Zhou Libo's New Book: Hui Cidian


Taking advantage of his current popularity, Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) has swiftly published a book on Shanghainese expressions called 诙词典 (something like “Comedic Dictionary”).

The book isn’t exactly a dictionary, but it groups a whole bunch of Shanghainese expressions by common themes or elements, then explains them entry by entry in Mandarin, followed by a usage example from Zhou Libo’s stand-up acts for each entry.

“Shanghainese” Characters

What’s interesting (and a bit annoying) is that Shanghainese sentences are written out in Chinese characters, and then followed by a Mandarin translation in parentheses. Here’s an example of such a sentence:

> “伊迪句闲话结棍,讲得来我闷脱了。(他这句话厉害,说得我一下子说不出话来了)”

> [Translation: “That remark of his was scathing. I had no comeback for that.”]

The book is peppered with sentences like this, and as a learner, I have some issues with them:

1. If you read the Shanghainese sentences according to their Mandarin readings, they sound ridiculous and make no sense (a lot of the time) in either Mandarin or Shanghainese.

2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).

3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.

To point #3 above, I know there are cases where the “correct character” can be “deduced” due to Shanghainese’s similarities to Mandarin. To use the example above, the Shanghainese “闷脱” can be rendered in Mandarin as “闷掉.” Then why 脱 instead of 掉? Well, 掉 has a different pronunciation in Shanghainese, and it’s not used in the same way as it is in Mandarin. The 脱 in “闷脱,” however, in Shanghainese is the same 脱 as in “脱衣服” in Mandarin (which is “脱衣裳” in Shanghainese). It seems like this game of “chasing the characters” from Mandarin to Shanghainese might be ultimately circular in some cases, but I can’t really judge.

The other point is that some of Shanghainese’s basic function words, pronouns, and other common words don’t correspond to Mandarin’s at all, and the characters used certainly seem like standard transliterations. An example from the sentence above would be the Shanghainese “迪” standing in for Mandarin’s “这,” or (not from above), the Shanghainese “格” for Mandarin’s “的.”

So how do you know which characters are “deductions” (these are kind of cool and can point to interesting historical changes in language), and which ones are mere transliterations? Well, research would help. I don’t have much time these days for such an endeavor, but I do know some Shanghainese professors of Chinese at East China Normal University who could point me to the right resources.

Shanghainese Romanization

Lack of a standard romanization system is a problem that has plagued students of Shanghainese forever. Some favor IPA, but most find it a bit too cryptic. The problem is there is still no clearly superior solution that has become standard.

Zhou Libo’s book doesn’t make any headway in the romanization department. Headwords are given a “Shanghainese pronunciation” using a sort of “modified pinyin” with no tones. This is definitely more helpful than nothing, but it’s another reason why this book doesn’t make much of a learner’s resource for Shanghainese. Where the romanization diverges from pinyin, you’re not sure how to pronounce it (“sö” anyone?), and where it matches pinyin, it’s often not really the same as pinyin.

Here is a (rather long) list of the Shanghainese expressions introduced by the book, together with the romanizations given in the book [in square brackets]:

