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The Wu languages (traditional Chinese: 吳語; simplified Chinese: 吴语; Wu romanization and IPA: wu6 gniu6 [ɦu˩˩˧.n̠ʲy˩˩˧] (Shanghainese), ng2 gniu6 [ŋ̍˨˨˦.n̠ʲy˨˧˩] (Suzhounese), Mandarin pinyin and IPA: Wúyǔ [u³⁵ y²¹⁴]) is a major group of Sinitic languages spoken primarily in Shanghai, Zhejiang Province, and the part of Jiangsu Province south of the Yangtze River, which makes up the cultural region of Wu. The Suzhou dialect was the prestige dialect of Wu as of the 19th century, and formed the basis of Wu's koiné dialect, Shanghainese, at the turn of the 20th century. Speakers of various Wu languages sometimes inaccurately labelled their mother tongue as "Shanghainese" when introduced to foreigners. The languages of Northern Wu are mutually intelligible with each other, while those of Southern Wu are not.

RegionShanghai, Zhejiang, Southeastern Jiangsu, parts of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces
EthnicityWu, a major subgroup of Han Chinese
Native speakers
80 million (2007)[1]
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3wuu

Historical linguists view Wu of great significance because it distinguished itself from other varieties of Chinese by preserving the voiced initials of the ancient Middle Chinese and by preserving the checked tone as a glottal stop.[2] The phonological divergence between Wu and other Chinese is significant, for instance, the phrase "Shanghainese language" (上海閒話; 上海闲) is pronounced as [zɑ̃.he̞ ɦe̞.ɦo] in Wu and [ʂaŋ.xaɪ.ɕjɛn.xwa] in Beijing Mandarin. Wu and the Suzhou dialect in particular is perceived as soft in the ears of Mandarin speakers; hence there is the idiom "the tender speech of Wu" (吳儂軟語; 吴侬软语).

The decline of Wu began from around 1986, when students were banned from speaking "uncivilized dialects" during class, a term used by the State Language Commission to refer to all Chinese languages other than Standard Chinese. [citation needed] In 1992, students in Shanghai were banned from speaking Wu at all times on campuses.[3] Since the late 2000s, Wu mostly survived in kitchens and theatres, as a "kitchen language" among the elderly housewives and as a theatrical language in folk Yue opera, Shanghai opera and Pingtan. As of now, Wu has no official status, no legal protection and there is no officially sanctioned romanization.[4]


Speakers of Wu varieties are mostly unaware of this term for their speech, since the term "Wu" is a relatively recent classificatory imposition on what are less clearly defined and highly heterogeneous natural forms. Saying someone "speaks Wu" is therefore akin to saying someone "speaks a Romance language"; it is not a particularly defined entity like Standard Mandarin or Hochdeutsch.

Most speakers are only vaguely aware of their local variety's affinities with other similarly classified varieties, and will generally only refer to their local Wu variety rather than to the dialect family as a whole. This is typically done by affixing "" ("speech") to a location's endonym. For example, 溫州話 (Wu Chinese: [ʔy˧꜖ tɕiɤu˧꜖ ɦo˩꜒꜔]) is used for Wenzhounese. Affixing "閒話" is also common, and more typical of the Taihu division, as in 嘉興閒話 (Kashin'ghenwo) for the Jiaxing dialect.

  • Goetian, derived from the Japanese spelling of Wuyue (吳越, Gō-etsu), is among the alternative names listed by Ethnologue.[5]


Wu Chinese is the most ancient of the six major southern Chinese varieties, tracing its origin to more than 3,000 years ago, when the Zhou princes Taibo and Zhongyong migrated from the Guanzhong region in modern Shaanxi to the WuxiSuzhou area of the Jiangnan region, where they established the state of Wu.[6] The northern language they brought formed the foundation of Wu Chinese. By the Six Dynasties era, Wu had already been developing for a millennium and differed considerably from the northern speech. When large numbers of northern Chinese migrated to Jiangnan following the fall of the Western Jin dynasty, they discovered great discrepancies between the two varieties of Chinese. This is recorded in contemporary texts such as the Shi Shuo Xin Yu.[6] The Japanese Go-on (呉音, goon, pinyin: Wú yīn) readings of Chinese characters (obtained from the Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period) are from the ancient Wu Chinese of this period. However, as Wu Chinese has been under strong influence from the north throughout history, many of its ancient features have been lost.[6] The language of today is largely descendant from the Middle Chinese of the Sui–Tang era (6–8th centuries), as is true of most contemporary Chinese languages, with Min Chinese languages being notable exceptions.[7] However, many of the ancient Wu features have been preserved in Min,[8] as the latter began its life as the Old Wu spoken by migrants to Fujian during the century that marked the transition from the late Han dynasty to the Three Kingdoms and the Western Jin.[9]

Substrate influences

Wu is considered the most ancient southern Chinese variety,[6] since the Jiangnan region was the first area settled that was non-contiguous with the northern Chinese states. Proto-Min or Old Wu–Min is also the language from which the Min dialects evolved as the populace migrated farther south, so some knowledge of this language would not only offer insight into the development of these dialects and Sino-Tibetan but also into the indigenous languages of the region, knowledge of which would also be invaluable towards establishing the phylogeny of related Asian languages and towards reconstructing them.

According to traditional history, Taibo of Wu settled in the area during the Shang dynasty, bringing along a large section of the population and Chinese administrative practices to form the state of Wu.[10] The state of Wu might have been ruled by a Chinese minority along with sinified Yue peoples, and the bulk of the population would have remained Yue until later migrations and absorption into the greater Chinese populace (though many likely fled south as well). Many have wondered about what effect the Yue people's language may have had on the dialect spoken there, since, for example, names and other social practices in the state of Yue are markedly different from the rest of Chinese civilization.[11]

Bernhard Karlgren, on the other hand, noted that the Tang koiné was adopted by most speakers in China (except for those in Fujian) with only slight remnants of "vulgar" speech from pre-Tang times, which he believed were preserved among the lower classes,[12] albeit this makes many presumptions about Tang China's class structure and sociolinguistic situation. Most linguists today refer to these remnants as dialectal strata or substrata. In many ways, the koiné can be considered the language from which Wu varieties evolved, with the earlier language leaving behind a pre-Tang dialectal stratum which itself may have included a substratum from the Yue language(s).

