Tea and the Rise of Shanghainese

It’s official: planning has started for a trip to China with the idea of seeing the World Expo in Shanghai and then heading off into the country for tea experiences. As the linguist (at least between my partner and I—he’s the cartographer and navigator), I started doing my part by redoubling my Chinese-learning efforts and by learning a little about Shanghainese.

Shanghainese is the most widespread of the Wu family of languages (or dialects, depending on how you define them). However, it was not always so. It used to be that the Suzhou dialect was the most widespread and most prestigious of the Wu dialects. However, because the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) forced the opening on Shanghai as one of the “treaty ports,” it became a center of trade with the West. As such, the local dialect became more advantageous to speak if you were involved in commerce, trade, finance, shipping, etc.

And, of course, the Treaty of Nanking was what ended the Opium Wars…that started because of the foreign policy and commerce decisions between China and England, specifically regarding the trade of tea.

Or, in the order it actually happened: China sells tea to England. England’s treasury starts geting sucked dry by the trade so they get the Chinese hooked on British opium grown near Darjeeling (did I mention that this has to do with tea?). The Chinese government doesn’t like the drug pushers and tries to stop them. The English don’t like the Chinese firing on their ships and go to war. Two wars later, they sign a treaty forcing open Shanghai’s port (among other Chinese concessions). In order to trade in Shanghai and get wealthy, folks in the areas of Zhejiang, Fujian, and other nearby locales start learning speaking Shanghainese in order to do better business directly or indirectly with the foreign traders at the port. Shanghainese gains prestige and more speakers, toppling Suzhou’s dialect for the king of the Wu dialects.

Tea, the linguistic kingmaker.

2 thoughts on “Tea and the Rise of Shanghainese”

  1. Shanghainese and Mandarin are more disimilar to each other than Italian and Spanish, yet the former are “dialects” and the latter are “languages”.
    They definition of a language I learned in the Anthropology department at the UW is this: if you have your own army, you speak a “language.” If you don’t have your own army, you speak a”dialect”.

  2. Wow. Dialects with that much difference. It’s on my list of things to do to learn to read some Chinese characters. I’ll learn about the differences in dialect. I’m not too worried about how to translate Chinese into Roman characters and I know I’ll never learn much about how to speak it from what I know already. It’s a little overwhelming with all the variations but I can trust that just reading over the Internet will be rather simple.

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