Signifying the Local

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I just found out about this new book on local languages in China.  Judging from the abstract and table of contents, it looks very interesting and promising: Signifying the Local: Media Productions Rendered in Local Languages in Mainland China in the New Millennium. The publisher's blurb:

In Signifying the Local, Jin Liu examines contemporary cultural productions rendered in local languages and dialects (fangyan) in the fields of television, cinema, music, and literature in Mainland China. This ground-breaking interdisciplinary research provides an account of the ways in which local-language media have become a platform for the articulation of multivocal, complex, and marginal identities in post-socialist China. Viewed from the uniquely revealing perspective of local languages, the mediascape of China is no longer reducible to a unified, homogeneous, and coherent national culture, and thus renders any monolithic account of the Chinese language, Chineseness, and China impossible.

The table of contents:

Chapter One: A Historical Review of the Discourse of the Local in Twentieth-Century China
Chapter Two: An Overview of Television Series Productions in the 2000s
Chapter Three: Alternative Translation: Performativity in Dubbing Films in Local Languages
Chapter Four: Empowering Local Community: TV News Talks Shows in Local Languages
Chapter Five: Ambivalent Laughter: Comic Sketches in CCTV's Spring Festival Eve Gala
Chapter Six: Popular Music and Local Youth Identity in the Age of the Internet
Chapter Seven: The Rhetoric of Local Languages as the Marginal: Chinese Underground and Independent Films by Jia Zhangke and Others
Chapter Eight: Multiplicity in Mainstream Studio Films in Local Languages
Chapter Nine: The Unassimilated Voice in Recent Fiction in Local Languages

This reminds me of another recent book that deals with the media and Wu/吳 (Shanghainese) literature: Alexander Des Forges, Mediasphere Shanghai (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 2007).

Around the same time, Edward M. Gunn, Jr. published his Rendering the Regional: Local Language in Contemporary Chinese Media, also from the University of Hawai'i Press (2006).

Another valuable book that deserves to be mentioned in this context is Donald B. Snow's Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular (Hong Kong:  University of Hong Kong Press, 2004).

Also worthy of our attention is Henning Klöter's Written Taiwanese, studia formosiana 2 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2005).

Considering our longstanding interest with Chinese languages and topolects here on Language Log, it is indeed exciting to have these books available.  I'm sure that they will stimulate further discussion of these important topics.


  1. Matt said,

    September 28, 2013 @ 11:43 pm

    I salivated as I read the table of contents, as this is precisely the sort of stuff I'm interested in. However, my heart sank when I saw the $163.00 price tag, which is too steep for me. Unshaken, I dug around the Internet and managed to find the author's PhD dissertation from which the book was clearly derived, from Cornell's website:

    SIGNIFYING THE LOCAL: MEDIA PRODUCTIONS RENDERED IN LOCAL LANGUAGES IN MAINLAND CHINA SINCE 2000–A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Cornell University In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Jin Liu (August 2008)

    Chapter 1: An Overview of Television Series Productions since 2000
    Chapter 2: Performativity in Dubbing Films in Local Languages
    Chapter 3: Empowering Local Community: TV News Talk Shows in Local Languages
    Chapter 4: Ambivalent Laughter: Comic Sketches in CCTV’s “Spring Festival Eve Gala”
    Chapter 5: Popular Music and Local Youth Identity in the Age of the Internet
    Chapter 6: The Rhetoric of Local Languages as the Marginal: Chinese Underground and Independent Films by Jia Zhangke and others
    Chapter 7: The Unassimilated Voice Continued in Recent Fiction in Local Languages
    So it appears that this dissertation has, at minimum, drafts for all of the chapters in the 2013 book except for the book's Chapter 1 ("A Historical Review of the Discourse of the Local in Twentieth-Century China") and Chapter 8 ("Multiplicity in Mainstream Studio Films in Local Languages"). Not bad!

    Of course, I encourage anyone of means to purchase the book, as it undoubtedly contains updated content befitting its 2013 publication. Otherwise, this dissertation should suffice, even if only as a sampler.

  2. xyzzyva said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    I had no idea any TV shows or mainstream movies were released in any topolects (with the possible exception of Cantonese due to Hong Kong). I've always been under the impression this was politically unfeasible, that the authorities would regard this as eroding the unified (Han) Chinese nation.

    For films, which depend on broad accessibility, this could narrow the potential audience considerably. But I guess most Mandarin films get subtitles anyway, and perhaps Chinese are more tolerant of relying on them than American audiences (or French audiences, in a different way), so you're really just trading a less-educated Mandarin portion of your audience for a less-educated topophone portion.

    But anyway, this is fascinating, and I look forward to any summaries or commentaries you will write up.

  3. xyzzyva said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    This is fairly off-topic, but I've always wondered about the treatment of language in Chinese historical films. To my vaguely-MSM aquainted ear, movies like Red Cliff or Hero seem to be in more-or-less modern Mandarin, at least in phonology and the (limited) syntactic constructions I'm able to pick up. But to what degree do Classical phrases, terms, etc., pop up compared with a work set in the modern era?

