Monday, June 18, 2007

sichuanhua primer--四川话入门--sǐcuáhhuǎ rǔmen*


sǐcuáhhuǎ rǔmen*

from longleggedfly

by kmm

v. 1.0


Sichuanhua, also known as Sichuanese, comprises the major Mandarin dialect group of Southwestern China, spreading from Sichuan east to Chongqing, south-east to Guizhou, and south to Yunnan. Altogether, there are nearly 120 million people who speak sichuanhua or one of its variations as their primary language (so many, in fact, that if sichuanhua were classified as a language in its own right, it would rank ninth in the world in terms of the population of its primary speakers, coming just behind Japanese, with 125 million speakers, and just ahead of German, with 100 million speakers). Indeed, the province of Sichuan alone, with a land mass of 450,000 square kilometers and a populace of over 80 million, is roughly the same size—and has roughly the same population—as the entire country of Germany. Yet, despite its influence as the primary tool of communication for nearly all of South-Western China, there is not a single, easily accessible English language reference text that has been written for sichuanhua

Therefore, this guide is being written in an attempt to provide basic materials for individuals interested in learning sichuanhua. It is based entirely upon my own observations and work. Please be aware I am not a professional linguist. Descriptions and explanations of the dialect will contain no linguistic lingo and, indeed, may not even always be 100% accurate. If you are looking for an academic or professional analysis of sichuanhua you will need to search elsewhere.

Of course, because I am not a professional linguist, I also highly value thoughtful feedback, and would like to make this primer as much of a collaborative process as possible. If you would like to make suggestions or corrections, please feel free to do so. My email address is


Sichuanhua, pervasive and thriving in this part of China, provides an exciting and almost vulgar contrast to the standard Mandarin pumped out of television sets and radio stations throughout the mainland. Native speakers here are fiercely proud of their dialect. Locals will tell you that, back in the day, when votes were cast to decide which variety of Chinese would be selected as the standard for the whole country, sichuanhua lost to its northern counterpart by only one vote. While many middle schools and high schools may use standard mandarin as the language of instruction, many do so incorrectly, infusing it with a thick sichuan accent and thus assuring that even locals brought up in the national education system speak their own variation of the language, and not the national standard.

Clearly, sichuanhua is no danger of extinction or even diminished influence. Its basics are a necessity for anyone seriously considering living in this part of the world, and certainly for anyone interested in traveling outside the major population centers.

But what does it sound like?

To someone familiar with putonghua, the most immediate and obvious differences in sichuanhua will probably be the tonal and pronunciation variations. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Sichuanhua has a tone that does not exist in mandarin.

  2. Certain standard tones are reversed in sichuanhua

  3. Numerous consonants, vowels, and diphthongs are slightly different, or do not exist in Mandarin.

All these variations that exist between sichuanhua and Mandarin have given it a totally unique sound, pretty much incomparable to any other language (at least that I’ve ever heard). It’s not as harsh and sudden as putonghua; there’s something more consistent, something more of a constant music to it, rising and falling with a kind of wild, yet deliberate rhythm. There’s an explosive aspect to it as well, making it powerful, and filthy. Swear words fly out like the everyday necessities they are, with speakers holding onto the most important syllables in mid flight, waiting for the perfect moment to release and let the word come crashing down with its foul authority. In fact, it can be fairly said that when speakers of other Chinese dialects swear, it always sounds like a poor imitation of their true Sichuanese masters.

But, of course, Sichuanhua’s importance is more than as just a bunch of unique sounds—it’s also about how the local people identify with the language, and how this then affects their sense of place and significance in greater China. It has been a fundamental component of the culture and people of the Sichuan basin for thousands of years, and, as noted earlier, people here look upon it as a source of pride, a source of identity and uniqueness in a country where mass media is overwhelmingly broadcast in standard, northern Mandarin. So to understand sichuanhua is to begin to understand this amazing and little known part of the world.

And that bring us nicely to the next part:


This is a very good question because, frankly, unless you have a passionate interest in learning Chinese, trying to learn sichuanhua would be a colossal waste of time. But, honestly, to study sichuanese—and eventually, of course, to understand it or even to speak it—is to open up a possibility of experiencing an entirely different kind of Chinese, and an entirely different kind of China.

Here are some other reasons why one might want to learn Sichuanhua:

  1. Because you are living in Sichuan.

If that's not the case, here are some other reasons:

  1. Most places outside of the northeast do not speak putonghua.

  2. You ever intend to travel in southern China

  3. Understanding one dialect helps you more quickly adapt to others.

  4. As follows from #4, any serious student of Chinese should be familiar with at least one dialect, and that does not included northern dialects.

  5. Beijinghua and erhua in general contain some of the ugliest sounds capable of being gurgled and spit out of the human larynx and it’s a tragedy many students only study these dialects.

  6. Sichuanhua is a major dialect, spoken by 120 million people, which is more people than speak Korean, Dutch, Norwegian, or any number of other languages.

  7. It is the key to unlocking all the han Chinese portions of southwestern China (also, minorities in these areas often speak mandarin with a thick sichuanhua accent)

  8. You want to swear in Chinese but just don’t feel satisfied by the other dialects.

  9. You want to be as much like a hard-drinking, tea guzzling, mahjong addicted native as possible.

  10. Some Sichuan guy stole your bicycle, and you need to find him ASAP.


Because sichuanhua has a tone that does not exist in Mandarin, I cannot adequately represent the sounds of the language using traditional pinyin tone marks. Therefore, I have chosen to use the asterisk * mark after each syllable that uses the special Sichuan tone.

If you can think of a better way to do this, please do recommend something, as I think the asterisk is ugly as all hell.


How one chooses to go about studying sichuanhua is completely dependent on your individual needs, goals, and current level in putonghua. I should note, however, that this guide is written for people with at least some knowledge of Mandarin. It does not teach sichunhua from the ground up, but rather uses bits and pieces of Mandarin and to piece together a functional system for reading and writing a kind of sichuanhua pinyin. Therefore, students who, for example, are not familiar with standard mandarin tones, will find no explanations herein.

Also, I recommend that, if you are currently studying standard Mandarin, you first aim for listening comprehension in sichuanhua, as it is difficult to learn two different tonal sets at once (also, most people who speak sichuanhua will understand standard Mandarin).

If you do want to learn spoken sichuanhua, I imagine it eventually comes naturally, after enough time familiarizing yourself with dialect, and after a point at which your Mandarin is already quite good. But, of course, if you would like to go full steam ahead and study sichuanhua from the very beginning, at the expense of your mandarin, go right ahead. More power to you. And the locals will love you.


As a warning, the first few installments of this primer will be incredibly boring.


Once again, I am not an expert on sichuanhua but I have done my best to provide as much information on the dialect as I can. Treat this first installment of the primer like you would the beta version of a new program. It will be riddled with all manner of errors and, if you look at it wrong, might just make your computer explode. But, after enough time and feedback, it should hopefully become as accurate as possible.



Anonymous Chinese said...

Could I reproduce your article on this China Forum?
It's impressive!

3:15 PM  
Blogger KMM said...

Sure, that'd be great, so long as you link back to my site. I'd love feedback too, and especially from anyone else familiar with sichuanhua.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Rocky said...

Thank you for this explanation. I was just asked by a native in Sichuan if I knew any Sichuanhua. I was confused as to why he thought it was so important when the official language of Mainland China is Mandarin. Now I know. I will attach a link to your blog in my post about my experience today.

12:39 PM  

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