Western dialectologists have found a small handful of words that appear to be part of an Austroasiatic substratum in many Wu and Min languages. Mandarin Chinese also possesses some words of Austroasiatic origin, such as the original name of the Yangtze River, "" (jiāng; Old Chinese *krung, compared to Old Vietnamese *krong), which has evolved into the general word for "river".[13] Min languages, which were less affected by the koiné, definitely appear to possess an Austroasiatic substratum, such as a Min word for shaman or spirit healer such as in Jian'ou Min toŋ³ which appears to be cognate with Vietnamese ʔdoŋ², Written Mon doŋ, and Santali dōŋ, which all have meanings similar to the Min word.[14] However, Laurent Sagart points out that the resemblance between the Min word for shaman or spirit healer and the Vietnamese term with the same meaning is likely coincidental.[15]

The most notable examples are the word for "person" in some Wu varieties as *nong, usually written as nóng in Chinese, and the word for wet in many Wu and Min dialects, with a /t/ initial which is clearly in no way related to the Chinese word shī but cognate with Vietnamese đầm. Min languages notably retain the bilabial nasal coda for this word. However, Sagart shows that the Min words for wet, duckweed, and (small) salted fish, which seem to be cognates with Vietnamese đầm, bèo, , are either East Asian areal words if not Chinese words in disguise ("duckweed", "wet"), and long shots ("salted fish").[16]

Li Hui identifies 126 Tai-Kadai cognates in Maqiao Wu dialect spoken in the suburbs of Shanghai out of more than a thousand lexical items surveyed.[17] According to the author, these cognates are likely traces of "old Yue language" (古越語).[17]

Analysis of the Song of the Yue Boatman, a song in the Yue language transcribed by a Chinese official in Chinese characters, clearly points to a Tai language rather than an Austroasiatic one.[18] Chinese discussion of Wenzhounese often mentions the strong Tai affinities the dialect possesses.[19] The Zhuang languages in Guangxi and western Guangdong, for example, are also Tai, so it would appear that Tai populated southern China before the Chinese expansion. The term Yue was clearly applied indiscriminately to any non-Chinese in the area that the Chinese encountered. The impact of these languages still appears to be fairly minimal overall.

Though Sino-Tibetan, Tai–Kadai, Austronesian and Austroasiatic are mostly considered to be unrelated to each other, Laurent Sagart has proposed some possible phylogenetic affinities. Specifically, Tai–Kadai and Sino-Tibetan could possibly both belong to the Sino-Austronesian language family (not to be confused with Austroasiatic) due to a scattering of cognates between their ancestral forms, and there is also some, albeit much more tenuous, evidence to suggest that Austroasiatic should also be included, however his views are but one among competing hypotheses about the phylogeny of these languages, see the Sino-Austronesian languages article for some further detail. During the 8th and 9th centuries, ethnic Koreans from Silla made overseas communities in the Wu speaking region.[20]

It does appear that Wu varieties have had non-Sinitic influences, and many contain words cognate with those of other languages in various strata. These words however are few and far between, and Wu on the whole is most strongly influenced by Tang Chinese rather than any other linguistic influence.


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 varieties are spoken today.[21]

According to records of the Eastern Jin, the earliest known dialect of Nanjing was an ancient Wu dialect. After the Wu Hu uprising and the Disaster of Yongjia in 311, the Jin Emperor and many northern Chinese fled south, establishing the new capital Jiankang in what is modern-day Nanjing.[22] The lower Yangtze 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 4th to the 5th century, 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.[23]

One prominent historical speaker of the Wu dialect was Emperor Yangdi of the Sui dynasty and his Empress Xiao. Emperor Xuan of Western Liang, a member of Emperor Wu of Liang's court, was Empress Xiao's grandfather and he most likely learned the Wu dialect at Jiankang.[24][25]

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 variety 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 lingua franca within the region, eclipsing the status of the Suzhou variety. However, due to its pastiche of features from different languages, it is rarely used to infer historical information about the Wu group and is less representative of Wu than the Suzhou variety.[citation needed]

Written sources

There are few written sources of study for Wu, and research is generally concentrated on modern speech forms rather than texts. Written Chinese has always been in the classical form, so Wu speakers would have written in this classical form and read it in a literary form of their dialect based on the phonetic distinctions outlined in rhyme dictionaries. Therefore, no text in classical Chinese from the region would give a clear notion about the actual speech of the writer, although there may have been cleverly disguised puns based on local pronunciations that are lost on modern readers or other dialect speakers. Yue opera, for example, is performed in the Shaoxing dialect, however the register is more literary than oral.

There are still a number of primary documents available, but they do not always give a clear sense of the dialects' historical pronunciation. They do often offer insight into lexical differences. Most of the sources for diachronic Wu study lie in the folk literature of the region. Since the average person was illiterate and the literate were often traditionalists who possibly perceived their local form of Chinese as a degenerated version of a classical ideal, very little was recorded, although local vocabulary often sneaks into written records.

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,[26] is believed to have been written in the Suzhou dialect of Wu.[27]

The main sources of study are from the Ming and Qing period, since the dialectal differences were not as obvious until Ming times,[28] and lie in historical folk songs, tanci (a kind of ballad or lyric poem), local records, legendary stories, baihua novels, educational material produced for the region, notes which have survived among individuals' effects, the linguistic descriptions made by foreigners (primarily by missionaries), and the Bibles translated into Wu dialects. These all give glimpses into the past, but except for the bibles, are not so useful for phonological studies. They are, however, of tremendous importance for diachronic studies of vocabulary and to a lesser extent grammar and syntax.

