Wu Chinese

Wu (Wú Yǔ) written in Chinese characters
Native to China; and overseas Chinese in urban emigrant communities originating from Wu speaking areas of China – particularly United States (New York City)
Region Shanghai; most of Zhejiang province; southern Jiangsu province; Xuancheng prefecture-level city of Anhui province; Shangrao County, Guangfeng County and Yushan County, Jiangxi province; Pucheng County, Fujian province; North Point, Hong Kong
Ethnicity Wu (Han Chinese)
Native speakers
80 million  (2007)[1]
Oujiang (Wenzhou)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 wuu
Glottolog wuch1236[2]
Wu Chinese
Traditional Chinese 吳語
Simplified Chinese 吴语

Wu (simplified Chinese: 吴语; traditional Chinese: 吳語; pinyin: wúyǔ, Suzhou Wu: IPA: , Shanghai Wu: IPA: ) is a group of linguistically similar and historically related varieties of Chinese primarily spoken in Zhejiang province, the municipality of Shanghai, and southern Jiangsu province.

Major Wu dialects include those of Shanghai, Suzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Jinhua, and Yongkang. Wu speakers, such as Chiang Kai-shek, Lu Xun, and Cai Yuanpei, occupied positions of great importance in modern Chinese culture and politics. Wu can also be found being used in Yue opera, which is second only in national popularity to Peking Opera; as well as in the performances of the popular entertainer and comedian, Zhou Libo. Wu is also spoken in a large number of diaspora communities, with significant centers of immigration originating from Qingtian and Wenzhou.

Suzhou has traditionally been the linguistic center of the Wu languages and was likely the first place the distinct variety of Chinese known as Wu developed. Suzhou Wu is widely considered to be the most linguistically representative of the family. It was mostly the basis of the Wu lingua franca that developed in Shanghai leading to the formation of modern Shanghainese; which as a center of economic power and possessing the largest population of Wu speakers has attracted the most attention. Due to the influence of Shanghainese, Wu as a whole is incorrectly labelled in English as simply, "Shanghainese"; when introducing the dialect family to non-specialists. Wu is the more accurate terminology for the greater grouping that the Shanghai dialect is part of; other less precise terms include "Jiangnan speech" (江南話), "Jiangzhe (JiangsuZhejiang) speech" (江浙話), and less commonly "Wuyue speech" (吳越語).

This dialect family (and especially Southern Wu) is well-known among linguists and sinologists as being one of the most internally diverse among the spoken Chinese language families with very little mutual intelligibility among varieties within the family. Among speakers of other Chinese varieties, Wu is often subjectively judged to be soft, light, and flowing. There is an idiom in Chinese that specifically describes these qualities of Wu speech: Wú nóng ruǎn yǔ (吴侬软语), which literally means "the tender speech of Wu." On the other hand, some Wu varieties like Wenzhounese have gained notoriety for their incomprehensibility to both Wu and non-Wu speakers alike, so much so that Wenzhounese was used during the Second World War to avoid Japanese interception.

Along with Germanic languages, Wu dialects have the largest vowel quality inventories in the world. The Jinhui dialect spoken in Shanghai's Fengxian District has 20 vowel qualities, the most among all world languages.[3][4]

Wu dialects are typified linguistically as having preserved the voiced initials of Middle Chinese, having a majority of Middle Chinese tones undergo a register split, and preserving a checked tone typically terminating in a glottal stop,[5] although some dialects maintain the tone without the stop and certain dialects of Southern Wu have undergone or are starting to undergo a process of devoicing. The historical relations which determine Wu classification primarily consist in two main factors: firstly, geography, both in terms of physical geography and distance south or away from Mandarin, that is Wu dialects are part of a Wu–Min dialect continuum from southern Jiangsu to southern Fujian and Chaozhou. The second factor is the drawing of historical administrative boundaries which in addition to physical barriers limit mobility and in the majority of cases more or less determine the boundary of a Wu dialect.

Wu Chinese along with Min are also of great significance to historical linguists due their retention of many ancient features. These two families have proven pivotal in determining the phonetic history of the Chinese language.

More pressing concerns of the present are those of dialect preservation. Many within and without the country fear that the increased usage of Mandarin may eventually altogether supplant the languages that have no written form, legal protection, or official status and are officially barred from use in public discourse. However, many analysts believe that a stable state of diglossia will endure for at least several generations if not indefinitely.


