Shandong Dialect Intelligibility

« previous post | next post »

From time to time, I have written about the mutual (un)ntelligibility of Sinitic languages, including here.  Of course, the distance between Cantonese or Shanghainese and Mandarin is immense.  But even within Mandarin there is tremendous variation.  A friend recently sent me a video about patient abuse in a Chinese mental hospital, along with this short note:  "The video footage shows three hospital staff workers in white lab coats kicking and beating an elderly patient with a mop and tying her to a bed. Staff are also shown making her sit naked from the waist down on top of a plastic cloth during winter."
Although the subject matter of the video is hugely disquieting (live video beginning at 3:20 shows the patient being beaten by staff; eventually she dies), I post it to show a typical feature of Chinese news broadcasts.  Namely, the newscasters speak Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM; Putonghua), but virtually everyone else speaks something else.  Because most of the non-MSM speakers cannot be understood by persons from other parts of China, it is standard operating procedure to include subtitles for anyone who is not speaking MSM.

The place where this happened is the city of Laiwu in the province of Shandong.  Laiwu is located near the center of Shandong, which puts it squarely within the ambit of Mandarin.  Laiwu is only 430 kilometers from Beijing, yet most people from elsewhere would have difficulty understanding the speech of the local denizens, hence the necessity for the subtitles.  This is especially true for the individuals who speak very rapidly and without making an effort to MSMize their speech.  Naturally, non-Laiwu speakers who are listening to the news will be looking at the subtitles, so they will get the gist of what the Laiwu (or other non-MSM) speakers are saying, and they will also be able to match up some of the characters in the subtitles with what is being said, even though the sounds may be quite dissimilar.

What is even more striking, and I have noticed this while watching newscasts all over China when I am in that country, there is never a one-to-one correspondence between what is being said by a non-MSM speaker and the transcription in the subtitles.  Often, in fact, what is presented in the subtitles amounts to an MSM translation of what is being said by the non-MSM speakers, or a partial translation, partial transcription of what is being spoken.  For full-blown (non-MSMized) Hoklo (Taiwanese), for example, subtitles would need to be more to the translation end of the scale.  Yet, even for Laiwu, which is so close to Beijing, there is a significant discrepancy between what is written in the subtitles and what is actually being spoken.

My in-laws were from Changyi (near Qingdao), about 200 kilometers directly east of Laiwu, and they spoke with a watered-down (in the sense of somewhat MSMized) Changyi patois, so I do have some experience with one particular Shandong dialect.  However, I must say that, when listening to these Laiwu speakers, it is not easy for me to follow everything they are saying.  Moreover, even though I do have some familiarity with Changyi dialect, when the people there talk fast and make no attempt to MSMize their speech, I miss a lot of what they are saying.  And, when I go visit my relatives in the nearby big port city of Qingdao (where the German-recipe beer comes from), if they start having a free-flowing, no-holds-barred confabulation, it is very easy for me to get lost altogether.

Now, as an antidote for the heaviness of the first video, an entertaining "Shandong dialect" version of the Titanic is here.


  1. Kellen said,

    May 24, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    Here's a link to the video for those in China

  2. Spelunker said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    … and here is a link to a Qingdao rap singer on YouTube:

  3. Anak said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    Fully sympathize. In our Beijing office we have employees from all corners of China who work the phones with customers all over China. I personally had trouble understanding many Shandong callers, and one in particular was completely un-MSM. I passed him to a subordinate (Yunnan). Afterwards asking our guy if he had any trouble, he said he could catch only a small percentage of the SD'ers speech. When I asked then how did he comprehend what was being said, he had to admit, "I guessed and combined with what most people say". While speakers of other dialects are fully aware of the difference, and do not expect to be understood by outsiders, it seems SD people somehow think their dialect is "close enough". I've seen the same problem down in Wuhan, which is a bit closer to Putonghua.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    From my friend Julie Wei, who speaks a Hubei kind of Mandarin:

    "Both my husband's parents came from Tengxian, Shandong, and I had great difficulty understanding their speech, I'd understood very little of what they said. I couldn't carry on a conversation with them. My own parents came from Hubei. It was my in-laws' pronunciation mostly that made it difficult for me. I don't think they used colloquialisms peculiar to Shandong when they spoke to me. However, my husband, who grew up in Shandong among Tengxian (Teng County) people, said a lot of the earthy colloquial expressions in Yuan dynasty drama (Yuan QU, 13th century) were Tengxian expressions he heard growing up. I later learned that Tengxian is a very ancient place, important in Zhou dynasty history. I took a course in Yuan drama from Prof. James Crump at the University of Michigan and would bring home volumes of Yuan QU texts, and my husband would enjoy reading them. He would say delightedly of the colloquialisms in the dialogue: "We talked just like that in Tenghsien!! " Many of the expressions had an earthy humor, and I'd never heard them in present-day Mandarin.