    I imagine more "serious" works would have more of this: in English you're much more likely to get period-specific dialogue in say a Merchant-Ivory film than some silly comedy, or something like Django Unchained that even consciously uses anachronisms. Unlike English-language works that may be meticulous with period accents for as far back as the late 18th century, I suspect Chinese works wouldn't recreate sound patterns more archaic than the early 20th century.

  4. Daniel said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    The Taiwanese film and television industries produce plenty of material using the Taiwanese topolect (alone or mixed with Mandarin), including soap operas, comedies, news commentaries, and high-art cinema. It would be interesting to know to what extent this sort material finds a receptive audience in Fujian province.

  5. Matt Anderson said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

    In Shanghai this past winter & spring, at least, movies in Shanghainese were pretty regularly playing in theaters, and there was one sitcom in the language that seemed to be on pretty much whenever I turned on the tv. There was certainly nothing like the amount of Cantonese you find on tv in Guangzhou, though.

  6. Jin Liu said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

    First thanks to Prof. Mair for kindly publicizing my book here!

    As a response to Matt's comment, thanks very much for your interest in my research and for locating my dissertation. It is true that my book developed from my Ph.D. dissertation (2008) and my research in the past ten years. So it's fair to say my dissertation “should suffice, even if only as a sampler." Indeed, it's hard to discern the changes/revisions/updates I’ve made just from the chapter titles, as they are almost identical. But to take the Chapter entitled "Popular Music and Local Youth Identity in the Age of the Internet" as an example, I deleted from my dissertation the parts on the use of local languages on the Internet, which are more related with sociolinguistics, and focused on the popular music genre (both rock and rap) from the perspective of cultural studies. The whole part on rap music (around half of the book chapter) is from the new research I did after graduation. I think this is probably a common experience in revising the old chapters. Doing research is a gradual process and some issues need time and patience to get settled. I had to exclude some issues I was struggling with while writing the dissertation, but now with new researches coming out, I was able to figure out a way to explain those issues and include them in my book.

    For the two new chapters, the Language Log readers may be interested in the following summaries from my book introduction:

    Chapter 1, “A Historical Review of the Discourse of the Local in Twentieth-Century China,” reviews the debates over the nature of fangyan vis-a-vis a unified national language, and explores the discourse of the local in the Chinese nation-building process. Beginning in the late Qing period, I examine Lao Naixuan’s “Simplified Script” (jianzi) system and Zhang Taiyan’s scholarly book New Dialect (Xin fangyan). Next I discuss the arguments of Hu Shi, Qian Xuantong, Liu Bannong, Zhou Zuoren, and other prominent May Fourth intellectuals on dialect and dialect literature in the baihua vernacular movement, including the folk song collection movement. Next, I examine the ambivalent attitudes of Qu Qiubai, Lu Xun, and other leftist intellectuals towards dialect, dialectal Latinization, and dialect writing during the mass language discussion of 1934 and the Latinized New Writing movement that started in the 1930s. Finally I take up the “national forms” debate of the late 1930s and early 1940s, in which the issue of local language was closely associated with the central topics of “local forms” and “folk forms” in their relationships with the new modern national forms. This chapter helps situate my research on contemporary China in the larger historical context.

    Chapter 8, “Multiplicity in Mainstream Studio Films in Local Languages,” surveys commercial mainstream films rendered in local languages since 2000. First, I explore an unusual use of local language to convey psychological subjectivity in Lu Chuan’s Missing Gun (Xun qiang, 2002), which is distinct from the documentary-realist aesthetics that local language usually serves in contemporary Chinese art films. While this may be a divergence from many films of the so-called Sixth Generation independent directors, there is much similarity between this film and Jiang Wen’s banned Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi laile, 1999), in Tangshan Mandarin. Second, I discuss the predominant use of local language to portray “little characters” (xiao renwu) in mainstream films. While the “marginal characters” associated with local languages in underground films are usually silent, the “little characters” speaking local languages in mainstream films are rather talkative. Taking Guan Hu’s made-for-TV film Minibus (Shangche zouba, 2000) as an example, I argue that the peasant image portrayed in mainstream media is very different from the stubborn, silent image of Chinese peasants presented in films that reach Western audiences. Third, taking Ning Hao’s Crazy Stone as an example, I discuss the use of local language in recent comedy films, a dominant mainstream genre. Finally, I explore the regional imbalance in audience reception of recent low-budget comedy films, arguing that these films may represent a new development in Chinese cinema, namely regionalization or localization.

    So although it may seem I only added two new chapters, actually roughly half of the book (probably 450 pages in the word version) is new and different from the dissertation.

    Finally, for the Introduction/Conclusion, I rewrote most of the parts. For example, in Introduction, I did a brief review of the translation issue of fangyan (language/dialect/typolect?) and the new discipline Sinophone Studies’ take on fangyan. It’s exciting that my book participates in the recent academic trend of engagement with and rethinking of the issues of Chinese language, Chineseness, and China.

    Thanks again for your interest in my book and my research. I’d welcome your comments and reviews. I can be reached at

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