According to a recent report (in Chinese) there hasn’t been a play performed in Shanghai dialect since the 1970s until the recent performances of the The Crow and the Sparrow was put Shanghai Dramatic Arts Theatre. Unfortunately, the reaction seems to be have been lukewarm at best, and the blame is being assigned to the fact that the production was too hastily prepared, leading them to overlook things like subtitles.
You might ask, why, if most of the dialogue is in Shanghainese, would people other than non-locals need subtitles? It turns out that aside from standard Shanghai dialect, Ningbo, Suzhou, Shandong and other dialects were also thrown in—the story takes place during the Republic period (1911-1949) at a time when many immigrants were first putting down roots in Shanghai. The production team also prepared a putonghua version of the play, which they used during the last performance here and will use if they take the play to other parts of China. All in all, it seemed as if this was a less than ideal way to restart this tradition.
Many older Chinese (who are no doubt hanging on to every word that Shanghaiist writes) will remember the black-and-white movie made back in 1949. In this film, the battle over a house becomes an allegorical depiction of a corrupt Nationalist government on its last legs (the crows) struggling to maintain its control over the good-hearted people (the sparrows), who eventually win back the right to live in their own homes. Shanghaiist has not seen this film but we were told that it’s not as political as our description might make it seem — on the contrary, it seems to have been a comic (hua ji) film, and what’s also interesting was that much of this film’s dialogue is in dialect.
You might not be interested in dialectology but if you’re interested in how Chinese dialects figure in various Chinese media and art forms, you might want to consult a book we recently read called Rendering the Regional: Local Language in Contemporary Chinese Media by Edward M. Gunn. This book was published just this year and has some interesting insights into how local dialects are used (or not) in literature, theater, films, etc. Despite being written by a Cornell University professor, it’s not too academic.
But back to the play: Evidently it was mentioned in Shanghai Daily (subscribers only) several weeks ago, but as was said, we missed both that and the play itself.
Photo from lnd.com.cn.