The diachronic study of written Ming and Qing Wu, the time when the dialects began to take on wholly unique features, can be placed into three stages: the Early Period, the Middle Period, and the Late Period.

The "Early Period" begins at the end of the Ming dynasty to the beginning of the Qing in the 17th century, when the first documents showing distinctly Wu characteristics appear. The representative work from this period is the collection of folk songs gathered by Feng Menglong entitled "Shan Ge" 山歌. The majority of early period documents record the Wu varieties of southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang, so any discussion in this section is primarily relevant to Northern Wu or the Taihu division. Along with some other legends and works, the following list contains many of the documents that are either written in Wu or contain parts where dialects are used.

These works contain a small handful of unique grammatical features, some of which are not found in contemporary Mandarin, classical Chinese, or in contemporary Wu varieties. They do contain many of the unique features present in contemporary Wu such as pronouns, but clearly indicate that not all of the earlier unique features of these Wu dialects were carried into the present. These works also possess a number of characters uniquely formed to express features not found in the classical language and used some common characters as phonetic loans (see Chinese character classification) to express other uniquely Wu vocabulary.

During the Ming dynasty, Wu speakers moved into Jianghuai Mandarin speaking regions, influencing the Tairu and Tongtai dialects of Jianghuai.[29] During the time between the 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.[citation needed]

The Middle Period (Chinese: 中期; pinyin: zhōngqī) took place in the middle of the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. Representative works from this section include the operas (especially kunqu operas) by Qian Decang (錢德蒼) in the collection 綴白裘, and the legends written by Shen Qifeng [zh] or what are known as "沈氏四種", as well as huge numbers of tanci (彈詞) ballads. Many of the common phenomena found in the Shan Ge are not present in works from this period, but we see the production of many new words and new means of using words.

The Late Period (Chinese: 晚期; pinyin: wǎnqī) is the period from late Qing to Republican China, in the 19th and 20th centuries. The representative works from this period are Wu vernacular novels (蘇白小說 or 吳語小說) such as The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai and The Nine-tailed Turtle. Other works include:

Wu-speaking writers who wrote in vernacular Mandarin often left traces of their native varieties in their works, as can be found in Guanchang Xianxing Ji and Fubao Zatan (负曝闲谈).

Another source from this period is from the work of the missionary Joseph Edkins, who gathered large amounts of data and published several educational works on Shanghainese as well as a Bible in Shanghainese and a few other major Wu varieties.

Works in this period also saw an explosion of new vocabulary in Wu dialects to describe their changing world. This clearly reflects the great social changes which were occurring during the time.[30]

There are currently three works available on the topic:


A sign in Lishui urging people to speak Mandarin: Speak Mandarin well — It's easier for all of us.
A sign in Lishui urging people to speak Mandarin: "Speak Mandarin well — It's easier for all of us."

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the strong promotion of Mandarin in the Wu-speaking region yet again influenced the development of Wu Chinese. Wu was gradually excluded from most modern media and schools. Public organizations were required to use Mandarin. With the influx of a migrant non-Wu-speaking population, the near total conversion of public media and organizations to the exclusive use of Mandarin as well as radical Mandarin promotion measures, the modernization and standardization of or literacy in Wu languages became improbable and left them more prone to Mandarinization. The promotion measures, which at present mostly consist of signs like the one pictured, are primarily aimed at limiting the usage of local dialects in conducting public or administrative affairs, although it, like the smoking ban, is commonly violated and it is not so uncommon to hear people speaking local dialects in a government office or a bank. The usage of local dialects in all other spheres is officially tolerated. Standardization of dialects, however, may be perceived as a precursor to possible regionalism, so this, too, would most likely be deterred. On the other hand, few speakers consider their dialect important enough to be written or standardized. To most speakers, dialects are in essence a wholly oral phenomenon.[citation needed]

It is not uncommon to encounter children who grew up with a regional variant of Mandarin as their parent tongue with little or no fluency in a Wu variety at all.[31] However, this is primarily when parents are speakers of different languages and communicate in Mandarin and more rarely due to the parents' attitudes towards using language or dialect, which most associate with the warmth of home and family life.[citation needed] Many people[who?] have noticed this trend and thus call for the preservation and documentation of not only Wu but all Chinese varieties. The first major attempt was the Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects, which surveyed 2,791 locations across the nation, including 121 Wu locations (a step up from the two locations in PKU's earlier surveys), and led to the formation of an elaborate database including digital recordings of all locations;[32] however, this database is not available to the general public. The atlas's editor, Cao Zhiyun, considers many of these languages "endangered" and has introduced the term 濒危方言 (languages in danger) or "endangered dialects" into the Chinese language to raise people's attention to the issue,[33] while others[who?] try to draw attention to how the dialects fall under the scope of UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage and as such deserve to be preserved and respected.

More TV programs are appearing in Wu varieties[example needed] and nearly every city/town has at least one show in their native variety. However, they are no longer permitted to air during primetime.[34] They are generally more playful than serious and the majority of these shows, such as Hangzhou's 阿六头说新闻 "Old Liutou tells you the news", provide local or regional news in the dialect, but most are limited to fifteen minutes of airtime. Popular video sites such as Youku and Tudou also host a variety of user-uploaded audio and visual media in many Wu languages and dialects, most of which are dialectal TV shows, although some are user-created songs and the like. A number of popular books are also appearing to teach people how to speak the Shanghainese, Suzhou dialect and Wenzhounese[example needed] but they are more playful and entertaining than serious attempts at promoting literacy or standardization.[citation needed]

Jianghuai Mandarin has replaced Wu as the language of multiple counties in Jiangsu. An example of this is Zaicheng Town in Lishui County; both Jianghuai and Wu languages were spoken in several towns in Lishui, with Wu being spoken by more people in more towns than Jianghuai. The Wu dialect is called "old Zaicheng Speech", while the Jianghuai dialect is called "new Zaicheng speech", with Wu languages being driven rapidly to extinction. Only old people[clarify] use it to talk to relatives.[tone] The Jianghuai dialect has been present there for about a century, even though all of the surrounding are Wu speaking. Jianghuai was always confined inside the town itself until the 1960s; at present, it is overtaking Wu.[35]

