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Fangyan Friday #11: The Wuwei Way

Learn the “do nothing” dialect from Anhui province

For over a decade, The World of Chinese has been offering modern Chinese-language instruction from street talk to social phenomena to character tales. With 129 officially recognized dialects (方言), though, we have barely scratched the surface of everything there is to learn.

On select Fridays, TWOC will be presenting a basic lesson on speaking like a native of a certain region of China. 

How do you tell someone they’re beautiful in Chinese? 漂亮 (piàoliang) is the standard word in Mandarin that most Chinese learners will know; 巴适 (bāshì) is the Sichuanese word of choice, and 和次 (hècì) is used by those from Wenzhou.

Wuwei, in Anhui province, meanwhile, has developed two ways to compliment a lady on her good looks: 清丝 (qīnsi) and 化得之 (huàdēzhi).

Wuwei’s distinctive dialect, or Wuweihua (无为话),  is difficult to understand for standard Mandarin speakers. One joke tells of a hotel receptionist who thinks about calling the police when he hears two guests from Wuwei imploring each other, “Nǐ xiān sǐ,” which means “You go first” in the Wuwei dialect, but sounds like “You die first” in Mandarin. Meanwhile, the Mandarin insult 我呼死你 (wǒ hūsǐ nǐ,“I’ll call you to death” or “I’ll harass you”) sounds the same as a Wuweihua term for showing admiration for someone: 我呼思你 (wǒ hūsī nǐ)

Wuwei literally means “do nothing,” and may have obtained it’s name during the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 CE). The warlord Cao Cao (曹操), on deciding to withdraw his troops from the area, allegedly complained that the location was strategically useless. Wuwei (无为) can also be translated as a Daoist concept of governing by non-interference—locals naturally much prefer this latter explanation.

The dialect of Wuwei is mostly based upon Jiang-Huai or Lower Yangtze Mandarin, which is spoken in areas between the Yangtze and Huai rivers in Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. It also shares some common words with Wu Chinese. Immigration to the area created this melting pot of different dialects that makes up Wuweihua today.

Some words in Wuweihua are similar to putonghua. For example, ear (耳朵, ěrduo in Mandarin) is 耳刀 (ěrdao) in Wuwei Chinese; feet (脚, jiǎo in Mandarin) is 觉不心 (juébuxīn), and hair (头发, tóufa in Mandarin) is 头毛 (tóumao).

The Wanjiang Reservoir is a scenic destination near Wuwei (by 俞睿(YURUI) from Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA)

Here are some common expressions used by Wuwei locals:

1. 捣蛋,给哈歇火。

Dǎodàn, gèihà xiēhuo.

I failed and I caused a lot of trouble this time.

捣蛋 (dǎodàn) means “to be met with trouble.”  给哈 (gěihà) here is used as “this time,” and 歇火 (xīehuo) can be translated as “game over.” The sentence is useful when you make a mess of something.

2. 过秋豆子,你给个胆子不得鸟了蛮?

Guòqiū dòuzi, nǐ gèi ge dǎnzi bùdéniǎo lè mán?

You little rascal, how dare you?

过秋豆子 (guòqiū dòuzi), or “off-season beans,” only appear for a short time each year, and is used as an idiom for naughty children, much like “rascal.” 不得鸟 (bùdéniǎo) is an adverb meaning “extremely.” The whole sentence implies a child or person or inferior position who doesn’t know their place.

3. 走,噶门口一阵郭蛋一。

Zǒu, gāménkǒu yī zhèn guōdàn yi.

Let’s sit and chat together outside.

In the Wuwei dialect, the sound “ji” is often replaced with “g.” So 家门口 (jiā ménkǒu, house doorway) in Mandarin, becomes 噶门口 (gāménkǒu) in Wuweihua. 郭蛋 (guōdàn) means to chat.

Here are some common rules to follow for Wuweihua.

  1. The j, q, x sounds in standard Mandarin give way to g, k, and h, respectively. For instance, jiā (家), qiā (掐), and xié (鞋) become gā, kā and hái.
  2. Just as Beijing Mandarin is defined by the erhua (儿化) added to the end of word, the Wuwei dialect adds zi (子) as a diminutive ending to words and phrases.
  3. Many expressions in Wuweihua cannot be understood literally: Take 过劲 (guòjìn), literally “beyond a certain extent,” which is used to mean “awesome” or “brilliant.”
  4. Sometimes two-word phrases are shortened to a single word. For example, “cheap” (便宜, piányi) becomes 巧 (qiǎo).
  5. Wuwei locals like to use lots of modal particles for emphasis. For example, 蛮 (mán) is often used at the end of statements:“我在吃东西蛮 (wǒ zài chī dōngxi mán, I’m eating now).”

Cover image of canola blossoms in springtime in Wuwei, by Yang Tingting

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Yang Tingting is a Chinese editor at The World of Chinese. Interested in telling Chinese stories, she writes mainly about culture, language, and society.

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