Shanghainese vs. Mandarin

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The following poster is circulating among students from Shanghai, both inside and outside of China:

For a complete translation, go to the next page.

Let Us Take Action!

1. In certain public settings, for example on the street, if you start by using Shanghainese,
should the other party understand what you're saying, then continue using Shanghainese.
should the other party fail to understand what you're saying, then switch to Mandarin (Putonghua).

2. When others speak to us,
should the opposite party use Shanghainese, then we may answer in Shanghainese.
should the opposite party use Mandarin, we can smile and say, "Do you understand Shanghainese?" If the other person doesn't understand Shanghainese, then switch to Mandarin.

3. If Shanghainese speak Mandarin to us, we shall ask them to switch to Shanghainese. People in various localities all over the world should be able to boldly and confidently speak the local language with the local people. As Shanghainese, it is our basic right to speak Shanghainese in Shanghai.

4. For the continuation of Shanghainese culture, we should persist in speaking Shanghainese to our children. We should encourage and exhort parents around us to do likewise. This will be beneficial for the intellectual development of our children and for the subsequent learning of foreign languages. We should express our steadfast opposition to rules prohibiting the use of topolects.

Shanghainese language is the foundation of Shanghainese culture. It is a mighty tree with its roots tightly anchored in the local soil. We ought not abandon this mighty tree in favor of a rootless telephone pole. Friends, for the future of Shanghai, for the flourishing of the diversity of our great homeland, let us take action!

I Love Shanghai. I Love China.

By speaking Shanghainese language and carrying on Shanghainese culture, we are being truly cultured Shanghainese people.

(A tip of the hat to Wicky Tse for calling this very interesting poster to my attention.)


  1. Kellen said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 2:24 am

    Good to see this around. I've always been a little sad at the occasional push to eliminate Shanghainese from public life. It's a sadness laced with understanding of the motivations, but a sadness all the same.

  2. siweiluozi said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 2:38 am

    It's interesting to me that no effort was made to write the content of the poster in Shanghainese, but rather standard Chinese. Why not refer to 讲上海闲话 at least, instead of 说上海话?

    Also, I think many non-Shanghainese who've spent any time in Shanghai wouldn't really get the point of the poster, as the prescriptions therein pretty much reflect what already goes on. (Or perhaps things have changed considerably in recent years.)

  3. David said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 3:02 am

    Has there been a reaction from the communist party? Surely they disapprove.

    Also, is the poster written in Shanghaiese or mandarin?

  4. Chris Lance said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 4:15 am

    I never came across an adjectival form of Shanghai before. If I'd had to guess, I'd have opted for Shanghaian. To me, that sounds much more euphonious than Shanghainese.

    [(myl) See "Who let the 'n' in?", 1/22/2006. ]

  5. Paul Frank said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 4:37 am

    Chris, "Shanghainese" is much more common than "Shanghaian," which I'd never heard before, though I used to live in Shanghai and have been reading about China for 25 years. In Google Books (i.e. edited and published books), you'll get 909 hits for Shanghainese and 32 for Shanghaian. Cheers, Paul.

  6. HH said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 5:08 am

    I live in a nearby city, unaffected by Wu dialect. The residents here largely view those who insist on speaking Shanghainese as pompous pricks. A Chinese linguist I know compared it to a hypothetical situation in which New Yorkers spoke a form of English unintelligible to all others, and used it primarily to reinforce perceptions of superiority.

  7. trevelyan said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 6:26 am

    >> It is a mighty tree with its roots tightly anchored in the local soil.

    Having lived in Shanghai for almost two years, I would very much like to hear more about this mighty tree that wraps the city in its leafy embrace. I didn't see much of it, but would have liked to.

  8. joseph palmer said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 8:15 am

    In my experience reading forums frequented by Chinese, I have also found the people of Shanghai seem much more likely to hold these kind of attitudes than those from other regions that are also highly oppressed in linguistic terms. I agree that that is probably because they often see themselves as superior to the actual capital, and the fact that there is some strong local pride and power might possibly protect them from the grave consequences of public dissent.

  9. peter said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 8:19 am

    HH said: "New Yorkers spoke a form of English unintelligible to all others, and used it primarily to reinforce perceptions of superiority."