  • Geographic distribution 1
  • Names 2
  • History 3
    • Historic range 3.1
    • Origins 3.2
    • Post-1949 3.3
    • Number of speakers 3.4
  • Diachronic study of Wu 4
    • Origins 4.1
    • Written sources 4.2
    • Ming and Qing Wu 4.3
      • Further reading 4.3.1
  • Classification 5
  • Dialects 6
  • Phonology 7
    • Literary and vernacular pronunciations in Shanghainese 7.1
  • Grammar 8
    • Plural pronouns 8.1
    • Classifiers 8.2
    • Examples 8.3
  • Vocabulary 9
    • Examples 9.1
    • Preference of archaic words 9.2
    • Colloquialisms 9.3
  • Literature 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • Notes 13
  • External links 14

Geographic distribution

Wu Varieties are spoken in most of Zhejiang province, the municipality of Shanghai, southern Jiangsu province, as well as smaller parts of Anhui, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces.[6] Many are located in the lower Yangzi valley.[7][8]


The average speaker of a Wu dialect is mostly unaware of this name for the language they speak since the term Wu is a relatively recent classificatory imposition on what are less clearly defined and highly heterogeneous natural forms. Saying one speaks Wu is akin to saying one speaks a Germanic language. It is not a particularly defined entity like Standard Mandarin or Hochdeutsch.

Most speakers are only vaguely aware of their local language's affinities with other similarly classified dialects and will generally only refer to their local Wu variety rather than the dialect family. They do this by affixing '' huà (speech) to their location's endonym. For example 溫州話 Wēnzhōuhuà is used for Wenzhounese. Affixing 閒話 xiánhuà is also common and more typical of the Taihu division, as in 嘉興閒話 Jiāxīngxiánhuà for Jiaxing dialect.

  • Wu (simplified Chinese: 吴语; traditional Chinese: 吳語; pinyin: Wúyǔ, 'Wu language'): the formal name and standard reference in dialectology literature.
  • Wu dialects (simplified Chinese: 吴语方言; traditional Chinese: 吳語方言; pinyin: Wúyǔ fāngyán, can be interpreted as either "dialects of the Wu language" or "Chinese dialects in the Wu family"): another scholastic term.
  • Northern Wu (simplified Chinese: 北部吴语; traditional Chinese: 北部吳語; pinyin: Běibù Wúyǔ): Wu typically spoken in the north of Zhejiang, Shanghai, and parts of Jiangsu, comprising the Taihu and usually the Taizhou divisions. It by default includes the Xuanzhou division in Anhui as well, however this division is often neglected in Northern Wu discussions.
  • Southern Wu (simplified Chinese: 南部吴语; traditional Chinese: 南部吳語; pinyin: Nánbù Wúyǔ): Wu spoken in southern Zhejiang and periphery, comprising the Oujiang, Wuzhou, and Chuqu divisions.
  • Western Wu (simplified Chinese: 西部吴语; traditional Chinese: 西部吳語; pinyin: Xībù Wúyǔ): A term gaining in usage[9] as a synonym for the Xuanzhou division and modeled after the previous two terms since the Xuanzhou division is less representative of Northern Wu.
  • Shanghainese (simplified Chinese: 上海话/上海闲话; traditional Chinese: 上海話/上海閒話; pinyin: Shànghǎihuà/Shànghǎi xiánhuà): is also a very common name, used because Shanghai is the most well-known city in the Wu-speaking region, and most people are unfamiliar with the term Wu Chinese. The use of the term Shanghainese for referring to the family is more typically used outside of China and in simplified introductions to the areas where it's spoken or to other similar topics, for example one might encounter sentences like "They speak a kind of Shanghainese in Ningbo." The term Shanghainese is never used by serious linguists to refer to anything but the Shanghai dialect.
  • Wuyue language (simplified Chinese: 吴越语; traditional Chinese: 吳越語; pinyin: Wúyuèyǔ; "the language of Wu and Yue"): an ancient name, now seldom used, referring to the language(s) spoken in the ancient states of Wu, Yue, and Wuyue or the general region where they were located and by extension the modern forms of the language(s) spoken there. It was also used as an older term for what is now simply known as Wu Chinese. Initially, some dialectologists had grouped the Wu dialects in Jiangsu under the term 吳語 Wúyǔ where the ancient Wu kingdom had been located and the Wu dialects in Zhejiang under the term 越語 Yuèyǔ where the ancient Yue kingdom had been located. These were coined however for purely historical reasons. Today, most dialectologists consider the Wu dialects in northern Zhejiang far more similar to those of southern Jiangsu than to those of southern Zhejiang, so this terminology is no longer appropriate from a linguistic perspective. As a result, the terms Southern and Northern Wu have become more and more common in dialectology literature to differentiate between those in Jiangsu and the northern half of Zhejiang and those in southern Zhejiang and its Wu-speaking periphery.
  • Jiangnan language (simplified Chinese: 江南话; traditional Chinese: 江南話; pinyin: Jiāngnánhuà): meaning the language of the area south of the Yangtze, used because most of the Wu speakers live south of the Yangtze River in an area called Jiangnan.
  • Kiang–Che or Jiang–Zhe language (simplified Chinese: 江浙话; traditional Chinese: 江浙話; pinyin: Jiāngzhèhuà): meaning "the speech of Jiangsu and Zhejiang".


