Do It Yourself Knowledge

Because life ain't cheap…

Western Solfège and the Chinese Ningbo Dialect

Posted by diynovice on October 13, 2013

In Shanghai, there is an entertainment center called “The Great World” (大世界). Built in the 1930’s, it was an influential center for the performing arts including Peking Opera, Shanghai Opera, acrobatics, and the Shanghai-style of story telling (similar to “stand-up comedy). Many of the stories told were forbidden after the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Sometime in the 1960’s, a classic, on par with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” (Youtube) was told called the Ningbo Musician (宁波音乐家). It is a joke about how the Ningbo dialect sounds like the Western Solfège and tells a story of a Shanghainese man listening to a tailor’s bossing around his apprentice ( 学徒). I recorded a short version sung by my father-in-law, and translated on the spot by my mother-in-law.

The Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) halted almost all forms of entertainment, and the Ningbo Musician was almost lost. But in the early 1980’s it reemerged, likely because the government liked the “学徒” theme as it partially demonstrated how hard life ‘used’ to be.

In order to better understand the joke, more historical background needs to be discussed. In China, there are many spoken dialects (versions) of Mandarin. In the north, most dialects are similar and understandable by the people that live in the region. In the south, dialects tend to be extremely local, where people from neighboring villages may not be able to communicate verbally. However, written characters are the same, so text is understood. There is an old Chinese saying, 十里不同音,百里不同俗, meaning the spoken language is not the same 10 miles apart and the living style is not the same 100 miles apart. This is the result of the character system, where thousands of years ago, as the Chinese language spread, every town would gradually pronounce characters different ways. This could be compared to the divergence of English between the United Kingdom and the United States, except on a much grander scale. Ningbo is a port city south, just across Hangzhou bay, from Shanghai. Ningbo has a history dating back to 4000 BC and has been a major city for over 2000 years. Shanghai is   a very new city. It was settled sometime in the 5th to 7th century and only became a municipality in 1927. Both Ningbo and Shanghai have their own dialect, however, Shanghai’s dialect is largely based on the Ningbo dialect. In this instance, people can understand each others dialect. After being established as a municipality, Shanghai rapidly became the financial and trade center of the region, surpassing Ningbo. The people of Shanghai become more educated and wealthy. When it came to singing, most Chinese learned to sing by either the ancient Gongche (工尺谱) character notation [上 (shàng) 尺 (chě) 工 (gōng) 凡 (fán) 六 (liù) 五 (wǔ) 乙 (yǐ)] or the Jianpu (简谱) number notation [1 (Yī’) 2 (èr) 3 (sān) 4 (sì) 5 (wǔ) 6 (liù) 7 (qī)]. Shanghai quickly became an international hub, and with that came western teachings, including the Western Solfège [Do re mi fa sol la te] for singing. After the cultural revolution, Mao made learning to sing using Jianpu notation mandatory.

The most famous version of the joke was recorded, and can be found at the link below. Even if you don’t understand a lick of Chinese, I think you can get the gist of the joke.

Something to note, the Chinese characters used in my recording/translation are not necessarily the most correct in the modern sense. The Ningbo dialect has some verbal words that have no written character, or the character was eliminated in the many simplifications of Chinese characters. However, thanks to Google Books, I found a 1901 book, ‘The Ningbo Syllabary’, that describes in very good detail the Ningbo dialect and correlates sounds with characters. One key difference is the ‘fa do, fa do’ translation. Fa (嫑) is not an official character anymore, but in Ningbo dialect, it is part of a proverb meaning to decline something. Interestingly, (嫑) is still used in many other dialects with a similar ‘do not’ meaning but it is pronounced ‘báo’ (more information here).

This is just another example of the complexity of Chinese culture. For a simple joke, there is a long and detailed history that needs to be known to fully understand it.

For reference, here is the text from my Youtube video. The characters are not necessarily today’s correct characters. They are the characters (to the nest of my research) that would be used in the verbal Ningbo dialect.

Le fa, mi sol si do la [来发, 棉纱线驮来]
Le-fa, give me some cotton thread

Sol mi sol si do la [啥棉纱线驮来]
What cotton thread do you want?

Le mi sol si do la [蓝棉纱线驮来]
Blue cotton thread is what I want

Fa do, Fa do [嫑驮,嫑驮]
No, no, I’m not going to get it for you

Le do, Le do [懒惰, 懒惰]
Lazy bones, lazy bones

Special thanks to my in-laws for all of their help in gathering this information. I don’t think they realized the work I was going to make them do by telling me a simple joke.


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