"Jesus" in Dungan

« previous post | next post »

Dungan is a Sinitic language spoken by the descendants of Hui (Muslim) refugees who fled from northwest China after a failed revolt against the Qing (Manchu) government about a century and a half ago.  Experiencing horrible losses along the way, their remnants settled in parts of what are now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where ultimately they thrived and are quite successful today, particularly in growing produce.

Naturally, separated as they were from their homeland and its speech community, the language of the Dungans has undergone considerable change, especially through the borrowing of terms from Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and other languages.  Even more radical was the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet for their writing system (nearly all of those who fled were illiterate in Chinese characters).

For a brief introduction to the Dungans and their language, see "Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet".

For those who want to hear what Dungan sounds like, there is now an excellent opportunity, since the movie "Jesus" has been dubbed into Dungan.  For someone who knows Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), it's amazing to listen to — sometimes partially understandable, sometimes dramatically affected by Turkic and Russian.  Though it's usually considered to be a variety of Mandarin, unless one is a native speaker of northwest Mandarin, it's very hard to pick out much of what is being said (much less what is written in Cyrllic).  Since the language has diverged so much from what it was a hundred and fifty years ago, I suspect that it is hard to follow even for contemporary northwest Mandarin speakers.

Here's the film:

a. broken into clips
b. full movie

I'll be interested in hearing your reactions, especially those of you who know MSM to some extent, whether you're fluent or just a beginner.  If anyone is actually from the areas of northwest China whence the Dungans fled about a hundred and fifty years ago, I'd be particularly eager to hear your reactions to the speech of modern Dungans as presented in this film.  Incidentally, "Jesus" is available in more than 1,100 languages.

[Hat tip Leopold Eisenlohr]


  1. Natalia said,

    July 16, 2014 @ 11:12 pm

    I am fluent in MSM, and Dungan sounds like someone is narrating or several persons are having a conversation in the next room just out of hearing range.

    The rhythm and cadence of the speech is familiar, and I can catch specific words or phrases. However, the speaker will suddenly use an unfamiliar phrase in that same rhythm and I am once again wondering if my ears have stopped working.

  2. Lucas said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 12:19 am

    I speak conversational MSM, and have some familiarity with Turkic.

    I'm inclined to agree with Natalia. To my ears, some phrases and words are easily understandable. Other portions sound like a Turkic speaker using MSM.

    It's an unexpected combination, and a very interesting.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 12:29 am


    Those are good analogies for hearing a language that sounds familiar, but which you cannot understand.

    I'll give another analogy.

    in wayang kulit, the Indonesian shadow play, the dalang ("puppet master", who is also the storyteller and leader of the gamelan ["orchestra; ensemble"]), is required to recite the narrative in a variety of different voices and levels of language, from extremely elevated, Sanskritic kawi to low, earthy colloquial. Few (almost no) people in the audience can understand all the different levels of speech that he employs, yet — as we say in Mandarin — they bàndǒngbùdǒng 半懂不懂 ("half understand without really understanding") much of it, and feel a sense of familiarity with nearly all of it, even when they cannot comprehend what is being said.

    I have seen a number of wayang kulit performances, some in Javanese, and some in English. One of the most memorable was presented in English at Harvard in Paine Hall around four decades ago. I still remember it vividly, since the troupe employed an ingenious method for conveying the sense of varying degrees of intelligibility that results from the starkly different levels of language used by the dalang. Namely, they subtly (and sometimes sharply) electronically modulated the dalang's voice so that the audience at times had to strain to make out what was being said, though could still do so with effort, while at other times the modulation was so extreme that you vaguely knew it was some kind of English, but you couldn't really understand a word that was uttered.

    Much of the time when I'm listening to Dungan it feels like that. I can pick up a few words here and there (and I think that I can understand more than most MSM speakers because I know Russian and some Uyghur, as well as a bit of the other relevant languages mentioned in the main post, plus I have spent a lot of time around Dunhuang [Gansu] and elsewhere in the northwest), but there are whole swaths of verbiage that I just cannot grasp. Listening to Cantonese, Taiwanese, Ningbonese, Shanghainese, etc. are apt to leave me completely in the dark, even though I've devoted a fair amount of time to studying several of them, while rural Sichuanese, rural Shandongese, rural Hunanese, etc. are also nearly impenetrable.

