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Wu dialects

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Wu dialects

Chinese characters
Native to China; and overseas Chinese in urban emigrant communities originating from Wu speaking areas of China – particularly United States (New York City)
Region Shanghai; most of Zhejiang province; southern Jiangsu province; Xuancheng prefecture-level city of Anhui province; Shangrao County, Guangfeng County and Yushan County, Jiangxi province; Pucheng County, Fujian province; North Point, Hong Kong
Ethnicity Wu (Han Chinese)
Native speakers million  (2007)
Language family
Oujiang (Wenzhou)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 wuu
Linguist List
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Wu (simplified Chinese: 吴语; traditional Chinese: 吳語; pinyin: Wú yǔ, Suzhou Wu:  [ŋ˨˦ ɲy˧˩]) is a grouping of linguistically similar and historically related varieties of spoken Chinese also known as a dialect family.[dubious ] Chinese varieties classified as Wu are primarily spoken in Zhejiang province, the municipality of Shanghai, and southern Jiangsu province.

Major Wu dialects include those of Shanghai, Suzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Jinhua, and Yongkang. Wu speakers such as Chiang Kai-shek, Lu Xun, and Cai Yuanpei occupy places of great significance in modern Chinese culture. Wu can also be found in the language of Yueju opera which is second in national popularity only to Peking Opera as well as in the performances of the nationally popular entertainer Zhou Libo. Wu is also spoken in a large number of diaspora communities, with significant centers of immigration originating from Qingtian and Wenzhou.

Suzhou has traditionally been the linguistic center of the Wu languages and was likely the first place a distinct variety of Chinese known as Wu developed. Suzhou Wu is widely considered to be the most linguistically representative of the family. It was mostly the basis of the Wu koine that developed in Shanghai leading to the formation of modern Shanghainese which as a center of economic power and possessing the largest population of Wu speakers has attracted the most attention. Because of the influence of Shanghainese, Wu is often inaccurately referred to in English as simply "Shanghainese" when introducing the dialect family to non-specialists. Wu is the more accurate terminology for the greater grouping that the Shanghai dialect is part of; other less precise terms include "Jiangnan speech" (江南話), "Jiangzhe (Jiangsu-Zhejiang) speech" (江浙話), and less commonly "Wuyue speech" (吳越語).

This dialect family (and especially Southern Wu) is well-known among linguists and sinologists as being one of the most internally diverse among the spoken Chinese language families with very little mutual intelligibility among varieties within the family. Among speakers of other Chinese varieties, Wu is often subjectively judged to be soft, light, and flowing. There is an idiom in Chinese that specifically describes these qualities of Wu speech: Wú nóng ruǎn yǔ (吴侬软语), which literally means "the tender speech of Wu." On the other hand, some Wu varieties like Wenzhounese have gained notoriety for their incomprehensibility to both Wu and non-Wu speakers alike, so much so that Wenzhounese was used during the Second World War to avoid Japanese interception.

Along with Germanic languages, Wu dialects have the largest vowel quality inventories in the world. The Dônđäc or Jinhui dialect spoken in Shanghai's Fengxian District has 20 vowel qualities, the most among all world languages.[2][3]

Wu dialects are typified linguistically as having preserved the voiced initials of Middle Chinese, having a majority of Middle Chinese tones undergo a register split, and preserving a checked tone typically terminating in a glottal stop,[4] although some dialects maintain the tone without the stop and certain dialects of Southern Wu have undergone or are starting to undergo a process of devoicing. The historical relations which determine Wu classification primarily consist in two main factors: firstly, geography, both in terms of physical geography and distance south or away from Mandarin, that is Wu dialects are part of a Wu-Min dialect continuum from southern Jiangsu to southern Fujian and Chaozhou. The second factor is the drawing of historical administrative boundaries which in addition to physical barriers limit mobility and in the majority of cases more or less determine the boundary of a Wu dialect.

Wu Chinese along with Min are also of great significance to historical linguists due their retention of many ancient features. These two families have proven pivotal in determining the phonetic history of the Chinese language.

More pressing concerns of the present are those of dialect preservation. Many within and without the country fear that the increased usage of Mandarin may eventually supplant the languages altogether which have no written form, legal protection, or official status and are officially barred from use in public discourse. However, many analysts believe that a stable state of diglossia will endure for at least several generations if not indefinitely.

Geographic distribution

Wu Varieties are spoken in most of Zhejiang province, the municipality of Shanghai, southern Jiangsu province, as well as smaller parts of Anhui, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces.[5] Many are located in the lower Yangzi valley.[6][7]


The average speaker of a Wu dialect is mostly unaware of this name for the language they speak since the term Wu is a relatively recent classificatory imposition on what are less clearly defined and highly heterogeneous natural forms. Saying one speaks Wu is akin to saying one speaks a Germanic language. It is not a particularly defined entity like Standard Mandarin or Hochdeutsch.

Most speakers are only vaguely aware of their local language's affinities with other similarly classified dialects and will generally only refer to their local Wu variety rather than the dialect family. They do this by affixing the native pronunciation of the word '' huà to their location's endonym, with huà pronounced with the dialects xia/ initial, typically /ɦ/, often a glide /w/, and a (often rounded) back or low vowel taking tone II, tone IIb or whatever tone tone II or IIb has merged with. For example 溫州話 Wēnzhōuhuà is used for Wenzhounese. Affixing '言話' yánhuà, alternatively written 閒話 xiánhuà, is also common and more typical of the Taihu division, as in 嘉興言話 Jiāxīngyánhuà or 嘉興閒話 Jiāxīngxiánhuà for Jiaxing dialect.

