Wenzhounese in Italy

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Commonly referred to as "Devil's language" (èmó zhī yǔ 恶魔之语), because it is considered by outsiders to be extraordinarily difficult, Wenzhounese (Wēnzhōu huà 温州话), the language of the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province 230 air miles south of the Yangtze estuary, has been a topic of discussion on Language Log before:

"Devilishly difficult 'dialect" (8/20/15)

"Mutual unintelligibility among Sinitic lects" (10/5/14)

"Devil-language" (5/25/14)

"The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads" (5/14/13)

"Mutual intelligibility" (5/28/14)

Wenzhounese truly is quite exceptional, even from the other varieties of Wu, the branch of Sinitic to which it belongs:

Wenzhounese is the most divergent variety of Wu and is considered a separate language by some. It is not mutually intelligible with other varities of Wu. It preserves words from Classical Chinese that are no longer used in other varieties of Chinese, and its grammar differs significantly. It also has the most eccent[r]ic phonology, and as a result is considered the "least comprehensible dialect" for an average Mandarin speaker. These feature are a result of the geographic isolation of the Wenzhou area.

Source:  Omniglot

What makes Wenzhounese all the more challenging is that the language itself is divided into many topolects, some of which are very hard for speakers from other Wenzhounese topolects to comprehend.  When people talk about Wenzhounese outside of Wenzhou and especially abroad, they are usually referring to the variety as spoken in the city proper, not the surrounding counties which are governed from Wenzhou as the prefectural seat.

When China began its explosive economic growth about 30-35 years ago, Wenzhou — because of its relative geographic isolation — was considered a backwater, so the central government did not promote development there, instead concentrating on other cities in Zhejiang that were thought to be more favorable for growth, such as Ningbo, Jinhua, and Taizhou.  Consequently, Wenzhou did not receive many resources, and the people there were relatively poor.  That led to large-scale emigration, with many Wenzhounese ending up in the Chinatowns of Flushing and Brooklyn, but also in Europe, particularly France, Spain, and Italy.  For the remainder of this post, I would like to describe the situation of the Wenzhounese living in Italy.

First of all, how did they get there?  The ones that I know about went surreptitiously in the holds of ships.  It would take them months to reach Italy, and they had very little to eat on the way.  They knew that they were illegals, so that they would exist by selling things on the streets or doing jobs that  would not call attention to themselves (such as working in restaurants).  Gradually they might start to open little shops selling miscellaneous goods (záhuò diàn 杂货店) and eventually become more successful, including obtaining legal residency.

What prompted me to write this post were the answers I received when I asked my informants whether their Wenzhounese relatives in Italy, of whom there are many, learned Italian, and they said, no, they don't have to.  They said that the Wenzhounese in Italy are so numerous and dispersed throughout the country that there isn't a need to learn Italian.  The networks and support services available to them are so extensive that they can easily get by just knowing Wenzhounese.

Is this voluntary self ghettoization?

Another aspect of Wenzhounese society that perpetuates this separateness within Italy is that the Wenzhounese are said to marry only other Wenzhounese.  Of course, there must be exceptions to the rule, but to the extent that marriage within the Wenzhounese population holds true, it would be a powerful factor in maintaining linguistic and social cohesiveness among the Wenzhounese in Italy.  The importance of this endogamy among the Wenzhounese is underscored by the fact that when a marriage between a Wenzhounese couple takes place in Italy, their relatives will travel from near and far to join in celebrating it.


