Shanghai struggles to save disappearing language

Shanghai struggles to save disappearing language

The Shanghai government is facing a problem it never thought it would have: finding Shanghainese speakers
14 million people might think they speak Shanghainese, but the local government trying to find "pure" speakers would disagree.

Shanghainese, the language that separates the true Shanghaining from just about everyone else, seems to be on its way out, or at least morphing into something even more garbled, according to the local government. 

Shanghaiist picked up a report from Shanghai Daily that the city has been trying to recruit “pure Shanghai dialect speakers" but their efforts have "stumbled due to a lack of qualified candidates.” 

According to the report, only two of 13 recruitment sites set up have found “pure” speakers -- that’s out of an estimated 14 million people who speak the language. 

Shanghainese is a dialect of Wu Chinese, and like other Wu dialects, is largely unintelligible to speakers of other Chinese dialects such as standard Mandarin. 

The city is now trying to preserve the language for research, preservation and promotion activities, a 180-degree change from a national push in the 1990s that tried to eliminate the local dialect, banning its use in the media and in school. 

Comedian Zhou Libo and Professor Qian Nairong are two people who have hit headlines recently for championing the Shanghainese dialect.

On, one of the most popular Chinese online communities, Chinese netizens expressed their concerns about losing local dialects. Many are afraid this represents not only the loss of a dialect, but also the loss of the local culture. 

“The variety of dialects in China are important culture relics and should be preserved. If Shanghai dialect becomes extinct one day, Shanghai will lose its special character,” writes Junnanren on 

Although Shanghainese is often seen as a way for Shanghainese to separate themselves from "waidiren," Chinese people born outside of Shanghai, even some non-Shanghainese online users would like to preserve the local language.

“This is sad, but the loss of a local dialect is not just a problem in Shanghai, but also a problem of the whole south China where there are many local dialects,” posts Laisinanning on Kuandaishan. “If there are no actions taken, it’s just a matter of time that all dialects in southern China will be extinct, including Shanghainese.”

Shanghai’s next step? Putting out a call to local media to help find "pure" native speakers. Maybe they should just ask Professor Qian Nairong for help.

If you want to hear what real Shanghainese sounds like, the Shanghai city government has set up a page dedicated to the language with sound clips.