Dongbeihua (东北话), apart from being the most common dialect in Northeastern China, is the unofficial language of Chinese comedians; for decades, comedians have ruled the stage of China’s Spring Festival Gala, and there is no more efficient way to spread a dialect than that.
Dongbeihua has a unique appeal that can’t quite be found in other Chinese dialects in its ability to make mundane daily conversation instantly comical. You may find yourself laughing just sitting on a Dongbei bus. Despite its comic effect, learning some Dongbeihua can help you in everyday life because a great many key elements of Dongbeihua have seeped into popular usage across China in the form of slang.
Before we get down to specific words and phrases, the first lesson in Dongbeihua is the right attitude, even more so than getting the pronunciation right. Don’t speak delicately; anything that resembles politeness, hesitation, or gentleness will completely shatter the performance. It is for rash, warm-hearted, straightforward Dongbei common folk. Even if this doesn’t sound like you, pretend. Be loud, sudden, intrusive, impolite, and jovial. Without these qualities, your Dongbeihua just won’t sound authentic.
Now, let’s start with the most basic greeting in northern China: What’re you up to? (你干啥去? Nǐ gàn shá qù?) The Dongbei version is “你嘎哈去？(Nǐ gà há qù?)” Pronounce the vowels with your mouth unnecessarily wide open—more open than when speaking Mandarin—and emphasize and prolong the “há” demandingly. To reply, simply throw the question back to the greeter: “I’m not up to anything. What’re you up to?” (我不嘎哈。你嘎哈去？ Wǒ bù gà há. Nǐ gà há qù?)
Another Dongbei phrase that has earned national popularity is the exclamation, “Oh, good heavens” (哎呀妈呀), which directly translates to “ouch mother”. The standard Mandarin pronunciation is “āiya māya”, but in Dongbeihua the tones are similar to “áiya máya”. The emphasis is on the first character, “ái”. Make sure the phrase bursts forth with great force, because, ever straight-forward, Dongbeiren are always genuinely surprised. Use it when you feel an ordinary exclamation just won’t do.
Although Dongbeihua varies a little from province to province, there are some common rules you can follow. In some cases, the consonants of “zh”, “ch” and “sh” in Mandarin are spoken as “z”, “s”, and “z”, but other places do the opposite, so keep an ear out. The consonant “r” is invariably replaced with “y”. Two examples:
I’m from Dongbei.
Wǒ sì Dōngběiyín. (The Mandarin pronunciation is “Wǒ shì Dōngběirén.”)
I want to eat meat.
Wǒ yào cī yòu. (The Mandarin pronunciation is “Wǒ yào chī ròu.”)
In Dongbeihua, verbs often have a unique vividness. For example, for “staying at home,” Dongbeihua uses “猫” ( māo ), literally to “hide like a cat”.
I’m not going anywhere for the holiday, just staying in.
Fàngjià wǒ nǎr dōu bù qù, jiù māo jiālǐ.
The most frequently used verb in Dongbeihua is no doubt 整 (zhěng). Its use is almost indefinable, because it can be used in place of “do”, “get”, or “make”, ballooning into an even wider range of meanings.
Get me two bottles of beer.
Gěi wǒ zhěng liǎng píng píjiǔ.
The air-conditioner broke down. Now what do we do?
Kōngtiáo huài le, zǎ zhěng?
You just don’t get what I’m saying!
Zěnme gēn nǐ jiù shì zhěng bù míngbai ne!
Dongbeiren seldom use an adjective without adding an adverb to intensify it. The most common adverb is “贼啦” ( zéilā ). “贼” literally means “thief”, but in Dongbeihua you just apply it before every suitable adjective for emphasis.
This restaurant is criminally good.
Zhè guǎnzi zéilā hǎochī.