脱 [te]
– 做脱(拿伊做脱) [zu te (nei yi zu te)] – 揩脱 [ka te] – 点脱 [di te] – 闷脱 [men te] – 瘪脱 [bie te] – 关脱 [guai te]] – 戆脱 [gang te] – 酥脱 [su te] – 烊脱 [yang te] – 僵脱 [jiang te] – 爆脱 [bao te] – 撸脱 [lu te] – 茄脱 [ga te] – 疲脱 [bi te] – 伤脱 [sang te] – 头 [dou]
– 花头 [ho dou] – 寿头 [sou dou] – 浇头 [jiao dou] – 噱头 [xue dou] – 滑头 [we dou] – 派头 [pa dou] – 浪头 [lang dou] – 因头 [yin dou] – 轻头 [qin dou] – 冲头 [cong dou] – 额角头 [e go dou] – 勒阳生头 [le me sang dou] – 子 [zi]
– 翎子 [lin zi] – 坑子(货) [ken zi (hu)] – 巴子 [ba zi] – 模子 [mu zi] – 打桩模子 [dang zang mu zi] – 元宵模子 [nü xiao mu zi] – 撬边模子 [qiao be mu zi] – 歪轮模子 [hua len mu zi] – 赤佬模子 [ce lao mu zi] – 八宝辣酱
– 一天世界 [yi ti si ga] – 勿二勿三,勿三勿四 [ve ni ve sai, ve sai ve si] – 瞎三话四 [he sai wo si] – 五斤吼六斤 [n jin hou lo jin] – 刮三 [gua sai] – 十三点 [se sai di] – 搅七廿三 [gao qie nie sai] – 狼三狼四 [hen sai hen si] – 投五投六 [dou n dou lo] – 老三老四 [lao sai lao si] – 走油蹄膀
– 拉讲 [la gang] – 触霉头 [co mei dou] – 拎勿清 [lin ve qin] – 翻行头 [fai ang dou] – 扎台型 [ze dai yin] – 伽山湖 [ga san wu] – 差路 [ca lu] – 吃家生 [qie ga sang] – 做人家 [zu nin ga] – 豁胖 [huo pang] – 牢头皮 [qi dou bi] – 轧闹猛 [ge nao mang] – 触心筋 [co xin jin] – 骂山门 [mo sai men] – 吃酸 [qie sö] – 淘浆糊 [dao jiang wu] – 起蓬头 [qi bong dou] – 牢丝攀藤 [qi si bei den] – 杈人 [co nin] – 搭界 [de ga] – 发吼 [fa hou] – 哭出胡拉 [ko ce wu la] – 作 [zo] – 收骨头 [sou gue dou] – 发嗲 [fe dia] – 有数 [you su] – 腌笃鲜
– 死样怪气 [xi yang gua qi] – 小家败气 [xiao ga ba qi] – 罪过 [zei gu] – 屈死(阿屈死) [que xi (e que xi)] – 戆大 [gang du] – 挖塞 [wa se] – 神志无知 [sen zi wu zi] – 劈硬柴 [pie ang za] – 笃悠悠 [do you you] – 横竖横 [wang si wang] – 神兜兜 [sen dou dou] – 野豁豁 [ya hue hue] – 豁边 [hue bi] – 勿来三 [ve lai sai] – 赤佬 [ce lao] – 夜壶脸 [ya wu li] – 崭 [zei] – 老鬼 [lao ju] – 海威 [hai wei] – 墨墨黑 [me me he] – 汤汤滴 [tang tang di] – 喇叭腔 [la ba qiang] – 老吃老做 [lao qie lao zu] – 赖极皮 [la jie bi] – 人来疯 [nin lai fong] – 鲜格格 [xi ge ge] – 嘲唧唧 [sao ji ji] – 木知木觉 [mo zi mo go] – 痴头怪脑 [ci dou gua nao] – 结棍 [jie gun] – 芝士火锅
– 盎三 [ang sai] – 混腔势 [wen qiang si] – 促狭 [co ke] – 推扳 [tai bai] – 煞根 [se gen] – 门槛精 [men kai jin] – 坦招势 [tai zao si] – 瘪三 [bie sai] – 粢饭糕 [ci vai gao] – 奥特曼 [ao te mai]

If you’re looking for Shanghainese study materials, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re an advanced student of Mandarin, but it may be a useful resource if you’re already fairly familiar with Shanghainese (and Mandarin) and are a fan of Zhou Libo.

Related posts on the Annals of Wu:

Pinyin, IPA or Characters?
Characters & Shanghai Dialect
Examples of Wu Transcription


The Shanghainese Soundboard (for beginners)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Thanks for the links and for letting me know about this book.

    A couple things:

    2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).

