The Dialects of Wuhan


Thor May, China
@18-1- 2000


The Chinese provinces are a crazy patchwork quilt of languages and dialects, where the histories of migrations and cultural enclaves, the tides of influence from empire and commerce, the sperm trails that follow rivers and railway lines ... are recorded in a tangle of codes that no one has yet made a serious attempt to untangle. The political face of a "unified state" has dictated to scholars and idle gossip alike that China has "one language" containing a number of "dialects". The writing system is invariably flourished as a trump card to prove this hegemony. It's a propaganda game with a long history, and I'm not going to write the book here to challenge it in detail. However, see "The Chinese Language - Fact and Fiction" by John deFrancis, University of Hawaii Press, 1984, for a thorough debunking of the mythology. (Update 2013: Note that these comments are obviously informal, not a part of systematic research. Chinese scholars themselves are now taking a much more thorough interest in dialects than was the case even in 2000).

If it is less than rewarding to talk to many of the anointed Chinese linguists on this subject (maybe they have a career to worry about..), the occasional local citizen with a keen interest in language can offer richly rewarding insights. At the moment it's my good fortune to have a friend, a teacher of Chinese, who has just such an unvarnished understanding of dialects in Hubei. Wuhan city itself has a fascinating linguistic topography from his accounts.

Wuhan is at the confluence of the Yangzi River (Changjiang in Chinese) and Han River. This creates three sectors of territory which until about seventy years ago comprised three cities: Hanyang, Hankou and Wuchang. Indeed, going back to 223 AD when Wuhan's most famous landmark, the Yellow Crane Tower was first built as a military watch tower (since burned down seventeen times), this locale marked the confluence of three separate kingdoms. Not surprisingly perhaps, the three cities each had separate dialects. Nowadays, to the untutored eyes and ears of an outsider, Wuhan is just one ghastly urban sprawl, but to insiders like my Chinese teacher friend, the dialects of each city remain distinctive and socially significant.

"True" Wuhanese is held to be the dialect of downtown Hankou (now the commercial heart of the conurbation), and the "purest" speakers are said to dwell between Zhongshan Dadao (the main shopping street) and the river, that is, in what was once the old walled town. These speakers consider themselves to be a somewhat superior class of being. To a Chinese speaker, their Hankou dialect is marked by large pitch movements, perhaps a bit like upper class British English (as compared to, say, Australian English, which has more, smaller pitch movements). The metropolitan area of Wuhan is surrounded by a patchwork of counties, each with its own voice.

Immediately to the north of Hankou for example is Huangpi which is renowned for bombastic rhetoric. This may have something to do with an indigenous story-telling & joke tradition accompanied by drums -- a kind of Chinese rap-talk. Hanyang dialect diverges the most from Wuhanese and is thought a bit down-market. Wuchang, the administrative and educational sector of modern Wuhan, also differs a bit from Wuhanese, but has its own claim to snobbery.

In common with any number of other Chinese cities (there are about six hundred cities in China), Wuhan has grown like topsy, especially since 1949:

1949                                                            1.02 million
1957                                                            2.15 million
1964 (2nd National Population Census)        2.48 million
1982 (3rd National Population Census)         3.25 million
2000 (Hubei Tourist bureau estimate)            7.3 million...

This last figure refers to the administrative region of Wuhan. A professor of urban planning has suggested to me that the the current metropolitan figure is more like 4 million. Nobody is quite sure because of the huge number of rural migrants (most "unofficial") who are constantly coming and going. In metropolitan terms, Wuhan is probably about the sixth largest city in China at present, (but comes third, after Beijing and Shanghai, for the number of tertiary educational institutions).

The demographic dynamic has major consequences for language change. I dearly wish that I had the local language skills needed to track it! Some things are fairly clear. A large number of the city's residents were not born here. These immigrants are of two kinds: a) the rural poor who often speak dialects or languages almost unintelligible to the Wuhan locals; and b) individuals with a higher than average education who have come for tertiary training or employment. These latter are obliged to use the lingua franca, Putonghua (standard Chinese) most of the time to be understood. The rural poor will pick up whatever bits of language they need to survive. My own research in another part of the world (Fiji, 1990) gave very clear evidence that poor rural immigrants like these are avid language learners exactly because they are upwardly mobile. Their children will certainly learn the national language quickly.

Social class distinctions are often cued by speech (anywhere in the world). These distinctions are strongly felt by visitors and locals alike in Wuhan. A large proportion of the three hundred postgraduates who I teach come from outside of Wuhan, many from other provinces. Writing about people in the city, many disparage the locals' "bad" accent and use of "rude" words. They tend to think that Wuhanese are loud, quarrelsome, and frequently hostile to outsiders including themselves, (although others state quite the opposite). They also note however that Shanghai natives are even more contemptuous of non-locals: we could guess that this kind of provincial prejudice is likely to be widespread throughout the innumerable dialect and language areas of China.

With disarmingly unselfconscious bias, some students write of  "the low quality of people in Wuhan", while (not surprisingly) local speakers are quick to note the superior qualities of their group. Both local students and incomers tend to be disparaging of rural immigrants, who are cursed by both barbaric dialects and "low quality" (whatever that means). So much for the brotherhood of (communist) man...

One of my students did make an interesting sociolinguistic observation. Wuhan people, he wrote, have a habit of  "talking in the street", whereas the citizens of Shenzhen (his hometown, on the Hong Kong border) almost never discuss anything on the street, except when absolutely necessary. He noted with puzzlement that two Wuhanese friends, meeting in the street, will immediately exchange news and views. They even have a word for this phenomenon, zéi, in Wuhan dialect.

In the native communities of Wuhan itself, the use of Putonghua is spreading, particularly amongst the young. There are a variety of reasons for this. The national language is compulsory in schools. The media blitzes them with standard language. People are much more mobile on a daily basis than they used to be, and those of marriageable age are nowadays likely to marry anyone from the greater metropolitan area, or even from elsewhere in China. These new nuclear households will, of course, have only the national language as a shared tongue.

Until a decade ago the securely employed Wuhanese were able to maintain a prestige position for their dialect. Now, in a strange twist of inverted snobbery, the heavy manufacturing base which built the city has become a rusting junk pile. It is precisely the Wuhanese natives who are finding themselves made redundant from bankrupt state-owned enterprises by the hundreds of thousands. It is they who are becoming the new urban poor. The immigrants with special, mobile skills, the Putonghua speakers, are the new elite.





deFrancis, John (1984) The Chinese Language - Fact and Fiction.  University of Hawaii Press

Glucroft, Brian (2011) The Different Languages of China. (ed: a short account of some of the challenges which China's multitude of languages and dialects pose for reseachers of all kinds). @

Zhang, Jing (2013) Wuhan Dialect. (ed: a series of blog postings by a young Chinese researcher trying to identify phonological dialect characteristics in Wuhan). @  


"The Dialects of Wuhan" ©Thor May 2000; all rights reserved


Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


contact:  Thor's China Diary index     thormay AT

All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.