    Links and notes






    The noble characters of the Right speak in Kawi, and the gruff ogres, raksasa, and demons of the Left speak in the Low Balinese tongue, or even in Indonesian. Whichever language is used, it's always spoken in the appropriate speech level, style, and accent.




    Kawi (from Sanskrit: kavi, "poet") is a literary and prose language on the islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok, based on Old Javanese, a language with a sizable vocabulary of Sanskrit loanwords. Kawi is the ancestor language of modern Javanese. The name "kawi" is derived from the root ku, which in Sanskrit means “poet”, and, in derived forms, a “wise, educated man”. The syllabic meter of Kawi poetry is sekar kawi, which means “flowers of the language”, sekar itself deriving from the Sanskrit "sekhara" (“garland”).[citation needed] All Javanese languages are hierarchical and stratified, with strict social conventions for appropriate language subsets to be used for one's superiors or social and cultural functions. Kawi is commonly considered the pinnacle language


  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 12:34 am

    From Zheng-sheng Zhang:

    This is exciting stuff. I have been interested in Dungan for quite a while now. This seems harder than the materials I came across before (news broadcast and so on), with more unfamiliar names and terms. But as I grew up hearing Northwest Mandarin in Urumqi, I can follow the basic line. Would be nice if there is a script to go with it, even if it is in Cyrillic.

    One thing that is interesting is how they call god: huda 胡大, which is the same as 安拉.

  5. Natalia said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 1:18 am


    I understand some Russian, but in this case I can't even recognize where Dungan uses Russian terms because the cadence is all wrong for what I expect from the vocabulary.

    For background, though I acquired most of my MSM in the Beijing region, circumstances are convoluted enough that MSM is probably a heritage language. During fieldwork, my MSM-speaking colleagues tell me that my grammar consistently identifies me as an Other, most popularly Korean.

  6. Mats said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 2:29 am

    @Zheng-sheng Zhang

    Their "huda" (胡大) must come from the Persian "khodâ" (خدا), with the same meaning.

  7. Michael Rank said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 4:34 am

    Blimey, fascinating but incomprehensible! I wonder where/how they got hold of the (presumably) Dungan native speakers to do the dubbing?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 6:10 am

    From Cyndy Ning:

    Khuda and Allah both mean "God" in Urdu =>Arabic.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    @Michael Rank

    There are over 100,000 Dungans living in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other parts of Central and Inner Asia, and there are plenty of Christian missionaries interacting with them who could easily find scores of native speakers for dubbing.


  10. Matt Anderson said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 8:23 am

    It’s amazing watching actors speak Dungan! I wonder if it is quite colloquial—I can only very occasionally follow it, even though I’ve watched a clip in Dungan before (I think from the news) that was, as Zheng-sheng Zhang suggests above, much easier to understand (though I still certainly only partially understood the other clip).

    That whole site is a great resource. I just watched the same 30 second clip in each of the Sinitic topolects, in rough order of intelligibility (from my perspective), starting with Mandarin varieties and moving on through Cantonese, Xiang, Shanghainese, Hakka, and Mindong & Minnan varieties, etc. Watching it over & over like that allowed me to pick out a lot more from some of the topolects than I would otherwise have been able to, but it really does reinforce how insane it is to consider all this diversity to be part of the same language.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    From Jonathan Lipman:

    I spent long enough in the northwest to be able to understand a little local 回回话 [VHM: Huihui speech], but the dialectal peculiarities of the region often throw in Tibetan, Mongolian, and other stuff as well, and that's really hard to understand. (My teacher in Ningxia gave me a sentence to play with that contained elements of Tibetan, Mongolian, local Chinese, Arabic, Persian, and classical Chinese. Needless to say, only a local could have the faintest idea what it meant.) Arienne Dwyer has done some good research on Altaic elements in northwestern Chinese, and Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakov (among others) did good solid linguistic research on Dungan in the second half of the 20th century.

    There's a small monographic literature in Russian, too, including some good stuff by Mikhael Sushanlo, the only Dungan ever to get a Ph.D.–Sushanlo, it turns out, is 苏三老 Russified. One of the "heroes" of the anti-Qing Huihui rebellion in southern Gansu in the 1780s was 苏四十三, a collateral relative of some kind. I met him at Harvard at the Fletcher Memorial Conference back in the late 1980s, and he was one fascinating dude. Since I speak no Russian, we conversed in (more-or-less) Gansu Chinese and did all right.

