Shanghainese under attack

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Headline in a Hong Kong Chinese newspaper, Bastille Post 巴士的報 (4/15/23):

Shànghǎi Xújiāhuì shūyuàn yìmíng zhī zhēng shìfǒu gǎi yòng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn zhuānjiā hándié

上海徐家匯書院譯名之爭 是否改用漢語拼音專家咁䏲

"Controversy over the transcription of the name of the Xujiahui Library in Shanghai:  should it be changed to Hanyu Pinyin? Expert opinions"

Currently the name of this library at the entrance to its impressive building is "Zikawei".  What does this name signify, and why is it a matter of contention?  Put simply, "Zikawei" is the Shanghainese pronunciation of Mandarin "Xujiahui", and some nationalistic partisans are opposed to the use of Shanghainese on a public building in Shanghai.

Xujiahui (Chinese: 徐家汇, Shanghainese: [ʑ̥i˨ ka̠˥ ɦɯe̞˨˩], romanized as: Zikawei, Ziccawei, or Siccawei) is a locality in Shanghai. It is a historic area of commerce and culture administratively within Xuhui District, which is named after the locality. The area is a well-known precinct for shopping and entertainment in Shanghai. It is served by the Xujiahui Station of the Shanghai Metro.

Xujiahui means "Xu family junction" – more precisely, "property of Xu family at the junction of two rivers".[2] The "Xu family" refers to the family of Xu Guangqi (Hsü Kuang-ch'i; 1562–1633), China's most notable Catholic convert. Most of what is now Xujiahui was once the ancestral home of the Xu family. Baptized by famed Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, Xu Guangqi and his descendants donated large plots of land to the Catholic Church, including the site of the St. Ignatius Cathedral.

During the 18th century it was known by Shanghai's western residents as "Ziccawei" or "Siccawei" in English, and "Zikawei" or "Zi-ka-wei" in French, from the pronunciation of its name in Shanghainese. These names survive in the names of some institutions, such as the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei, and the area is still listed in a number of contemporary guidebooks and literature as "Zikawei" or some variant thereof.


Most Chinese to whom I showed the above headline could not read the last two characters.  That's because, first of all, they constitute a Cantonese expression and because the second character is miswritten.  As explained by Bob Bauer:

It looks like two different sinographs 䏲 and 睇 have been confused. The correct phrase is 咁睇 gam3 tai2.

This is the first time I have seen it written as 䏲 ti1, which appears on page 639 of my copy of Xinhua Dictionary with English Translation (2000) where it is defined as ‘an organic chemical compound, a special name for stibium hydrogen‘. This character is not included in my copy of DeFrancis’ ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary.

The correct Cantonese character is 睇 tai2. Please see page 948 of the ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary for the entry on this lexical item; its meaning is translated into English as ‘to see, watch, look at, gaze at, observe.’

The radicals in these two sinographs 䏲 ti1 and 睇 tai2 are clearly different. The radical in 䏲 ti1 is 月 yue4, jyut6 ‘the moon’, while the radical in the Cantonese character 睇 tai2 is 目 mu4, muk6 ‘eye’ which a person relies on to to see, watch, look at, gaze at, observe something.

Many Cantonese words have infiltrated Mandarin, including such basic terms as those for "taxi", "park", and "furniture".  Shanghainese has also contributed words such as "clamp", "captain", and "last car" to the MSM lexicon.  For Shanghainese names like "Zikawei" to gain currency in China, they can only rely on phonetic transcription.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Swofford]


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 9:13 am

    re: hán dié 咁䏲
    haha, this literally looks like stuff now found on Pleco, Cantodict, etc. — in fact, checking now, Pleco actually actually has "gān dì" for 咁睇… the amount of Kanji-based dumbness in these self-styled universal Chinese dictionaries these days boggles the mind

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 9:27 am

    I am intrigued by the text "an organic chemical compound, a special name for stibium hydrogen". "Stibium" is rarely encountered, but was an older name for antimony. But what, then, is "antimony hydrogen" ? A web search suggests that the phrase is attested only as a part of the longer phrase "Antimony hydrogen bis(thioglycollate)".

  3. Rodger C said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 9:27 am

    Okay, what on earth is "stibium hydrogen"? Antimony hydride? But that's not organic.

  4. ycx said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 10:04 am

    Being a biochemist, I was also intrigued by the "stibium hydrogen" claim. It appears to have been a mis-quote of "stibane" or "stibine", an inorganic compound of antimony and hydrogen.

    Stibanes are part of a group known as the pnictogen hydrides, a group of chemicals analogous to the amines by being in the same period of the periodic table.

  5. Rodger C said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 10:10 am

    I see I was ninja'd. Philip Taylor has found it.

  6. Gene Anderson said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 11:33 am

    Save the local languages! I oppose the attempts to destroy Cantonese, Wu (incl. Shanghainese), etc., even more than I oppose the attacks on Catalan, Occitan, Genoese, etc. These are great languages with important traditions and literatures.

  7. Carl said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 12:52 pm

    I predict that within 5 years, the PRC will demand that Western media refer to Hong Kong as Xianggang. Whether the media goes along with it or not, I'm not sure. I'd peg it as 75% that they will, but maybe 25% they won't if the New Cold War is really in full swing.