  • Wu (simplified Chinese: 吴语; traditional Chinese: 吳語; pinyin: Wú yǔ, 'Wu language'): the formal name and standard reference in dialectology literature.
  • Wu dialects (simplified Chinese: 吴语方言; traditional Chinese: 吳語方言; pinyin: Wú yǔ fāngyán, can be interpreted as either "dialects of the Wu language" or "Chinese dialects in the Wu family"): another scholastic term.
  • Northern Wu (simplified Chinese: 北部吴语; traditional Chinese: 北部吳語; pinyin: Běibù Wúyǔ): Wu typically spoken in the north of Zhejiang, Shanghai, and parts of Jiangsu, comprising the Taihu and usually the Taizhou divisions. It by default includes the Xuanzhou division in Anhui as well, however this division is often neglected in Northern Wu discussions.
  • Southern Wu (simplified Chinese: 南部吴语; traditional Chinese: 南部吳語; pinyin: Nánbù Wúyǔ): Wu spoken in southern Zhejiang and periphery, comprising the Oujiang, Wuzhou, and Chuqu divisions.
  • Western Wu (simplified Chinese: 西部吴语; traditional Chinese: 西部吳語; pinyin: Xībù Wúyǔ): A term gaining in usage[8] as a synonym for the Xuanzhou division and modeled after the previous two terms since the Xuanzhou division is less representative of Northern Wu.
  • Shanghainese (simplified Chinese: 上海话/上海言话; traditional Chinese: 上海話/上海言話; pinyin: Shànghǎihuà/Shànghǎiyánhuà): is also a very common name, used because Shanghai is the most well-known city in the Wu-speaking region, and most people are unfamiliar with the term Wu Chinese. The use of the term Shanghainese for referring to the family is more typically used outside of China and in simplified introductions to the areas where it's spoken or to other similar topics, for example one might encounter sentences like "They speak a kind of Shanghainese in Ningbo." The term Shanghainese is never used by serious linguists to refer to anything but the Shanghai dialect.
  • Wuyue language (simplified Chinese: 吴越语; traditional Chinese: 吳越語; pinyin: Wúyuèyǔ "the language of Wu and Yue"): an ancient name, now seldom used, referring to the language(s) spoken in the ancient states of Wu, Yue, and Wuyue or the general region where they were located and by extension the modern forms of the language(s) spoken there. It was also used as an older term for what is now simply known as Wu Chinese. Initially, some dialectologists had grouped the Wu dialects in Jiangsu under the term 吳語 Wúyǔ where the ancient Wu kingdom had been located and the Wu dialects in Zhejiang under the term 越語 Yuèyǔ where the ancient Yue kingdom had been located. These were coined however for purely historical reasons. Today, most dialectologists consider the Wu dialects in northern Zhejiang far more similar to those of southern Jiangsu than to those of southern Zhejiang, so this terminology is no longer appropriate from a linguistic perspective. As a result, the terms Southern and Northern Wu have become more and more common in dialectology literature to differentiate between those in Jiangsu and the northern half of Zhejiang and those in southern Zhejiang and its Wu-speaking periphery.
  • Jiangnan language (simplified Chinese: 江南话; traditional Chinese: 江南話; pinyin: Jiāngnánhuà): meaning the language of the area south of the Yangtze, used because most of the Wu speakers live south of the Yangtze River in an area called Jiangnan.
  • Kiang-Che or Jiangzhe language (simplified Chinese: 江浙话; traditional Chinese: 江浙話; pinyin: Jiāngzhèhuà): meaning "the speech of Jiangsu and Zhejiang".


The modern Wu language can be traced back to the ancient Wu and Yue peoples centred around what is now southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang. The Japanese Go-on (呉音 goon?, pinyin: Wú yīn) readings of Chinese characters (obtained from the Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period) is from the same region of China where Wu is spoken today, however the readings do not necessarily reflect the pronunciation of Wu Chinese. Wu Chinese itself has a history of more than 2,500 years, dating back to the Chinese settlement of the region in the Spring and Autumn Period, however there are only very minor traces from these earlier periods. The language of today is wholly descendant from the Middle Chinese of the Sui-Tang era (6-8th centuries AD), as is true of all contemporary Chinese dialects except Min Chinese.[9]

Historic range

According to records of the Eastern Jin, the earliest known dialect of Nanjing was an ancient Wu dialect. After the Wu Hu uprising, the Jin Emperor and many northern Chinese fled south, establishing the new capital Jiankang in what is modern day Nanjing. It was during this time that the ancient Wu of Nanjing was replaced by Jianghuai Mandarin.[10]

One prominent historical speaker of Wu dialect was Emperor Yangdi of the Sui dynasty and his Empress Xiao (Yang). Emperor Xuan of Western Liang, a member of Emperor Wu of Liang's court, was Empress Xiao's grandfather and he most likely learned Wu dialect at Jiankang.[11][12]

A "ballad-narrative" (說晿詞話) known as "The story of Xue Rengui crossing the sea and Pacifying Liao" (薛仁貴跨海征遼故事), which is about the Tang dynasty hero Xue Rengui[13] is believed to been written in the Suzhou dialect of Wu.[14]


Like most other branches of Chinese, Wu mostly descends from Middle Chinese which more or less supplanted the pre-existing language. This language, called Old Wu-Min, was one of the earliest splits from Northern Chinese and is still preserved in the Min dialects of Fujian which also originate from this language. Wu dialects like Min retain many ancient characteristics and are considered some of the most historic dialects. Wu was however more heavily influenced by northern or Mandarin Chinese throughout its development than Min, as for example in its lenition of unreleased /k/, /t/, /p/ finals into glottal stops which also happened in the Mandarin dialects before disappearing in most others. Some Mandarin dialects especially ones farther south still possess the glottal stops while some Wu dialects have entirely lost them. Most Min dialects however completely retain the series. These developments in Wu are likely areal influences due to its geographical closeness to North China, the ease of transport with many water ways in the north, the placement of the Southern Song capital in Hangzhou, as well as to the high rate of education in this region.