The modern Wu language can be traced back to the ancient Wu and Yue peoples (see also: Baiyue) centered around what is now southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang. The Japanese Go-on (呉音 goon, pinyin: Wú yīn) readings of Chinese characters (obtained from the Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period) is from the same region of China where Wu is spoken today, however the readings do not necessarily reflect the pronunciation of Wu Chinese. Wu Chinese itself has a history of more than 2,500 years, dating back to the Chinese settlement of the region in the Spring and Autumn Period, however there are only very minor traces from these earlier periods. The language of today is wholly descendant from the Middle Chinese of the SuiTang era (6-8th centuries AD), as is true of all contemporary Chinese dialects except Min Chinese.[10]

Historic range

According to records of the Eastern Jin, the earliest known dialect of Nanjing was an ancient Wu dialect. After the Wu Hu uprising, the Jin Emperor and many northern Chinese fled south, establishing the new capital Jiankang in what is modern day Nanjing. It was during this time that the ancient Wu of Nanjing was replaced by Jianghuai Mandarin.[11]

One prominent historical speaker of Wu dialect was Emperor Yangdi of the Sui dynasty and his Empress Xiao (Sui Dynasty). Emperor Xuan of Western Liang, a member of Emperor Wu of Liang's court, was Empress Xiao's grandfather and he most likely learned Wu dialect at Jiankang.[12][13]

A "ballad-narrative" (說晿詞話) known as "The story of Xue Rengui crossing the sea and Pacifying Liao" (薛仁貴跨海征遼故事), which is about the Tang dynasty hero Xue Rengui[14] is believed to been written in the Suzhou dialect of Wu.[15]


Like most other branches of Chinese, Wu mostly descends from Middle Chinese which more or less supplanted the pre-existing language. This language, called Old Wu–Min, was one of the earliest splits from Northern Chinese and is still preserved in the Min dialects of Fujian which also originate from this language. Wu dialects like Min retain many ancient characteristics and are considered some of the most historic dialects. Wu was however more heavily influenced by northern or Mandarin Chinese throughout its development than Min, as for example in its lenition of unreleased /k/, /t/, /p/ finals into glottal stops which also happened in the Mandarin dialects before disappearing in most others. Some Mandarin dialects especially ones farther south still possess the glottal stops while some Wu dialects have entirely lost them. Most Min dialects however completely retain the series. These developments in Wu are likely areal influences due to its geographical closeness to North China, the ease of transport with many water ways in the north, the placement of the Southern Song capital in Hangzhou, as well as to the high rate of education in this region.

As early as the time of Guo Pu (276–324), speakers easily perceived differences between dialects in different parts of China including the area where Wu dialects are spoken today.[16]

During the Wu Hu uprising and the Disaster of Yongjia in 311, the region became heavily inundated by settlers from Northern China, mostly coming from what is now northern Jiangsu province and Shandong province, with smaller numbers of settlers coming from the Central Plains. From the 300s to the 400s AD Northern people moved into Wu areas, adding characteristics to the lexicon of Northern Wu, traces of which can still be found in Northern Wu varieties today.[17]

During the time between Ming Dynasty and early Republican era, the main characteristics of modern Wu were formed. The Suzhou dialect became the most influential, and many dialectologists use it in citing examples of Wu.

