China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA -

The term or “old un­cle”, a well-known char­ac­ter in Shang­hai folk­lore, is fre­quently used by the city’s res­i­dents to de­scribe pry­ing busy­bod­ies who are al­ways ready to med­dle in other people’s af­fairs.

Now, though, Shang­hai’s best­known and most-med­dle­some “old un­cle” has switched to us­ing bro­ken Man­darin, rather than his sig­na­ture col­lo­quial and id­iomatic Shang­hai di­alect, when in­ter­fer­ing in fam­ily af­fairs.

In 2008, New Old Un­cle, a TV pro­gram named af­ter the char­ac­ter and pro­duced by Shang­hai Me­dia Group, was first aired by a lo­cal chan­nel.

It was an im­me­di­ate suc­cess. The ini­tial 30-minute pro­gram, later ex­tended to an hour, fea­tures two sides — usu­ally from the same fam­ily — at­tempt­ing to re­solve a dis­pute. The war­ring fac­tions are over­seen by an am­a­teur me­di­a­tor, usu­ally an ex­pe­ri­enced med­dler from the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

The pro­gram is es­pe­cially pop­u­lar among house­wives cook­ing the fam­ily din­ner. The star me­di­a­tor, Bai Wan­qing, iron­i­cally a 60-some­thing aunt rather than an un­cle, has even been dubbed “China’s Oprah Win­frey”.

But the pro­gram, one of Shang­hai’s most pop­u­lar lo­cal prod­ucts along with the city’s soup dumplings, is los­ing its lo­cal fla­vor be­cause of the change from the Shang­hai di­alect to Man­darin.

In early Jan­uary, the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Press, Pub­li­ca­tion, Ra­dio, Film and Tele­vi­sion, is­sued a no­tice stat­ing that all TV and ra­dio pro­grams must use Man­darin and should avoid di­alects and for­eign lan­guages. The mea­sure was aimed at fur­ther pro­mot­ing the use of Man­darin, or pu­tonghua (“com­mon speech”), and reg­u­lat­ing the use of al­ter­na­tive lan­guages on TV shows. Dis­ap­pear­ing di­alects

It’s not the first time the coun­try’s me­dia reg­u­la­tor has pre­scribed a fa­vored lan­guage for use on TV and ra­dio. But the no­tice, like a stone thrown into still wa­ters, has pro­duced many rip­ples and sparked heated dis­cus­sion about China’s rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing di­alects.

In a phone in­ter­view, Yin Qingyi, the pro­ducer of New Old Un­cle, de­nied that the change of lan­guage on the most-watched TV pro­gram in the south­ern me­trop­o­lis came in re­sponse to the of­fi­cial no­tice. In­stead, Yin called it “a re­flec­tion of re­al­ity”.

“It’s a re­al­ity show. That means the lan­guage spo­ken dur­ing the show is not de­cided by us,” he said. Yin es­ti­mated that 75 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants speak Man­darin as their mother tongue, which means the me­di­a­tors must use the lan­guage too, even though they are mostly Shang­hai na­tives.

Re­search con­ducted by the Shang­hai Sta­tis­tics Bureau in Fe­bru­ary sup­ported Yin’s as­ser­tion. It found that Shang­hai res­i­dents now use Man­darin more fre­quently in their daily lives, to the detri­ment of Shang­hainese.

More than 1,000 res­i­dents aged 13 and older who have lived in the city for more than six months were in­ter­viewed, in­clud­ing both na­tives and new­com­ers. The re­sults showed that while only 3 per­cent of re­spon­dents were un­able to speak Man­darin, 18.6 per­cent didn’t un­der­stand Shang­hainese.

In ad­di­tion, in­ter­vie­wees aged 13 to 20 recorded lower scores in tests de­signed to as­sess their abil­ity to speak and com­pre­hend the Shang­hai di­alect than any other age group. “The re­al­ity may be even worse,” said Qian Cheng, a mem­ber of the Shang­hai com­mit­tee of the Chi­nese People’s Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence and a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate of his home di­alect.