    But this is indeed the case! The dialect of English spoken by New Yorkers typically involves establishing and maintaining multiple, simultaneous topic threads in a single conversation. This is a feature unique to New York English: no other dialect of English has this as a regular feature of its conversational style. Since this feature involves each participant parsing and contributing to several parallel topic threads, participation arguably requires faster-than-average sensory-processing, linguistic and cognitive abilities; New Yorkers may thus be justified, at least on this dimension, in their perceptions of superiority.

    For examples, see the conversations between the four main characters in almost any episode of the NBC TV series "Seinfeld".

  10. aaron said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    Are Cantonese speakers pompous pricks too? Bilingual Spanish speakers who speak Spanish in the USA? I could never let my children be ignorant of the language I think in, and I wouldn't expect anyone else to either. I think 上海人 are intelligent for promoting this; take a quick look at western Europe in the past 150 years to contrast the fate of languages that are officially disfavored by those in power when the native speakers don't resist and when they do.

  11. HH said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    Ah, my post wasn't quite clear. The view many of the residents in my city take towards the Shanghainese isn't simply because they're speaking another tongue, but because of the way they treat this difference in speech. The smiling stranger tends to be more condescending than friendly when the answer to his, "Do you understand Shanghainese?," is no.

    I've come across more extreme examples of Chinese friends having difficulty getting service from certain Shanghai restaurants with only a knowledge of common Mandarin, though I doubt this practice is widespread. (I've heard these complaints directed towards speakers of Cantonese in Hong Kong as well, but perhaps less frequently due to my proximity to Shanghai.)

  12. Fluxor said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    To see what Shanghainese think of themselves vis-a-vis their countrymen, click here: Map of China (Shanghainese version)

    For those that don't read Chinese, here's a translation the map:

    未知世界 No. 1 to 4 (unknown world, no. 1 to 4): purple; Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hubei, Hunan;
    小偷 (thief): left most blue block; Xinjiang, Qinghai;
    骗子 (conmen): pink; Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei;
    好吃的 + PPMM (good food + pretty girls): gray; Sichuan, Chongqing;
    各种暴力犯罪 (all sorts of violent and criminal acitivies): upper pink block; Heilongjian, Jilin, Liaoning;
    沙尘暴 (sandstorm): small yellow block; Beijing;
    彪形大汉 (large men): brown; Shandong;
    要饭的 (beggars): dark blue; Jiangsu, Anhui, Henan north of the Yangtze;
    家 (home): red; Shanghai;
    短途旅游和扫墓 (short vacation and ancestral graves): right blue; Jiansu, Anhui, and Zhejian south of the Yangtze;
    炒房团 + 假造窝点 (housing speculators + counterfeit hideouts): white; Xiamen;
    危险+奇怪的语言 (dangerous + strange languages): lower gray; Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangdong;
    旅游点 (tourist location): lower pink; Hainan;
    台巴子的故乡 (home of Taiwanese bumpkins): deep purple; Taiwan;
    新年打折 (New Year sales): lower blue; Hong Kong;

  13. lyzazel said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    Well, Shanghainese itself, though, seems to be a totally different language than Mandarin. Let alone it's not intelligible to Mandarin speakers, it also belongs to a whole different group.

    It seems that all public life in Shanghai (signs, posters, ads, TV, radio, etc.) is organized using Mandarin while everybody speaks Shanghainese between themselves. It is said that there isn't a single radio station in Shanghainese now (there used to be one called 王小毛 but it seems not to be running anymore). It would be interesting to see what long-term impacts of living in such an environment are and how likely Shanghainese is to survive.

    I really think it should start mixing with standard Mandarin under such circumstances, though.

  14. Constance said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Interesting, and rather unsurprising. Nearly all of the maternal side of my family resides in Shanghai, and they are very sensitive about their language. They want to keep it alive. Many Shanghai residents (the ones who have lived there for quite a while, as opposed to the "foreigners," or people from the countryside) associate Mandarin with "xiangwunin," or people from the more rural areas of China. Residents of Shanghai consider themselves to be living in the only real city in China. Everything other than Shanghai is rural.

  15. Sili said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    HH said: "New Yorkers spoke a form of English unintelligible to all others, and used it primarily to reinforce perceptions of superiority."

    For examples, see the conversations between the four main characters in almost any episode of the NBC TV series "Seinfeld".

