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Anchoring Dialects

TV anchor works to record and rescue the fading dialects of China to rekindle young people’s enthusiasm for their local inheritance

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

A man surnamed Wu shares news with residents in Fuzhou, Fujian Province in a local dialect, September 20, 2012

TV entertainment anchor Wang Han, who presents shows on the Hunan Broadcasting System (HBS), is a household name who has carved out a niche in Chinese broadcasting for being able to converse with guests on his show in up to 20 different dialects spoken in the Chinese mainland.  

What started out as showing off for his classmates has become almost a full-time occupation as he has thrown himself into protecting and promoting dialects. In 2015, he launched Xiang Ying (Hometown Echo), a program that researches and protects dialects in Hunan Province, paying 4.65 million yuan (US$667,000) from his own pocket to help the endeavor.  

In an interview with NewsChina, Wang said the program is already nearing its end. The urgent need to protect dialects meant that he could do nothing more than try to rescue them. 

Happy Chats
Back in 2002, a talk show on HBS called Yue Ce Yue Kai Xin (Happy Chatting) hosted in local dialect by Wang Han became a sensation for over 10 years in Hunan and even further afield. The word ce in the local dialect means “to chat.” 

Between the late 1990s and the beginning of 2000, there was little restriction on broadcasting TV programs in dialects. Wang Han thought that the main reason why Happy Chatting was so successful was because of the charm brought by language itself. And thus speaking in dialect played a significant role in the success, he said. 

Wang’s mastery of so many dialects is closely related to his childhood experiences. He was born in 1974, with his father from Suzhou in East China’s Jiangsu Province and his mother from the city of Changde in Hunan. From 1957 to 1958, his parents went to Xiangtan, also in Hunan, to support local construction. In the 1960s, the country had a strategy for “third-tier city construction” to promote industrial construction in the hinterland cities. Xiangtan was on the list, and many workers, officials and intellectuals went there from all over the country. It was this influx of people that allowed Wang to learn so many dialects, after his family moved there from Suzhou when he was around 5 years old.  

They lived in the same community as the staff at his father’s work unit. Wang remembers his neighbors came from Wuxi, also in Jiangsu and from Shanghai and Sichuan Province in China’s southwest. At his primary school, he had classmates from other provinces in North and Central China like Hubei and Shaanxi. So by the time he was 10, he could speak in the Suzhou and Changde dialects, and understand or speak some Shanghainese, Sichuanese and the local Xiangtan dialect. At that time, in Wang’s own words, learning different dialects was something he did unconsciously, and it was a fun thing for him to show off in front of his classmates.  

When Wang became a host with HBS, he started to realize that if he spoke in a guest’s dialect, it helped him interact better with them. “Then I started to study and use dialects on purpose and found them particularly handy during the program,” Wang said.  

On HBS’s Tian Tian Xiang Shang (Day Day Up), one of China’s most-viewed talk shows, Wang was able to chat with guests in dialects from Hunan, Sichuan, Hubei and in Cantonese, widely spoken in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong.  

Attracting Youth 
In 2016, Wang Han became involved in the production of two TV programs focusing on dialects, called 1.3 Billion Decibels and Colorful Chinese Dialects, both variety shows. In 2011, he consulted with Professor Bao Houxing from Hunan Normal University’s literature department on dialect research approaches. Under Bao’s recommendation, the same year, he started studying phonology, which covers the sound, rhyme and tones of ancient Chinese. 

In the research process, Wang thought about how to demonstrate language diversity to the public audience. It took him two years to prepare for the launch of 1.3 Billion Decibels. An online variety show, it invites musicians from all over the country to perform in different dialects. Audiences can hear the northwest folk musician Zhang Gasong singing in the Gansu dialect or the Adele song “Rolling in the Deep” sung in a Hunan Ningxiang dialect. Around the same time, Wang became acquainted with Cao Zhiyun, then vice president of the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), who is now director of the Chinese Language and Resource Conservation Research Center.  

Wang Han was appointed a consultant to the Chinese Language Resource Protection Research Center in 2015. He proposed the idea of accurate language protection, which would involve recording the voices of seniors and encouraging young people to use their local dialect. He realized the key is to rekindle the lost interest of the younger generation in learning dialects. He believes that all children try to be different from each other, and a dialect is a good way to show a unique personality which could capture the interest of children.  

He hopes that by making TV programs, young people will continue to speak dialects and learn that there is deep cultural support and great interest behind dialects, and that the preservation of linguistic diversity is like protecting biodiversity. 

Calligrapher Hu Xin writes in nüshu, a unique script native to Hunan Province

Wang Han (right) participates in a survey of dialects in Hunan Province, August 2015

A coffee shop in Chongqing Municipality is decorated with words in the local dialect, March 2019

Rescuing Words
In July 2015, Wang Han launched the Xiang Ying project which focuses on dialect rescue and preservation. It aims to spend up to 10 years investigating and conducting field research in 57 dialect sites within Hunan Province. Wang invited local and overseas scholars of Hunan origin who know Hunan dialects well to form 10 dialect investigation teams.  

The project involves finding those who can still speak the dialect and record audio and video of them. The subjects talk about their lives, using local terms for everyday words as well as slang. One dialect site survey generally includes about 1,500 words.  

Finding the right dialect speaker is the most challenging aspect of the project. Wang Han said the person must be a permanent resident who lives in the area, and the person should not have worked outside that area for at least six months in the previous two years, in order to ensure purity of pronunciation with minimum impact from the outside world. 

They pay special attention to filtering out background noise. For example, when they recorded a speaker of the Changsha dialect which is spoken in Hunan’s provincial capital, the team chose a house in a remote place. All the windows were closed, the air conditioner was turned off and blankets were hung up to ensure the best sound quality. To create a daily living environment, team members first chat with the speaker so they relax and speak naturally. A survey of one dialect normally takes at least a month.  

Museum of Language
Wang Han’s eventual goal for his Xiang Ying project is to establish a language resource museum, the Chinese Language Museum, in Hunan Province. “Every language or dialect is a universe, a unique cognition and expression of a thing formed in the local area for thousands of years,” he said. “For example, for the single word “eat,” in Changsha, Changde and Shaoyang, all in Hunan Province, are pronounced differently.” 

In Wang Han’s view, the value of dialects includes tracing back to historical migration routes to see the similarity or mutation of certain words in different dialects. But he acknowledged that it will be hard to preserve fading dialects, so the mission is to record speakers as quickly as possible, in as much detail as they can.  

“A few years later, hopefully there will be a museum so people can hear the words of their ancestors who lived on the same land 100 years ago, or even 500 years ago, and who spoke the same language as they do,” he said.  

The language preservation efforts are urgent, Wang Han said. He remembers once when they were recording a 90-year-old speaker of the Changsha dialect, the speaker said: “Come and record, kid. Once I take off my shoes and go to bed, I’m never sure if I’ll get up the next morning.” If they are not recorded now, the sounds of the Changsha dialect the speaker heard as a child might be lost forever.  

Wang’s son Mumu is six years old. Wang’s wife, fellow HBS host Yang Lele, comes from the inland metropolis of Chongqing. Living with his maternal grandparents allows Mumu to understand Chongqing dialect easily. The child also knows how to speak Changsha dialect. “My son learns dialects fast and can imitate them easily, and when he hears an unfamiliar dialect, he’ll ask what it is and why do they speak this way in this place and that way in another?” Wang plans to take his son with him when he goes to do his field research in the future.  

“He’ll be able to see the diversity of the world and hear how rich its voice is,” Wang Han said.