When you start to learn Mandarin Chinese, it’s important to find where your teacher is from. Regional accents vary across China, much like the USA. Just ask a Maine lobster man on his first trip to the Louisiana Bayou.
As a student of languages, I always appreciated the different accents. After a year in France I could pinpoint where people were from by their twang. Parisians were fast and clipped. Like most Southerners, people from the South of France had a slower paced monologue.
In China you can expect the same regional varieties. “Beijing Hua” or “Beijing Speak” has an over-emphasised ‘R’ and speakers jam together sentences as if punctuation never existed. In Guangdong Province there are tonal overlays with Cantonese Chinese – a completely separate language from Mandarin. “Shanghainese” is almost a separate language with a lot of slang and unique pronunciations.
The clearest and most admired accent is “Bei Feng Hua” or “Northern People Speak.” This is used in the far north of the country, like Harbin – China’s northernmost city renowned for its ice sculptures and proximity to North Korea and Russia. My Mandarin teacher was from Harbin and although I haven’t had lessons for a decade I am still complimented on my accent. Amazing!
Recently Michael Stephen Kai Sui (aka Mike Sui), a 27 year old aspiring actor in China, developed a video to showcase all the regional accents. In this amusing clip he plays a dozen different characters. Each speaks with the accent and style of their native province. He even plays an African-American on holiday in Beijing. There is one early swear word that’s not hard to miss.
“It’s important to be brave. Don’t be afraid of losing face. Just practice more,” says Mike Sui.
And in an “only in China” moment today China Daily features Michael in a full page editorial. The article includes some amazing stats – the video has been viewed 5.17 million times, and Michael Stephen Kai Sui has 480,000 followers on Weibo – China’s Twitter equivalent.
Even if you don’t speak Mandarin watch this clip. It is amusing to “hear” all the different accents. And it is amazing to watch the seamless performances as Michael morphs from character to character. (For those whose Mandarin is rusty – or not even present – the video includes English subtitles.)