Today, many young Chinese people do not know how to speak the dialects of their parents or grandparents. As a result, Chinese dialects are slowly moving toward extinction. Luckily, the use of them in Chinese popular music has allowed the dialects to not only reach wider audiences but also encourage young people to learn the dialect and pass it on to future generations. 

Zhang Yixing (张艺兴), also known as Lay Zhang, has a couple of songs (Xiangjiang River and Boiling) that serve as primary examples of using dialects in popular music. As a popular artist with a global audience, shown through his 14.2 million followers on Instagram and 50.6 million followers on Weibo, Lay is able to make the dialect of his hometown (Changsha dialect) reach a wider audience. Xiangjiang River (Xiangjiang Shui 湘江水) specifically points out the problem of young people not knowing the Changsha dialect. He sings, “看着那些老弟长沙话都不晓得讲/看着他们娭毑外婆都不晓得喊.” In English, this means, “Look at those young men. They don’t know how to speak Changsha dialect. / Look at them, they don’t know how to call their grandparents.” Through the mention of this in his song, Lay brings attention to this issue, which listeners may not have thought too much about. Although listeners who do not know Changsha dialect may not understand initially, curiosity over what Lay sings or raps about in his song leads them to view the lyrics. They would also feel more inclined to learn about the Changsha culture. Lay’s popularity and appeal to a younger audience allow his listeners to realize that preserving and knowing the Changsha dialect is a “cool” thing to do. Listeners from Changsha may be more inclined to pass the dialect on to future generations due to hearing the dialect in popular music, which is quite unexpected.

This phenomenon of young people not knowing dialects is very real, and it applies not only to the Changsha dialect but also to other Chinese dialects, such as the Fuzhou dialect.

The song 莫加戴 (Mo Jia Dai) by Vinida (万妮达), which highlights the Fuzhou dialect in some parts, also allowed a Chinese dialect to reach a wider audience. Even though Vinida is not as popular as Lay, international platforms like YouTube and NetEase Music brought the song to a global audience and to Fuzhounese living overseas. A listener on NetEase Music commented, ”我是福州人,福州话真的日渐式微,记得高中班上会讲福州话的同学大概只有一半,现在更小的孩子可能更不会去学习福州话。很感谢我的家庭一直在日常生活中为我提供了福州话的学习氛围,现在才能听懂万妮达的这首歌。家乡文化真的很重要,也感谢Vinida为福州话传播作出的贡献!” In English, this means, “I am Fuzhounese. Fuzhou dialect is gradually disappearing, I remember that in my high school class, only half the students could speak Fuzhou dialect, smaller kids now probably won’t learn the Fuzhou dialect. I am grateful that my family provided me with a learning environment for the Fuzhou dialect, so I can now understand Vinida’s song. The culture of the hometown is very important, and I am thankful that Vinida is contributing to the spread of the Fuzhou dialect.”

Through popular music, Chinese dialects are being introduced to wider audiences. However, it is still important to take the initiative to learn the languages and culture of your hometown and pass them on to future generations.