Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Beijing accent

Popup Chinese
One of my favourite Chinese podcasts to listen to at the moment is Popup Chinese. Today I listed to an episode entitled The Beijing Accent and Standard Mandarin. The main point being made was that the 儿化 or ér-isation (putting at the end of certain words) did not automatically make it non-standard Mandarin (i.e. the Beijing accent).

They gave some examples to show that there are standard Mandarin words that do/can include the diminutive without making it specific to the Beijing accent. Some of these words include:

  • 那里 vs 那儿 (there)
  • 这里 vs 这儿 (here)
  • 哪里 vs 哪儿 (where)
  • 一点 vs 一点儿 (a bit)
  • 小孩 vs 小孩儿 (child)

They made the interesting claim that saying the non-ér-ised version in Beijing would actually make you sound quite effeminate (something for males to watch out for!).

They also provided some examples of ér-ised words that really do constitude ‘the Beijing accent’ that would be incorrect in the context of standard Mandarin:

  • vs 根儿 (classifier for long slender objects)
  • 告诉 vs 告儿 (to tell someone something)
  • vs 水儿 (water — more specific to Hebei than Beijing)

You wouldn’t hear these words on TV or other places where standard Mandarin is expected.

It’s hard to know how much of this is ‘universal truth’ and how much is the opinion of Beijingers, but at least good to be made aware that there are differences. Be sure to check out the lesson, including the interesting discussion in the comments section.


Addressing waiters/waitresses at a Chinese restaurant

I was having dinner with work colleagues (all native mainland Chinese) last night at a Chinese restaurant when I raised the question about how to address the waitress. Several methods were brought up:

  1. 小姐

    This one was probably the most controversial. The ‘little older sister’ method was brought up by one person (a male from south of China) but another (a female from the north of China) said that this was terribly inappropriate, as these days the term is taken to mean ‘prostitute’ and therefore not a very respectful thing to say. Obviously this term can’t be used for male waiters.

  2. 服务员

    I suggested this one and a couple of people agreed this was a good method. However, another person thought that it was much too formal, and would not be used in actual spoken conversation.

  3. 你好

    A compromise that everyone seemed happy with was to skirt the issue entirely by just calling them over by saying ‘hello’.

I’ll see if I can ask my tutor get her opinion on this. What other methods (good or bad) have you heard used?

Update: My tutor (female from Shanghai) said that 小姐 (or 先生 for male waiters) is what you would use at a nice restaurant (as they usually have young, attractive waitstaff). In a less fancy/café setting, you would tend to use 服务员, and they tend to use this more in the north of China. In the restaurant context, 小姐 would never be taken to mean ‘prostitute’, so isn’t inappropriate.

Update 2 (2014-02-20): DigMandarin has posted an excellent article on addressing people in Chinese, which is far more comprehensive.


Shanghai in the 1920s

Today I came across some amazing photos from China in the 1920s and 1930s. The curator of these photos, Vincent Messelier-Gouze, says:

“In 1919, my 18-year-old grandfather, Louis-Philippe Messelier, left his hometown in France for China. Living in Shanghai, he juggled his career in the wool trade with his photography as a journalist for the French Journal of Shanghai.”

Here are some of my favourites:


It’s fascinating to see real photos from a time when China was not as westernised as it is today. Make sure you check out the full post for more!

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