As early as the time of Guo Pu (276-324), speakers easily perceived differences between dialects in different parts of China including the area where Wu dialects are spoken today.[15]

During the Wu Hu uprising and the Disaster of Yongjia in 311, the region became heavily inundated by settlers from Northern China, mostly coming from what is now northern Jiangsu province and Shandong province, with smaller numbers of settlers coming from the Central Plains. From the 300s to the 400s AD Northern people moved into Wu areas, adding characteristics to the lexicon of Northern Wu, traces of which can still be found in Northern Wu varieties today.[16]

During the time between Ming Dynasty and early Republican era, the main characteristics of modern Wu were formed. The Suzhou dialect became the most influential, and many dialectologists use it in citing examples of Wu.

During the Ming dynasty Wu speakers moved into Jianghuai Mandarin speaking regions, influencing the Tairu and Tongtai dialects of Jianghuai.[17]

After the Taiping Rebellion at the end of the Qing dynasty, in which the Wu-speaking region was devastated by war, Shanghai was inundated with migrants from other parts of the Wu-speaking area. This greatly affected the dialect of Shanghai, bringing, for example, influence from the Ningbo dialect to a dialect which, at least within the walled city of Shanghai, was almost identical to the Suzhou dialect. As a result of the population boom, in the first half of the 20th century, Shanghainese became almost a regional lingua franca within the region eclipsing the status of the Suzhou dialect. However due to its pastiche of features from different languages, it is rarely used to infer historical information about the Wu dialect family and is less representative of Wu than the Suzhou dialect.


After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the strong promotion of Mandarin in the Wu-speaking region yet again influenced the development of the language. Wu was gradually excluded from most modern media and schools. Public organizations were required to use Mandarin. With the influx of a migrant non Wu-speaking population, the near total conversion of public media and organizations to the exclusive use of Mandarin as well as radical Mandarin promotion measures, the modernization and standardization of or literacy in Wu dialects became improbable and left them more prone to Mandarinization. The promotion measures, which at present mostly consist of signs like the one pictured, are primarily aimed at limiting the usage of dialect in conducting public or administrative affairs though it, like the smoking ban, is commonly violated and it's not so uncommon to hear people speaking dialect in a government office or a bank. The usage of dialect in all other spheres is officially tolerated. Standardization of dialects however may be perceived as a precursor to possible regionalism, so this too would most likely be deterred. On the other hand, few speakers consider their dialect important enough to be written or standardized. To most speakers, dialects are in essence a wholly oral phenomenon.

It is not uncommon to encounter children who grew up with a regional variant of Mandarin as their mother tongue with little or no fluency in a Wu variety at all.[18] However this is primarily when parents are speakers of different dialects and communicate in Mandarin and more rarely due to the parents' attitudes towards using dialect which most associate with the warmth of home and family life. Many people have noticed this trend and thus call for preservation and documentation of not only Wu but all Chinese dialects. The first major attempt was the Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects, which surveyed 2,791 locations across the nation including 121 Wu locations (a step up from the two locations in PKU's earlier surveys) and led to the formation of an elaborate database including digital recordings of all locations[19] which is unfortunately not available to the general public. The atlas's editor Cao Zhiyun considers many of these dialects "endangered" and has introduced the term 濒危方言 bīnwēi fāngyán or "endangered dialects" into the Chinese language to arouse people's attention to the issue,[20] while others try to draw attention to how the dialects fall under the scope of UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage and as such deserve to be preserved and respected.

More TV programs are appearing in Wu varieties, and nearly every town has at least one show in their dialect. They are however no longer permitted to air during prime time.[21] They are generally more playful than serious, and the majority of these shows, such as Hangzhou's 阿六头说新闻 "Old Liutou tells you the news", provide local or regional news in the dialect, but most are limited to fifteen minutes of airtime. Popular video sites such as youku and tudou also host a variety of user-uploaded audio and visual media in many Wu dialects most of which are dialectal TV shows though some are user-created songs and the like. A number of popular books are also appearing to teach people how to speak the Shanghai, Suzhou, and Wenzhou dialects, but they are clearly more playful and entertaining than serious attempts at promoting literacy or standardization.

Jianghuai Mandarin has replaced Wu dialect as the language of multiple counties in Jiangsu. An example of this is Zaicheng Town in Lishui County, both Jianghuai and Wu dialect were spoken in several towns in Lishui, with Wu being spoken by the greater amount of people in more towns than Jianghuai. The Wu dialect is called "old Zaicheng Speech", while the Jianghuai dialect is called "new Zaicheng speech", with Wu dialect being driven rapidly to extinction. Only old people use it to talk to relatives. The Jianghuai dialect was present there since about a century, even though all the surrounding areas around the town are Wu speaking. Jianghuai was always confined inside the town itself until the 1960s, in the present it is overtaking Wu.[22]

Number of speakers

Wu Chinese was once historically dominant north of the Yangtze River and most of what is now Anhui province during the Sui dynasty. Its strength in areas north of the Yangtze vastly declined since the late Tang dynasty until the late Ming dynasty, when the first characteristics of Early Modern Wu were formed. During the early Qing period, Wu speakers represented about 20% of the whole Chinese population. This percentage drastically declined after the Taiping Rebellion devastated the Wu-speaking region and was reduced to about 8% by 1984, when the total number of speakers was estimated to be 77 million.[23]

Diachronic study of Wu

There has been considerable attention drawn to the diachronic study of Wu,[24] especially since the massive disruptions of the previous two centuries and the implementation of Mandarin have likely left an indelible mark on many dialects. This has led many historical linguists and dialectologists to wonder what the dialects would be like if they had continued to develop in isolation. The attention towards hypothetical ancestral forms can be viewed with some scrutiny, since language in general is always prone to exterior influences. Whether a dialect is considered pure or authentic is mostly a matter of taste. Chinese dialects continually interact and influence each other regardless of whether it is a forcibly imposed official dialect or a neighboring one. Indeed, diglossia is the norm throughout most of the world, so it’s only natural that such contact would influence both.