    That’s something I’ve often felt re a lot of these character replacements. In addition to the seemingly odd replacements, sometimes where the only difference in Mandarin is a tone, there are functional changes. 格 for 的 is common enough, but I’ve also seen 个 used (when 個 was otherwise present throughout (繁体字) the text. You’d have to already know that 个 was acting as 的/得 in order to be able to understand the passage.

    3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.

    I wonder the same thing, but I’m guilty of some seemingly arbitrary choices, e.g. 不 could be 弗, 勿, 否, 毋 or possibly others as well. 勿 is the most common I’ve seen but I tend to use 弗 for being closer to the sound (in most dialects). Everyone uses 侬 for 你 in Shanghainese but 你 for other dialects, but then 吾 for 我 is inconsistently applied (by myself as well). 伊 as well is usually only seen in Shanghai (and similar dialects like Qihai), 他 showing up almost everywhere else.

    I’m curious to know the difference between 佬 and 老, both given as “lao” in the ‘pinyin’. I’m sure it’s probably just tonal, which brings up another problem with most Shanghainese books. Tones matter just a little bit, but are often ignored completely.

    Great post. Sorry for monopolising the comments.

  2. […] Sinosplice: Zhou Libo’s Hui Cidian December 21 2009 0 comments John at Sinosplice has posted once more on Shanghainese. Be sure to head over and check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a great post on […]

  3. It’s a shame there isn’t better shanghainese learning material.

  4. Kellen,

    No problem! Thanks for the comments…

    Of the different romanization systems you’ve discussed on your site over time, which do you now feel is the best for learning Shanghainese?

  5. John: We’ve talked about my love of IPA before. I still think it’s the way to go, given what’s out there. I’ve also more than once considered codifying my own Shanghainese pinyin, which is what I use to do my own notations on paper, but it’s half IPA anyway.

    The various pinyins used by a lot of these books are inconsistent. I could guess ö is /ø/ but there are plenty you would only be able to figure out if you already knew enough Shanghainese or had a key available. Since in most cases one may have to resort to IPA to make sense of the pinyin, you might as well just use IPA o begin with. People say it’s daunting to learn it but so is language. Learn IPA once and be done with it.

    Maxiewawa: If you’re in Shanghai there are a couple training centers which will teach Shanghainese. I don’t know if they’re any good, but it’s at least good to know if you look hard enough you can find stuff. Craigslist (et al) also lists tutors from time to time.

  6. “伊 as well is usually only seen in Shanghai (and similar dialects like Qihai), 他 showing up almost everywhere else.”

    伊 is used in Taiwanese (Hokkien) as well. Makes a lot of sense (to me at least), as it’s also pronounced i.

  7. @Kellen I’m not sure about Shanghainese, but there is a tonal and semantic difference between 老 and 佬 in Cantonese. To put it bluntly, the former is an adjective and the latter is a noun. You can get actual definitions at CantoDict:
    老: http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/characters/213/
    佬: http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/characters/685/

  8. @Karan:

    Yeah. It was a stupid example. I should have chosen better. The same is true in Shanghainese of those two words. There are many other pairs that are the same part of speech yet are often switched out and which also wouldn’t make me look like such a fool.

    I’d like to blame my jetlag.

  9. I suppose at least a few editors are influenced by older literary works in Wu dialect. I guess since not many Wu speakers nowadays are used to reading (vocalizing) characters in a Wu dialect, some editors must get confused. There does seem to be a variety of ways to write Wu dialects in characters.

    Have you taken a look at 海上花列传 (Haishanghua Liezhuan) by Han Bangqing, by the way? Not the Putonghua translation but the original which is a mix of Classical Chinese, Mandarin and Suzhou-hua.

  10. I recently picked up a copy, and haven’t read much of it, but can see what you mean.

    A larger problem too is that even Shanghainese can vary on what things precisely mean. I learn an expression from one person, than each time I use it I am corrected on the meaning – and each time am told something different. I think 上海话流行语 (or something like that) remains the best I’ve seen so far in terms of precise and accurate definitions and histories.

    I’m not far enough along to quibble over Wu characters – but envy and admire those of you who can.

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