The Dongbei people, just as they are known for being warm-hearted, are also well-known for being proud, short-tempered, and easily enraged. This point is best demonstrated if you type “Dongbeiren” into Baidu. The most searched items that automatically come up for “Dongbeiren are all living Lei Feng” (东北人都是活雷锋, Lei Feng referring to the mid-20th century Chinese propaganda icon) and “Dongbeiren picking fights” (东北人打架). The Dongbei personality seems to somehow perfectly embody both aspects, and it is no wonder that Dongbeihua is exceptionally rich in derogatory terms. The most used pejorative is “show off” (嘚瑟 dèse) or more precisely, to squander money. It is used to chide someone for behaving vainly or irrationally but only mildly and with an ironic tone. Sometimes it simply means “have a swell time” or “indulge yourself”.
You just got paid and you have already squandered it all.
Gāng fā de gōngzī, méi liǎngtiān jiù bèi nǐ dèse guāng le.
You look quite good. Where have you been indulging yourself?
Qìsè búcuò a, zuìjìn shàng nǎr dèse qù le?
To say “cheat” or “dupe”, use “忽悠” (hūyou). After the Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan used it at the Spring Festival Gala, the word became so popular in China that people are now not even aware of its Dongbei roots.
My grandma was duped by an insurance salesman.
Wǒ nǎinai bèi yí gè mài bǎoxiǎn de hūyou de tuántuánzhuàn.
It is also used as a noun in the word 大忽悠 (dàhūyou), meaning “a person who is a big cheater”.
He is just a big huyou; he never does what he promises.
Tā zhè rén jiùshì ge dàhūyou, shuōhuà cónglái dōu bú suànshù.
As for derogatory adjectives, there are a number of useful terms: to describe something shabby or ugly, use 磕碜 (kēchen); to say someone is stupid, use 彪 (biāo) or 虎 (hǔ); to say something is dirty, use 埋汰 (máitai).
Your handwriting is so ugly.
Nǐ xiě de zì tài kēchen le ba.
You forgot your ID card when taking the train? You idiot!
Zuò huǒchē wàng le dài shēnfènzhèng? Nǐ biāo a!
This room is so dirty.
Zhè wūzi zhēn máitai.
Lastly but perhaps the most importantly, if you are a first-timer to Dongbei, you have to learn how to speak properly in order to avoid getting into trouble. It is commonly said online that 60 percent of fights in Dongbei are started because someone didn’t respond properly to the bulky, tattooed, hot-blooded Dongbei man when he asked:
What are you lookin’ at?
Nǐ chǒu shá?
It is common sense that, if asked this question in Dongbei, you have to be very careful with your choice of words. This means the questioner is not only annoyed by your stare, but already considers it a challenge and is squaring himself up for a fight.
If you remain oblivious of this and respond naturally with, “What’s wrong with lookin’ at you?” (瞅你咋地？Chǒu nǐ zǎ dì?), you might be in for some trouble. The next thing you might hear is: “Come on, buddy, let’s have a good chat (过来，哥们儿，咱俩唠唠。Guòlái, gēmenr, zán liǎ láo lao).” This is an official declaration of war.
Even if you err on the side of caution and say, “Bro, I ain’t lookin’ at anything (哥，我没瞅啥 Gē, wǒ méi chǒu shá),” things could end the same because this too sounds like an insult to the Dongbei ear. Here are a few suggestions if you want to keep yourself safe:
Bro, have we met before? You look like a classmate of mine from primary school.
Gē, zán jiànguo ba? Nǐ zhǎng dé xiàng wǒ xiǎoxué tóngxué.
That’s an awesome gold chain you’re wearing. Where did you buy it?
Nǐ dài de zhè jīnliànzi zhēn hǎo, nǎr mǎi de?
Remember that Dongbeihua can be funny or scary—it’s just a way to express yourself fully and with confidence. There is a thin line between being funny and starting a fight in any language, as any class clown will tell you, but the Dongbei dialect has a lot to offer for the satirical and emotional among you, so give it a go, and remember not to stare at beefy Dongbeiren.
“Dongbei Survival Guide” is a story in the “Social Chinese” section from our latest issue, “Startup Kingdom”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.
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