    Heh. Speaking of pompous superiority complexes.

  16. Jim said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    Fluxor, thanks for the translation. It is indeed surprising

  17. hanmeng said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    Intensifiy the People’s War Against Splittism! And Black English!

  18. Doc Rock said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    Wu Wu! 吳吳! 吴吴!!

  19. j said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 9:55 pm


    Also, is the poster written in Shanghaiese or mandarin?

    They use the same writing system.

  20. Fluxor said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

    @Jim: You're welcome; all tongue-in-cheek, of course. Next to me at work is a colleague from Wuxi (an hour west of Shanghai) who had previously worked in Shanghai. He thinks the map is funny because according to him, it's "all too true".

  21. siweiluozi said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 11:44 pm


    Yes, they use the same writing system, but that doesn't mean that the poster couldn't be written using the vocabulary and syntax of Shanghainese.

    For example, in Hong Kong one regularly sees things written in Cantonese. Both languages (dialects, if you must) can use the same writing system as standard Chinese to be expressed in writing, but they would be expressed quite differently.

    My point above was precisely to draw out this irony. One might expect to see a statement of the importance of speaking Shanghainese to be also written in Shanghainese. But it wasn't.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 2:35 am

    English and Italian use the same writing system, too. Oddly, I can easily tell the difference between a poster in English and one in Italian, and I know lots of literate people who could only read one or the other. I find it distinctly strange and ironic that the poster was written in Mandarin.

  23. joseph palmer said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    They wrote "I love China" too. They were not so brave, I guess. Plus, it may be a local habit to speak Shanghaiese, but I'm not sure that it is a very common habit to write it down. Italians are otherwise.

  24. Xerxes said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    Re: Why is it written in Mandarin rather than Shanghainese?

    Perhaps it is not so easy to write down Shanghainese as Mandarin. In Japanese, the written language is a mixture of modified hanzi and phonetic hiragana. Taiwanese cannot easily be written and is often a mixture of hanzi and bopomofo. If Shanghainese has not developed such a mixed system, it might not be so easy to write down in a way that would be decipherable even to a native speaker.

  25. Paul Battley said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    I'm intrigued by 'PPMM' in the map Fluxor links to. There must be an interesting story behind how that comes to mean 'pretty girls'.

  26. Fluxor said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    @Paul Battley: PPMM is the Hanyu Pinyin abbreviation for 漂漂美眉 (piàopiào měiméi). 漂漂 is just a cutesy way of saying 漂亮 (piàoliàng = beautiful). 美眉 (lit: beautiful eyebrows) is the near homonymic replacement of the original word, 妹妹 (mèimei). 妹妹 means younger sister, but can also be used to refer to a young girl. The cute way of saying 妹妹, as often practised in Taiwan, is "měiméi". Thus, 美 and 眉 where chosen as the phonetic stand-ins for this colloquial pronunciation. This usage has since migrated to across the Strait.

  27. siweiluozi said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    I think you're on the right track, but it's probably more that there is a lack of familiarity with or consensus regarding the writing system used for Shanghainese. The practice of using hanzi to write Shanghainese isn't perfect, but it is possible. For example, see:

  28. joseph palmer said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Yes, it is possible, but as I said before it isn't too common as far as I am aware. Putting the poster in Shanghaiese might seem a little too precious. Or, perhaps the effect would be a little comic, rough or rustic. Dialects sometimes get squashed by tough language policy into being only the language of the street, not of intelligent public discourse.

  29. KYL said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 8:09 pm


    Among the people who are disseminating this poster, there's likely a substantial number of Communist Party members.

  30. aaron said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    It's probably not too smart to disseminate a poster that can't be easily understood by most CCP officials, thus the choice of Mandarin. No?

  31. Tal said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Has there been a reaction from the communist party?

  32. Chas Belov said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 6:47 am

    I note with interest the abbreviation of Shang Hai as SH on the poster.

    Are there colloquial Shanghainese characters in the sense that there are colloquial Cantonese characters such as (Cantonese) 佢哋 (keuih deih) for 他們 (ta-mun), "they"? If so, are these characters used in popular publications the way Cantonese characters are used in Hong Kong publications (or Cantonese Internet message boards and blogs)?