  8. Peter B. Golden said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 4:56 pm

    I agree completely with Gene. My wife, a native of Shanghai (which she and some other family members left in 1949, others remained), who acquired Cantonese in Hong Kong, was pleasantly surprised when we first visited Shanghai in the early 1990s. Shanghainese was spoken everywhere. In subsequent trips we heard less and less Shanghainese spoken in the street, replaced by Mandarin. I fear that it is a battle that Shanghainese and the other Wu variants will lose. Shanghai was always a meeting ground for people from many regions. One of the richest department store owners was of Cantonese background (the Kwok family) – the Wing On 永安 store (they had other department stores elsewhere). There were numerous people from Fujian. All spoke Shanghainese, regardless of home topolect. The Kwoks long ago returned to Hong Kong and the department store, still standing the early 1990s, is no more. The physical/architectural changes to the city are everywhere – and seem unending. Instruction in school is in Mandarin. Mass media, social media etc. all in Mandarin. Cantonese in Hong Kong may have a better chance of surviving, but it will be a struggle.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 9:19 pm

    Here are a couple of old cases related to negative government disposition toward Shanghainese:

  10. Reh said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 9:38 pm

    The title was obviously meant to be read in Cantonese:

    Soeng⁶hoi² Ceoi⁴gaa¹wui⁶ syu¹jyun² jik⁶ming⁴ zi¹ zang¹: si⁶fau² goi² jung⁶ Hon³jyu⁵ Ping³jam¹, zyun¹gaa¹ gam³ tai².

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 20, 2023 @ 10:40 pm

    All of my students from the PRC read it in Mandarin, though I appreciate your Cantonese reading.

  12. AntC said,

    April 21, 2023 @ 12:56 am

    @ PBG Cantonese in Hong Kong may have a better chance of surviving, …

    I very much doubt it. If Cantonese survives, it'll be in the HK diaspora in places the Brits took HongKongers: London, Australia, NZ.

    The HK refugees in Taiwan are having a hard time preserving their language — not that Taiwan these days is trying to suppress topolects, but simply because there was never a Cantonese community.

  13. Paul Frank said,

    April 21, 2023 @ 7:19 am

    What percentage of Shanghai's population speaks Shanghainese today, what with Mandarin schooling, the 2001 Language Law, and migration (both low-skilled and highly skilled) from all over China? As a foreign student at Fudan University in 1982-83, I had the option of taking Shanghainese, but regretfully was among the majority of students who didn't. According to Fang Xu, author of “Silencing Shanghai: Language and Identity in Urban China” (2021), schools taught several subjects in Shanghainese into the 1990s. Today Mandarin is associated with social mobility and modernity: "Public measures are seeping into private life, as adoption of the dominant language ideology increases in native Shanghairen’s homes, where they pass it down to their children (74). Again according to Xu, Shanghai natives “have been displaced from the urban center, their linguistic right to the city threatened, and they have experienced relative deprivation of privileges in terms of once exclusive access to top-quality social services” (202). By 2020, 81% of China’s population spoke Mandarin, a 28% increase from 2000. A glimmer of hope (or perhaps just nostalgia): In 2021, the Shanghainese film 爱情神话 was a surprise hit.

  14. Guy_H said,

    April 23, 2023 @ 7:42 pm

    The title is an interesting mix of literary Chinese (use of 之 and 是否) and spoken Cantonese (咁睇), which is a pretty common mash-up in HK newspapers. To be honest, until you get to the last two words, there is no way to tell if its meant to be read in Cantonese or Mandarin.

  15. liuyao said,

    April 24, 2023 @ 9:08 pm

    It appears that the only buildings that can have non-Pinyin Romanizations are named after Hong Kong donors, which are seen on university campuses (Peking U and Tsinghua, and probably elsewhere).

  16. liuyao said,

    April 24, 2023 @ 9:28 pm

    Speaking of which, some universities in China face a similar problem: do they go with Pinyin or their traditional, pre-pinyin spelling?

  17. Chas Belov said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 3:25 am

    Sorry to hear Shanghainese is endangered. I've known a few people who were Chinese-trilingual in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese. Also, back in the 90's, when I was studying Cantonese, there were a number of times when I overheard somebody speaking Shanghainese in public here in the Bay Area and I find it to be a beautiful language, even more beautiful than French. And that said, I feel any language is worthy of preservation.

    One comment on Shanghainese that somebody made that sticks in my mind is "Cantonese is so loud the people sound like they're fighting even when they're not. Shanghainese is so quiet that it sounds like people are not fighting even when they are."

  18. KIRINPUTRA said,

    May 18, 2023 @ 5:30 am

    Modern East Asian nation-states are intended to be monolingual. (And a sophisticated advocate of a monolingual China could & eventually would point to France as a model, among others.)

    In the long run, Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc. will only survive if they "get" their own nation-state. Or, if they can outlast the era of the nation-state, all bets are off.

    The least we can do is to keep our own counsel with regards to what to call Hong Kong, Swatow, Amoy, Zikawei, etc. This has an impact, however small, on how things will unfold.

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