  1. Grazia Deng said,

    February 25, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    I found this article very interesting. Wenzhounese are really particular.
    I think I can share some more findings from my fieldwork in Bologna between 2014-2015 for my thesis project, which focuses on Chinese management of Italian neighborhood coffee bars. All the Chinese coffee bar owners I met are Wenzhounese (including those from Qingtian, a county borders Wenzhou now, but historically part of Wenzhou and still now a part of cultural Wenzhou area). I also interviewed other Wenzhounese from Chinese communities in other cities, like Milan, Rome, Prato, Marche, etc.
    I found that Wenzhounese are not a homogeneous ethnic group. Class, gender, time of migration, place of settlement, and other aspects can all affect their thinking and behavior toward language learning, pattern of marriage, etc.
    Wenzhounese entrepreneurs and wage labors show different interest on language. Those who have entrepreneurial aspirations tend to emphasize the importance of language, while those who are satisfied with working in Chinese manufacturing workshops tend to think it is not necessary to learn Italian.
    Those who live in highly segregated Chinese community and industrial districts, like Prato, might think it is ok to stay there only with Chinese language, but those who live and do small business in larger urban centers, like Bologna, are often not satisfied with their language competence. In fact, many of my informants think their ltalian is not good enough, even though they can communicate quite good with local residents.
    As to marriage, I noticed the gender difference. It is not rare to see second generation Wenzhounese women marry Italian men, but not Wenzhounese men with Italian women. I also discovered that in the early 20th century, many of the first Wenzhounese men in Italy married Italian women with rural background.
    I also found very interesting the boundaries and mutual stereotypes between sub-ethnic groups from Wenzhou area. For example, between Qingtian people and Wenzhou people. They are not happy with inter-marriage between them. I knew a young couple who could not marry each other because of the parents' disagreement.
    Besides, I was told that the means of migration can also be diversified. Some of them arrived by air, using fake passport; some of them by ship, some of them used different means of transportation. For example, one of my key informant arrived in Italy in 1994. He flied first to Malaysia, then flied to Czech, then passed the border to Germany by feet, then to Italy by van….
    Hope my findings can be helpful…

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2017 @ 11:43 am

    Thank you very much for your richly informative comment, Grazia Deng!

    Your name prompts me to ask whether you grew up in Italy or are closely associated with the Wenzhounese community there.

  3. John said,

    February 25, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

    I met a person from Wenzhou at Madrid airport 2 years ago. He approached me because I looked Chinese. He was about 30 years old, on his own and had no idea where he was going, and couldn't read the alphabet, which means he probably didn't know Pinyin either.

    In addition to Wenzhouese, he spoke Mandarin (the only way he could communicate with me) and a few words of English, poorly. He had a boarding pass to Valencia and a valid Schengen visa and became very evasive every time I asked him what on earth possessed him to go to Valencia without learning or planning to learn a word of Spanish.

  4. michaelyus said,

    February 25, 2017 @ 8:06 pm

    As someone with some Fuzhounese heritage who has grown up in early 21st century London, I've also known a community that is rather similar to yet highly distinct from the Wenzhounese community that I saw when I was in [northern] Paris (I have been to Prato once but not stayed long enough to know the Wenzhounese community there; I have slightly more experience with Padua). The intra-ethnic tensions resonated with my experience a lot: among the 十邑 of the Greater 闽东 Eastern Fujian region, there are also lots of stereotypes based on birthplace (forse diciamo campanilismo?). The interaction of these ones with Chinese people from other provinces (especially the Cantonese-Fuzhounese dynamics) as well as from other cultures is also a source of interest. Thank you Grazia for giving me further insight into the workings of the community you have studied!

  5. Keith said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 5:38 am

    Chinese communities, especially in and around Prato, were covered in the French media around October 2010 to January 2011 and again around April 2016.

    This coverage was mostly related to illegal immigration that was claimed to have happened mostly during the 1990s and to clandestine textile factories and workshops.

    Perhaps the most informative article of the mainstream press was published in Le Point, a weekly news and current affairs magazine:

    Here's an extract, followed by my quick translation.

    Si la communauté chinoise de Prato est la troisième d'Europe après celles de Londres et de Paris avec 45 000 personnes, la deuxième ville toscane ne compte que 180 000 habitants. Un Pratésien sur quatre est donc chinois, comme 40 % des bébés qui naissent à l'hôpital.

    At 45,000, the Chinese community of Prato is Europe's third largest after those of London and Paris; and Tuscany's second city has only 180,000 inhabitants. So one in four of the city's residents is Chinese, as are 40 % of the babies born in the hospital.

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