Word wizard: The man bringing Shanghainese back to the people

Word wizard: The man bringing Shanghainese back to the people

A 65-year-old professor preserving Shanghai’s local language has become an unlikely popular icon
Qian Nairong 钱乃荣
That's right, you're looking at the most authentic Shanghainese speaker in this city, Prof. Qian Nairong.

Professor Qian Nairong (钱乃荣) might appear to be like any other mild-mannered professor. But get him talking about his passion, Shanghainese, and it becomes obvious why he has become one of the city's newest social heroes. His projects to promote the use of Shanghainese have made him a local legend: a comprehensive Shanghai dialect dictionary and a, excuse us, the, Shanghainese input method -- think pinyin for Shanghai dialect. Not just for lingaphiles, these books are saving Shanghai's native tongue, getting more and more Shanghai residents using their local language. 

Rarely are university professors pop culture icons. But with his new books on the way and popular columns (Shanghaining and East Day), Qian Nairong has become one of the ultimate symbols of Shanghai. 

The popularization of Mandarin doesn’t equal to the ban of dialects. It doesn’t make Mandarin a more civilized language either. — Qian Nairong, professor and linguist

The Shanghainese advocate

Qian Nairong lives in a small house cluttered with books, newspapers, vintage LPs and ticking clocks (yes, lots of them). It's in this dimly lit locale that he crafted the two projects that made him famous -- the Shanghai dialect dictionary, the first of its kind to standardize the language, and a never-before used Shanghainese input method.

A professor at College of Liberal Arts of Shanghai University, Qian Nairong is currently busy with three new book projects, two on learning Shanghainese and another one showcasing his vintage candy paper collection (everyone needs a hobby, right?). While working on those he also influences daily conversations with his new biweekly column in the popular Xinmin Evening News written in -- and about -- Shanghainese. 

“The column is so well received that my editor is considering pushing it to a whole page,” says Qian. “A lot of Shanghainese want to write in Shanghai dialect, but they don’t know the correct characters. This column is a method to teach and encourage people.”

Qian Nairong (钱乃荣), dialect defender

Born in Shanghai in 1940s, Qian Nairong has grown up speaking Shanghainese and is a die-hard fan of the local culture connected to the dialect. He did his master's research at Fudan University on Wuyu (the language group Shanghainese falls in) in the early 1980s. 

With government campaign to popularize Mandarin in Shanghai starting in 1992, locals experienced an onslaught of restrictive regulations concerning the use of Shanghainese. Schools banned students from speaking Shanghainese and soon there were few local dialect programs on TV or the radio. Due to the push in the early 1990s, according to Qian Nairong, most children who went to school after then speak poor Shanghainese at best. Mandarin has become the primary language when the locals go out, and even when speaking with other Shanghai folk, many still feel there's a social stigma attached to speaking their local dialect.

Qian Nairong 钱乃荣Professor Qian likes any culture forms derived from Shanghainese and pop music.

“The Wuyu and Shanghainese cultures were very prosperous from late Qing dynasty to 1940s. It was a fashion to speak, write and perform in Shanghainese,” Qian Nairong says. Even in the face of the government program push, he explains that “the popularization of Mandarin doesn’t equal the ban of dialects. It doesn’t make Mandarin a more civilized language either. Promoting dialects is not a narrow-minded localism, as it has been labeled by some netizens.” 

Locals in action

Despite its critics, with the success of Qian's and others' work on the Shanghai dialect, the language is now back in the popular consciousness. 

Besides Qian, another visible figure promoting the use of Shanghainese is Zhou Libo, who performs his stand-up comedy in Shanghainese, and who also published a local-language book, "Hui Dictionary." 

"There are all kinds of different cultures building up Shanghai, and this city has become one of the best in the country. And because it’s the best, there are many misunderstandings about it in China," say Zhou Libo. "I want to say something true and good about what Shanghai really is. I’m just a supporter of Shanghai culture. I really love this city -- I’m so proud of being Shanghainese."

Additionally, local indie musician and director Eheart Chen devotes almost half of his upcoming album "Once Upon a Time in Magic City" to songs with Shanghainese lyrics. And of course there is the popular website ShanghaiNing which, among other things, promotes Shanghainese rap.

“We combine the old with the new, tradition with innovation, local with international, to make Shanghai dialect and culture interesting to people,” says Qi Yehua, event marketing manager of ShanghaiNing.com. “We invited professor Qian to blog on our site in late 2009. It’s liked by local literati. Young people find it amusing and informative in learning the original of some Shanghai expressions.”

Shanghainese ABCs: These words and phrases are the first step on your way to be a Shanghainese “Dashan”.
  • 我 (ngu): I
  • 侬 (nong): you
  • 搿搭 (ghekdak): here
  • 埃面 (emi): there
  • 介 (ga): very
  • 轧朋友 (ghakbhangyhou): dating
  • 白相 (bhakxiang): play
  • 出洋相 (cakyhangxiang): make fool of someone
  • 外国人 (nga gok nin), 老外 (lao nga): foreigner
  • 上海人 (shang he nin): Shanghaining
Qian Nairong’s "Shanghai Dialect Dictionary" (with an audio Shanghainese tutorial course) can be bought in all major book stores as well as on www.amazon.cn. The Shanghainese input method can be downloaded for free here.

Tracy You is a bilingual journalist based in Shanghai and has worked for several publications including as Editor for CNN Travel. She's a fan of history, British TV and Wii Guitar Hero.

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