Family members lavish praise on 6-year-old Victoria Ouyang as she recites a poem in confident Shanghainese. Her relatives’ eyes fill with pride as they listen intently. Young Ouyang is proud of her ability to speak in a dialect that many of her friends cannot. The characteristic tones and intonations of the regional dialect allow Ouyang to feel more connected to her culture and family’s status as Shanghai residents. 

Now a sophomore in college, Victoria’s former Shanghainese fluency has waned. The dialect that once brought her pride is now the source of feelings of regret and isolation to her family in Shanghai. 

“I feel bad that I’m not able to speak Shanghainese and that I’m going to be the last generation in my family that will be able to speak Shanghainese,” says Ouyang. 

Ouyang’s dilemma is indicative of the growing concern among Shanghainese speakers that their dialect will soon disappear. While there are several programs and initiatives in Shanghai and abroad which aim to preserve and promote the dialect, many linguists and Shanghainese speakers feel as if these efforts aren’t enough. To further complicate the issue, the promotion of Shanghainese has also created tension between the non-Shanghainese speaking residents, known to Shanghai residents as “non-locals,” and Shanghainese speakers, or locals. 

The Decline of Shanghainese

The initial decline of the dialect can be traced back to the 1950s when the Chinese government decreed Mandarin as the official national language. The use of Shanghainese was subsequently discouraged in schools, resulting in many children in Shanghai never learning how to speak the language. In an attempt to preserve China’s diverse history and culture, Shanghainese was finally incorporated into school curriculums in 2005. But several factors continue to speed up the dialect’s decline. 

Tianao Gui, a Shanghainese high school student who is passionate about promoting Shanghainese, believes that a lack of awareness among the general public in Shanghai about the importance of preserving Shanghainese further worsens the situation. “Many people, including local Shanghainese residents, don’t think it’s very important to have the next generation speak this dialect because they think using Mandarin or English would be more useful, especially in an international city like Shanghai,” says Gui. 

Brett Sheehan, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Southern California, also attributes the decline of the dialect to Shanghai’s status as a global financial hub. However, he also argues that since Shanghai is a large metropolitan city, it has a better chance of successfully preserving its regional dialect. 

“The richer Shanghai is, the more money and resources the city will have to invest into initiatives to promote the dialect,” Sheehan says.

Attempts to Preserve Shanghainese 

In 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Education and the National Language Commission launched a project that surveyed the country’s existing language resources and developed plans to protect endangered Chinese dialects, including Shanghainese. Following this project, the State Language Commission and the Chinese National Commission partnered with UNESCO to adopt the Yuelu Proclamation. The proclamation states that the protection and promotion of linguistic diversity should be a priority for China, especially since “linguistic diversity is ultimately about people’s equal opportunities to access quality education and other basic public services, employment, health, social inclusion and participation in society.” 

While the Chinese government has implemented projects to protect all of China’s minority dialects, the Shanghai municipal government has also made moves to preserve Shanghainese on a local level. In 2014, the city announced that buses and metros in the city would include announcements in Shanghainese in addition to English and Mandarin. Andy Gao, a professor of Linguistics at the University of New South Wales and an expert in language education policy, believes that small-scale initiatives like this are extremely important to the preservation of Shanghainese because “[they] ensure that there is some presence of the Shanghainese dialect in the city.”

 More recently, Shanghainese politicians have pushed more forcefully for increasing the presence of the dialect within the city. Qian Cheng, a deputy to Shanghai People’s Congress, suggests that announcements in Shanghainese should “come before English announcements, be recorded by professionals and not be shorter than the English announcements.” 

In an attempt to preserve the dialect among the younger generation,  the local government also established the Shanghainese Heritage Project (SHP), an initiative that encourages Shanghainese pedagogy in kindergarten. The establishment of the SHP is believed to also help prevent the spread of “New Shanghainese,” a variant of the dialect often spoken by the younger generation that includes more English and Mandarin vocabulary. 