Wu is sometimes considered to be one of the first or most ancient dialects, since the region was the first one settled which was non-contiguous with the other Chinese states. Proto-Wu or Old Wu-Min is also the language from which the Min dialects evolved as the populace migrated farther south, so some knowledge of this language would not only offer insight into the development of these dialects and Sino-Tibetan but also into the indigenous languages of the region knowledge of which would also be invaluable towards establishing the phylogeny of related Asian languages and towards reconstructing them.

History has it that the family of the Duke of Wu (Chinese: 吳太伯; pinyin: Wú tàibó) settled in the area during the Spring and Autumn period bringing along a large section of the population and Chinese administrative practices along with them forming the state of Wu.[25] One can only guess at the linguistic situation of the time. The state of Wu could have been ruled by a Chinese minority along with sinified Yue peoples, and the bulk of the population would have remained Yue until later migrations and absorption into the greater Chinese populace (though many likely fled south as well). Many have wondered about what effect the Yue people's language may have had on the dialect spoken there, since for example names and other social practices in the state of Yue are markedly different from the rest of Chinese civilization.[26]

Karlgren on the other hand notes that the Tang koine was adopted by most speakers in China (except for those in Fujian) with only slight remnants of “vulgar” speech from pre-Tang times which he believed were preserved among the lower classes,[27] albeit this makes many presumptions about Tang China’s class structure and sociolinguistic situation. Most linguists today refer to these remnants as dialectal strata or substrata. Karlgren's basic idea about the impact of the Tang koine is clearly undeniable, and in many ways the koine can be considered the language from which Wu dialects evolved with the earlier language leaving behind a pre-Tang dialectal stratum which itself may have included a substratum from the Yue language(s).

Western dialectologists have found a small handful of words which appear to be part of an Austroasiatic substratum in many Wu and Min dialects. Indeed Mandarin Chinese also possesses some words of Austroasiatic origin such as the original name of the Yangtze river 江 jiāng (Old Chinese *krung compared to Old Vietnamese *krong) which has evolved into the word for river.[28] Min dialects, which were less affected by the koine, definitely appear to possess an Austroasiatic substratum, such as a Min word for shaman or spirit healer such as in Jian’ou Min toŋ³ which appears to be cognate with Vietnames ʔdoŋ², Written Mon doŋ, and Santali dōŋ which all have meanings similar to the Min word.[29]

The most notable examples are the word for person in some Wu varieties as *nong usually written as 儂 nóng in Chinese and the word for wet in many Wu and Min dialects with a /t/ initial which is clearly in no way related to the Chinese word 濕 shī but cognate with Vietnamese đầm. Min dialects notably retain the bilabial nasal coda for this word.

Analysis of the work Song of the Yue Boatman (Chinese: 越人歌; pinyin: Yuèrén Gē), a song in the Yue language transcribed by a Chinese official in Chinese characters, clearly points to a Tai language rather than an Austroasiatic one.[30] Chinese discussion of Wenzhounese often mentions the strong Tai affinities the dialect possesses.[31] The Zhuang languages in Guangxi for example are also Tai, so it would appear that both Tai and Austroasiatic speakers populated southern China before the Chinese expansion. The term Yue was clearly applied indiscriminately to any non-Chinese in the area which the Chinese encountered. The impact of these languages still appears to be fairly minimal overall.

Though Sino-Tibetan, Tai–Kadai, and Austroasiatic are mostly considered to be unrelated to each other, Laurent Sagart has proposed some possible phylogenetic affinities. Specifically, Tai–Kadai and Sino-Tibetan could possibly both belong to the Austronesian language family (not to be confused with Austroasiatic) due to a scattering of cognates between their ancestral forms, and there is also some, albeit much more tenuous, evidence to suggest that Austroasiatic should also be included, however his views are but one among competing hypotheses about the phylogeny of these languages, see the Sino-Austronesian languages article for some further detail.

It does appear that Wu dialects have had non-Sinitic influences, and many contain words cognate with those of other languages in various strata. These words however are few and far between, and Wu on the whole is most strongly influenced by Tang Chinese rather than any other linguistic influence.

Written sources

There are few written sources of study for Wu, and research is generally concentrated on modern speech forms rather than texts. Written Chinese has always been in the classical form, so Wu speakers would have written in this classical form and read it in a literary form of their dialect based on the phonetic distinctions outlined in rhyme dictionaries. So any text in classical Chinese from the region is not going to give a clear notion about the actual speech of the writer, although there may have been cleverly disguised puns based on local pronunciations which are lost on modern readers or other dialect speakers. Shaoxing opera for example is performed in the Shaoxing dialect, however the register is more literary than oral.

There are still however a number of primary documents available, albeit they do not always give a clear sense of the dialects' historical pronunciation. They do often offer insight into lexical differences. Most of the sources for diachronic Wu study lie in the folk literature of the region. Since the average person was illiterate and the literate were often traditionalists who possibly perceived their local form of Chinese as a degenerated version of a classical ideal, as a result very little was recorded although local vocabulary often sneaks into written records.

The main sources of study are from the Ming and Qing period, since the dialectal differences were not as obvious until Ming times,[32] and lie in historical folk songs, tanci (Chinese: 彈詞; pinyin: táncí, a kind of ballad or lyric poem), local records, legendary stories, baihua novels, educational material produced for the region, notes which have survived among individuals' effects, the linguistic descriptions made by foreigners (primarily by missionaries), and the bibles translated into Wu dialects. These all give glimpses into the past, but except for the bibles, are not so useful for phonological studies. They are however of tremendous importance for diachronic studies of vocabulary and to a lesser extent grammar and syntax.

