Fang Xu on her book, Silencing Shanghai

Interview by Andy Zhenzhou Tan

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The topic of your book – the (potential) loss of a language variety under language standardization – is of wide relevance since the rise of modern nation-states and their monoglot ideologies. What is the distinctiveness of the case of Shanghai and Shanghaihua (the Shanghai dialect) in contrast to, say, those of other regions in China and their dialects? How does this distinctiveness play out historically and in terms of the charged dynamic between the multiple social powers and groups involved? 

Fang Xu: Earlier on during the Republic of China (1912-1949), the creation of a national language and language standardization were justified by their alleged contributions to unifying and modernizing the country and its citizenry. At that time, semi-colonial Shanghai was already cosmopolitan and modern. The lingua franca of the “Paris of the East” was the Shanghai dialect, and thus the classical justification for the creation and imposition of a national language to facilitate industrialization, urbanization, and meeting the demand for a (linguistic) uniform labor force did not necessarily hold in the case of Shanghai. A reference point is Kathyrn Woolard’s work in Barcelona, where the suppressed Catalan during the Franco era (1939-1975) has been a prestigious language throughout the history, and the locals in general fare better economically than the Castilian-speaking migrants. The Shanghai dialect came into shape in a cosmopolitan city in the late 19th and early 20th century, though it is based on Songjiang county’s variation of Wu Chinese.  The origin story sets it apart from other regional dialects, for example, Cantonese. Cantonese can claim a historical, more rooted Chinese-ness that the hybrid and relatively young Shanghai dialect cannot. 

It is the power struggles between not only the state and the people, but also waves of migrants in Shanghai. Shanghai’s unique identity as a migrant city sets it apart from many Chinese cities which can easily claim a history of hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, more than 85% of the urban population was internal migrants, not to mention the segregated and separated urban jurisdiction shared (unequally) between the UK, US, France, China, and later Japan. So at the grander scale, it was the struggle between states in defining the city. In terms of who counts as a Shanghairen, it has been even more contested, based on birthplace, hukou (household registration status), urban residency, or vernacular capacity. As we know, identity claim is never solely about identification, but also about aspiration and desire for something else. Since the early 20th century, due to wars, natural disasters, and economic opportunities, there have been four waves of internal migrants who settled in Shanghai. Their political and socioeconomic conditions vary greatly, e.g., from the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family, known as “Rothschilds of the East,” the Soong family, Mao Zedong, and refugees from northern Jiangsu Province fleeing draught and famine in the early 20th century, to talents from across the country meeting the “two high and one low” (high in education and skill level, low in age) standard to obtain a Shanghai hukou in the early 21th century. Hence their rights to identify themselves and power to alter and influence the urban scenes politically, economically, socially, culturally, and linguistically also differ greatly. 

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The concept “linguistic right to the city” is central to your arguments but not itself thematized. The allocation of linguistic rights and placement of blame for language injustice are complex processes. In these processes, what are your positions towards multiple parties involved? In terms of justice, how would you compare the previous diglossia system in Shanghai and the recent state-initiated collapse of it? Could you reflect on your own positionality in this matter? 

Fang Xu: During my dissertation proposal defense, a Shanghainese rap song I quote in my proposal prompted a committee member to warn me that native Shanghai people’s xenophobia motivated by their heartfelt linguistic loss might come across as KKK-like. The song was widely circulated among online communities of native Shanghai people in the early 2010s. It cried out to preserve the Shanghai dialect and Shanghai’s urban culture. This so-called “Shanghai Anthem” appropriates the melody of the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers” (original lyrics in “[ ]”) and modifies the lyrics to express a growing hostility towards recent migrants to Shanghai. 

[Arise! All those who don’t want to be slaves!]

Arise! All those friends who speak Shanghai dialect!

[Let our flesh and blood forge our new Great Wall!]

Let our language become the roar of Huangpu River!

[As the Chinese people have arrived at their most dangerous time.]

As the Shanghai dialect has arrived at its most dangerous time.

[Every person is forced to expel his very last cry.]

Every Shanghairen is forced to expel his very last cry.

[Arise! Arise! Arise!]

F-ck! F-ck! F-ck!

[Our million hearts beating as one,]

Our million hearts beating as one,

[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]

Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!

[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]

Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!

[March on! March on! On!]

Rid of! Rid of! Rid of!

