A film in Shanghai dialect is a surprise hit in China

a film in shanghai dialect is a surprise hit in china scaled
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THERE ARE several reasons why “Aiqing Shenhua”, a new film released on Christmas Eve in Chinese cinemas, has surprised movie buffs. One is that the movie, whose English title is “B for Busy”, is a tender portrayal of relationships among a group of middle-aged Shanghai urbanites, yet stars Xu Zheng, a veteran actor more famous for raucous comedies. Another is that such a film, produced on a tiny budget and heavy on dialogue, with not a car chase or gun-battle in sight, has succeeded at the box office, so far earning 242m yuan ($38m).

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The biggest surprise of all is that the film is shot almost entirely in Shanghainese, a language spoken by just 14m people. It is one of the Wu languages of eastern China, many of which are mutually comprehensible, with 80m speakers altogether. But that still makes the film unintelligible to people outside the region, necessitating subtitles in Mandarin, the official national language. This runs against a national policy promoting Mandarin and limiting the use of what China’s government insists on calling “dialects”, but which many linguists consider separate languages.

That policy has been implemented unevenly, and a small number of non-Mandarin films have been made since the 1990s. In 2016 David Moser, an American linguist, wrote in his book, “A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language”, that authorities “had never really resolved the long-standing question” of whether Mandarin should displace regional dialects. Today, he says, occasional films do sneak through, but leaders’ actions suggest “they want the dialects to die out eventually”.

Such actions include restrictions on using dialects on prime-time television, as well as enforcement of Mandarin-only rules in schools. People live-streaming on social media in Cantonese have had their accounts temporarily blocked and been asked to “please speak Mandarin”.

Officials say their pro-Mandarin policies foster national unity and widen access to education. Maybe so, but many people fret that local languages and cultures may wither as a result. By 2020 81% of China’s population spoke Mandarin, a rise of 28 percentage points from 20 years before.

Though their use is declining among young people, Cantonese and Shanghainese are what linguists call “prestige dialects”, spoken in influential regions and so less vulnerable. Languages spoken by ethnic minorities, such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur, are more at risk. Many speakers resent Chinese rule. Efforts to assimilate them, linguistically and otherwise, are often coercive and have less to do with improving opportunity than with crushing their spirits.

B for Busy” has been a rare bright spot for local languages. Fang Xu, of the University of California, Berkeley, author of “Silencing Shanghai: Language and Identity in Urban China”, says schools taught many subjects in Shanghainese into the 1990s. “I memorised the periodic table in Shanghai dialect,” she recalls, but says schools wanting to preserve it now need permission to teach it as an extra-curricular subject.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Speaking in tongues”

The Economist

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