Teochew dialect is a general term for a southern Min dialect popularly spoken in the Minnan region of eastern Guangdong, which is located in the south of China. The language is also referred to as Min Chinese or Chaoshan dialect. Teochew dialect is a unique and ancient Chinese language that is characterized as a sub-dialect of the southern Min dialect. It is mainly spoken in the cities of Shantou, Chaozhou, and most regions of Jieyang in eastern Guangdong, with a population of about 10 million. Nowadays, Teochow compatriots in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, plus their diaspora around the world, also total nearly the same number.

Teochew remains distinguished as one of the three major dialects of Guangdong: Cantonese, Hakka, and Min language. It is one of the influential sub-dialects of the southern Min dialect in the Chinese dialectology academic field at home and abroad, along with the dialects of Taiwan, Amoy, Quanzhou, and Hainan.

The formation of the Teochew dialect endured a long history. It was sourced from the ancient Chinese language in the Central Plains, but after thousands of years of immigration, the dialect has gone through significant variations as it was broken off from its place of origin. Ancestors of Teochew people were of the Han nationality from the Central Plains who migrated through Putian of Fujian to today’s Chaoshan region because of the Upheaval of the Eight Princes during the Western Jin Dynasty (266AD-316AD).

Due to its remote location in the coastal areas of Southeast China and rare communication links with the outside world, the original landscape of the dialect has been largely preserved. Northern Chinese dialects, on the other hand, have been evolving at a faster pace, not to mention that a majority of the political upheavals took place in the north, which exposed northern Chinese dialects to more opportunities for fusion with languages of foreign nationalities. This reveals that ancient phonetics and connotations in northern Chinese dialects were rarely preserved. While in the southern Min region, the picture was different for Min dialects thanks to its relative seclusion. Based on the above, Teochew dialects have received much attention from many linguists.

The famous linguist Li Xinkui once said, “Guangdong dialects preserve a lot of features of the ancient Chinese language. They were branched off from the then mainstream language in the early years. After that, given the geographic isolation and minimal interactions with outsiders, these dialects became conservative, and little changes have been made. In this case, pronunciations, words, and grammar adapted from the ancient Chinese language have been kept. Many factors of the ancient language could be found in these Guangdong dialects. Compared with other dialects across China, they present more features of the ancient Chinese language.” These sentences unveil the characteristics of the Teochew dialect. As one of the three major dialects in Guangdong, the Teochew dialect is known for its classical style, distinctive grammar, rich vocabulary, and unique pronunciations. Thereby, it is hailed as a “living fossil” in the study of the ancient Chinese language.

The Swedish linguist Klas Bernhard Johannes Karlgren held that “Teochew dialect is the most ancient and distinctive existing dialect in China” (quoted from the Chinese translation of Études sur la phonologiechinoise by He Changqun). Teochew dialect comprises a rich collection of archaisms. Archaism here refers to “the words or phrases that could be found in ancient documents but are no longer used or are only kept in particular written papers in the modern Chinese language (Mandarin).” The origins of the Teochew dialect run parallel with the genesis of the Chinese language.

The following section mainly explores how Teochew nursery rhymes and the ancient Chinese language are interlinked with each other from the perspective of lexis and grammar.

1.  Nouns as Adverbials

In the modern Chinese language, usually, nouns cannot be directly used as adverbials, but in the ancient Chinese language, some nouns often functioned as adverbials to modify a sentence. For example, in The Emperor and Assassin, it is written, “Marched north and occupied the place.” The word “north” means northward, an example of a position noun being used as an adverbial. While in Banquet at Hongmen, we find the sentence, “Then Xiangbo took a night ride to Liu Bang’s camp.” Here the word “night” refers to “at night”, a temporal noun used as an adverbial to modify the sentence.

While in the Teochew nursery rhyme titled “Annual Winter Solstice,” we hear, “Annual winter solstice, every household pounds rice.” Here, the term “winter solstice” refers to “during the winter solstice,” a temporal noun used as an adverbial. Other nursery rhymes include “Bride looks front and back,” in which “front” is used to mean “forward,” as a position noun functioning as an adverbial. In the line “Grandpa works day and night,” the word “day” means “in the morning” while “night” means “at night.” Both the temporal nouns are used as adverbials to modify the sentence. In “East gate a drum, west gate another,” the phrase “east gate” can be understood as “at the east gate” while “west gate” means “at the west gate.” Both the position nouns function as adverbials. In the sentence, “zenith a star, earth a study,” the word “zenith” means “in the zenith” while “earth” means “on earth.” This presents examples of position nouns as adverbials.

