Chinese Corner

Smartphone Dialects5 min read

When tech meets heritage – Will Sack

As a young Kentuckian, I once came home from kindergarten pronouncing my name, Will, as “Whee-y’all,” a three-syllable word – my mother was horrified. The correct pronunciation was learned before I left for school the next day. In China and the US alike, you speak your social role.

I recently went on a multi-month escapade to learn the Northeast dialect of Mandarin, also known as Dōngběihuà (东北话), literally the “speech” (huà) of the Northeast (Dōngběi). During that time I came across a surprising answer to a seemingly simple question: How are dialects passed on in China?

You might assume that dialects are learned on the knees of one’s elders – from mother, father, grandmother – from the ones who raise you. While that is still the single biggest piece, China’s current technological and political landscape has dramatically altered how dialect proficiency is gained and shared.

While living off-and-on in Changchun, the provincial capital of Jilin, I became interested in Dongbeihua. When I asked my friends for help, their proposal seemed simple: send me down to stay with their relatives in the countryside. There, I could lend a hand and chat with the old folk until I got a handle on Dongbeihua.

After I got there, however, I realized that Changchunites and I had misunderstood much. For one thing, almost everyone within an eight-hour drive had Wi-Fi. And second, that this was a revolution on par with the arrival of television.

When I first arrived, rather than directing me towards elders, my new hosts quickly took me to the only 20-something males in town. To my surprise, they whipped out their smartphones. “This,” one said, flipping his phone in the air, “this is how we learn dialect.”

From livestreaming to microblogging, social media has empowered individuals to become content producers as never before. In the case of dialects, this has allowed a revival of sorts. Viral videos and WeChat messages become devices for transmission. Both self-consciously construe themselves within a larger tradition of educational tools. For instance, many messages call themselves “compendia” (dàquán 大全), tomes for language learning. And so these informal resources are treated with surprising formality – often my friends called them their “textbooks.” Memorizing the words and their meanings, young adults then sprinkle dialect back in to their daily conversations, both on and off-line, performing Dongbei-ness before each other.

This is not a recovery of some stolen regional identity, even though it is often seen that way. The result of such self-study is a way of speaking that has never really existed before. When I got better at Dongbeihua, some older friends (in their 50s and 60s) would nitpick at my words – “oh, we don’t say that here.” “They say that a county over.” So while the young people can stay consistently in dialect when they speak, they achieve this through the synthesis of sub-regional forms, borrowing a word from here and another from there.

The Northeast, despite only being heavily settled by Han Chinese in the mid to late 1800s, still features discernible sub-regional differences in dialect. This gives rise to my rule of thumb: four hours by bus and the word for “eat” will change. Pieced together from viral content, however, the new Dongbeihua has smoothed over many local varieties. In the case of the Northeast, this clearing away of internal divisions, when coupled with the area’s unique economic straits, does much to explain how regional identity is stronger now in the Northeast than in the decades before.

My rule of thumb: four hours by bus and the word for “eat” will change.  

Regardless of whether it is “authentic” or not, many I talked to found resistance to enforced conformity its own reward. Besides the standardized Mandarin taught in schools, the integration of transportation and labor pools has seriously raised the consequences of speaking in dialect. In reaction – but also in expectation – many parents refuse to let children spend too much time with their grandparents, lest they imprint. Young working parents strain their budget to purchase childcare instead of relying on family. And yet, many young adults are embracing, not fleeing, Dongbeihua, with social media as their textbook.

Take for example one vocabulary compendium I used: a rap song called ‘Dongbei Sanzijing’ or ‘The Northeast’s Three Character Classic.’ That name is a riff on the 13th century Three Character Classic, a primer children were made to memorize in order to instill filial piety. Here, the twist is that, instead of instilling piety for the vague national family, this ‘Dongbei Sanzijing’ trumpets a different imagined community, that of the region.

Still, we must take all this with a grain of salt. Even in a period of increasing nationalism, regional identity can be co-opted into the mythos of the state. Especially in an area that has spent much of its recent history apart from the Han core, most loose talk of the “Northeast Chinese tradition” bolsters Communist Party historiography.

Likewise, in a political moment where power is increasingly centralized in Beijing, dialect is more rebellious in the sense of piercings, not pamphlets. It’s a self-styling. Especially since the northern dialects of Mandarin are not too distant from the official standard, seeking out Dongbeihua is not wandering far from the fold.

Still, how all the pieces combine says much about technology’s continued ability to surprise us in China. Despite Beijing’s ever-tightening controls on regional identity and language, a new Dongbeihua thrives in the speech of precarious youth and on smartphone screens. ∎

Featured image of Dongbeihua “textbook” shared in a WeChat message, courtesy Will Sack.