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    Shanghai on Screen: A Hit TV Show Helps a City Find Its Voice

    Amid a national push to standardize Mandarin, experts say TV dramas in local dialects are not just a form of entertainment but also a valuable means of cultural preservation.

    From vehxiang (buxiang), meaning silence, to labaqiang, implying an unfulfilled promise, and dia, a term to describe both beautiful women and something great, a slew of Shanghainese words in the runaway hit period drama “Blossoms Shanghai” is breathing new life into a fading dialect.

    Directed and produced by the legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, “Blossoms Shanghai” was adapted from Jin Yucheng’s award-winning novel of the same name. Jin wrote it in Shanghainese to create more vivid characters and a multi-dimensional portrayal of the city.

    Over the eight consecutive days since its release on Dec. 27, the 30-episode period drama has topped television ratings. Most cast and crew members, including Wong Kar-wai, who was born and raised in Shanghai before moving to Hong Kong at age 5, are Shanghai natives.

    Set against the backdrop of Shanghai’s economic surge in the 1990s, the show has not only stirred a social media frenzy in the past two weeks but also fueled a travel boom to the city’s historic sites featured in it.

    For instance, the landmark Fairmont Peace Hotel has introduced themed hotel suites and meal combos, while sales of “braised pork ribs with rice cakes,” a local delicacy, have seen a record surge in sales, earning one restaurant over 150,000 yuan ($20,915) daily since the show’s debut.

    “Blossoms Shanghai” centers on protagonist A Bao’s — played by Hu Ge — quest for fortune, supported by his mentor and friends as he builds his business empire.

    The series, while also available in Mandarin, has particularly drawn audiences with its Shanghainese version. On the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, thousands have actively posted videos of themselves learning the Shanghai dialect from the show. Among them, vehxiang — used about 1,000 times in the novel — remains the most popular.

    And with fewer and fewer speakers of the Shanghai dialect amid a national push to standardize Mandarin across the country, experts say such TV dramas are not just a form of entertainment but also a valuable means of cultural preservation.

    “It has been a long time since I saw a show in Shanghainese,” a city resident, Gu Yining, 25, told Sixth Tone, adding that she last watched a sitcom in the dialect as a child.

    Ding Dimeng, a linguist specializing in the Shanghai dialect, describes how featuring it has helped draw a broad audience, including those not from Shanghai.

    “People can understand the drama with subtitles, but the dialect’s phonetic sounds and language sense are unique,” said Ding, adding that using their native language allows actors to deliver more powerful performances, particularly in emotionally charged scenes.

    Ding also observed that actors of different ages portray varying forms of the dialect. Older actors tend to speak more slowly, reminiscent of Shanghainese opera, while younger actors speak faster, reflecting changes in the dialect influenced by migrants from the neighboring city of Ningbo since the 1940s.

    For locals, the popularity of shows like “Blossoms Shanghai” also provides an opportunity to debate the lack of representation of their mother tongue in media and celebrate their shared memories and identity, according to Ding.

    Though spoken by more than 10 million individuals, a 2014 survey released by the Shanghai government showed that citizens aged 13-20 exhibit the lowest proficiency in listening comprehension and speaking ability of the Shanghai dialect when compared with other age groups.

    Ding attributes the decline of the Shanghai dialect to the national emphasis on Mandarin and demographic shifts in Shanghai.

    Since 1982, the promotion of Mandarin has been a constitutional mandate, and in 2000, the government declared Mandarin as the primary language for education and instruction in schools. The use of dialects was once prohibited in some kindergartens and primary and secondary schools.

    Furthermore, a 2009 regulation has made it challenging for TV dramas featuring dialects to be broadcast, stating: “The language used in television dramas (excluding regional opera) should primarily be in Mandarin. In general, the use of dialects and non-standard Mandarin should be avoided.”

    “In the past 20 years, there’s been a serious decline in the Shanghai dialect,” said Ding. She explained that as students and even parents increasingly use Mandarin at school and home, opportunities for children to learn Shanghainese have diminished.

    As a first-tier city, Shanghai annually attracts a growing number of people from outside the province. In 2022, official data estimated that migrants made up 40% of the city’s population.

    But in recent years, efforts to protect the Shanghai dialect have increased. In 2014, 20 kindergartens were chosen as pilot schools for teaching the Shanghai dialect, promoting its use and communication. Additionally, some schools have also implemented language training for kindergarten teachers.

    Yet, Ding believes more is needed to promote the Shanghai dialect. “Promoting Mandarin is necessary, but protecting local dialects is equally important. If such policies are implemented, much can be achieved,” she said.

    Additional reporting: Huang Yang; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: A poster for “Blossoms Shanghai.” From Douban)