Even though the local government has heavily promoted the SHP, Gao believes that trying to interfere with the evolution of the dialect may not be the most effective strategy in preserving Shanghainese. “This shift in language reflects what is going on in people’s  lives and that is a completely natural process. What I’m more concerned about now is the disappearance of the entire Shanghainese dialect itself,” says Gao.

While initiatives to promote Shanghainese have allowed Shanghai locals to feel more connected to their language and culture, it has also caused feelings of isolation and resentment among non-locals and non-Shanghainese speakers. 

Conflict between locals and non-locals

Despite its status as a dying language, Shanghainese still retains a high level of prestige in Shanghai. In an article for the Global Times, journalist Zeiling Chen shares her experience as a non-Shanghainese speaker living in Shanghai. 

“While interning at another local newspaper two years ago, I felt quite alienated from my colleagues, who could all speak Shanghainese. For some reason, they refused to switch to Putonghua [Mandarin] in order to let me join in their conversations and meetings,” says Chen. 

This preference for Shanghainese in the workplace and casual conversation can be attributed to Shanghai’s social hierarchy. For years, the people who boasted the most wealth and influence in the city were business leaders. Since much of their networking was carried out in Shanghainese, naturally the dialect became associated with prestige and success. 

“[Shanghai] continues to be an elitist place. There is this stereotype that I don’t believe is 100 percent accurate, but I’ve definitely seen it be played out that Shanghainese people think they’re better than [non-locals]. There is definitely this element of Shanghai supremacy,” says Stephanie Yu, a Shanghainese-American college student who attends Pomona College. “People from other provinces in China are familiar with this stereotype that they are looked down upon by the Shanghainese people.” 

While this preference for Shanghainese in certain settings may seem harmless, it has become the cause of tension between Shanghai locals and non-locals. And, as efforts to promote Shanghainese continue to strengthen, the rift between the two groups only continues to grow. 

Gao specifically attributes initiatives like the Shanghainese Heritage Project to further widening the divide between locals and non-locals. In an article Gao wrote analyzing the impact of the Shanghainese Heritage Project, he states that “the promotion of Shanghainese in kindergartens could be seen by disenfranchised migrants as one of the measures of strengthened [migrant] management; a lever of dis-citizenship that prevents ‘non-local’ children from fully participating [society].” 

While the promotion of Shanghainese does not aim to isolate and ostracize non-locals and the non-Shanghainese-speaking population, it is an inevitable after-effect, especially considering the nature of Shanghainese society. 

Looking Forward

There are two important questions to consider when looking at the future of Shanghainese. How can we protect Shanghainese from going extinct, and how can this be achieved without isolating non-locals in Shanghai? While putting resources and efforts into preserving Shanghainese is extremely important, it is also necessary to consider how the promotion of a minority dialect in a multi-cultural city in Shanghai impacts non-locals who have no cultural ties to the dialect. 

Gao believes that one of the best things that can be done to address both of these issues is to promote an environment of acceptance and willingness to change among locals and non-locals in Shanghai. “Although people, in general, are fearful of change, [Shanghainese locals] need to recognize the opportunity that the migration process presents and how the synergy between locals and non-locals can help find solutions to bigger problems,” says Gao. 

Yu suggests that teaching parents to “have this awareness [that] kids can learn multiple languages and dialects at once and that language capacity at a young age is so strong” could play an important part in promoting a multilingual society where Shanghainese, Mandarin, and other minority dialects are all spoken. 

“My ideal world, and I believe also the goal of the education of language and culture, is a multilingual, multicultural world where people are able to speak multiple languages and understand each other from different perspectives,” states Yan Zhou, a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles who has expertise in second language pedagogy.

“[While] there is always a gap between the ideal world and reality, preserving local dialects at least provides resources and opportunities for those who are interested to take action, which will also be an asset for the future generations who might make the ideal world happen.” 

While it may seem like protecting the language and culture of Shanghai natives and facilitating inclusion of non-local Shanghainese residents may seem like mutually exclusive goals,  Gao believes they don’t have to be. Shanghai officials can take steps to promote the use of Shanghainese and other minority dialects while creating an environment that encourages change and acceptance of all people. 

Photo credits: Emma Cockerell