Number of speakers

Wu Chinese was once historically dominant north of the Yangtze River and most of what is now Anhui province during the Sui dynasty. Its strength in areas north of the Yangtze vastly declined from the late Tang dynasty until the late Ming dynasty, when the first characteristics of Early Modern Wu were formed. During the early Qing period, Wu speakers represented about 20% of the whole Chinese population. This percentage drastically declined after the Taiping Rebellion devastated the Wu-speaking region, and it was reduced to about 8% by 1984, when the total number of speakers was estimated to be 80 million.[36]


Wu's place within the greater scope of Sinitic varieties is less easily typified than prototypically northern Chinese such as Mandarin or prototypically southern Chinese such as Cantonese. Its original classification, along with the other Sinitic varieties, was established in 1937 by Li Fang-Kuei, whose boundaries more or less have remained the same[2] and were adopted by Yuan Jiahua in his influential 1961 dialect primer.[10]

The sole basis of Li's classification was the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced stops.[2] In the original sense, a Wu variety was by definition one which retained voiced initials. This definition is problematic considering the devoicing process which has begun in many southern Wu varieties that are surrounded by dialects which retain the ancestral voicing. The loss of voicing in a dialect does not entail that its other features will suddenly become dramatically different from the dialects it has had long historic ties with. It furthermore would place Old Xiang in this category. Therefore, more elaborate systems have developed, but they still mostly delineate the same regions. Regardless of the justification, the Wu region has been clearly outlined, and Li's boundary in some ways has remained the de facto standard.

In Jerry Norman's usage, Wu dialects can be considered "central dialects" or dialects that are clearly in a transition zone containing features that typify both northern and southern Chinese. .[37]

Possible Kra–Dai substratum

Li Hui (2001) finds possible 126 Kra-Dai cognates in the Maqiao Wu dialect spoken in the suburbs of Shanghai, out of more than 1,000 lexical items surveyed.[17] According to the author, these cognates are likely traces of the "old Yue language" (gu Yueyu, 古越語).[17] The two tables below show lexical comparisons between the Maqiao Wu dialect and Kra-Dai languages as quoted from Li Hui (2001). He notes that, in Wu Chinese, final consonants such as -m, -ɯ, -i, ụ, etc do not exist, and therefore, -m in the Maqiao dialect tends to become -ŋ, -n, or zero. In some cases, -m even becomes a final glottal stop.[38]

Kra-Dai Maqiao Wu
-m , -n become -ŋ
təŋ354step 跺
fəŋ55 du53snore/to snore 鼾
pəʔ33 ɕhaŋ435to have fun (游) 玩
final consonant/vowel missing
ɑ:31 li33still, yet 尚;还
tsɔ:435to plow 犁(地)
dᴇ354hole/pit 坑
53filth 污垢
ɕhy55 zᴇ53building/room 房子
kᴇ435to draw close to 靠拢
435to sway/to swing 摆动
ɕhɑ55 tsɑ53capable/competent 能干
thɛ435to crawl 爬
becoming final glottal stop -ʔ
lɔʔ33below/down 下(雨)
tɕiʔ33 ku53cheek 腮
kheʔ55to press 按
kau33 son213
khəʔ55 tɕoŋ55to doze/to nap 瞌睡
ʔdəʔ55end/extremity 端
kuaʔ55to split/to crack 裂
pəʔ33 ɕaŋ435to have fun(游)玩
Kra-Dai Maqiao Wu
-m , -n become -ŋ
kaŋ354to prop up/to brace 撑住
tshoŋ53to bow the head 低头
final consonant/vowel missing
ve:55to hang/to suspend 悬挂;吊
lu354mountain/hill 山(地名用)
xun—55 (Dai)
ha:k55 (Zhuang)
5553government official/official 官
55 mo53tadpole 蝌蚪
435 fu53classifier for times 趟;次
435to tie up 拴(牛)
tsɿ55to bow the head 低头
(ɣa:i42) ɕa:i42
ɕɑ:354very, quite, much 很
becoming final glottal stop -ʔ
sa:ŋ33 səu53
seʔ33 zo55 ɦɯ11wizard/magician 巫师
tɕiʔ55 ɕhiŋ55market/bazaar 集市
pəʔ33to move 搬
veʔ33to pour 倒(水)
theʔ55to weed 耘
teʔ55to narrow one's eyes 眯
lɔʔ33 nɒn35pitfall/to sink 陷
ɣa:i42 (ɕa:i42)
ʔɔʔ55very/quite/much 很
thoʔ55to cook/to boil 煮(肉)

Languages and dialects

This video shows the difference between Wu and Mandarin. At a church in Paris, the Beijing Mandarin spoken by the pastor (left) was interpreted into Wenzhounese, a Southern Wu language.
A video in Shanghainese, a Northern Wu language.

Wu languages are spoken in most of Zhejiang province, the whole municipality of Shanghai, southern Jiangsu province, as well as smaller parts of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces.[39] Many are located in the lower Yangtze River valley.[40][41]

Dialectologists traditionally establish linguistic boundaries based on several overlapping isoglosses of linguistic features. One of the critical historical factors for these boundaries lies in the movement of the population of speakers.[42] This is often determined by the administrative boundaries established during imperial times. As such, imperial boundaries are essential for delineating one variety from another, and many varieties' isogloss clusters line up perfectly with the county boundaries established in imperial times, although some counties contain more than one variety and others may span several counties.[43] Another factor that influences movement and transportation as well as the establishment of administrative boundaries is geography.[42] Northernmost Zhejiang and Jiangsu are very flat, in the middle of a river delta, and as such are more uniform than the more mountainous regions farther south towards Fujian. The Taihu varieties, like Mandarin in the flat northern plains, are more homogeneous than Southern Wu, which has a significantly greater diversity of linguistic forms, and this is likely a direct result of geography. Coastal varieties also share more featural affinities, likely because the East China Sea provides a means of transportation. The same phenomenon can be seen with Min varieties.

