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Shanghainese - The Language of Shanghai

Different Than Mandarin?

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Shanghai is the largest city in the People's Republic of China (PRC), with a population of more than 23 million people. It is a major cultural and financial center and is an important port for container shipments.

The Chinese characters for this city are 上海, which is pronounced Shànghǎi. The first character 上 (shàng) means "on", and the second character 海 (hǎi) means "ocean". The name 上海 (Shànghǎi) adequately describes the location of this city, since it is a port city on the mouth of the Yangtze River by the East China Sea.

Since Shanghai is in the PRC, the official language of the city is Standard Mandarin Chinese, also known as Putonghua. However, the traditional language of the Shanghai region is Shanghainese, which is a dialect of Wu Chinese which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin Chinese.

Shanghainese is spoken by about 14 million people. It has retained its cultural significance for the Shanghai region, despite the introduction of Mandarin Chinese as the official language in 1949.

For many years, Shanghainese was banned from primary and secondary schools, with the result that many young residents of Shanghai do not speak the language. Recently, however, there has been a movement to protect the language and to reintroduce it into the education system.

Mandarin & Shanghainese

Mandarin and Shanghainese are distinct languages which are mutually unintelligible. Some of the differences include:

  • Number of tones (5 in Shanghainese vs. 4 tones in Mandarin
  • Voiced initials - not used in Mandarin
  • Changing tones - affects both words and phrases in Shanghainese, but just words in Mandarin

Writing

Chinese characters are used to write Shanghainese, as they are many other Chinese variants. The written language is one of the most important factors in unifying the various Chinese cultures, since it can be read by most Chinese, regardless of their spoken language. The primary exception to this is the split between traditional and simplified Chinese characters. Simplified Chinese characters were introduced by the PRC in the 1950s, and can differ greatly from the traditional Chinese characters still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and many overseas Chinese communities. Shanghai, as part of the PRC, uses simplified characters.

Sometimes Chinese characters are used for their Mandarin sounds to write Shanghainese. This type of Shanghainese writing is seen on Internet blog posts and chat rooms as well as in some Shanghainese textbooks.

Protecting Shanghainese

From the early 1990s, the PRC banned Shanghainese from the education system, with the result that many of the young residents of Shanghai no longer speak the language fluently. In recent years, a movement has started to try to preserve the Shanghai language by promoting its cultural roots. The Shanghai government is sponsoring educational programs, and there is a movement to reintroduce Shanghainese education from kindergarten through to university.

Modern Shanghainese

Because the younger generation of Shanghai residents were educated in Mandarin Chinese, the Shanghainese they speak is often mixed with Mandarin words and expressions. This type of Shanghainese is quite different from the language that older generations speak, which has created fears that "real Shanghainese" is a dying language.

Interest in preserving Shanghainese is strong, and many young people, even though they speak a mixture of Mandarin and Shanghainese, see Shanghainese as a badge of distinction.

Shanghai, as one of the most important cities of the PRC, has important cultural and financial ties with the rest of the world, and is using those ties to promote Shanghai culture and the Shanghainese language. And as the largest city of the PRC, Shanghai has potential political influence, which, in a democratic country, would certainly be used to its own advantage.

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