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War Against Dialect? Shanghai Textbook Standardises the Word ‘Grandma’

‘Laolao’ or ‘waipo’? A Shanghai textbook decides that only one of them is right for granny.

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What is the word that refers to your mother’s mother? In English, the word is quite simple: grandmother or grandma. If one needs to make it more specific, ‘paternal’ or ‘maternal’ grandmother will solve the problem.

However, the story is not that easy in Chinese. With many varieties and dialects, different regions in China will have different words for ‘grandma.’ Some call her ‘Laolao’ 姥姥. Others say ‘Waipo’ 外婆. Both terms can be used interchangeably and, generally, would not be cause for confusion or misunderstanding.

Although the term usually would not be a big issue of debate, it became a hot topic of discussion this week when a Chinese textbook from Shanghai ruled the phrase ‘waipo’ 外婆 a form of dialect.

The book suggested that the expression ‘waipo‘ is not a part of the standard Chinese language, but rather part of a local dialect. Editors from the Shanghai School Board changed the original texts in the textbook, replacing all ‘waipo’ 外婆 terms with ‘laolao’ 姥姥 to promote Putonghua, also known as standard Chinese.

The incident was brought to light by a Weibo user who discovered the issue while reading a second-grade Chinese literacy textbook, in which an article was edited by the publishers, replacing all use of ‘waipo’ 外婆 to ‘laolao’ 姥姥.

The Shanghai School Board has responded to the incident, stating that, according to the ‘Modern Chinese Language Dictionary,’ waipo 外婆 is an expression used in Chinese dialects. While the word ‘grandmother’ can be translated into either ‘laolao’ 姥姥 or ‘waizumu’ 外祖母, the committee decided to use the term ‘laolao’ 姥姥 to help Shanghai students better understand different expressions used in the Chinese language.

“Shanghai is an international city, understanding the diversity of the Chinese language will better help construct a more open environment,” the Shanghai School Board stated in its official media response to the controversy.

 
Angered Weibo Users
 

On Chinese social media, however, the controversy has not blown over. For many native Chinese speakers, it just does not make sense to mark waipo 外婆 as a term used in dialects.

“People from southern China all use the term waipo,” a typical comment on Weibo said.  

“Why did they change the original texts?” other users wondered.

Laolao is the dialect term. We don’t say that in southern China,” one Weibo user commented, with others saying: “Before reading this article I had no clue whether laolao was the father’s mother or the mother’s mother. They’ve always made us use the same word. What a joke!”

One commenter criticized the way in which the Shanghai School Board forces ‘unity’ of language expressions: “It is just like saying that we all eat dumplings during the Spring Festival. But the reality is that we don’t eat that at all.”

Several Chinese media outlets also criticized the Shanghai School Board for their decision. Media site Sohu argues the Shanghai School Board is oppressing language diversity in the name of promoting diversification.

State media Guangming Daily pointed out that dialects incorporate special sentiments and local traditions that cannot be replaced by translations.

 
Unity Above Everything
 

Putonghua or standard Chinese has been China’s official language since a vigorous government campaign in 1956. Standard Chinese is mainly based on the Beijing dialect and Mandarin dialects spoken by the majority of the population in China.

One of the main objectives of the standardization of Chinese language was to achieve national unity. However, after more than six decades of actively promoting Putonghua, the effectiveness of the policy is still questioned.

According to a 2015 Xinhua News report, 400 million Chinese citizens cannot speak Mandarin or Putonghua. Many Chinese citizens speak local dialects in their respective regions, such as Cantonese in Guangdong, or Shanghainese in Shanghai. In addition, people in Tibet and Xinjiang speak their own languages, making it even more difficult to promote Putonghua in these regions.

Discussions of the detrimental effects of promoting standardized Chinese are very much alive on Chinese online forums (e.g. Zhihu) today. Some critics see the Putonghua policy as a threat to dialects and local identities. href=””>threat for the preservation of local dialects.

Recently, the gradual disappearance of local dialects has received more attention in Chinese media. In April of this year, China News Agency reported that dialects in Hainan are in danger as the younger generations are losing the ability and motivation to learn and use these local Hainan dialects. The report featured a 4-year-old kid who was teased and mocked when speaking dialect, showing the pressures people now face in dialect preservation.

One online discussant remarked: “This is ridiculous. On the one hand, they express concerns on dialects disappearing. On the other hand, they are forcing everyone to use the same language.”

Update June 23: People’s Daily and other Chinese media report that the Shanghai School Board has now apologized and reversed the textbook changes in response to the controversy.

By Chauncey Jung

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Chauncey Jung is a China internet specialist who who previously worked for various Chinese internet companies in Beijing. Jung completed his BA and MA education in Canada (Univ. of Toronto & Queen's), and has a strong interest in Chinese trends, technology, economic developments and social issues.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Lucas

    June 26, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    When I started reading this article I honestly thought that 姥姥 was the “dialect” term being edited out of textbooks. I had no idea 外婆 was not considered “standard” because it’s the default term used by everyone I know in this area. Either way though, I’m glad they reversed the action. Complete standardization overkill.