    If not, do Shanghainese popular publications use Shanghainese vocabulary or standard Mandarin vocabulary?

    As for the -nese, I occasionally hear a native Cantonese speaker refer to Mandarin in English as "Mandanese," a reasonable generalization for a Chinese language name.

    I've had the fortune to have known at least three, possibly more, people who speak Cantonese, Mandarin *and* Shanghainese. The general impression is that Cantonese tends to be spoken on the loud side and Shanghainese on the soft side. This would go along with the posting above that anything outside of Shanghai is seen by Shanghainese as uncouth.

  33. Chas Belov said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    As an addendum, more important than the question as to whether there are colloquial Shanghainese characters would be whether those characters have been encoded into a standard Chinese character set the way colloquial Cantonese characters have been.

  34. Ash said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    The use of Mandarin in the poster most likely reflects the lack of a strong tradition of written Shanghainese. The reason that Hong Kong (and to some extent GuangZhou) has a strong tradition of written Cantonese is that everyone knows the Cantonese pronunciations of the characters, since that's what they learned first (and many times, they don't even know the Mandarin pronunciations). Here in Taiwan, there isn't much of a tradition of writing in Taiwanese. The starting of such a tradition is greatly hampered by the fact that even native Taiwanese speakers learn to write using Mandarin and don't know the Taiwanese pronunciations for the characters. On top of that, there is no consensus on how to write Taiwanese. Some people use romanization only, some use characters only, and some mix the two. Furthermore, most native Taiwanese (other than a few intellectuals) don't see the need for a Taiwanese script as they have bought into the KMT propaganda that Taiwanese is ONLY a spoken language.
    This is completely opposite to the situation in Hong Kong. In HK, the gov't has tried (and is still trying) to stamp out written Cantonese, but it's so easy to learn that most literate people can just pick up a book written in Cantonese for the first time and understand what they are reading. I assume that the situation in Shanghai is more similar to the situation in Taiwan. Not to mention that Shanghainese has been the target of far more intense suppression from Beijing than Cantonese has.

  35. Christina said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    Shanghainese as a language is at least 50% different than Mandarin. I personally believe it should not be mixed with Mandarin.

    It is a lot like saying that Swedish should be merged with Italian. Or Russian merged with Spanish. Oh GOD would that be awful. That is just Wrong.

    Personally I can't understand a word of Mandarin but I can understand Shanghainese completely. The intonations, the lexical structure, the expressions are totally different between the languages. I don't live in China, but we have kept the language going even outside of the mainland.

    Please don't equate Shanghainese as a version of New York City english. It's not even the same language as Mandarin. it's almost insulting, to say the least.

  36. Holzman said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    Yes, the basis of Shanghai culture (and the prejudices and arrogance accompanying it) is their language. Here is a transcription of part of a conversation overheard on a Shanghai bus:

    车上一中年男与一中年女吵架,末了,女骂男:一口江北腔!男骂女:一看就苏北人 。男的还对女的说:要比谁上海话说的好哇?
    Rough translation:
    A middle-aged man is arguing with a middle-aged woman on the bus. In the end the woman berates the man saying: such a Jiangbei accent! The man berates the woman: you can tell you’re from Subei just by the look of you. The man then goes on to ask the woman: You wanna see who speaks Shanghainese better?

    Such a wealth of cultural information! Notice how they are using non-Shanghaineseness to insult the other party. Shanghainese consider Jiangbei and Subei people to be the lepers (worse than being from NJ) of all the lowly 外地 “out-of-towners”, i.e. hicks.
    Much of the glory and pride of Shanghainese is rooted in contempt for non-Shanghainese. Admittedly, it is useful for avoiding long circuitous trips from cabbies, however perhaps our tears for the predicted disappearance of the Shanghai “language” are a bit overblown. It is a variety of the Wu dialect/language that has many, many more speakers than many countries have citizens and has undergone radical changes since the opening of Shanghai to the west. Contrasts, tones, lexicon have been falling off Shanghainese about as fast as the l/nongtangs have been razed (which we can probably just blame on the Wenzhou developers). Research tends to be conducted on other Wu dialects for the very reason that Shanghainese can’t decide what it is. Don’t worry, Shanghainese are resourceful, they’ll come up with some other way to prove they are Uber-Chinese.

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