Shanghai and the Complexity of Spoken Language in China

The first time I flew into Shanghai, the jet landed at Hangqiao Airport. In 1999, there was no Pudong with its Maglev Train, which moves 150 to 200 km/hour—running eighteen miles to the city.

Even with the larger Pudong airport, Hangqiao still handled more than 31 million passengers in 2010, but more fly into Pudong (44.8 million passengers in 2012).

Model of Shanghai

Regarding spoken languages, China’s leaders are finishing the job Qin Shi Huangdi started twenty-two hundred years ago, and it’s not going to be easy.

The first emperor unified China with one written language but didn’t touch the spoken word. Today, the country is being stitched together with one language, Mandarin. It may take several generations, because most people still speak the language of their parents.

How tough is this goal? Well, there are about 250 spoken languages in China and some of these have dozens of different dialects (especially Mandarin and Tibetan). For instance, Shanghainese, or Wuzhou that’s about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like that of Guangzhou than that of Taishan, 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated from it by several rivers. In parts of Fujian the speech of neighboring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible. Learning English is also mandatory in the public schools. In 2010, there were estimated to be over 100,000 native English-speaking teachers in China.

I’ve shopped on this street.

When England and France started two opium wars with China to force the emperor to allow them to sell the drug to his people, Shanghai was only a sleepy fishing town. The 1st Opium war was 1839 to 1849. The 2nd was 1856 to 1860.

The treaty that ended the first opium war made Shanghai a concession port bringing expats to China from all over the world, and they are still arriving.

Today, there are about 210,000 foreigners living in Shanghai (another 45,500 live in Pudong) out of more than 24 twenty million residents in the municipality of Shanghai with another 21.7 million in the urban area around the city—making Shanghai the most populated city in China and the world. Shanghai has more than 20,000 buildings 11 stories or higher with more than 1,000 exceeding 30 stories.

The 121-story Shanghai Tower will be completed this year, and it will be the tallest building in China. For a comparison, New York City has less than 6,000 high-rises and only 97 are taller than 600 feet.

The next four Shanghai photos are courtesy of Tom Carter,
photo journalist and author of China: Portrait of a People

See the Shanghai Huangpu River Tour

See more at National Geographic, Shanghai Dreams

See more about Shanghai at Eating Gourmet in Shanghai


Discover Hollywood Taking the “Karate Kid” to China


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves.


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6 Responses to Shanghai and the Complexity of Spoken Language in China

  1. Michael Brant says:

    Thanks for the tip on Tom Carter’s book. Terrific!!

  2. Rajiv says:

    I lived there for 5 years. My Chinese teachers and I have agreed to resume studies!

    • How are you doing learning the language? Shanghainese or standard Mandarin
      It seems I’m tone deaf so it didn’t go well for me. I probably can still learn to read it though.

      • Rajiv says:

        Well. It’s Mandarin for me, I had a teacher when I was in China. My colleagues refused to speak to me in Chinese, so I used to pick up conversations on the street. It helped sensitise me to the different accents. The tones! The Chinese also make errors, even though they never admit it. They are forgiving of foreigners. I learned to think and speak in Chinese, I am struggling with writing! But, having been away so long, I must confess that I have forgotten a lot

      • I know what you mean. My last trip to China was in 2008, and what little I had learned is gone or lost in the brain’s wrinkles lending truth to the old saying that “if you don’t use it, you will lose it.”

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