Is Shanghainese making a come-back?
December 15, 2009
We’re working on a piece about Shanghai’s local dialect, so we drove out to deepest Pudong to visit the Modern Baby kindergarten. Opened three years ago, by Ling Jie, it was the first kindergarten in the city to teach its pupils Shanghainese. The kids spend three days a week being taught in Mandarin, while Wednesday is Shanghainese day and Friday is English day. In each class, there is a Mandarin teacher and a Shanghainese teacher, who cajoles the children along in roll call and with other parts of their day. I was surprised to hear that even names are pronounced differently in Shanghainese. My Mandarin name, Ma Qian, which means Humble Horse, is Mo Qie.
Ling Jie told us that she had the idea after discovering that her own 12 year old son, a native Shanghailander, couldn’t speak the local dialect. His nanny, of course, was from outside Shanghai and so she spoke to him in Mandarin. Ling Jie and her husband spoke to each other in Shanghainese, but not to their son. She also said 60 per cent of his classmates were similarly mute. It was important to her, as a Shanghainese, to do something about it, and there remains a huge pride about the city’s dialect. Mrs Ling explained how Mandarin had deliberately simplified its language while Shanghainese remained descriptive and idiomatic, with many different ways of saying something. Instead of Hao (good) and Feichang Hao (very good), there are a range of Shanghainese words to convey everything from sparklingly brilliant to excellent or amazing.
After years of insisting that standard Mandarin was the only tongue worth having, the city government is now supporting Shanghainese and Shanghai culture. But it is still impossible to find Shanghainese spoken in any junior, middle or senior schools. With such a large population of migrants in Shanghai, teaching in Shanghainese is seen as divisive. Which may be precisely the reason that the locals are suddenly falling back in love with the dialect. With many Shanghainese growing increasingly resentful of the waidiren (the people from outside the city) who arrive to take their jobs and display country-bumpkin ignorance, it makes perfect sense to start communicating once again in a language that can only be understood by real insiders.*
* According to Qian Nairong, a professor of linguistics who we interviewed earlier this year, it can take up to a year for a Chinese from elsewhere to assimilate Shanghainese, and that’s with total immersion.