  12. Michael Rank said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    Why are they called Dungan and not Dunggan, given that the Chinese characters are 东干 and not as I had long assumed 东安?Presumably it reflects the cyrillic spelling?

  13. David Marjanović said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

    the Chinese characters are 东干

    That's probably derived from the Russian pronunciation, and 东安 is original…

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

    @Michael Rank

    That's a good question.

    Nobody really knows the origin of the name (there are lots of theories, though!).

    Both Russian дунгане (Dungane) and Chinese Dōnggàn 東干 / 东干 are transcriptions, probably of a Turkic name that goes back at least to the 17th century (cf. 'ulamā-yi Tunganiyyān [i.e., "Dungan ulema"]). During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Western ethnographers and historians (following the Turkish [and / or Tajik, who also called them Tungan]) referred to the Dungans as Tungani or the Tungan people.


  15. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

    If the Chinese were trying to transcribe "Tungan", one would think that they would go for Dùngǎn 顿感 (which, as a matter of fact, they also did), rather than Dōng'ān 东安, which strikes me as an attempt to come up with a felicitous term ("Eastern Peace"), but which, phonologically speaking, is inferior (the syllable break is in the wrong place) to Dùngǎn 顿感 ("sudden arousal" is one possible interpretation of the meaning, which is not bad, semantically speaking). But it shouldn't really matter overmuch what either Dōng'ān 东安 or Dùngǎn 顿感 means, since their main function is to transcribe the sound of Tungan.

  16. Simon P said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

    My Mando is getting a bit rusty from lack of use and when speaking it I find myself slipping into Cantonese pronunciations of some syllables, but I can still understand decently. This, however, was very difficult, though it clearly sounds like a Chinese topolect, even Mandarin, and I can catch some words here and there. It feels like when I as a Swedish native speaker listen to Duch. I feel like I should be able to understand it, yet I don't.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

    @Simon P

    Thank you for this additional analogy about how difficult it is for a Mandarin speaker to understand Dungan. The more of these data points we get for all of the Sinitic topolects, the better the picture of the family we will have.

  18. Lin Cao said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    The language is so interesting! At the very beginning of the film, I thought it is dubbed by a totally foreign language. After about 90 seconds, I caught some words because they sounded just the same as Shandong Hua. For example, 树[fu], 媳妇子,心思,那个[nai ge],这个[zhai ge],etc. After 4 minutes, I could get some sentences. When I listened again, I could understand about a half sentences and get a general idea of the story. Shandong hua helps me more than Maderain in understanding Dungan hua. They really shares many similar words, 语气词 and some other usage.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    Wonderful comments, Lin Cao, and wonderfully revealing!

    Thanks for being willing to listen to the Dungan sound track intently and repeatedly.

    I believe that what this (your intimate knowledge of Shandongese colloquial speech helping you to understand Dungan) shows is how writing — especially with characters — masks commonalities of spoken languages. But this is a huge topic, one which I hope that we can return to later.

  20. julie lee said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    I was just going to write that Dungan sounds like the Shandong speech of my relatives from Tengxian County (in Shandong), when I read @ Lin Cao , who thinks it sounds like Shandongese too. The "tune" definitely sounds Shandong. I was amazed I could understand phrases and probably can catch more if I listen to it again. I speak Mandarin and don't know Russian or Uighur. I had difficulty with my relatives' speech, could only understand it partially.
    Thanks, it is wonderful to have these clips and the movie in Dungan speech. Always wondered what Dungan sounded like.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 7:08 pm

    From Justin Jacobs:

    I've found that no matter what part of China I'm in, the language spoken by Hui communities often sounds fairly unintelligible from modern standard mandarin (at least when I overhear them talking to themselves and not me or another Han), or at least departs from it significantly.

  22. Caomengde said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

    It's well established that Dungan speech is primarily Shaanxi (陕西 not Shanxi山西)dialect of Mandarin. Their leader 白颜虎 led them to Then Russian Turkestan , fleeing before marches of General Tso (Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠 of chicken fame)'s victorious army into Xinjiang.

    Modern Shaanxi person will understand the Dungan speech with little difficulty. At least that's what my Shaanxi aqua tainted said.