Ming and Qing Wu

The diachronic study of written Ming and Qing Wu, the time when the dialects began to take on wholly unique features, can be placed into three stages: the Early Period, the Middle Period, and the Late Period.

  • The Early Period (Chinese: 早期; pinyin: zǎoqī begins at the end of the Ming dynasty to the beginning of the Qing in the 17th century, when the first documents showing distinctly Wu characteristics appear. The representative work from this period is the collection of folk songs gathered by Feng Menglong entitled "Shan Ge" 山歌. The majority of early period documents record the Wu varieties of southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang, so any discussion in this section is primarily relevant to Northern Wu or the Taihu division. Along with some other legends and works, the following list contains many of the documents which are either written in Wu or contain parts where dialects are used.
    • San Yan 三言, a novella recorded by Feng Menglong
    • Er Pai 二拍, a novella recorded by Ling Mengchu 凌濛初
    • Xing Shi Yan 型世言, a novella recorded by Lu Renlong 陸人龍
    • Huan Sha Ji 浣紗記, an opera by Liang Chenyu 梁辰魚
    • Mo Hanzhai dingben chuanqi 墨憨齋定本傳奇, Feng Menglong
    • Qing zhong pu 清忠譜
    • Doupeng xianhua 豆棚閒話, early Qing baihua novel
    • Guzhang jue chen 鼓掌絕塵, late Ming novel collection
    • Bo zhong lian 缽中蓮

These works contain a small handful of unique grammatical features some of which are not found in contemporary Mandarin, classical Chinese, or in contemporary Wu dialects. They do contain many of the unique features present in contemporary Wu such as pronouns, but clearly indicate that not all of the earlier unique features of these Wu dialects were carried into the present. These works also possess a number of characters uniquely formed to express features not found in the classical language as well as used some common characters used as phonetic loans (see Chinese character classification) to express other uniquely Wu vocabulary.

  • The Middle Period (Chinese: 中期; pinyin: zhōngqī) took place in the middle of the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. Representative works from this section include the operas (especially kunqu operas) by Qian Decang (錢德蒼) in the collection 綴白裘, and the legends written by Shen Qifeng (沈起鳳) or what are known as 沈氏四種, as well as huge numbers of tanci (彈詞) ballads. Many of the common phenomena found in the Shan Ge are not present in works from this period, but we see the production of many new words and new means of using words.
  • The Late Period (Chinese: 晚期; pinyin: wǎnqī) is the period from late Qing to Republican China, in the 19th and 20th centuries. The representative works from this period are Wu vernacular novels called 蘇白小說 or 吳語小說 such as 海上花列傳 and 九尾龜. Other works include:
    • 海天鴻雪記
    • 九尾狐
    • 商界現形記
    • 吳哥甲集
    • 何典

Wu-speaking writers who wrote in vernacular Mandarin often left traces of their native varieties in their works, as for example can be found in 官場現形記 and 负曝闲谈.

Another source from this period is from the work of the missionary Joseph Edkins who gathered prolific amounts of data and published several educational works on Shanghainese as well as a bible in Shanghainese and a few other major Wu varieties.

Works in this period also saw an explosion of new vocabulary in Wu dialects to describe their ever changing world. This clearly reflects the great social changes which were occurring during the time.[33]

Further reading

There are currently three works available on the topic:

  • 明清吴语和现代方言研究 (Ming and Qing Wu and Modern Dialect Research) by Shi Rujie (石汝杰)
  • 明清文学中的吴语词研究 (Studies of Wu words found in Ming and Qing literature) by Chu Bannong (褚半农)
  • 明清吴语词典 (Dictionary of Ming and Qing Wu) edited by Shi Rujie (石汝杰)


Wu's place within the greater scope of Sinitic varieties is less easily typified than protoypically northern Chinese such as Mandarin or prototypically southern Chinese such as Cantonese which are the two main subgroups of Chinese. Its original classification, along with the other Sinitic varieties, was established in 1937 by Li Fang-Kuei whose boundaries more or less have remained the same[4] and were adopted by Yuan Jiahua in his influential 1961 dialect primer^ .

The sole basis of Li's classification was the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced stops.[4] In the original sense, a Wu dialect was by definition one which retained voiced initials. This definition is problematic considering the devoicing process which has begun in many southern Wu dialects which are surrounded by dialects which retain the ancestral voicing. The loss of voicing in a dialect does not entail that its other features are going to suddenly become dramatically different from the dialects it has had long historic ties with. It furthermore would place Old Xiang in this category. So more elaborate systems have developed, but they still mostly delineate the same regions. So regardless of the justification, the Wu region has been clearly outlined, and Li's boundary in some ways has remained the de facto standard.

In Norman's usage, Wu dialects can be considered "central dialects" or dialects which are clearly in a transition zone containing features which typify both northern and southern Chinese. .[34]


Dialectologists traditionally establish linguistic boundaries based on several overlapping isoglosses of linguistic features. One of the critical historical factors for these boundaries lies in the movement of the population of speakers.[35] This is often determined by the administrative boundaries established during imperial times. As such, imperial boundaries are essential for delineating one dialect from another, and many dialects' isogloss clusters line up perfectly with the county boundaries established in imperial times, albeit some counties contain more than one dialect and others may span several counties.[36] Another factor which influences movement and transportation as well as the establishment of administrative boundaries is geography.[37] Northernmost Zhejiang and Jiangsu are incredibly flat, in the middle of a river delta, and as such are more uniform than the more mountainous regions farther south towards Fujian. The Taihu dialects, like Mandarin in the flat northern plains, is relatively more homogeneous than Southern Wu which has a significantly greater diversity of linguistic forms, and this is likely a direct result of their geography. Coastal dialects also share more featural affinities, likely because the East China Sea provides a means of transportation. The same phenomenon can be seen with Min dialects as well.