    "My father-in-law was a tall, handsome, dignified man who was a respected local figure in Tengxian. He wrote letters in classical Chinese with the ink-brush. But because of his country speech I always thought of him as a rustic. Late in life he married my step-mother-in-law, a wealthy old spinster from Ningpo, near Shanghai. They had difficulty understanding each other's speech and were always shouting at each other, because they thought they'd make themselves clearer by shouting, but it didn't help. They'd gesticulate.

    "I think this difference of speech was important in Mao Tse-tung's taking over Mainland China. My father-in-law said Chiang Kai-shek's trusted lieutenant Chen Li-fu sent his people into Shandong after World War II to win the support of the local Shandong people, so that Mao's people wouldn't win them over to his side. But my father-in-law said Chen Li-fu's men slighted local figures like him, and so failed to win their goodwill or help. Chen Li-fu came from the Shanghai area and would have spoken the Shanghai speech. The people that he sent to Shandong probably didn't speak the local speech. And so they probably didn't understand the local personal-relations networks, and couldn't appreciate the important role of key local people like my father-in-law. He said: "We could have helped Chen Li-fu's people a lot if they'd come to us." I think differences in regional speech had a lot to do with it. Because of my father-in-law's speech, Chen's people would have seen key local figures like him as country bumpkins, negligible entities."

    If I may add another historical note to Julie's, several of the major Chinese vernacular novels (Jin Ping Mei [Gold Vase Plum], Shuihu zhuan [Water Margins], etc.) are also full of Shandong dialect from several centuries ago. Surprisingly, Pu Songling's Liaozhai liqu (Colloquial Dramas from Make-Do Studio) are likewise written in extremely earthy Shandong topolect. This is surprising because Pu Songling is the most famous author of strange tales written in elegant Classical Chinese.

  5. Dylan said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    The language sounds a lot like rural dialect speakers I heard in Xuzhou– even moreso than it sounds like Shandong dialect I heard in, say, Jinan, even when spoken by older people.

    Once you crack the pattern of dropped and added and slurred sounds and adjusted tones, I don't think it's that opaque. If you've spent any time in the countryside of Shandong, northern Jiangsu, Hebei, it's going to be thick but not impenetrable.

    There's an episode of 台湾脚逛大陆, a Taiwan-produced travel show where young Taiwanese travel to usually sorta remote mainland places… in the Shandong episode, there is lots of unintentional comedy in the inability of the host to understand rural Shandongers and for them to understand her.

  6. Dylan said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    Speaking of Jin Ping Mei… Li Shen (李申), who wrote the book on Xuzhou dialect (literally, the book:《徐州方言志》) wrote a lot about the connection between the language in Jin Ping Mei and the dialect of Xuzhou (and northern Jiangsu and Shandong).

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    A note from my student, Xiaolei Ke: "The rap singer was very popular among the Qingdao residents when I was educated in the Ocean University in Qingdao. Even my father knew him! I have always kept the top one of his songs in my computer. I forward it to you.

    "The name of the song is 逛栈桥. It is a typical Qingdao Dialect rap song mixed with a few phrases of English and 东北话. I often listened to it and was used to being amused by it together with my best friends who were from the big Qingdao region and other cities of Shandong when I was in Qingdao. And my friends all enjoyed it very much. One of my friends from Weihai 威海 even decided to learn Qingdao dialect after she listened to it. Even now, when I am nostalgic I always listen to it. Hope you like it, too."

    Xiaolei sent me a very clear mp3 recording of the song, so I now have it in my computer and would be happy to share it with anyone who is interested in hearing this very catchy tune.

  8. DDeden said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    Seems like a good idea to use texting?

  9. Xuchen said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 9:19 am


    I realize I'm late to the party.. But I'm a foreigner living in Xuzhou who can speak the local dialect(I know most of common vocab and the tones), I can understand 95% of what is said and hold a pretty decent conversation.

    If anyone is still interested or could shed some light on Chinese dialects I'd be happy to have a chat.

    Good luck.

RSS feed for comments on this post