  23. Caomengde said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 10:04 pm

    Quite few years back a young Chinese traveler from Xian (Shaanxi capital) visited the Dungan community in Kygyzstan. He made few recordings in which he was interviewing Dungan people in his native Shaanxi Dialect. I just found out that he uploaded to YouTube, the first clip among many is here : http://youtu.be/45PpUyWNv-o

  24. Caomengde said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 10:19 pm

    In this clip you can actually see him interacting and talking with Dungan people at Bazzar

  25. Caomengde said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 11:24 pm

    Here is a clip narrated by a Dungan in standard Mandarin, introducing people of his village in Kazakhstan。 other village people speaks Dungan, but you have Chinese subtitles so it's quite easy to understand。http://youtu.be/ULYT8HGIUB8

  26. ROBOKiTTY said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 12:56 am

    I speak Taiwanese Mandarin and Canadian English. Listening to this feels like listening to Scots — I can make out a lot of words and be able to guess a fair amount of what is being said, but there are long stretches that are totally unintelligible. The cadence and erhua make it unmistakably Mandarin.

    It's interesting also that some names have been nativized, while others, like Ibrahim and Mariam, remain phonologically distinct. Is this a feature in other Hui dialects?

  27. Caomengde said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 3:42 am

    Here is the Chinese movie shot mostly in Shaanxi Dialect. The dialogue starts around 2:05

    This one also have English subtitle in addition to Chinese subtitle, you can tell the similarity in intonation with Dungan right away. This is basically the Dungan speech without the Arabic, Persian, Russian and Central Asian influence.

  28. Matt Anderson said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    Dungan and Shaanxi speech don't sound identical to me, except inasmuch as the near northwestern accent of Shaanxi has some connection to the far northwest.

    Here's another clip from the same show, an extended one-on-one conversation:

    I think the tv host is mostly just speaking pretty standard Mandarin with a Shaanxi accent, occasionally really slipping into topolect. The person he's interviewing sounds completely different to me (& is much more difficult for me to understand). And, it seems to me, that the parts that the Dungan man has trouble understanding are the parts that stray furthest from standard Mandarin.

    There's unfortunately no Shaanxi dialect of the Jesus film, but there is this version, in "Hui":


    Normally "Hui" in this context means 徽州話, but, since I can understand this & it hasn't lost its nasal codas, I think this is probably meant to mean 回族話 (though I am by no means sure of that, & the Hui people I've met, who all lived in Beijing, all just spoke Beijing Mandarin). That would seem a reasonable intermediary between Xi'an topolect & Dungan. It doesn't really sound the same as the reporter's speech, but it does similarly sound like more like standard Mandarin than most topolects do.

    So, my take is that there are real similarities, but they seem greatly overstated—perhaps the 2 varieties have some common roots, but they are by no means essentially the same (even disregarding all the Russian, Turkic, & Persian vocabulary imported into Dungan). Since Shandong topolect came up a few times in the comments, I wonder how much similarity could also be found between those varieties.

    Also, here's a list of the Sinitic topolects Jesus has been dubbed into, in case that's useful:

    Taiwanese Mandarin
    Yunnan (Kunming)

  29. Ivo Spira said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 9:17 am

    The interviewer switches into Russian quite frequently, even for simple questions. This seems to happen when he increases the amount of standard Mandarin in his speech (for example at the end of Video #3, where he asks whether one needs documents to cross the bridge into Kazakhstan). There are probably many reasons for this: slipping into standard Mandarin willy-nilly out of habit (not being used to speak consistently in "pure" dialect), needing to be intelligible to the audience (this involves both translation and mixing in SM), and the fact that he often does not know the locally current vocabulary. The latter includes highly visible and frequent loanwords of Russian, Turkic, and Arabic/Persian origin (e.g. saat "hour," ultimately of Arabic origin). Using these loanwords, however, does in no way imply a switch into, say, Russian or Kyrgyz, on the contrary, they are very well integrated. The Dungans, most of whom are at least bilingual, also do switch a lot, but under different conditions.

    The communiation between the interviewer and the ahong (imam) in the following video is very interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-rw6lelKPM

    The difference in the way the two interlocutors speak is very noticeable, and there seems to be some incomprehension (explicitly so when the ahong says "мә дун" [没懂]). The ahong blends words like хазыр "now" (a Turkic word) seamlessly into his speech, while the interviewer sets out using qùshì 去世 "pass away" before correcting himself to the more basic sǐ 死 "die" when he realizes that he probably won't be understood. Of course, an imporant reason why the distance is more noticeable in this interview is that the ahong is moving further towards the acrolectal end of the continuum of Dungan speech registers.