“Young people are giv­ing up the lan­guage, both be­cause they are not good at it — if ca­pa­ble at all — and don’t have to use it of­ten. At the same time, older people are ac­com­mo­dat­ing their off­spring by speak­ing pid­gin Man­darin, which has left the lo­cal tongue un­der an un­prece­dented threat,” said Qian.

Dur­ing the city’s an­nual two ses­sions in Jan­uary, Qian pro­posed that Shang­hai should cre­ate a di­alect­friendly en­vi­ron­ment for Shang­hainese and en­cour­age young people to use the lan­guage more, at least at home.

“If the 20- and 30-some­things desert the lan­guage, it’s highly un­likely that their off­spring will be able to pick up it again,” he said. Rea­sons to be cheer­ful?

But Shen Lei, the an­chor of the pop­u­lar ra­dio talk show A La Shang­hai Ren (We Shang­hai people) painted a less-gloomy pic­ture.

The pro­gram, which has aired on Shang­hai East Ra­dio Sta­tion ev­ery day from 6 to 7 pm for nearly two decades, fea­tures a male and a fe­male an­chor chat­ting about do­mes­tic triv­i­al­i­ties, speak­ing ex­clu­sively in the lo­cal tongue. The show has long been a fa­vorite of of­fice work­ers killing time as they travel home, and fam­i­lies look­ing for en­ter­tain­ment dur­ing din­ner.

“The flu­ency and ac­cu­racy (of spo­ken Shang­hainese) may be de­clin­ing, but there is keen in­ter­est in learn­ing it,” said Shen, who has hosted the show since just af­ter it be­gan in 1995.

At an event hosted by the pro­gram in mid-Jan­uary, chil­dren and adults were in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in a di­alect con­test. The re­sponse was overwhelming: hun­dreds of fam­i­lies es­ti­mated num­ber of di­alects among

China’s 56 eth­nic groups filled the sleek and spa­cious hall of a Shang­hai shop­ping mall, bab­bling and bum­bling as if they were at­tend­ing a lan­guage school.

“Many people are talk­ing about the au­then­tic­ity of the di­alect spo­ken to­day, but I think what mat­ters more is the fact that it’s still be­ing spo­ken. There is also the law of ‘sur­vival-ofthein terms of lin­guis­tics. What is con­sid­ered stan­dard to­day might have been pid­gin decades ago,” said Shen, whose Shang­hainese was “stan­dard­ized” when she stud­ied at the Shang­hai Tra­di­tional Opera School.

Shen added that the pro­gram has been on and off for the past two decades (there is a com­pli­cated bu­reau­cracy by which ra­dio or TV pro­grams ob­tain of­fi­cial ap­proval to use di­alects as of­fi­cial lan­guages), and the sup­port and enthusiasm of the au­di­ence is one of the ma­jor rea­sons for its con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

The 41-year-old Shang­hai na­tive re­called that dur­ing her early years at school, she was cho­sen as the “Man­darin pop­u­lar­izer” in her class, su­per­vis­ing her class­mates in spo­ken Man­darin, both in and out­side the class­room.

“It’s quite in­ter­est­ing to see how the ‘Bei­jing di­alect’

Man­darin, once known as “Bei­jing di­alect”, was first selected as China’s na­tional lan­guage in the 1910’s, be­cause of the “Bei­jing ac­cent be­ing dom­i­nant and com­bin­ing cer­tain el­e­ments of other north­ern and south­ern di­alects.” But it wasn’t un­til the late 1940’s, with the found­ing of the People’s Repub­lic of China, that Man­darin was des­ig­nated as “stan­dard” Chi­nese.

In Oc­to­ber 2000, the Law of the People’s Repub­lic of China on the Stan­dard Spo­ken and Writ­ten Chi­nese Lan­guage was adopted. It reg­u­lated and en­cour­aged the use of Man­darin in the me­dia, ed­u­ca­tion and the pub­lic-ser­vice in­dus­try.

There are about 80 di­alects among China’s 56 eth­nic groups, ac­cord­ing to lin­guist Zhou Youguang. But un­like the less-de­vel­oped re­gions and cities, where the pop­u­la­tion re­mains sta­ble and the di­alect can be passed down through the gen­er­a­tions, Shang­hai has em­braced dream­ers and “gold­min­ers”, people from other cities who have ar­rived in hope of mak­ing a for­tune, from all over the coun­try. That in­flux has led to the lo­cal di­alect be­com­ing marginal­ized.