Being a Shanghai native, it is hard for me not to lament the potential loss of the dialect. But being a Chinese national living in North America for 15+ years has made me keenly aware of the sense of exclusion manifested in urban linguistic space in Shanghai. That’s why I found it important to give voice to the migrants in Shanghai in the last empirical chapter (Ch. 5) of my book. When we think about injustice, we need to look at the positionality of the accuser and the accused, and analyze their lived experiences and their aspirations. The power dynamics experienced during my field research could be telling. I couldn’t help but notice how the dialect preservation activists acted not only in a sexist but also racist way, e.g. suppressing female activists’ voices and participations, or how some activists with somewhat self-claimed linguistic training attributed Mandarin Chinese to a contamination from the barbarian Manchurian – which is a Tungusic language belongs to Altaic family – from the Qing Dynasty. Their xenophobia in guarding the (exclusive) Shanghainese identity was apparent as they jeered and laughed at the migrants’ efforts to acquire the Shanghai dialect, suggesting the latter are climbing the social ladder by faking something they would never be able to achieve – a true insider membership. And people holding such negative opinions are oftentimes those who didn’t fare well in the last 20 years socioeconomically and can no longer afford lots of the consumption spaces or upscale residency in the inner city. So by (re)claiming their linguistic right to the city, they are wielding weapons of the weak, quoting James Scott. That said, linguistic rights to the city are tightly connected with social and economic rights to the city, and certainly beyond housing. 

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: What distinguishes the story you tell from other studies on linguistic change is the important parts accorded to urban developments, geographical and spatial conditions of social interaction, and place attachment. This is captured by the two senses – architectural and linguistic – of the word “vernacular” in your book. Can you give us a glimpse at the intricate relations between urban changes and linguistic loss in Shanghai, especially in the recent decades? 

Fang Xu: There was a common saying in Shanghai quoted in my book that connects languages and the space – public and private – where they are spoken or can be heard: “English is spoken in the Inner Ring, Mandarin is spoken in the Middle Ring, and Shanghai dialect Outer Ring”. The order also corresponds to the outwardly decrease of housing prices. Within one saying, the intricate relations are revealed between social-economic status, urban redevelopment in terms of relocating more than one million households to the periphery and throwing them into the harsh reality of urban political economy of the commercial housing market, and language. Essentially, many native Shanghainese were relocated to the periphery of urban Shanghai, or previously rural counties. The pride and esteem in living in the urban center was gone, as well as the proximity to urban amenities and the urban built environment which set Shanghai apart from the rest of the country and exemplifies (Western) modernity since the early 20th century. They lost the material base and geographical location(marker) to self-aggrandize as Shanghairen (Shanghai people). However the deprivation of privilege should be recognized as a relative one. The displacees’ Shanghai hukou still granted them access to top quality healthcare, education, pension, and a plethora of other benefits. Even these relative privileges have been lost, as internal migrants who have obtained either a Shanghai hukou or a Shanghai Resident Permit have been granted those benefits by the municipal government since the 2000s. The loss felt by native Shanghairen is the exclusive access and claim. In this context, I am trying to tell a story of long-term residents holding onto their (symbolic) ownership of the urban built environment and linguistic space as the only remaining bulwarks of their Shanghainese identity.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan:  As far as I know, your PhD training was in urban sociology. Yet you have written a monograph on a more typically linguistic anthropological/sociolinguistic topic. Despite the rare co-existence of these two disciplines in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, from whom you draw a lot in your book, we may say they have gone in quite different directions thematically and methodologically. What has been your experience of bridging urban sociology and linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics?

Fang Xu: It has not been easy to convince urban sociologists that the sonic or auditory dimension of urban life matters. There is a branch of urban sociology bridging visual sociology, but language? To the most, some human or cultural geographers. When we think about a diverse or cosmopolitan place, we imagine people from all over the world, presumably speaking different mother tongues, but forced to adopt the mainstream language of the city or society, albeit with various accents. I have been trying to argue that when urban sociologists study (im)migrants or ethnic enclaves, attention should be paid to the languages they speak; or when they talk about residential segregation based on class, race and ethnicity, as well as consumer habits and taste, language spoken/usage should have a place in the investigation. So far, the subjects in those studies predominantly speak perfect Standard American English, or whatever national or official or dominant languages in the societies in question. That is not a true depiction of those people’s everyday lived experience. Generally speaking, the urban soundscape is socially organized and organizing (Atkinson 2007). One of the defining characteristics of cities is its heterogeneity – the other two being size and density (Louis Wirth 1938). Lewis Mumford (1937-1996) also advises urbanists to pay attention to the “theatre of social action.” However, what we have read so far are in subjects’ words, but not in their own voices. My monograph Silencing Shanghai and a recent piece about the urban sonic landscape I am working on with a few cultural geographers in Europe are both attempts to put these critical insights into practice. 

I do feel this inbetween-ness in my scholarly life, as well as in my personal life, being an immigrant in the U.S., and when I go back to Shanghai and do not hear my mother tongue spoken on the streets of my hometown. However, I see the rarity of such interdisciplinarity as the strength of my work, and the direction of my future pursuit. There is also an echo between my work and my fieldsite in terms of their hybridity. Shanghai is indeed an urban laboratory in many ways different from other cities in China, but not dissimilar to other global cities. Like NYC, it is one of a kind, and deserves much more scholarly attention.