    Another interesting thing is that there are many interviews with Gansu Dungans (listen for /və/ 我 instead of /ŋə/, /fə/ 说 instead of /ʂə/), while the whole thing is still being billed as a meeting with Shaanxi villagers. (Does the interviewer go to Kazakhstan at all? I haven't really checked.)

    These videos are also a good illustration of the fact that attitude is an important factor influencing the effective quality of communication.

    My impression is that the interviewer is quite impatient and patronizing, and he seems to have quite a lot of ideological baggage. Note incidentally how at one point he uses hànyǔ "Chinese" with reference to a boy's lack of competence in Dungan.

  30. Ivo Spira said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    For the record: there are quite a few other Dungans with higher degrees. It depends a little on what you mean by Ph.D. in a (post-)Soviet context, but both Mukhame Khusezovich Imazov and Ali Alievich Dzhon at the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences have the title doktor, and there are many others with the title kandidat, such as the late Abdurakhman Dzhamalovich Kalimov in Moscow.

  31. Ivo Spira said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 9:33 am

    @Matt Anderson:

    I am a little puzzled by this: "…that the parts that the Dungan man has trouble understanding are the parts that stray furthest from standard Mandarin."

    To me it seems that the Dungan man definitely has trouble with the SM parts. Do you have any specific instances in mind?

  32. Caomengde said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    @Ivo Spira
    I would not say the interviewer has lot of ideological baggage. Context is important. First he is NOT an anthropologist, but just a young person traveling outside of PRC. Most PRC educated young uns would use "hanyu" to describe Chinese language. It's automatic association and I don't think there is any thing wrong with that. In fact, in couple of places of his interview, he caught himself using "zhong guo hua" then he changed to use "hui hui hua"or "huizu hua" to describe the Dungan Speech. What may come across as patronizing to you may just be standard Chinese interaction with children.

  33. Caomengde said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

    Here is clip of Chinese TV 's documentary interview with Dungan in Kazakhstan.I personally found with Chinese subtitles, it quite easy to make out the words.


    This last clip has Dungan parents who had their sons studying in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi, talking about their children's study and future. I believe the interviewer is also using Shaanxi dialect.

    Main narrator is a Dungan who is speaking Standard Mandarin, both him and his dad mentioned they are worried that their Dungan language is being diluted by so many loan words from Russian and Kazakh. Narrator is mention that he is quite happy to be in Xi'an where everyone speaks the "pure" Shaanxi hua。

  34. Ivo Spira said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    @ Caomengde Maybe I was a little too quick to react negatively. It's of course just an impression. In any case I was not suggesting anything about his (conscious) intentions, just what I perceive to be his attitude.

  35. Caomengde said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

    Dungan wedding, a clip of Phoenix TV documentary. Narrator is speaking Standard Mandarin, but she changes accents when speaking to Dunggan people.



  36. Caomengde said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

    here is a clip of a collection of Dungan common idiom, with Cyrillic spelling AND corresponding Chinese characters


  37. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

    From a specialist on northwest Hui languages who is also familiar with Russian and Uyghur:

    I saw these clips long ago. They were, to me, extremely irritating; and, I thought, of little use.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

    The problem is that, in these videos, you don't really get to hear the Dungan people say much, because the Shaanxi fellow speaks most of the time. Furthermore, I can understand most of what the Shaanxi fellow says, but I can't understand Dungan very well at all. And the Shaanxi fellow slips into standard Mandarin or partial standard Mandarin and even Russian quite a bit.

    Finally, it seems that this these clips are professionally made with the intention of showing how closely linked the Shaanxi people are with the Dungans, and there's a lot of patriotic (Zhonghua minzu) stuff mixed in there.

    The comparison should not be with the Dungan in these clips, which is highly manipulated and very limited, but with the long, unadulterated stretches of Dungan speech in the "Jesus" film, which is what the original post was about.

  39. Matt Anderson said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    Ivo Spira,
    I guess that was an overstatement. What I really meant was that, in the clips I watched, when he speaks basically standard Mandarin and enunciates clearly, he doesn't seem to run into any problems. The communication problems seemed to occur when he used faster, less clearly enunciated, or more "topolectal" speech (or any combination thereof). But yes, there are definitely times when he runs into problems with Mandarin that is more or less standard.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

    From a native speaker of Dongbei (northeast) Mandarin:

    Their languages (Dungan and Shaanxi) CANNOT be very similar. That SOME words and pronunciations are the same or close makes sense.

    I agree with your comment: "with the intention of showing how closely linked the Shaanxi people are with the Dungans."