Wu is divided into two major groups: Northern Wu and Southern Wu, which are only partially mutually intelligible. Individual words spoken in isolation may be comprehensible among these speakers, but the flowing discourse of everyday life mostly is not. There is another lesser group Western Wu, synonymous with the Xuanzhou division, which has a larger influence from the surrounding Mandarin dialects than Northern Wu, making it typologically much different from the rest of Wu. The following are the traditional classifications of Wu, but one of China's foremost dialectologists Cao Zhiyun (Chinese: 曹志耘; pinyin: Cáo Zhìyún) has rearranged some of the divisions based on the greater corpus of data available now compared to when these divisions were made.

According to Yan (2006), Wu is divided into six dialect areas:

According to Cao,[38] Southern Wu can be divided into three broad divisions (note that he is using the pre-republican boundaries for the cited locations).


The Wu dialects are notable among Chinese languages in having kept the "muddy" (voiced, or more precisely slack voiced) plosives and fricatives of Middle Chinese, such as /b̥/, /d̥/, /ɡ̊/, /z̥/, /v̥/, etc., thus maintaining the three-way contrast of Middle Chinese stop consonants and affricates, /p pʰ b̥/, /tɕ tɕʰ d̥ʑ̊/, etc.[39] (For example, 「凍 痛 洞」 /t tʰ d̥/, where other varieties have only /t tʰ/.) Because Wu dialects never lost these voiced obstruents, the tone split of Middle Chinese is still allophonic, and most dialects have three syllabic tones (though counted as eight in traditional descriptions). In Shanghai, these are reduced to two word tones.

See Suzhou dialect, Hangzhou dialect, Changzhou dialect, Shanghainese, Quzhou dialect, Jiangshan dialect and Wenzhounese for examples of Wu phonology.

Literary and vernacular pronunciations in Shanghainese

Pinyin English translation Literary Vernacular
jiā house tɕia˥˨ ka˥˨
yán face ɦiɪ˩˩˧ ŋʱɛ˩˩˧
yīng cherry ʔiŋ˥˨ ʔã˥˨
xiào filial piety ɕiɔ˧˧˥ hɔ˧˧˥
xué learning ʱjaʔ˨ ʱoʔ˨
thing vəʔ˨ mʱəʔ˨
wǎng web ʱwɑŋ˩˩˧ mʱɑŋ˩˩˧
fèng male phoenix voŋ˩˩˧ boŋ˩˩˧
féi fat vi˩˩˧ bi˩˩˧
sun zəʔ˨ ȵʱiɪʔ˨
rén person zən˩˩˧ ȵʱin˩˩˧
niǎo bird ʔȵiɔ˧˧˥ tiɔ˧˧˥


The pronoun systems of many Wu dialects is complex when it comes to personal and demonstrative pronouns. For example, the first person plural pronoun differs when it is inclusive (including the hearer) and when it is exclusive (excluding the hearer, such as "me and him/her/them not you"). Wu employs six demonstratives, three of which are used to refer to close objects, and three of which are used for farther objects. In terms of word order, Wu uses SVO (like Mandarin), but unlike Mandarin, it also has a high occurrence of SOV and in some cases OSV[40][41]

In terms of phonology, tone sandhi is extremely complex, and helps parse multisyllabic words and idiomatic phrases. In some cases, indirect objects are distinguished from direct objects by a voiced/voiceless distinction.

In most cases, classifiers take the place of genitive particles and articles – a quality shared with Cantonese – as shown by the following examples:

Wu Wu translation Mandarin Mandarin translation
本書交關好看 the volume [of] book is good 書很好看 the book is very good
我支筆 my stick [of] pen 我的筆 my pen
渠碗粥 his bowl [of] congee 他的粥 his congee

Pronoun suffixes

Wu dialects vary in the different ways they use to determine different pronouns, third and second person pronouns are affixed with [to?] as a suffix in Suzhou dialect, First person pronouns are affixed with 伲, third person pronouns are affixed with [lA53>44], and second person pronouns are affixed with [nʌ 23] in Shanghainese. Third and first person pronouns are affixed with [la], and second pronouns are represented with [na] in Haiyan dialect.[42]


All nouns could have just one classifier in Shanghainese.[43]

Common words and phrases in Wu

Note: The examples are in Shanghainese. IPA transcription is for the Middle period of modern Shanghainese (中派上海话).