Major groupings

Wu is divided into two major groups: Northern Wu (simplified Chinese: 北部吴语; traditional Chinese: 北部吳語; pinyin: Běibù Wúyǔ) and Southern Wu (simplified Chinese: 南部吴语; traditional Chinese: 南部吳語; pinyin: Nánbù Wúyǔ), which are only partially mutually intelligible. Individual words spoken in isolation may be comprehensible among these speakers, but the flowing discourse of everyday life mostly is not. There is another lesser group, Western Wu, synonymous with the Xuanzhou division, which has a larger influence from the surrounding Mandarin varieties than Northern Wu, making it typologically much different from the rest of Wu.

Southern Wu is well known among linguists and sinologists as being one of the most internally diverse among the Sinitic groups, with very little mutual intelligibility between varieties across subgroups. On the other hand, some Wu varieties like Wenzhounese have gained notoriety for their high 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.[44][lower-alpha 1]

Map of the main subgroups of Wu in China
Map of the main subgroups of Wu in China

In the Language Atlas of China (1987), Wu was divided into six subgroups:

Southern Wu

Chinese dialectologist Cao Zhiyun has rearranged some of the divisions based on a larger corpus of data. According to Cao, Southern Wu can be divided into three broad divisions (note that he is using the pre-republican boundaries for the cited locations):[45]


The Wu dialects are notable among Chinese varieties in having kept the "muddy" (voiced; whispery voiced word-initially) plosives and fricatives of Middle Chinese, such as /b/, /d/, /ɡ/, /z/, /v/, etc., thus maintaining the three-way contrast of Middle Chinese stop consonants and affricates, /p pʰ b/, /tɕ tɕʰ dʑ/, etc.[46] (For example, 「凍 痛 洞」 /t tʰ d/, where other varieties have only /t tʰ/.) Because Wu dialects never lost these voiced obstruents, the tone split of Middle Chinese may still be allophonic, and most dialects have three syllabic tones (though counted as eight in traditional descriptions). In Shanghai, these are reduced to two word tones.

Wu varieties and Germanic languages have the largest vowel quality inventories in the world. The Jinhui dialect spoken in Shanghai's Fengxian District has 20 vowel qualities.[47][48] Because of these different changes within Wu, which gives it its unique quality, it has also sometimes been called the "French of China".[citation needed]

For more details, see Shanghainese § Phonology, Suzhou dialect § Phonology, and Wenzhounese § Phonology.


The pronoun systems of many Wu dialects are complex when it comes to personal and demonstrative pronouns. For example, Wu exhibits clusivity (having different forms of the first-person plural pronoun depending on whether or not the addressee is included). Wu employs six demonstratives, three of which are used to refer to close objects, and three of which are used for farther objects.[citation needed]

In terms of word order, Wu uses SVO (like Mandarin), but unlike Mandarin, it also has a high occurrence of SOV and in some cases OSV.[49][50]

In terms of phonology, tone sandhi is extremely complex, and helps parse multisyllabic words and idiomatic phrases. In some cases, indirect objects are distinguished from direct objects by a voiced/voiceless distinction.[citation needed]

In most cases, classifiers take the place of genitive particles and articles – a quality shared with Cantonese – as shown by the following examples[citation needed]:

WuWu translationMandarinMandarin translation
本書交關好看the volume [of] book is very good書很好看the book is very good
我支筆my stick [of] pen我的筆my pen
渠碗粥his bowl [of] congee他的粥his congee

Plural pronouns

Wu dialects vary in the way they pluralize pronouns. In the Suzhou dialect, second- and third-person pronouns are suffixed with [toʔ], while the first-person plural is a separate root, [ni], from the singular. In Shanghainese, the first-person pronoun is suffixed with ,[clarification needed] and third-person with [la˦] (underlying /la˥˧/), but the second-person plural is a separate root, [nʌ˨˧]. In the Haiyan dialect, first- and third-person pronouns are pluralized with [la], but the second-person plural is a separate root [na].[51]


All nouns could have just one classifier in Shanghainese.[52]


ShanghaineseIPALiteral meaningActual meaning
其 勒 門口頭 立 勒許。 [citation needed][ɦi le məŋ.kʰɤɯ.dɤɯ lɪʔ lɐˑ.he](third person) (past participle) doorway (particle, indicate location) stand existedHe was standing at the door.


There are three major schools of romanization of Wu Chinese.


Like other varieties of Southern Chinese, Wu Chinese retains some archaic vocabulary from Classical Chinese, Middle Chinese, and Old Chinese. For instance, for "to speak" or "speaking", Wu dialects, with the exception of Hangzhou dialect, use góng (Simplified Chinese: ; Traditional Chinese: ), whereas Mandarin uses shuō (Simplified Chinese: ; Traditional Chinese: ). Furthermore, in Guangfeng and Yushan counties of Jiangxi province, ([je] or yuē) is generally preferred over its Mandarin counterpart. In Shangrao county of Jiangxi province, Simplified Chinese: Traditional Chinese: pinyin: huà/[wa] is preferred over the spoken Mandarin version of the word for "to speak" or "speaking". For Wu dialects closer to Fuzhou such as Ningbonese, Jinhuanese, and Wenzhounese the word nóng (Simplified Chinese: ; Traditional Chinese: ) is used for "person" instead of rén , similar to Min.