  41. Caomengde said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    Not sure if being a Northeast Mandarin speaker qualifies one being an expert on Northwestern Mandarin such as Shaanxi.

    That's like saying as a native speaker of Sichuan Mandarin, I am now an expert on Dungan speech. Which is clearly ridiculous. But at least Sichuan happens to border Shaanxi, and my Dad went to Xi'an for College back in the days.

    Here is what Native Dongbei Mandarin speaker sounds like, as spoken by 4th generation Sino-Russians,with Chinese and English subtitles.


    白彦虎's group of Dungan originated in Northern Shaanxi, a fact also acknowledged by Dungan themselves in their oral tradition as in the following Clip of Dungan history narrated by Dungan in Russian:


    It's quite possible there is a significant difference between Modern Xi'an colloquial speech , which has had many influence of Standard Mandarin than say Northern Shaanxi dialect that Followers of 白彦虎 originally spoke, and Dungan. But it seems equally obvious in his clip and the documentary produced by Hong Kong based Phonenix TV, that Shaanxi speakers and Dungan speakers are carrying mutually intelligible conversation. Same thing cannot be said of the Standard Mandarin Speakers, same goes for Dongbei Mandarin speakers.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 5:41 pm


    Thanks for digging up so many YouTube videos relating to the Dungans. Although they are not primary materials for the study of Dungan language, they do help us to understand certain facets of the social and political situation concerning the Dungans in the modern world.

    You joined this conversation by stating: "Modern Shaanxi person will understand the Dungan speech with little difficulty. At least that's what my Shaanxi aqua tainted said."

    Aside from the fact that your "Shaanxi aqua tainted" is not a reliable, or even knowable, authority, in the subsequent eight comments that you entered in the thread, you have not established that "Modern Shaanxi person will understand the Dungan speech with little difficulty." Furthermore, you have studiously ignored many important points made by earlier commenters, and you have not given evidence that you have yourself listened to and understood the unadulterated, uninterrupted, unmanipulated Dungan speech of the "Jesus" soundtrack.

    In your initial comment, you also ignored the fact that the Shaanxi contingent of Dungans led by Бай Яньху, aka Bo-yan-hu, Pai Yen-hu, Boyan-akhun (Akhund or Imam Boyan), Muhammad Ayyub, etc. was only one of three main groups in the first wave of refugees, the other two being that led by Ma Daren (马大人, "the Great Man Ma"), also known as Ma Dalaoye (马大老爷, "The Great Master Ma"), who originated in Turpan, Xinjiang, and that led by ahong Ma Yusufu (马郁素夫), also known as Ah Yelaoren (阿爷老人, "the Old Man Ah Ye"), who came from Gansu. These three groups were followed in the early 1880s by other immigrants from various places in northwest China.


    If we are doing a serious topolectal study of the relationship between the Dungans and the varieties of speech that are current today in the widespread areas from which their ancestors originated, we also need to take into account where the different groups immigrated and settled.

    Another aspect of the problem of the relatedness of the different dialects of Dungan and the speech of the modern inhabitants of the areas in China whence their ancestors originated that you have not adequately taken into account are the many lexicographical borrowings from Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkic, etc. that occurred after the Dungans settled in Central Asia. Ditto for natural (internal) phonological change and phonological changes induced by contact with surrounding languages and the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet.

    I won't repeat what I and others have said about the nature of the film that you have praised so highly, but would encourage you to read over our comments and to think about the purpose of that film and those who produced it, also to consider how much actual Dungan speech it contains, how much Shaanxi topolect, how much Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), and how many utterances that are made up of a mix of the above.

    A few other points in reaction to your many comments:

    1. the star of that elaborately produced film was not just "a young Chinese traveler from Xian (sic, i.e., Xi'an)" who "made few recordings in which he was interviewing Dungan people in his native Shaanxi Dialect".

    2. the "interacting" you mention often consists of the young man doing most of the talking, and not always in Shaanxi topolect.

    3. "…but you have Chinese subtitles so it's quite easy to understand"; "I personally found with Chinese subtitles, it quite easy to make out the words." — well, that gives it all away. Think about what you have just written.

    4. "I believe the interviewer is also using Shaanxi dialect." Well, how much "Shaanxi dialect" do you know? Are you able to tell for yourself how much Shaanxi dialect the narrator is or is not using?