Translation IPA Chinese character
Shanghainese (people) [zɑ̃.ˈhe.ɲɪɲ] 上海人
I [ŋu] 我(吾)
we or I [ŋu.ɲi] or [ɐˑ.lɐʔ] 我伲、阿拉(我拉)
he/she [ɦi] 渠(伊, 其)
they [ɦ] 渠拉(伊拉)
you (sing.) [noŋ] (儂)
you (plural) [na]
hello [noŋ hɔ] 侬好(儂好)
good-bye [ˈtse.ɦue] 再会(再會)
thank you [ʑ̻iaja noŋ] or [ʑ̻iaʑ̻ia noŋ] 谢谢侬(謝謝儂)
sorry [te.vəˑ.tɕʰi] 对勿起(對勿起)
but, however [dɛ.zɨ], [dɛ.zɨ.ni] 但是, 但是呢
please [tɕʰɪɲ] (請)
that one [ˈe.tsɐʔ], [i.tsɐʔ] 哎只, 伊只
this one [ɡəʔ.tsɐʔ] 搿只
there [ˈe.tɐʔ], [i.tɐʔ] 哎垯, 伊垯
over there [ˈe.mi.tɐʔ], [i.mi.tɐʔ] 哎面垯, 伊面垯
here [ɡəˑ.tɐʔ] 搿垯(箇垯)
to have [ɦiɤɯ.təʔ] 有得
to exist, here, present [lɐˑ.he] 勒許
now, current [ɦi.ze] 现在(現在)
what time is it? [ɦi.ze tɕi.ti tsoŋ] 搿息几点钟?(搿息幾點鐘?)
where [ɦa.ɺi.tɐʔ], [sa.di.fɑ̃] 嚡里垯(嚡裏垯), 啥地方
what [sa ɦəʔ] 啥个, 做啥
who [sa.ɲɪɲ] or [ɦa.ɺi.ɦue] 啥人, 嚡里位
why [ɦ] 为啥(為啥)
when [sa.zəɲ.kuɑ̃] 啥辰光
how [na.nəɲ, na.nəɲ.ka] 哪恁, 哪恁介
how much? [tɕi.di] 几钿?几块洋钿?(幾鈿?幾塊銀頭?)
yes [ˈe]
no [m̩], [vəˑ.zɨ], [m̩məʔ], [viɔ] 呒, 弗是, 呒没, 勿要
telephone number [di.ɦʊ ɦɔ.dɤɯ] 电话号头(電話號頭)
home [oˑ.ɺi.ɕiã] 屋里向(屋裏向)
Come to our house and play. [tɔ ɐˑ.lɐʔ oˑ.ɺi.ɕiɑ̃ le bəˑ.ɕiã] 到阿拉屋里厢来孛相(白相)!(到阿拉屋裏厢來孛相!)
Where's the restroom? [da.sɤɯ.kɛ ɺəˑ.ɺɐʔ ɦa.ɺi.tɐʔ] 汏手间勒勒嚡里垯?(汏手間勒勒嚡裏垯?)
Have you eaten dinner? [ɦia.vɛ tɕʰɪˑ.ku.ləʔ va] 夜饭吃过了𠲎?(夜飯吃過了𠲎?)
I don't know [ŋɯ; vəˑ.ɕiɔ.təʔ] 我弗(勿)晓得.(我弗(勿)曉得.)
Do you speak English? [noŋ ˈɪn.vəɲ kãtəʔle va] 侬英文讲得来𠲎?
I love you [ŋɯ; e noŋ] 我爱侬!(我愛儂!)
I adore you [ŋɯ; e.mɯ noŋ] 我爱慕侬.(我愛慕儂!)
I like you a lot [ŋɯ; ɺɔ ˈhuø.ɕi noŋ ɦəʔ] 我老欢喜侬搿!(我老歡喜儂搿)
news [ɕɪɲ.vəɲ] 新闻(新聞)
dead [ɕi.tʰəˑ.ləʔ] 死脱了
alive [ɦuəˑ.lɐˑ.he] 活勒嗨(活着)
a lot [ˈtɕiɔ.kue] 交关(邪气)
inside, within [ɺi.ɕiã] 里向
outside [ŋa.dɤɯ] 外頭
How are you? [noŋ hɔ va]? 侬好伐?(儂好伐?)


Shanghainese IPA Literal meaning Actual meaning
其 勒 門口頭 立 勒許。 [ɦi le məŋ.kʰɤɯ.dɤɯ lɪʔ lɐˑ.he] (third person) (past participle) doorway (particle) stand existed He was standing at the door.


Like other varieties of Southern Chinese, Wu Chinese retains some archaic vocabulary from Classical Chinese, Middle Chinese, and Old Chinese.


Mandarin equivalents and their pronunciation on Wu Chinese are in parentheses. All IPA transcriptions and examples listed below are from Shanghainese.
「許」(那) [he] (na) (particle)
「汏」(洗) [da] (si) to wash
「囥」(藏) [kɔŋ] (zɔŋ) to hide something
「隑」(斜靠) [ɡe] (ʑ̊ia kʰɔ) to lean
「廿」(二十) [ne] (əl sɐʔ) twenty (The Mandarin equivalent, 二十, is also used to a lesser extent, mostly in its literary pronunciation.)
「弗」/「勿」(不) [və] (pʰə) no, not
「立」(站) [liɪʔ] (ze) to stand
「囡」 [nø] child, whelp (It is pronounced as nān in Mandarin.)
「睏」(睡) [kʰwəŋ] (zø) to sleep
「尋」(找) [ʑ̊iɲ] (tsɔ) to find
「戇」 [ɡɔɲ] foolish, stupid. (It is a cognate of the Min word 歞, which is ngâung [ŋɑuŋ˨˦˨] in Fuzhou dialect and gōng [koŋ˧] in Min Nan.)
「揎」 [ɕyø] to strike (a person)
「逐」(追) [zoʔ] or [tsoʔ] (tsø) to chase
「焐」 [u] to make warm, to warm up (ex. 焐焐熱)
「肯」 [kʰəɲ] to permit, to allow
「事體」 [z̥z tʰi] thing (business, affair, matter)
「歡喜」 [hø ɕi] to like, to be keen on something, to be fond of, to love
「物事」 [məʔ z̥z̩] things (more specifically, material things)

In Wu dialects, the morphology of the words are similar, but the characters are switched around. Not all Wu Chinese words exhibit this phenomenon, only some words in some dialects.

Preference of archaic words

Like other varieties of Southern Chinese, Wu prefers more archaic words to 'to speak'. For example:

In most Wu dialects, with the exception of Hangzhou dialect, 講 [ɡɔŋ] is preferred when referring to speaking rather than the Mandarin shuō 說 [sɐʔ]. In Guangfeng and Yushan counties of Jiangxi province, 曰 [je] is generally preferred over 說. In Shangrao county of Jiangxi province, 話 [wa] is preferred over 說.


In Wu Chinese, there are colloquialisms that are traced back to ancestral Chinese varieties, such as Middle or Old Chinese. Many of those colloquialisms are cognates of other words found in other modern southern Chinese dialects, such as Gan, Xiang, or Min.

Mandarin equivalents and their pronunciation on Wu Chinese are in parentheses. All IPA transcriptions and examples listed below are from Shanghainese.

