of "waipo" until I met some southerners in middle school. My mother is from Binzhou(滨州) of Shandong (山东) and my father from Hebei (河北). "Laolao" is the only word that I used to call my grandma on my mother's side. It is quite different for my husband who is from Xi'an(西安). Grandma on the maternal side is called "grandma of maternal uncle's family" (舅家奶) in his family, which is indigenous to Xi'an, living in Chang'an Country (长安县, now in the suburb of Xi'an City) for generations.

  12. AG said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 7:58 am

    honest question from a complete non-speaker who knows some Japanese kanji here: would it be correct to say that laolao is simpler and composed of sounds/ characters which convey less specific meaning than the two sounds/ characters of weipo?

    In other words, is a term with two components which rather specifically point to the term's meaning being replaced by a term which a) only has one element repeated twice and is therefore etymologically vaguer, and b) sounds more like baby talk?

  13. Su-Chong Lim said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 6:16 pm

    I grew up in Singapore (1950s) in a very mixed up situation. We lived in our Maternal Grandmother's house, and because on my maternal side we were very "Peranakan" (Straits Chinese) we called her by her Malay designation. (This was very typical of Peranakan family life, where items, cultural events, icons and relatives were referred to by a mish-mash of Hokkien and Malay names). However, our Cantonese associates would refer to her as our "Ah Po".

    Our Paternal Grandmother was referred to in Amoy Hokkien (Fujien) language as "Ah Ma". The odd thing was that I later found out that she was actually ethnically Cantonese, although she learned to speak fluent Hokkien to be absorbed into the family.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 3:42 am

    I was taught 外婆 without even a mention of 姥姥. When I did learn the term 姥姥, it felt more natural to me than 外婆, though, because — unlike 外公 and 外婆 — 姥姥 fits the pattern of all the other close kinship terms:

    妈妈 ma ma – mother
    爸爸 ba ba – father
    哥哥 ge ge – elder brother
    弟弟 di di – younger brother
    姐姐 jie jie – elder sister
    妹妹 mei mei – younger sister
    爷爷 ye ye – father's father
    奶奶 nai nai – father's mother
    姑姑 gu gu – father's sister
    叔叔 shu shu – father's (younger) brother

    The mother-based kin terms don't seem to fit:

    外公 wai gong – mother's father
    外婆 wai po – mother's mother
    阿姨 a yi – mother's sister

    叔叔 shushu and 阿姨 ayi double as the polite forms for a child to address an unrelated young adult.

    is a term with two components which rather specifically point to the term's meaning being replaced by a term which only has one element repeated twice and is therefore etymologically vaguer?

    Why would a single element be etymologically vaguer than two elements? Would you think of it as vague if the term was just 姥?

  15. AG said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 8:02 pm

    @ Michael Watts – I don't know how much info is conveyed by these characters/ sounds, that's why I'm asking, but my (possibly very wrong) gut instinct was that the term with reduplication might be simpler or more baby-talk-like, or possibly convey a less precise meaning than the other term because it's only got half the number of syllables/ characters. If that's an absurd assumption, please let me know!

  16. Michael Watts said,

    July 8, 2018 @ 2:54 am

    The information conveyed by "外婆" and "姥姥" is "maternal grandmother". Compare an English speaker referring to a politician "changing his mind" or "flip-flopping". The pseudo-reduplicated form is just another word that means the same thing.

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