    5. "Main narrator is a Dungan who is speaking Standard Mandarin…", yet you say that he is "worried that their Dungan language is being diluted by so many loan words from Russian and Kazakh." Why doesn't he speak in Dungan? If everyone in Xi'an "speaks the 'pure' Shaanxi hua" and if Dungan is so close to it as to be mutually intelligible, why doesn't he just speak his native Dungan?

    6. "Not sure if being a Northeast Mandarin speaker qualifies one being an expert on Northwestern Mandarin such as Shaanxi." No one said that it did; such an assertion would be absurd. The individual was specified as coming from the Northeast simply for purposes of identification and to avoid bias.

    To conclude, since one of the places of origin for some of the ancestors of certain groups of Dungans was Shaanxi, and since their migration to Central Asia took place about a century and a half ago, one would naturally expect that there would be some commonality between these groups. Nothing surprising there. The point of the original post is that there have been many changes in Dungan language since the migration and that speakers of MSM and other non-northwest topolects have a very difficult time understanding Dungan.

    BTW, I am trying to locate individuals who are native speakers of various Shaanxi topolects to check their comprehension of the soundtrack of the "Jesus" film. When I do, I'll share the results with Language Log readers.

    Before you comment again, I hope that you would do others the courtesy of reflecting upon what they have written.

  43. Caomengde said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 2:09 am

    @Victor Mair

    First of all, I posted here because find the topic you have posted is quite interesting. I posted what I had previously saw on Dungan, just thought they would also be point of interest to people also interested in Dungan speech. I am actually quite shocked by the hostile comments such as

    "I saw these clips long ago. They were, to me, extremely irritating; and, I thought, of little use."

    Again, I am no linguistic experts as people here, I apologize for unintentionally causing so much emotional distress. That's not my intention.

    As for the producer of the first film series. I took it upon myself to google "西安北枫” as the name appeared on the film, First few google results turned up his Chinese microblog Weibo accounts as well as his Sina blog account and his Youku (Chinese video sharing site) account. His profile says that he is an independent film maker based in Xi'an like his moniker suggests. There doesn't appear to be any reason to contradict his claim as such. As for his attempt to prove connection between Shaanxi and Dungan, I honestly failed to see any sinister plot behind it. It seems to me, quite natural for an Xian born, Xian based filmmaker to be interested in focusing on the Shaanxi connection of Dungan.

    Besides, compare his video clips to that of later ones made by Phoenix TV that I have also posted. It's quite obvious that the Phoenix TV documentary is professionally made.

    You make a valid point about both Chinese state (as represented by Phoenix TV) and Chinese people (as represented by the young film maker) are viewing the Shaanxi-Dungan connection through lens of nationalism.

    That's why I posted the Dungan broadcast which was almost entirely in Russian that was aimed toward Dungan and Central Asian audience. In the beginning of the video, it was clearly stated that Бай Яньху led Dungan of more than 3000 was the largest group to arrive in Russian Turkestan and that they were from Shaanxi.

    I have learned quite a lot from Ivo Spira's comment as he is undoubtedly the Dungan expert and his posts quite informative.

    For whatever reason, I can sense that my comments here are unwelcome. Since this is your post. Out of respect, I will desist from further comments.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

    From Boyang Chai, a native speaker of Shaanxi topolect:

    So far, I've gotten two sets of videos. One set has the Youtube videos forwarded to me by you. The other one is the movie.

    I've checked out both of the Youtube videos and the movie, and I think they are different in some way. Let's talk about the Youtube videos first.

    It does sound like that those people were from my city-Xi'an, where people speak Guanzhonghua. Guanzhonghua is a language that has been widedly used in middle part of Shaanxi. "Shaanxihua" is not precise here becuase the language varies a lot from northern Shaanxi to southern Shaanxi. My guess is that when people say "Shaanxihua", they are actually talking about Guanzhonghua.

    I was able to find some other videos from the same series on Youtube. For example,


    In this video, the main speaker is a Dungan person. And it is relatively easy for me to understand his words. I think he speaks Guanzhonghua. You may also want to check this video out.

    Here is another video that I found interesting.


    People in this video actually use a second language which I don't understand. I think it is Hui language. The Shaanxi fellow can speak this language, and he used this language during his conversation with Dungan people. I found this out from 4:20-5:00 in this video.

    Then let's talk about the movie. It sounds to me that it is a mix of languages from middle Shannxi, northern Shaanxi, and Hui. I don't speak Hui language, and I have difficulty in understanding people from northern Shaanxi. So the movie is challenging for me to understand. But I certainly can tell its connection with Shaanxihua.

