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    In China’s Array of Dialects, Emerging Writers Find a New Voice

    While novels in regional dialects aren’t new in China, they have surged in popularity among young writers in recent years, particularly amid increased social media exposure.

    Almost two years before Wong Kar-wai’s period drama “Blossoms” brought Shanghainese back into the public spotlight, 23-year-old Hu Shiyang began writing her debut novel in the same dialect.

    Titled “Drifting Along the Subway,” Hu’s novel was published in December in the iconic magazine “Shanghai Literature,” and features a protagonist who navigates a vast city’s metro with little money but ample time.

    Hu tells Sixth Tone that the metro lines represent the expanse of Shanghai, mirroring the way the Shanghainese dialect captures the essence of the city’s local culture.

    “This connection inspired me to learn and ultimately write her novel in the dialect,” she says. “Language always bridges cultures. For me, writing in dialect is the best way to immerse readers in the setting.”

    While novels in regional dialects aren’t a new phenomenon in China, they have surged in popularity among young aspiring writers in recent years, particularly amid increased exposure through social media.

    Social media platforms like Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, have played a crucial role, showcasing short videos that highlight dialect-based storytelling.

    Apart from Jin Yucheng’s Shanghainese novel “Blossoms,” which inspired the hit TV drama, this digital spotlight has helped popularize books such as “Kongqueputi” by Jiao Dian in the Yunnan dialect, “Chaoxitu” by Lin Zhao in Cantonese, and “Zhu Jue” by Chen Yan in the Shaanxi dialect.

    Lai Yingyan, an associate editor at “Shanghai Literature,” says she’s observed more young writers pursuing literature in their local dialects. “Youngsters are increasingly exploring the depths of their cultural roots through dialects. They see it as an important part of their identity,” Lai tells Sixth Tone.

    Currently pursuing her master’s degree in literature at the Beijing Normal University, Hu explains that for older generations, writing in dialects was natural since learning Mandarin was a luxury. “But for today’s young generations, dialects are a second language only after learning Mandarin,” she says.

    Born and raised in Shanghai, Hu knew little about the Shanghainese language until she moved to Beijing for her undergraduate studies, where the distance helped her see how important language is in shaping cultural identity.

    “I was shocked at first. I was always certain that I spoke standard Mandarin,” Hu says. “But in Beijing, I discovered the distinct nuances between the two dialects.” 

    She recalls occasionally blurting out Shanghainese expressions unfamiliar to her new friends from the north, leaving them puzzled. For example, she used the term “10 o’clock and three quarters” — instead of 10:45, the standard expression in Mandarin. 

    With over 10 million speakers, the Shanghainese dialect is widely used in the metropolis and surrounding areas, and has a unique vocabulary that led to the creation of the official Shanghainese dictionary in 2008.

    Hu infused her understanding of the connection between language and culture into her writing by incorporating several Shanghainese terms. Initially, this approach met with criticism from professors who found it too localized for a general audience.

    Despite its success in literature and as a television adaptation, Jin Yucheng’s “Blossoms” drew ire for its heavy use of idioms, with some readers stating that this discouraged them from continuing the book.

    “It wasn’t Jin’s fault. His novel was originally published on a local blog intended for Shanghainese readers. Even with later adaptations, it wasn’t tailored for a broader audience,” says Hu. “My goal, however, is to reach the general public and share unique stories from southern China.”

    Writing in “Literary Review,” a pioneering academic literature publication run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Xiang Jing, an associate professor at East China Normal University, underscored that the role of dialects in literature has evolved.

    According to Xiang, while mid-20th century works often used dialects to delineate social classes and assert cultural identities, contemporary usage focuses more on conveying deep emotional expressions.

    For Hu, who chose to write in Shanghainese after teaching herself the dialect, it offers another approach to exploring her cultural roots. “I’ve worked hard to strike a balance in my writing, making numerous revisions to ensure that the dialect remains accessible,” she says.

    For instance, she retains simpler idioms, such as referring to boys as nanxiaonan, or “male little ones” and girls as nǚxiaonan, or “female little ones,” while more complex terms like baixiang, or beqsiang (meaning playing) and ceqi (meaning going out) were removed from the final draft. “But I kept some less intrusive Shanghainese expressions to maintain the local flavor,” she says.

    Beyond vocabulary, Hu also attempted to mimic the colloquial rhythm of Shanghainese by repeatedly reading lines aloud to ensure the phrasing feels natural.

    She says her goal is for readers to grasp both the essence and the plot of her story in a single reading without needing to consult a dictionary. “Pauses can disrupt the reading experience, but using dialect effectively should draw readers deeper into the narrative,” Hu explains, adding that she sees dialects as being steeped in history, carrying the experiences of ancestors.

    “For me, writing in Shanghainese is more than just a linguistic choice — it’s a gateway to better our understanding of the world through fiction,” she says.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Hu Shiyang riding the metro in Shanghai. Courtesy of Hu)