JHERE IS several reasons why “Aiqing Shenhua”, a new film released on Christmas Eve in Chinese theaters, surprised moviegoers. The first is that the film, whose English title is “B for Busy,” is a tender portrait of the relationships between a group of middle-aged urbanites in Shanghai, but stars Xu Zheng, a veteran actor best known for his loud comedies. Another is that such a low-budget, dialogue-heavy film with no car chases or gunfights in sight has been successful at the box office, earning 242 million yuan ($38 million) so far. .
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The biggest surprise is that the film is shot almost entirely in Shanghainese, a language spoken by only 14 million people. It is one of the Wu languages of eastern China, many of which are mutually intelligible, with 80 million speakers in total. But that still makes the film unintelligible to people outside the region, requiring subtitles in Mandarin, the official national language. This goes against a national policy promoting Mandarin and limiting the use of what the Chinese government insists on calling “dialects” but which many linguists consider to be separate languages.
This 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 “never really resolved the long-standing question” of whether Mandarin should replace regional dialects. Today, he says, the occasional film sneaks in, but the actions of leaders suggest “they want the dialects to die out eventually.”
These actions include restrictions on the use of dialects on prime time television, as well as enforcing Mandarin rules only in schools. People who live stream on social media in Cantonese have had their accounts temporarily blocked and asked to “speak Mandarin, please”.
Officials say their pro-Mandarin policies promote national unity and expand access to education. Maybe so, but many people worry that local languages and cultures will fade as a result. In 2020, 81% of the Chinese population spoke Mandarin, an increase of 28 percentage points from 20 years earlier.
Although their use is declining among young people, Cantonese and Shanghainese are what linguists call “prestige dialects”, spoken in influential and therefore less vulnerable regions. Languages spoken by ethnic minorities, such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur, are more at risk. Many speakers do not like Chinese domination. Efforts to assimilate them, linguistically and otherwise, are often coercive and have less to do with improving opportunities than 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,” explains that schools taught many subjects in Shanghainese until the 1990s. “I memorized the periodic table in the Shanghai dialect,” she recalls, but says schools that want to preserve it now need permission to teach it as an extracurricular subject.
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Speaking in Tongues”