Annoying fake accents on Chinese TV

Cell Phone actors play at being Henanese

Film and TV critic Meng Jing (孟静) writes for Xinmin Weekly about actors adopting dodgy accents for regional TV dramas:

Impotent Dialect

by Meng Jing / XW

I was interviewing Fan Wei, and he said that the popularity of skits from the Northeast meant that what he feared most was hearing outsider actors adopt a northeastern accent. It would end up a mess, and would be sheer torture for a northeasterner. When he was in the movie Cell Phone (手机), he was afraid of becoming that kind of actor himself, so, at his own expense, he spent several days in Zhengzhou, found a local to record his lines for him, and then practiced them over and over. I said, no wonder – as a Henanese, when I saw that movie, it was Fan Wei's few lines that I felt I could stomach. The effort you’ve put in is reflected in the mind of the audience.

Not long afterward, I watched the film One Foot Off the Ground (鸡犬不宁), in which Xu Fan played an actress in a Henan Opera troupe. If you were a local, her accent was enough to make your skin crawl, and to tell you the truth, even a virtuoso like Song Dandan had sub-par Henanese. Northern dialects have always been much easier to mimic than southern ones, and Guo Da, Cai Ming, Chen Peisi, and Guo Degang have, at least to my ears, imitated Henanese without major problems. Speaking, imitating, teasing, and singing are the four disciplines of a xiangsheng actor, so are TV and film actors deficient in these basic skills? The way I see it, it’s more that they aren’t trying.

The TV version of Cell Phone is now airing, and agonizing, fake Henanese has returned. Wang Zhiwen may have realized that certain things can’t be forced, so he doesn’t speak a word of it, but even so, without everyone is using the accent, when some people speak it and others don’t, then northern and southern accents are all jumbled up in a mess. Wang Zhiwen’s grandmother speaks with the flavor of northeastern noodles. His aunt Lu Guihua sounds like she grew up in an army compound in Beijing. “Black Brick” as played by Fan Ming primarily speaks in Shandong dialect but once in a while imitates Henanese markers like zhong and za. Where Lu Zhixin comes from, not even people from Henan can guess. Lu Guihua’s daughter is even scarier with her lisping, which seems to be forcing the audience to concede: “I’m speaking Henanese! Aren’t I? Aren’t I?”

And you could kill me, but I’d still say “No! No you’re not! You're all over the map!”

It’s not that there’s no one at all. In the crowd of extras that flash by, I could even hear people from Xuchang or Zhengzhou. Dialect is a subtle thing. An outsider, regardless of how long you’ve stayed in a place, won’t find the imitators so jarring, but a native, even one like me who doesn’t really use the local language anymore, has incredibly sensitive ears due to the environment in which you grew up, so that not-right feeling is like a splinter that’s constantly nagging at you.

I’ve heard it said that if a Chinese child is sent overseas before high school, he’ll be able to speak a foreign language like a local, like an ABC. For an adult, unless you have an exceptional gift, you won’t be able to reproduce a local accent even if you live out of the country for decades. Women are innately better at languages than men, so you see rural women speaking quite standard Mandarin once they’ve left the countryside for a while, but the same is incredibly difficult for men. I once read a report that said that when the actor Wang Luoyong appears in Broadway musicals, the audience isn’t really able to detect an accent. If that’s the truth, then it is exceedingly uncommon.

For instance, Dashan’s is much more skilled at Chinese than many Chinese people, but you can still tell that he’s not Chinese. And it’s absolutely not because he has the accent of a particular province; it’s just that there’s something about his pronunciation that doesn’t seem right. Zhang Guoli speaks excellent Sichuanese, but I’ve heard people from Sichuan say that he’s still incorrect in some places.

Leaders are prohibited from speaking in local dialects in our dramas about them, and this is a wise decision. Listening to a forced accent from the mouth of someone who physically resembles a leader but has an entirely different birthplace and voice – and these special actors are not particularly gifted at impersonation –is a painful thing. Even capable actors like those named above shouldn’t force it if they aren’t good at it. When dialect is done well, it can add a lot of flavor to a show, but if it’s done poorly, you’re simply misleading yourself and everyone else. The pace of film and television production is so fast these days that actors have no time to experience life. Dub it, or don’t talk at all, so as to avoid an embarrassing situation.

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There are currently 4 Comments for Annoying fake accents on Chinese TV.

Comments on Annoying fake accents on Chinese TV

Thanks for the article.

I'm sure if they put a little effort in, like using dialect coaches, they could do accents fairly well.

Very interesting. I think with accents it's the same almost everywhere in the world.
Except for people with exceptional language/imitation skills it is virtually impossible to speak a local accent perfectly.

The authors comments about Dashan are also true for Chinese speaking fluent English, after living in Guangzhou and then returning to the UK I found I could tell whether someone was a native Cantonese or Mandarin speaker based on their accent in English.

Hi Chris P -- I can also usually guess if someone is a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker by their English. Mandarin speakers roll "r"s. Cantonese speakers do the "r" / "l" switch. Mandarin speakers do "s", "sh" or "th" sounds differently.

But never mind the details. Cantonese and Mandarin are basically two different languages, with very different sounds.

So Cantonese- and Mandarin-speakers render English sounds in different ways. There's a certain cadence of speech that gives it away.

(Caveat: This only works if the Chinese accent is quite strong. You couldn't tell if someone was, say, a Hong Konger born and raised in America).

Similarly, you can tell the difference between a French, German or Italian speaker by the way they speak English. (Even if you don't speak French, German or Italian yourself). My husband's English sounds like Pepe Le Pew, so everyone tags him as French right away!

By coincidence, I just wrote a blog post on Canto vs. Mando, at

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