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Wu is a language, like Mandarin, which is one of several in the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. It is written thus: 吳語 or 吴语 wú yǔ. An estimated 90 million Wu speakers live in the People's Republic of China as of 2008. It is the tenth most populous language in the world, and second in China only to Mandarin.

Wu is spoken in Zhejiang province, in the city of Shanghai, in the southern portion
of Jiangsu province. Smaller Wu language enclaves are found in the provinces of
Anhui, Jiangxi and Fujian.

Speakers of Chinese languages regard Wu as a softer and more fluid language than Mandarin, lighter in texture. The Shanghai and Suzhou dialects are said to be the best examples of these qualities. Ningbo, another urban center of Wu speakers, also is regarded as having the same somewhat lyrical qualities as the other two dialects, though perhaps to a lesser extent.

Written Wu uses standard Chinese characters and grammar (derived from vernacular Mandarin literature), so that it has a high degree of mutual intelligibility with written Standard Mandarin. Phonetic variations and vocabulary differences do exist, so that written Wu is readily identifiable as such, and not simply a regional variation of Mandarin.

History of the Wu Language

Wu is the modern version of an ancient Han language spoken in southern Jiangsu Province many centuries ago. Wu was also spoken in the northern regions of Zhejiang. Like Mandarin and several other sibling members of the Chinese language family, Wu is a descendant from Middle Chinese (6th to 10th centuries CE). Linguists believe that Wu was an early departure from Middle Chinese, and this is one of the oldest modern dialects. It has received much influence throughout the years from the Mandarin-speaking areas neighboring it, so it has not ranged so far from Mandarin as some of the other members of the family (like Yue and Min).

The Taiping Revolution (1850-1864) was a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty, centered in the south. During that time many Wu-speaking areas were razed by the battling armies, and residents fled to Shanghai. Thus, Shanghai became something of a melting pot for Wu speakers, and a language island, separate from the surrounding region. Shanghaiese became the standard for Wu from that time forward, though Souzhou dialect still remained with status as a prestige dialect of the educated.

The government of the People's Republic of China has relegated Wu to a regional tongue, requiring Mandarin to be used in all official matters, public media, and school instruction. As a result, many children of Wu-speaking parents have Mandarin as their principal language, and Wu is less spoken, even at home.

Wu Dialects

• Wu has several dialects, some of which subdivide further.

• The main dialect is Taihu Wu (太湖), spoken in Jiangsu (including Shanghai) and the northern part of Zhejiang (including Ningbo). The several sub-dialects are mostly mutually intelligible. The main ones are Suzhou (the prestige dialect), Shanghai (spoken by most people) and Ningbo. Others include Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Changzhou. Taihu Wu speakers may not always understand the speakers of other Wu dialects, but those other speakers can almost always understand Taihu Wu.

• Taizhou Wu (台州) also known as "Northern Wu," is spoken in Zhejiang province, and is fairly similar to and intelligible to speakers of Taihu Wu.

• Wuzhou (婺州) is a bit like Taizhou Wu in that it can be understood more or less by Taihu Wu speakers. It comes from Jinhua in Zhejiang province.

• Chuqu (处衢): is the language of the Lishui and Quzhou areas of Zhejiang. It is also spoken across the Province border in Jiangxi, in the Yushan and Shangrao districts.

• Oujiang (甌江 or 瓯江), also called Dong'ou (東甌片 or 东瓯片) is the thickest and most distinctive of the Wu dialects, and the one least intelligible to other Wu speakers. It is spoken in Wenzhou, Zheijiang Province.

• Xuanzhou (宣州): is from Xuancheng in Anhui province. Since the mid-19th century, this dialect has been in decline, yielding to Mandarin as spoken by those who reside on the opposite (northern) bank of the Yangtse River.


Early Middle Chinese (around 600 CE) was thought to have soft or slack, voiced plosives and fricatives (like a breathy b or v). These sounds are somewhat indistinct to an untrained ear, and generally are called "muddy" by linguists. Wu has retained the "muddy" or breathy versions of /b/, /d/, /ɡ̊/, /z/, and /v/. This is the characteristic that gives the language its "soft" or relaxed quality that is noticeable to non-speakers of Wu. In addition, the main Wu dialects use fewer and slightly different tones than Mandarin does, and, unlike Mandarin, extends the tones across syllables to whole words. Shanghaiese, for example, employs just two tones.


Wu devotes considerable attention to pronouns. Like other Chinese languages, it has a full range of options. For example, almost all of them have a different word for "we" when it includes the person being addressed from the "we" used when it excludes the person being addressed. In other languages, this distinction is sometimes relaxed or ignored, but it is strictly followed in Wu. Other Chinese languages may also have vestigial traces of demonstrative pronouns that vary according to how close the object is to the speaker. In Wu, these three gradations of proximity are also strictly observed. Word order in Wu is usually subject-verb-object, as in Mandarin, but optionally it can be subject-object-verb. A distinction between using a voiced versus an unvoiced initial consonant in a pronoun syllable can mean the difference between an indirect object and a direct object. Rules concerning tone shifts when two words of same tone neighbor each other (called "tone sandhi") are extremely complex, even when compared to other Chinese languages.

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