2.  Nouns as Verbs

In the modern Chinese language, nouns do not take on the form of a direct object, but in ancient Chinese language texts, this phenomenon is commonly seen. That means nouns in this context are used as verbs. It is the shifting of a noun to a verb. Take Banquet at Hongmenfor example. In the sentence, “Liu Bang garrisoned Bashang,” the word “garrison” means “station.” In another sentence, “Fan Zeng eyed Xiang Yu several times,” the word “eye” means “giving somebody a wink.”

Also, in a Teochew nursery rhyme named “The Lunar New Year,” a line goes, “The fifth day of May, dragon boat riders, scull along the stream.” The word “scull” is a noun used as a verb, which means “to row a boat with sculls.” In other nursery rhymes, we see the line, “Lychee in July and longan in August.” The word “Lychee” here means “producing lychees,” while “longan” refers to “producing longans.” In “Anu nets fish in a stream,” the word “net” means “catching fish with a net.” “Straw sandals” in the literally translated line, “Straw sandals and umbrella when you go, white house with a golden saddle on the return trip,” means “wear straw sandals” while “white horse” expresses the meaning of riding a white horse. Here the nouns are shifted to verbs. All of these are examples of nouns shifting to verbs.

3.  Causative Verbs

In the ancient Chinese language, the actions of the verbs are performed by people or things in objects. That is the causative form of verbs. Take “Zhuzhiwu Retreated Qin Army” as an example. “Retreat” here means “making somebody retreat.” In the sentence, “If perishing the State of Zheng can benefit you,” the word “perish” means “causing the state to perish.”

The Teochew children’s rhyme, “The Lunar New Year,” has a line that translates as, “The sixth day of June, newly harvested rice, bloats to eyes,” the word “bloats” here is interpreted as “cause a feeling of being bloated.” In other nursery rhymes, we see the lines, “The wind is so strong, many trees fall.” Here, “fall” is a causative verb, which means “making it fall.” While in the sentence, “Eating too much Zongzi, your belly will swell,” the word “swell” refers to “making it swell.” In “Embroidery needle, colorful threads, embroider a wallet so your mom can watch,” the word “watch” means to make somebody see, which is a causative verb.

4.  Adjectives as Nouns

In the ancient Chinese language, when an adjective works as a subject and an object, it no longer expresses the property or feature of a substance but represents a person or a thing with particular property or feature. For example, in The Emperor and Assassin, it is written, “Someone lives far.” The word “far” means “a faraway place.” The adjective is shifted to a noun. Banquet at Hongmen has a sentence that literally translates to “The guy’s ambition is not in small,” in which “small” means “small aspects.”

As for the Teochew ballad “Counting Whorls,” there is a line that translates to “nine whorls for noisy, ten whorls for a high-ranking official.” Here, the word “noisy” means “being noisy,” which is an adjective shifted to a noun. A line in a Teochew nursery rhyme goes, “As for pineapple, we purchase large and small.” Here, the words “large” and “small” are adjectives used as nouns, which mean “large pineapples” and “small pineapples.” In the line, literally translated to “Granny loves the salty most,” the word “salty” stands for “all kinds of salty foods.” This is also an example of an adjective functioning as a noun.

5.  Adjectives as Verbs

When adjectives in ancient Chinese language take the form of direct objects, they represent corresponding actions or changes instead of an object’s nature. In Emperor and Assassin, the adjective “close” in the literally translated sentence “It will be difficult to close to the Qin emperor,” is used as a verb, meaning “get close to.” While in Banquet at Hongmen, the word “friendly” in “Always friendly to Zhangliang” means “being friendly to.”

The Teochew children’s rhyme “Magpies’ Chatter” has a line that translates as, “Mate, your bride quite interesting.” Here the word “interesting” can be understood as “looks interesting,” which is an adjective used as a verb. From the literally translated sentence “your trouser broken,” we have the adjective “broken” functioning as a verb, representing the meaning of “to be torn.” In “Take out the quilt to dry under the sun and don’t damaged,” the word “Damaged” is equal to “get damaged,” where the adjective is used as a verb.

The study on the correlation between the Teochew dialect and ancient Chinese language presents significant value to the research of ancient Chinese vocabulary, the history of Chinese words, dictionary compilations, and classical Chinese teaching. It is worthy of more in-depth research and further reflection. In the age of the Chinese Renaissance, where our traditional culture is fading at a rapid rate and our identity is being veiled, I hope that by taking part in this project, the education system in China would be able to become more and more efficient with an increased number of students becoming interested in learning ancient Chinese and regional dialects. With national education on board, the boosted awareness for self-identity and confidence in Chinese culture will elevate an overall sense of patriotism and appreciation for national culture.

Zixuan Zheng, 11th Grader of Huafu International, Guangzhou, Guangdoing of China. Her pieces have been featured in magazines, newspapers and on websites since the 7th Grade. Three-time junior golf champion in California. Making friends from all around the world by playing golf and writing powerful words are her greatest passions.