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China and Covid19

‘Hard Isolation’ is Shanghai’s New Word of the Day

In line with a new ‘hard isolation’ measure, the entrances of some Shanghai residential buildings were fenced up.

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While some Shanghai households have already endured weeks of isolation, a new word was added to their epidemic vocabulary today: ‘hard isolation’ or ‘strong quarantine’ (yìng gélí 硬隔离)

The word popped up on Chinese social media on April 23rd after some Shanghai netizens posted photos of fences being set up around their community building to keep residents from walking out.

“New word: hard isolation. Shanghai is rotten to the core,” one commenter wrote.

The word soon turned into a hashtag page where people started commenting on the issue of fences being placed around residential buildings, voicing concerns on what a fence around buildings would mean for fire safety, especially after online rumors suggested that there had been a fire at one community in Pudong on Saturday night.

An official document regarding the ‘hard isolation’ measure was also shared online on Saturday. It is dated April 23, 2022, and its source is the Pudong New Area Office for Epidemic Control.

The document states that in line with the guidelines for the city’s epidemic prevention and control, the division between areas or zones that are in certain risk categories should be ‘optimized,’ with those in the high-risk category requiring a ‘hard isolation.’ Security guards should also be on duty 24 hours a day at the entrance of the buildings.

Earlier this month, Shanghai adopted “3-level control measures” after its initial phased lockdown. It means that local areas will be classified as “locked-down,” “controlled” or “precautionary,” based on their Covid19 risk.

“Could we also put fences around the homes of Shanghai leaders?”, one person suggested, while others posted images from the Walking Dead to mock the situation.

In the hope of Shanghai soon tackling the Covid situation, not everybody disagreed with the decision to fence some buildings or communities in the Pudong area: “I don’t disagree with it, as long as there is always someone there to open the fence in case of fire,” one person stated.

Although having a fence around their building is currently not a reality for most in Shanghai, the online photos of some communities seeing their buildings being fenced up is a reason to worry for some: “It’s been 40 days, and now they start hard isolation? This actually scares me. Before we know it, it’s June.”

One Weibo user asked: “Why is it possible to implement this hard isolation now? Was this created by the same persons who also implemented the rule to separate children from parents at isolation sites?”

“I truly can’t imagine why some people thought this is a good idea,” others wrote.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse

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China and Covid19

‘Voices of April’: The Day After

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them.”

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On April 23, a day after the video ‘Voices of April’ briefly took over social media before it was censored, the trending topic of the day is a hashtag related to new Covid cases reported in Shanghai.

Shanghai reported higher Covid-19 cases and deaths on Friday than the five days prior, which showed a daily decline in new cases. Shanghai reported a total of 23,370 new cases (including 20,634 asymptomatic ones), the municipal health commission said Saturday. A related hashtag by Xinhua News received over 910 million views on Weibo on Saturday (#上海新增本土确诊2736例无症状20634例#).

Although the hashtag was initiated by state media to inform about the Shanghai Covid situation, netizens started using it to criticize Shanghai’s handling of the crisis, with more commenters questioning China’s zero-Covid strategy. Similarly, other state media-initiated hashtag places also became online spaces where Weibo users vented their frustrations earlier this month.

Besides the ongoing online criticism and vocal disagreement with China’s Covid handling and policies, there are also many who express shock at the recent crackdown of any form of protest or criticism regarding the situation in Shanghai.

“‘Voices of April’ has been shutdown all over the internet, I’m simply dumbfounded,” one person said about the popular video that contained real recordings of events that happened during the city’s lockdown.

“If you still can find the video anywhere, forward it,” another person writes.

Besides Voices of April (四月之声), there have also been other videos over the past week that are meant to expose the mishandling of the Covid situation in Shanghai.

One of them is titled Farewell, Language (再见语言), another one is Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春).

Farewell, Language (再见语言) is a 42-second sound art video by artist Yang Xiao (杨潇), who used over 600 commonly used propaganda phrases from Chinese official channels and randomly broadcasted the audio in the community where he lives.

The anti-epidemic workers just continue their work and do not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary at all. The video shows how this kind of language has been so normalized that for most, it has just become background noise in their everyday life – without even noticing nor critically assessing its meaning or logic anymore.

The Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春) video is a compilation of video footage from the Shanghai lockdown, showing people struggling to get food, violent altercations between anti-epidemic workers and residents, people living in deplorable conditions in quarantine centers, and more (link to video).

The video uses the song Cheer Up London by Slaves, its chorus being:

You’re dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead
.”

One Weibo commenter responded to the video in English, using a text from Les Misérables: “Do you hear the people sing / Singing the song of angry men / It is the music of a people / Who will not be slaves again!” The phrase “do you hear the people sing” was also used by other social media users to address the situation in Shanghai and the censorship of related topics.

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them,” one commenter replied.

Read our previous article about ‘Voices of April’ here.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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