    When I was in Xi'an, I found it was a little bit difficult to understand senior folks. Also, people from rural area sounds a little different. Time and location may play a role here. It is possible that Dungan, as a language, was frozen when Dungan people were isolated, thus did't follow the slow evolution of Shaanxihua. At the same time, new elements were incorporated into this language. As a result, Dungan sounds very similar to Shaanxihua but with its own uniqueness.

  45. JS said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

    I thought it would be useful to some to point out here that the CHINESE, MANDARIN and CHINESE, TAIWANESE MANDARIN versions of Jesus seem to be entirely independent translations from a (presumably English) source text — this represents a striking difference from the way "Chinese" language tends to be transferred from one local variety to another (that is, via writing). If the same is true in the case of many or most of the other topolects here (assuming also that the translations were largely the product of native speakers' efforts), then this is a valuable corpus indeed… even if the thought of the larger purpose for which all of this precious material was generated makes me feel rather ill.

  46. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

    From Gianni Wan (a native speaker of Shaanxihua):

    Thanks a lot for sending me the movie. I tried to understand and there are still about 70% of the vocabulary from Shaanxihua. However, borrowed words are not from Russian but some other Turco-Semitic languages.

    God is pronounced as Khuda or Buda, and some of the common words are not of Chinese origin.

    I can understand about 80% because of my metalinguistic awareness. However, a native speaker of Shaanxihua from around Baoji, not Xi'an, might understand more.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 10:25 pm


    About the larger purpose of the "Jesus" film in its thousand plus varieties, it has ever been that way. Religion has always been one of the chief driving forces (probably the most important force) behind the translation of texts from one language to another. Think of how many different languages the Bible has been translated into, many of which had never before been written down, thus essentially creating a written form for many of the world's languages. And it wasn't just that way with Christianity, but with Buddhism too. In his landmark volume, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind (1948), David Diringer proposed the theory that “alphabet follows religion,” and provided extensive documentation to support it.

    And think of the tremendous number of translations of the Bhagavad Gita.

    And then there are very serious and important religiously motivated linguists like Kenneth Lee Pike, who "was the originator of the theory of tagmemics, the coiner of the terms 'emic' and 'etic' and the developer of the constructed language Kalaba-X for use in teaching the theory and practice of translation." He was also "the First President of the Bible-translating organization Summer Institute in Linguistics (SIL), with which he was associated from 1942 until his death."


    SIL International had an enormous impact on the study and documentation of countless languages, a large proportion of which had never been known or investigated prior to the work of the Institute.


    Consequently, regardless of the motivation of the individuals who devoted so much time, money, and effort to the creation of numerous versions of the "Jesus" film, what they produced is indeed of tremendous value for the study of a huge number of languages, and we can only be grateful to them for having done so.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 8:29 am

    From the specialist on northwest Hui languages who is also familiar with Russian and Uyghur and who previously commented at July 19, 2014 @ 4:35 pm:

    There is a version of the Jesus film which uses PRC Hui proper nouns — Zhenzhu, Adan, Yibuliesi, Ma'eryan, Ersa, Maixiha …, rather than Shangdi/Shen, Yadang, Sadan, Yesu, Jidu/jiushizhu … .


    Apart from that I am not aware of any diferences from the conventional version in State Pekinese ('Mandarin').

  49. Ivo Spira said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

    Re: Boyang Chai's comments on the "second language which I don't understand. I think it is Hui language." Actually, this is simply basic Russian.

    Re: Gianni Wan's comment that "a native speaker of Shaanxihua from around Baoji, not Xi'an, might understand more." That makes a lot of sense, both in terms of the history of the Hui uprisings in Shaanxi and certain linguistic traits (see Olga Zavyalova's 1978 article on the phonology of Dungan).

  50. Victor Mair said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 9:20 am

    From a scholar of Islam who knows Mandarin, Arabic, Persian, Uyghur, etc.:

    I agree with Ivo and others about the patronizing tone of the Shaanxi interviewer, who comes across as very pushy. I think there's a reason anthropologists have to develop rapport and mutual respect with their subjects before extracting data out of them, and if he had been a little less quick on the draw with his video camera there might have been more of substance from the Dungan interviewees' point of view. But, as has been said, that does not seem to have been the intention.

RSS feed for comments on this post