「鑊子」 (鍋子) [ɦɔʔ tsɨ] (ɡu tsɨ) wok, cooking pot. The Mandarin equivalent term is also used, but both of them are synonyms and are thus interchangeable.
「衣裳」 (衣服) [i zã] (i voʔ) clothing. Found in other Chinese dialects. It is a reference to traditional Han Chinese clothing, where it consists of the upper garments 「衣」 and the lower garments 「裳」.


The genres of kunqu opera and tanci (弹词, FR) song, appearing in the Ming Dynasty, were the first instances of the use of Wu dialect in literature. By the turn of the 20th century it was used in several novels that had prostitution as a subject.[44] In many of these novels, Wu is mainly used as dialog of prostitute characters. In one work, Shanghai Flowers by Han Bangqing (T: 韓邦慶, S: 韩邦庆, P: Hán​ Bāng​qìng), all of the dialog is in Wu.[45] Wu originally developed in genres related to oral performance. It was used in manners related to oral performance when it proliferated in written literature and it was widely used in fiction about prostitutes, a particular genre, and not in other genres. Donald B. Snow, author of Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular, compared the development of Wu in this manner to the patterns of Baihua and Japanese vernacular writing.[45]

According to Jean Duval, author of "The Nine-Tailed Turtle: Pornography or 'fiction of exposure," at the time The Nine-tailed Turtle by Zhang Chunfan (T: 張春帆, S: 张春帆, Pinyin: Zhāng​ Chūn​fān) was published, it was one of the most popular novels written in the Wu dialect.[46] Magnificent Dreams in Shanghai (T:海上繁華夢, S: 海上繁华梦, P: Hǎi​shàng Fán​huá Mèng) by Sun Jiazhen (T: 孫家振, S: 孙家振, P: Sūn Jiāzhèn) was another example of a Turn of the Century prostitute novel with Wu dialog.[47]

Snow wrote that Wu literature "achieved a certain degree of prominence" by 1910.[45] After 1910 there had been no novels which were as popular as The Nine-tailed Turtle or the critical acclaim garnered by Shanghai Flowers. In the popular fiction of the early 20th century the usage of Wu remained in use in prostitute dialog but, as asserted by Snow, "apparently" did not extend beyond that.[45] In 1926 Hu Shi stated that of all of the Chinese dialects, within literature, Wu had the brightest future.[45] Snow concluded that instead Wu dialect writing became "a transient phenomenon that died out not long after its growth gathered steam."[45]

Snow argued that the primary reason was the increase of prestige and importance in Baihua, and that one other contributing reason was changing market factors since Shanghai's publishing industry, which grew, served all of China and not just Shanghai.[45] Duval argued that many Chinese critics had a low opinion of Wu works, mainly originating from the eroticism within them, and that contributed to the decline in Wu literature.[45]

See also


  • Yan, M.M. (2006). Introduction to Chinese Dialectology. Munich: Lincom Europa
  • Snow, Donald B. Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong University Press, 2004. ISBN 962209709X, 9789622097094.


  • [1] 袁家驊 – 漢語方言概要

External links

Resources on Wu dialects

    • IPA, or (English)
    • Classification of Wu Dialects – By James Campbell
    • Tones in Wu Dialects – Compiled by James Campbell
  • Chinese: 吴语论坛) –

A BBS set up in 2004, in which topics such as phonology, grammar, orthography and romanization of Wu Chinese are widely talked about. The cultural and linguistic diversity within China is also a significant concerning of this forum.

  • Chinese: 吴语协会) –

A website aimed at modernization of Wu Chinese, including basics of Wu, Wu romanization scheme, pronunciation dictionaries of different dialects, Wu input method development, Wu research literatures, written Wu experiment, Wu orthography, a discussion forum etc.

  • Chinese: 江南雅音话吴语) –

Excellent reference on Wu Chinese, including tones of the sub-dialects.

  • Tatoeba Project - Examples sentences in Shanghainese dialect, and in Suzhouan dialect.


  • Globalization, National Culture and the Search for Identity: A Chinese Dilemma (1st Quarter of 2006, Media Development) – A comprehensive article, written by Wu Mei and Guo Zhenzhi of World Association for Christian Communication, related to the struggle for national cultural unity by current Chinese Communist national government while desperately fighting for preservation on Chinese regional cultures that have been the precious roots of all Han Chinese people (including Hangzhou Wu dialect). Excellent for anyone doing research on Chinese language linguistic, anthropology on Chinese culture, international business, foreign languages, global studies, and translation/interpretation.
  • Modernisation a Threat to Dialects in China – An excellent article originally from Straits Times Interactive through YTL Community website, it provides an insight of Chinese dialects, both major and minor, losing their speakers to Standard Mandarin due to greater mobility and interaction. Excellent for anyone doing research on Chinese language linguistic, anthropology on Chinese culture, international business, foreign languages, global studies, and translation/interpretation.
  • Middlebury Expands Study Abroad Horizons – An excellent article including a section on future exchange programs in learning Chinese language in Hangzhou (plus colorful, positive impression on the Hangzhou dialect, too). Requires registration of online account before viewing.
  • Mind your language (from The Standard, Hong Kong) – This newspaper article provides a deep insight on the danger of decline in the usage of dialects, including Wu dialects, other than the rising star of Standard Mandarin. It also mentions an exception where some grassroots’ organizations and, sometimes, larger institutions, are the force behind the preservation of their dialects. Another excellent article for research on Chinese language linguistics, anthropology on Chinese culture, international business, foreign languages, global studies, and translation/interpretation.
  • China: Dialect use on TV worries Beijing (originally from Straits Times Interactive, Singapore and posted on AsiaMedia Media News Daily from UCLA) – Article on the use of dialects other than standard Mandarin in China where strict media censorship is high.
  • Standard or Local Chinese – TV Programs in Dialect (from – Another article on the use of dialects other than standard Mandarin in China.

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