Did You Lose a Child or a Shoe? – The Curse of Too Many Dialects


Most people have heard of Mandarin and Cantonese- those two languages that are both technically Chinese, but completely different. Well, those are only two of China’s many dialects. There are also Jiangzu, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Hakka dialects as well. And that’s using the most general classifications! Mandarin is accepted as the standard national language and is also called Putonghua (“common language”). Despite being labeled as “dialects,” these different ways of speaking are so dissimilar from one another that they could each easily be a separate language.  A man could grow up speaking Cantonese and not understand a word of Mandarin, or vice versa. The only similarity is the written language- Chinese characters- and that is what keeps China, a land of dialects, united.  Look at these different ways of saying a character in different Chinese dialects:

Character Mandarin Shanghainese Hokkienese Cantonese
‘white’ bai2 bak23 beh24 baak6
‘eight’ ba1 bak5 bueh1 baat8
‘sun, day’ ri4 niek23 lit24 yat6
‘five’ wu3 n13 ggoo22 ng5
‘ten’ shi2 sak23 zap24 sap6

With these variations in pronunciation, no wonder they can’t understand one another! I’ve learned that in Mandarin shoes are “qie zi”, yet a Hu Bei speaker would call them “hai zi” which to me (in Mandarin) means child. Imagine the confusion if a Hu Bei speaker lost his shoes. Or what about “lan ku zi,” which means blue pants. The people of Si Chuan cannot differentiate “L” and “N” and so they call blues pants “nan ku zi,” which in Mandarin means boy’s pants. I think, as a Mandarin speaker, that “ban fang” means prison cell, yet Taiwanese use that same phrase to mean a classroom. So what would you think if a Taiwanese mother told you her child was in a “ban fang!”

I’ve had to deal with different dialects while working at the USA Pavilion. The one I’ve run into the most is Shanghainese and I cannot understand it at all.

I say “ni hao” (hello) and they say “nong hao.”

I say “xie xie ni” (thank you) and they say “xia ya nong.”

I say “zai jian” (goodbye) and they say “zai hui.”

Now, those might seem like subtle differences, but if every character’s pronunciation is tweaked slightly, it becomes something completely different. I don’t think Shanghainese even sounds like Mandarin, which is interesting since Mandarin is based off of the Beijing dialect and Beijing and Shanghai aren’t located too far from one another. Instead, I find that Shanghainese sounds like Japanese!

(Blue is Mandarin, Red is Shanghainese)


  1. Just take a look here and find out that Chinese has many dialects. Is it like American English and British English? Which dialects should I learn first then? Do Mandarin have so many characters? Well, it might be a bit difficult then but it will be fun.

    • Don’t worry! The two major dialects are Mandarin and Cantonese. Cantonese is mostly spoken in the South and in Hong Kong while Mandarin is spoken all over…so if you are going to learn Chinese, you should learn Mandarin. While there are many other dialects, Mandarin is the commonly-spoken one. The other dialects are usually only found in certain regions.

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