The Price of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization, Class Structure, and Language Endangerment in Shanghai

PhD defended at: 



Fang Xu



Over the last two decades, Shanghai has experienced an unprecedented transformation, as China’s economic globalization and urban expansion have increased rapidly. Looking beyond statistics and architectural spectacles, I examine a seemingly personal choice in Shanghai, speaking Putonghua Mandarin, the official language, or the Shanghai dialect. This study contextualizes the contested urban linguistic space, and illustrates the political, social, and cultural conditions in this China’s globalizing city.

Through archival research, fifty in-depth interviews, two hundred and fifty survey questionnaires, and ethnographic fieldwork in Shanghai in the fall and winter of 2013, I document the impact of three sets of state policies driving the Shanghai dialect to the brink of extinction, and reactions of Shanghairen (Shanghai people) to preserve their linguistic heritage, and to safeguard their place-bound identity. First, state language policies systematically put Shanghai dialect at a discriminated position, through a nationalist agenda associating the official language with patriotism, and upward social mobility. In response to this state-sponsored language oppression, a grassroots dialect preservation movements struggles to protect Shanghai’s linguistic heritage.

Second, urban redevelopment policies to accommodate the infrastructure demanded by a global city displaced more than one million Shanghai households out of the urban center. It not only deprives them of the urban central residency, challenges their claim to urban public space, but also disperses the Shanghai dialect community. Facing an urban built environment bearing little relevance to Shanghai’s history and long-time residents, Shanghairen rejects newly-built architectural spectacles and articulates an alternative image of cosmopolitan Shanghai located in the historical urban center.

The third reason behind the rapid decline of Shanghai dialect speaking is the influx of millions of internal migrants, and the selective social integration of these non-speakers in Shanghai after reforms of the household registration (hukou) system. Instead of a dual society characterized by those with a Shanghai urban hukou and those without, my study suggests a more nuanced social class restructuring. On the one hand, migrants now have better overall chances for social acceptance and integration as institutional barriers represented by an individual’s hukou status have receded; on the other hand, social and cultural boundaries are effectively maintained through language and lifestyle. Only those highly educated and wealthy newcomers are accepted on the job market and in social circles, while less-educated rural migrants are excluded.

To synthesize, in exchange for Shanghai’s global city status and improved standard of living, Shanghairen have been relocated away from the urban center, while their linguistic right to the city is threatened. They have also experienced relative deprivation of privileges in terms of exclusive access to employment and top quality social services. In this study, they come together to tell a story of the price locals pay when an authoritarian, centralized state fashions a city compatible with and competitive for globalization.

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