Person Shanghainese Suzhounese Ningbonese Jinhuanese Wenzhounese
1st singular [note 1]
2nd singular 尔/侬
3rd singular [note 2]
1st plural 阿拉/我伲 阿拉/我侬 我浪 (ex) 自浪 (in) 我俫
2nd plural 唔笃 尔浪/ 侬浪 你俫
3rd plural 伊拉 俚笃 渠拉 渠浪 渠俫
Possessive [note 3]
  1. 我 is used sometimes in written language only.
  2. Also 俚倷 and 唔倷.
  3. Ultimately cognate with 个


These vocabulary exist in both Shanghainese[53] and Suzhounese[54] but the IPA is in Shanghainese.
WuWu word pronunciationEquivalent Mandarin Chinese wordEquivalent Mandarin word pronunciation in WuMeaning
廿[nie]二十[nʲi zəʔ]twenty (the Mandarin equivalent, 二十, is also used to a lesser extent, mostly in its literary pronunciation)
弗/勿[vəʔ][pəʔ]no, not
[fən][vi]not yet
[me][hən](adverb of degree) very
[tʰəʔ][tʰa]too/ very
[ɦi̯ɪʔ][ɦi]once again/ also
[lɑ̃][zɑ̃]on top / upon / above
[ɦaʔ][hən]also/ too
[aʔ][ma](question particle for "yes-no" questions) Example : 倷阿姓王? Mandarin equivalent : 你姓王吗? Meaning: Is your surname Wang?
[ləʔ][ze](located) at / (to be) in
[pe]一定[i̯ɪʔ din]surely/ certainly
[tse][hɔ]good / well
[t͡ɕʰiɤ]坏/ 歹[ɦua]/[te]bad
加二[ka ȵi]更加[kən ka]more (than something else) / even more
齐巧[ʑi t͡ɕʰiɔ]正巧[tsən t͡ɕʰiɔ]just by chance
交关[t͡ɕiɔ kue]很多[hən tu]many/ a lot
作时[tsoʔ zɿ]可能[kʰu nən]might (happen) / possible
作啥[tsoʔ sa]干什么[kø zəʔ moŋ]what are you doing? / what's he up to?
几化[t͡ɕi ho]多少[tu sɔ]how much?/ how many?
索脚[soʔ t͡ɕiaʔ]索性[soʔ ɕin]you might as well (do it) / simply / just
呒不[ɦm̩ pəʔ]没有/ 无[məʔ ɦiɤ]/[ɦu]to not have
场化[zã ho]地方[di fɑ̃]area/ place
辰光[zən kuɑ̃]时候[zɿ ɦɤ]time
[t͡ɕi̯ɪʔ]吃/ 喝/ 抽烟[t͡ɕi̯ɪʔ]/[ha]/[tsʰɤ i]In Wu the word has a wide meaning such as to eat, to drink, and to smoke. As long as it is put into the mouth, whether it is solid, liquid, or gas, and whether it is chewed or not, it is called ""
[da][si]to wash
[kʰɑ̃][zɑ̃]to hide something
[ɡe]斜靠[zia kʰɔ]to lean
[lʲɪʔ][dzɛ]to stand
[nø]/[n̥ø]女儿[ȵy ɦŋ̩]daughter (pronounced as nān in Mandarin.)
[sa]什么[zəʔ moŋ]what
[kʰwəŋ][zø]/[zəi]to sleep
[ʑiɲ][tsɔ]to find
[ɡɑ̃][pəɲ]foolish, stupid (cognate of the Minnan 戇 gōng [goŋ˧].)
[ɕyø][t͡ɕi̯ɪʔ]to strike (a person)
[dzoʔ]/[tsoʔ][tsø]to chase
[ʔu][nø]to make warm, to warm up
[kʰəŋ][t͡səɲ]to permit, to allow
畀/拨[pəʔ][t͡ɕʰi̯ɪʔ]to give
事体[ẓ tʰi]事情[ẓ ʑɪɲ]thing (business, affair, matter)
欢喜[hʷø ɕi]喜欢[ɕi hʷø]to like, to be keen on something, to be fond of, to love
物事[məʔ ẓ]物件[məʔ t͡ɕi]things (object, material)

In Wu dialects, the morphology of the words are similar, but the characters are switched around. Not all Wu Chinese words exhibit this phenomenon, only some words in some dialects.


In Wu Chinese, there are colloquialisms that are traced back to ancestral Chinese varieties, such as Middle or Old Chinese. Many of those colloquialisms are cognates of other words found in other modern southern Chinese dialects, such as Gan, Xiang, or Min.

Mandarin equivalents and their pronunciation on Wu Chinese are in parentheses. All IPA transcriptions and examples[citation needed] listed below are from Shanghainese.


The genres of kunqu opera and tanci song, appearing in the Ming Dynasty, were the first instances of the use of Wu dialect in literature. By the turn of the 20th century it was used in several novels that had prostitution as a subject.[55] In many of these novels, Wu is mainly used as dialogue of prostitute characters. In one work, Shanghai Flowers by Han Bangqing, all of the dialogue is in Wu.[56] Wu originally developed in genres related to oral performance. It was used in manners related to oral performance when it proliferated in written literature and it was widely used in fiction about prostitutes, a particular genre, and not in other genres. Donald B. Snow, author of Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular, compared the development of Wu in this manner to the patterns of Baihua and Japanese vernacular writing.[56]

According to Jean Duval, author of "The Nine-Tailed Turtle: Pornography or 'fiction of exposure," at the time The Nine-tailed Turtle by Zhang Chunfan [zh] (張春帆) was published, it was one of the most popular novels written in the Wu dialect.[57] Magnificent Dreams in Shanghai (海上繁華夢) by Sun Jiazhen (孫家振) was another example of a prostitute novel with Wu dialogue from the turn of the 20th century.[58]

Snow wrote that Wu literature "achieved a certain degree of prominence" by 1910.[56] After 1910 there had been no novels which were as popular as The Nine-tailed Turtle or the critical acclaim garnered by Shanghai Flowers. In the popular fiction of the early 20th century the usage of Wu remained in use in prostitute dialogue but, as asserted by Snow, "apparently" did not extend beyond that.[56] In 1926 Hu Shih stated that of all of the Chinese dialects, within literature, Wu had the brightest future.[56] Snow concluded that instead Wu dialect writing became "a transient phenomenon that died out not long after its growth gathered steam."[56]

