Concentric circles of language in Beijing

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A lament for the passing of Pekingese (Běijīnghuà 北京话) —  for those who don't understand Mandarin, just listen to a bit of what the presenter is saying for the flavor, then skip down to the explanations below the page break to find out what it's all about:

To comprehend the following, you need to know about "ring roads" in Beijing.  There are now seven of them, the last and outermost of them having opened in August of 2018 and encircling Beijing with a thousand miles of circumference.  With the construction of each additional ring road, it was supposed to ease the monumental traffic jams of the city, but the 7th is actually mostly outside of the city limits, and there's also the problem of ready north-south and east-west access between the successive ring roads.  Conservationists also complain that, to build them, the old city walls that characterized traditional Beijing / Peking / Beiping / etc. (for more than a dozen other historical names of the city, see here).

Starting at 0:52, the presenter says that Peking culture and Peking language have basically disappeared. The funny part is the follow-up: inside the 2nd Ring Road, it’s wàiyǔ 外语 ("foreign languages"); between the 2nd and the 3rd Ring Roads, it’s Wēnzhōuhuà 温州话 ("Wenzhounese"); between the 3rd and the 4th, it’s Shānxīhuà 山西话 ("Shanxi Topolect"); outside the 5th Ring Road cái shuō Běijīnghuà 才说北京话 ("they finally speak Pekingese"). (Don’t know what happened to the space between the 4th and 5th Ring Roads.)

From a resident of Beijing:

It is true that many indigenous Beijingers who dwelled in hutongs [VHM:  also here and in the "Selected readings" below] are relocated to the suburbs during urban reconstruction as mentioned by the speaking in the video, many out of the 5th ring road. Beijing is a migrant city ever since 1949. Those "old Beijingers" (老北京) who or whose parents or grandparents were born in Beijing before 1949 make an insignificant proportion of the current Beijing population. So it is not a surprise to see the change of the language usage in Beijing. Being a migrant to Beijing, most of my acquaintances in Beijing are migrants. We don't speak Beijingese/Pekingese. We speak Putonghua with various accents. Beijing, though not an international metropolis like London or Paris, is indeed a national metropolis with migrants from nearly all Chinese provinces.

Basically, what the presenter in the video is saying is that, if you speak true Pekingese in Beijing today, chances are good that most of the people you encounter won't have a clue about what you're saying.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Donald Clarke and Tong Wang]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 8:08 am

    "what the presenter in the video is saying is that, if you speak true Pekingese in Beijing today, [the] chances are good that most of the people you encounter won't have a clue about what you're saying" — that may well be what the presenter is saying (my aural Chinese comprehension is nowhere near good enough for me to judge) but is this the reality of the situation, or is it more the case that, as your correspondent ("a resident of Beijing") says, "[Beijing residents] speak Putonghua with various accents" and as they speak Putonghua, they also understand Putonghua, and will therefore understand "true Pekingese" ? Putonghua is, after all, as John DeFrancis says, "an all-inclusive designation that embraces the various local dialects of Mandarin referred to by such terms as Peking dialect, Nanking dialect, Sichuan dialect, and so on" [my emphasis/italics].

  2. Neil Kubler said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 10:09 am

    It seems to me that, as Putonghua has developed in recent decades, it is becoming more and more precisely and narrowly defined. Radio announcers and language instructors must pass tests and achieve various scores to be certified for various positions (higher scores for announcers, a little lower for language teachers). Standard Putonghua is definitely very different from "Peking dialect, Nanking dialect, or Sichuan dialect". Even well educated Beijing residents in their 20s or 30s who have lived in Beijing their whole lives tend to speak only Standard Putonghua rather than Beijing dialect, of which they often have a rather negative impression. Besides loss of final -r in many words, neutral tones are disappearing, so that péngyou "friend" is pronounced as péngyǒu and zhīdao "know" is pronounced as zhīdào.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 8:56 pm

    So I learnt 'burdao' (不知道) for nothing?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 10:03 pm

    Just like I learned "burao" for nothing, except historical and phonological interest.

  5. David said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 12:12 am

    Here's another old New York Times article on the subject:

    The concept of what constitutes Beijinghua 北京話 is not static over time. Before the Republican period, the city was divided between North and South, and those inside and outside city walls. Guoyu and Putonghua (Mandarin) were modeled partly on the educated speech in the northern part, which was inhabited mainly by Manchus. What is now commonly associated as Beijinghua, with the slurred speech and all, is the more popular dialect spoken in the Han-dominated southern part of the city, often with the reputation of being somewhat 土 (vulgar).

    So in a way, Beijing speech lives on in the modern-day Mandarin spoken in the city.

    The displacement of local dialects seems to be accelerating in all of the economically prosperous parts of China, with the replacement being an accented Mandarin that has lost its flavor as 北方話(Northern speech).

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 8:02 am

    One thing is for sure: the old Pekingese patois (tǔhuà 土話 ["earthy / colloquial / indigenous speech]") with its numerous distinctive expressions, many of which cannot be written in Sinographs / Chinese characters, and highly distinctive phonology is quite a different critter from Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin), so much so that if a speaker of the latter wanders into an area of the city where the former is still spoken, intelligibility will be severely limited. This reality is attested to in the "Selected readings" above and in materials recorded in many other Language Log posts.

  7. liuyao said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 7:48 pm

    Immigrants have been coming into Beijing for as long as Beijing/Peking existed. Some of the quintessential Pekingese (Zhu Jiajin 朱家溍, Wang Shixiang 王世襄 whom you can find recordings of) were 2nd generation immigrants (Zhu from Zhejiang, and Wang from Fujian). Of course they had grown up in hutongs.

    Even with the 大院 (Big Compounds, military or civilian) post 1949, the kids grew up speaking perfect Pekingnese (to my ear), while having no trouble understanding their parents. Very similar to the 眷村 in Taiwan as documented here

    What happened in the 90s? More apartment complexes (and less mingling), and TV shows in standard Putonghua? That's like everywhere else. It makes me wonder if there ever was a more "pure" English before they standardized it.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 3:21 am

    " the old Pekingese patois (tǔhuà) […] is quite a different critter from Putonghua […] if a speaker of the latter wanders into an area of the city where the former is still spoken, intelligibility will be severely limited".

    Is that a symmetric relationship ? Will a speaker of tǔhuà have as much difficulty understanding a speaker of MSM as the latter will have of understanding a speaker of tǔhuà ? In general, of course, since individuals will obviously vary in their ability to understand a topolect other than their own.

  9. David Morris said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 6:30 am

    As a total non-Chinese speaker, I would like to know whether he used different accents or topolects along the way. Two moments that I noticed seemed to sound different (around 2.00 and 2.20).

    When I went to Hong Kong, the announcements at Ocean World were given in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. I could notice a difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, but if you played one randomly, I wouldn't be able to tell you which it was.

  10. Thomas Rees said,

    June 11, 2020 @ 6:12 am

    Why is the presenter wearing the Dutch Republic lion?

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