During the Ming dynasty Wu speakers moved into Jianghuai Mandarin speaking regions, influencing the Tairu and Tongtai dialects of Jianghuai.[18]

After the Taiping Rebellion at the end of the Qing dynasty, in which the Wu-speaking region was devastated by war, Shanghai was inundated with migrants from other parts of the Wu-speaking area. This greatly affected the dialect of Shanghai, bringing, for example, influence from the Ningbo dialect to a dialect which, at least within the walled city of Shanghai, was almost identical to the Suzhou dialect. As a result of the population boom, in the first half of the 20th century, Shanghainese became almost a regional lingua franca within the region eclipsing the status of the Suzhou dialect. However due to its pastiche of features from different languages, it is rarely used to infer historical information about the Wu dialect family and is less representative of Wu than the Suzhou dialect.


A sign in Lishui urging people to speak Mandarin: "Speak Mandarin well—It's easier for both you and me.")

After the founding of the

  • Globalization, National Culture and the Search for Identity: A Chinese Dilemma (1st Quarter of 2006, Media Development) – A comprehensive article, written by Wu Mei and Guo Zhenzhi of World Association for Christian Communication, related to the struggle for national cultural unity by current Chinese Communist national government while desperately fighting for preservation on Chinese regional cultures that have been the precious roots of all Han Chinese people (including Hangzhou Wu dialect). Excellent for anyone doing research on Chinese language linguistic, anthropology on Chinese culture, international business, foreign languages, global studies, and translation/interpretation.
  • Modernisation a Threat to Dialects in China – An excellent article originally from Straits Times Interactive through YTL Community website, it provides an insight of Chinese dialects, both major and minor, losing their speakers to Standard Mandarin due to greater mobility and interaction. Excellent for anyone doing research on Chinese language linguistic, anthropology on Chinese culture, international business, foreign languages, global studies, and translation/interpretation.
  • Middlebury Expands Study Abroad Horizons – An excellent article including a section on future exchange programs in learning Chinese language in Hangzhou (plus colorful, positive impression on the Hangzhou dialect, too). Requires registration of online account before viewing.
  • Mind your language (from The Standard, Hong Kong) – This newspaper article provides a deep insight on the danger of decline in the usage of dialects, including Wu dialects, other than the rising star of Standard Mandarin. It also mentions an exception where some grassroots’ organizations and, sometimes, larger institutions, are the force behind the preservation of their dialects. Another excellent article for research on Chinese language linguistics, anthropology on Chinese culture, international business, foreign languages, global studies, and translation/interpretation.
  • China: Dialect use on TV worries Beijing (originally from Straits Times Interactive, Singapore and posted on AsiaMedia Media News Daily from UCLA) – Article on the use of dialects other than standard Mandarin in China where strict media censorship is high.
  • Standard or Local Chinese – TV Programs in Dialect (from Radio86.co.uk) – Another article on the use of dialects other than standard Mandarin in China.


  • Tatoeba Project Tatoeba.org - Examples sentences in Shanghainese dialect, and in Suzhouan dialect.

Excellent reference on Wu Chinese, including tones of the sub-dialects.

  • “The elegant language in Jiangnan area” (Chinese: 江南雅音话吴语)(simplified Chinese)

A website aimed at modernization of Wu Chinese, including basics of Wu, Wu romanization scheme, pronunciation dictionaries of different dialects, Wu input method development, Wu research literatures, written Wu experiment, Wu orthography, a discussion forum etc.

  • Wu Chinese Online Association (Chinese: 吴语协会)(Wuu)

A BBS set up in 2004, in which topics such as phonology, grammar, orthography and romanization of Wu Chinese are widely talked about. The cultural and linguistic diversity within China is also a significant concerning of this forum.

  • glossika.com
    • Shanghainese Wu Dictionary – Search in Mandarin, IPA, or
    • Classification of Wu Dialects – By James Campbell
    • Tones in Wu Dialects – Compiled by James Campbell
  • Linguistic Forum of Wu Chinese (Chinese: 吴语论坛)

Resources on Wu dialects

External links

  • 袁家驊 – 漢語方言概要


  • Yan, M.M. (2006). Introduction to Chinese Dialectology. Munich: Lincom Europa
  • Snow, Donald B. Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-962-209-709-4. ISBN 962-209-709-X.
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  18. ^ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Volume 65. University of London. School of Oriental and African Studies. 2002. p. 541. Retrieved 23 September 2011. For example, the eastern-most languages of the Tairu or Tongtai branch saw significant immigration from Wu-speaking areas in early Ming times, while in the same period the Huang-Xiao area on the western flank of the family was inundated  (the University of Michigan)
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See also

Snow argued that the primary reason was the increase of prestige and importance in Baihua, and that one other contributing reason was changing market factors since Shanghai's publishing industry, which grew, served all of China and not just Shanghai.