Shanghai dialect locked in tug of war with Mandarin

A scene from New Old Uncle, one of the most popular TV programs in Shanghai, which until recently was presented in the local dialect. Gao Erqiang / China Daily

By Xu Junqian in Shanghai
BEIJING, Feb. 28 — The term Lao Niang Jiu, 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 best-known 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 Wan-qing, 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 dialect-friendly 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.[db:内容2]

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