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.[56] Duval argued that many Chinese critics had a low opinion of Wu works, mainly originating from the eroticism within them, and that contributed to the decline in Wu literature.[56]

See also


  1. On PRC codebreaking during the Vietnam War, some state that the tongue used was not the Wenzhou dialect, but the dialect of the town of Qianku, Cangnan County (then part of Pingyang County). See 访今寻古之三:扑朔迷离说蛮话. 苍南广电网 (in Simplified Chinese).[permanent dead link]


  1. Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. Norman (1988), p. 180.
  3. 沈栖 (20 July 2020). "保护传承方言文化刻不容缓". 东方网. Archived from the original on 6 August 2021.
  4. 阙政 (19 November 2012), 第三种语言从娃娃抓起, 新民周刊 [Xinmin Weekly], "page 34" (PDF)., "page 35" (PDF).. Reprinted alongside other articles in the same issue as: "媒体呼吁拯救方言:要从孩子做起". 16 November 2012. pp. 1–3. Archived from the original on 20 November 2012. Retrieved 6 August 2021 via Sina News.
  5. Eberhard, David M.; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2019). Ethnologue: Languages of the World (22nd ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Chinese, Wu.
  6. Zhou & You (2017), p. 51.
  7. Starostin, Sergei (2009). Gǔdài hànyǔ yīn xì de gòunǐ / Reconstruction of Old Chinese Phonology 古代汉语音系的构拟 / Reconstruction of Old Chinese Phonology (in Chinese). Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe. p. 3. ISBN 978-7-5444-2616-9.
  8. Zhou & You (2017), p. 52.
  9. Zhou & You (2017), p. 53.
  10. Yuan, Jiahua 袁家骅 (2006). Hànyǔ fāngyán gài yào 汉语方言概要 (in Chinese). Beijing: Yuwen chubanshe. p. 55. ISBN 978-7-80126-474-9.
  11. Henry, Eric (2007). "The Submerged History of Yuè". Sino-Platonic Papers. 176.
  12. Norman, Jerry L.; W. South Coblin (1995). "A New Approach to Chinese Historical Linguistics". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 115 (4): 576–584. doi:10.2307/604728. JSTOR 604728.
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  21. Coblin (1983), p. 25.
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  23. Coblin (2002), pp. 530–531.
  24. Xiong, Victor Cunrui (2006). Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty: His Life, Times, and Legacy (illustrated, annotated ed.). SUNY Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-7914-6587-5. Retrieved 10 March 2012. Yangdi also conversed fluently with his wife in the Wu dialect of the South. For a Northerner, a high level of competence in this dialect was no mean feat: It required years of early exposure. Yangdi probably picked it up at an early age from Lady Xiao, whose grandfather Xiao Cha (蕭詧) grew up at the court of Liang Wudi (梁武帝) in Jiankang, a Wu dialect area, before setting up his own court in Jiangling.
  25. Xiong, Victor Cunrui (2006). Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty: His Life, Times, and Legacy (illustrated, annotated ed.). SUNY Press. p. 266. ISBN 978-0-7914-6587-5. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 19. On Yangdi's divinatory skills and proficiency in the Wu dialect, see ZZTJ 185.5775
  26. Walraven, Boudewijn; Remco E. Breuker (2007). Breuker, Remco E. (ed.). Korea in the Middle: Korean Studies and Area Studies : Essays in Honour of Boudewijn Walraven. Vol. 153 of CNWS publications (illustrated ed.). CNWS Publications. p. 341. ISBN 978-90-5789-153-3. A prosimetrical rendition, entitled Xue Rengui kuahai zheng Liao gushi 薛仁貴跨海征遼故事 (The story of Xue Rengui crossing the sea and Pacifying Liao), which shares its opening prose paragraph with the Xue Rengui zheng Liao shilüe, is preserved in a printing of 1471; it is one of the shuochang cihua 說晿詞話 (ballad-narratives)
  27. Walraven, Boudewijn; Breuker, Remco E. (2007). Remco E. Breuker (ed.). Korea in the Middle: Korean Studies and Area Studies : Essays in Honour of Boudewijn Walraven. Vol. 153 of CNWS publications (illustrated ed.). CNWS Publications. p. 342. ISBN 978-90-5789-153-3. Retrieved 10 March 2012. for telling and singing) which were discovered in the suburbs of Shanghai in 1967.3 While these shuochang cihua had been printed in modern-day Beijing, their language suggests that they had been composed in the Wu-dialect area of Suzhou and surroundings,
  28. Shi, Rujie 石汝杰 (2006). Míng qīng wúyǔ hé xiàndài fāngyán yánjiū 明清吴语和现代方言研究 [A Study of the Wu Dialects and Modern Dialects in the Ming and Qing Dynasties] (in Chinese). Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe. p. 141. ISBN 978-7-5326-2162-0.
  29. Coblin (2002), p. 541.
  30. Shi, Rujie 石汝杰 (2006). Míng qīng wúyǔ hé xiàndài fāngyán yánjiū 明清吴语和现代方言研究 (in Chinese). Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe. pp. 141–149. ISBN 978-7-5326-2162-0.
  31. "Chinese: Information From". Retrieved 22 April 2013.
  32. Cao, Zhiyun 曹志耘 (2008). Hànyǔ fāngyán dìtú ií / Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects (3 vol.) 汉语方言地图集 / Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects (in Chinese). Beijing: The Commercial Press. ISBN 978-7-100-05774-5.
  33. Cao, Zhiyun 曹志耘 (2008). Hànyǔ yǔyán wénzì xué lùn cóng: Fāngyán juǎn 汉语语言文字学论丛:方言卷 (in Chinese). Beijing: Beijing yuyan daxue chubanshe. p. 39.
  34. Song, Wei (14 January 2011). "Dialects to be Phased out of Prime Time TV". China Daily. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
  35. Guo, Jun (2006). "An Analysis of the (U)-Variation in the "Town Speech" of Lishui". Journal of Asian Pacific Communication. 16 (2): 336. doi:10.1075/japc.16.2.11guo.
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  38. Li 2001, p. 19.
  39. "Wu Language". Archived from the original on 7 September 2011. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
  40. Malmqvist, N. G. D. (2010). Bernhard Karlgren: Portrait of A Scholar. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 302. ISBN 978-1-61146-000-1. In 1925, Chao Yuen Ren returned to Qinghua University. The following year, he began his comprehensive study of the Wu dialects in the lower Yangtze valley. In 1929, he was appointed head of the section of linguistics in the Academia Sinica and became responsible for the planning and the
  41. Malmqvist, N. G. D. (2010). Bernhard Karlgren: Portrait of A Scholar. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-61146-001-8. Retrieved 10 March 2012. In 1925, Chao Yuen Ren returned to Qinghua University. The following year, he began his comprehensive study of the Wu dialects in the lower Yangzi valley. In 1929, he was appointed head of the section of linguistics in the Academia Sinica and became responsible for the planning and the()
  42. Wang, Wensheng 王文胜 (2008). Chùzhōu fāngyán dì dìlǐ yǔyán xué yánjiū 处州方言的地理语言学研究 (in Chinese). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe. ISBN 978-7-5004-6637-6.
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  45. Cao, Zhiyun 曹志耘 (2002). Nánbù wúyǔ yǔyīn yánjiū 南部吴语语音研究 (in Chinese). Beijing: Shangwu yin shuguan. pp. 2, 5. ISBN 978-7-100-03533-0.
  46. Yan (2006), p. 87.
  47. Wang, Chuan-Chao; Ding, Qi-Liang; Tao, Huan; Li, Hui (2012). "Comment on "Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa"". Science. 335 (6069): 657. Bibcode:2012Sci...335..657W. doi:10.1126/science.1207846. PMID 22323803.
  48. "Fèngxián jīn huì fāngyán "yǔyīn zuì fùzá" yuán yīn diānfēng zhí dá 20 gè zuǒyòu" 奉贤金汇方言"语音最复杂" 元音巅峰值达20个左右. Eastday (in Chinese). 14 February 2012. Archived from the original on 14 February 2012. Retrieved 19 February 2012.
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  53. 钱乃荣, 许宝华 & 汤珍珠 (2007), p. .
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  58. Snow, p. 34.