The pro­tec­tive at­ti­tude to­ward the di­alect has caused of­fence among some new set­tlers in the me­trop­o­lis, who ar­gue that its use alien­ated people from other cities and prov­inces.

In Jan­uary, the Shang­hai Mu­nic­i­pal Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion ini­ti­ated a pi­lot pro­gram to en­cour­age kinder­gartens in the city to “com­bine the teach­ing of the Shang­hai di­alect in the preschool syl­labus”. The pre­ferred method in­volves chil­dren learn­ing tra­di­tional folk rhymes in the di­alect, some­thing the au­thor­i­ties be­lieve will be “less bur­den­some” for Man­darin­speak­ing chil­dren.

How­ever, the no­tice sparked con­tro­versy and ac­cu­sa­tions of “el­e­vat­ing a di­alect above all other lan­guages”. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twit­ter-like so­cial me­dia, the theme “Speak­ing the Shang­hai di­alect in kinder­gartens” has gar­nered more than 133,000 re­sponses. While na­tives have given the pol­icy the thumbs up, some non­na­tives have thumbed their noses at it.

Un­der the user name “Laobusi1930”, one Bei­jing-based ne­ti­zen asked whether it is “so im­por­tant to speak the Shang­hai di­alect”, and saw an aloof­ness among the Shang­hainese-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion. “They even speak Shang­hainese in other cities sim­ply to show off that they come from Shang­hai,” as he put it.

“There is, and should be, no con­flict be­tween Shang­hainese and Man­darin,” said Peng Ke, one of the pro­duc­tion staff of the TV news pro­gram Xin­wen­fang, which un­til re­cently broad­cast daily news in the Shang­hai di­alect

The pro­gram, the first to broad­cast news re­ports in the lo­cal tongue, is highly pop­u­lar. Its rat­ings were far above aver­age af­ter it be­gan broad­cast­ing in Shang­hainese in 2012. But the dif­fi­culty of syn­chro­niz­ing sub­ti­tles led to the re­in­state­ment of Man­darin in Oc­to­ber.

“Shang­hainese is by no means su­pe­rior, nor in­fe­rior, to any other lan­guage. The rea­son we at­tach great im­por­tance to it is that, as a lan­guage, it is on the verge of dy­ing. And it shouldn’t, be­cause it’s more than just a lan­guage,” said Peng.

Liu Jian­mei, who teaches a Shang­hai di­alect course for for­eign stu­dents from Shang­hai Tongji Univer­sity, sug­gested that to main­tain the lan­guage, the govern­ment should make it a com­pul­sory course in the lo­cal school cur­ricu­lum.

How­ever, de­spite claim and coun­ter­claim, it may sim­ply be that the lan­guage is suc­cumb­ing to a nat­u­ral death be­cause some of the younger gen­er­a­tion see no value in learn­ing and main­tain­ing it. Af­ter all, ev­ery year mil­lions of people in Shang­hai and the coun­try vol­un­tar­ily pay sev­eral thou­sand yuan and burn the mid­night oil to study, take ex­ams and gain qual­i­fi­ca­tions through pro­grams such as the In­ter­na­tional English Lan­guage Train­ing Sys­tem and the Test of English as a For­eign Lan­guage.

For Yao Ying, a 26-year-old of­fice worker who hails from Zhe­jiang, the prov­ince that neigh­bors Shang­hai, the city’s na­tive lan­guage of­fers lit­tle of value: “It costs me lit­tle if I don’t un­der­stand Shang­hainese. If I have to spend time and money learn­ing a lan­guage, I’d rather im­prove my English, which might in­crease my chances of land­ing a bet­ter job or even a bet­ter life.” Con­tact the au­thor at xujunqian@chi­nadaily.com.cn


Chil­dren at­tend a di­alect con­test in Shang­hai. Many lo­cals have dis­played a keen in­ter­est in pre­vent­ing Shang­hainese, the lo­cal di­alect, from be­ing re­placed by Man­darin.

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