Resources on Wu dialects

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.

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.

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


На других языках

[de] Wu (Sprache)

Wu (chinesisch .mw-parser-output .Hant{font-size:110%}吳語 / 吴语, Pinyin Wúyǔ), auch Wu-Yue (吳越語 / 吴越语, Wúyuèyǔ) genannt, ist eine chinesische Sprache, die in der Volksrepublik China um die Mündung des Jangtsekiang herum gesprochen wird. Wu wird von etwa 77 Millionen Menschen gesprochen. Zusammen mit den anderen chinesischen Sprachen wird die chinesische Schrift als Schriftsprache genutzt.
- [en] Wu Chinese

[es] Chino wu

El idioma o dialecto wu (en chino tradicional, 吳語; en chino simplificado, 吴语; pinyin, wúyǔ, autoglotónimo wú niu) o Goetsu (pronunciación japonesa de 呉越) es uno de los principales lenguas la rama sinítica de la familia de lenguas sino-tibetana.

[fr] Wu (langue)

Le wu, aussi appelé wugniu selon « 文读 » vendoq ou nggniu selon « 白读 » baqdoq, (chinois simplifié : 吴方言 ; chinois traditionnel : 吳方言 ; pinyin : Wú fāng yán ou chinois simplifié : 吴语 ; chinois traditionnel : 吳語 ; pinyin : Wú yǔ) est l'un des groupes majeurs des parlers sinitiques[2]. Le wu est parlé dans une grande partie de la province du Zhejiang, la municipalité de Shanghai, le sud de la province du Jiangsu, ainsi que dans des petites parties des provinces du Anhui, du Jiangxi et du Fujian. Les principaux dialectes du wu incluent ceux de Shanghai, de Suzhou, du Wenzhou, de Hangzhou, de Yongkang et de Shaoxing. En 1991, il y avait 87 millions de personnes parlant une forme de wu. C'est le groupe de langues chinoises le plus pratiqué après le mandarin (898 millions de locuteurs[3]). C’est aussi la première langue non officielle du monde par le nombre de locuteurs, avant le punjabi, et la deuxième langue de la Chine, après le mandarin et juste avant le cantonais.

[it] Lingua wu

La lingua wu (in cinese mandarino 吳方言T, 吴方言S, Wú fāngyánP oppure: 吳語T, 吴语S, WúyǔP) è una delle principali varianti della lingua cinese dopo il mandarino. È parlata principalmente nella provincia di Zhejiang, nella municipalità di Shanghai, nel sud della provincia di Jiangsu, e in piccole parti delle province di Anhui, Jiangxi e Fujian. Accanto alla Cina occorre poi considerare quei paesi esteri nei quali sono immigrate comunità di Cinesi originari delle regioni di lingua wu, in particolare Taiwan, Hong Kong e Singapore. Negli ultimi anni, vi è stata una notevole emigrazione di parlanti di Wu anche nel sud dell'Europa.

[ru] У (язык)

У (кит. трад. 吳語, упр. 吴语, пиньинь wúyǔ, палл. уюй) — один из крупнейших диалектов китайского языка (по другим классификациям — язык). Распространён в большей части провинции Чжэцзян, в городе центрального подчинения Шанхай, на юге провинции Цзянсу, а также в некоторых регионах провинций Аньхой, Цзянси и Фуцзянь. Среди крупнейших поддиалектов следует упомянуть шанхайский, сучжоуский, вэньчжоуский, шаосинский, цзиньхуа, юнканский и цюйчжоуский. Наиболее престижным из указанных поддиалектов является сучжоуский, хотя с ним соперничает шанхайский.

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