A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear: Answers & Commentary

Two weeks ago I posted a guide to distinguishing Sinitic languages by ear. Here are the answers to the exercises where one guesses which language(s) are being used. But just giving the answers would be boring, so I’m adding my own commentary.


The Mandarin speech sample is taken from My Fair Princess, also known as Princess Returning-Pearl, which is one of the most popular Chinese TV shows ever made. It’s adapted from a novel by Chiung Yao, who is one of the most popular Chinese novelists of the 20th century. Fan Bingbing (an actress who is also known in the English-speaking world) does not appear in this particular clip, but she also stars in this TV show, in fact this TV show is how she first became famous. This show is also parodied by Conan (the funniest part of the parody for me is that a few lines manage to be somewhat accurately translated). You can watch the first episode with English subtitles here.

The Mandarin song sample is sung by Teresa Teng, who was the most popular singer from East Asia in the 20th century. Her popularity in the Chinese-speaking world can be compared to the popularity of the Beatles in the Anglophone world (even though their styles are very different). She died in 1995. This particular song is easier language-wise than most famous Teresa Teng songs, which is why it is often used in Mandarin-learning materials, which is why it was so easy for me to find it on YouTube with romanization and translation. If you want to hear a famous Teresa Teng song which has more challenging Mandarin vocabulary, an example is “Rhythm of the Sea”.

The Cantonese speech sample is just a random interview which I saw was available with English subtitles on YouTube.

The Cantonese song sample “Shanghai Bund” was the theme song of a popular Hong Kong drama set in Shanghai starring Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau. Andy Lau also sings one of the versions of the song that I linked. They both are/were superstars of Cantonese language media, and they have also starred in popular Mandarin language movies such as Farewell My Concubine and The House of Flying Daggers. Leslie Cheung was bisexual and one of the very few celebrities in the Chinese-speaking world who was out as LGBT in the 1990s. He died in 2003. Here is one of Leslie Cheung’s song with English subtitles.

Shanghai Bund was remade in Mandarin in 2007, and the theme song was tranlated into Mandarin (video depicts gun violence). The Mandarin remake stars Huang Xiaoming, one of China’s most popular actors. Huang Xiaoming first became famous when he played Yang Guo in Return of the Condor Heroes 2005, the very same role Andy Lau played in Return of the Condor Heroes 1983 (IMO, Andy Lau’s performance as Yang Guo is the best one to date).

Both the Hokkien speech sample and the song sample were taken from Pili Puppet Drama, by far the most popular of the budaixi TV shows (budaixi is traditional Taiwanese puppetry, and has existed long before television).

The Shanghainese speech sample is something I pulled out because I was frustrated that I couldn’t find clips of Shanghainese speech with English subtitles on YouTube.

The Shanghainese song sample is a song I’m guessing many of you have heard many times, albeit not in Shanghainese. I picked it because it’s hard to find YouTube videos of Shanghainese songs with English subtitles. Here is that very same song in 26 dialects of Chinese.

The Hakka speech sample is the only Youtube video I could find in Hakka with English subtitles. The song sample is one of the top hits you find if you type ‘Hakka Song’ into Youtube.


TV Drama #1 is Fated to Love You, which is in Mandarin. Technically, the TV show is in both Mandarin and Hokkien, but the specific clips I linked to are all from the Shanghai plot arc in which the characters only use Mandarin. Fated to Love You (wow, the English title is terrible), starring Joe Chen and Ethan Ruan, is one of my favorite Taiwanese idol dramas. It was so popular that it was re-made in Korean, though I have not seen the Korean version. Much of it was filmed in Taoyuan City, where I used to live, and Yingge, which is only one train station away from Taoyuan. The heroine is from rural Taoyuan (or at least all of the rural location shots were filmed in rural Taoyuan), and she moved to Taipei (though some of the ‘Taipei’ scenes were actually filmed in Taoyuan City). Bad stuff happens while she is in Taipei, so she moves to Shanghai. This is why there is a Shanghai plot arc.

TV Drama #2 is Black Tea House, which is a comedy in Shanghainese. I know almost nothing about Shanghainese-language TV, but this is apparently one of the most popular TV shows ever produced in Shanghainese. Here is the theme song.

TV Drama #3 is Karoshi,, which is in Hakka, Mandarin, and Hokkien, but the specific clip I linked is in pure Hakka. In this clip, the young woman has promised the older woman’s daughter (who is not present) not the tell the older woman that she (the daughter) quit her job, but the older woman figures it out anyway. Here is the theme song (which is in Hakka). And if you don’t know what ‘karoshi’ means, here is the Wikipedia article.

I’ve seen a few episodes of Karoshi, and I find the way it uses language interesting. One could make a drinking game out of every time the characters switch between Hakka, Mandarin, and Hokkien. In particular, I find it interesting that one of the main characters insists on only using Mandarin when he is talking to other people, even his grandmother who wants him to talk back to her in Hakka (when they talk, she speaking in Hakka, and he speaks in Mandarin). Yet all of his soliloquies are in Hakka. I think this is a great way to represent his emotional and social withdrawal. He refuses to use his first language (Hakka) with others, yet it is still the language he uses to talk to himself (I’m guessing that in later episodes he opens up and starts talking to other people in Hakka).

TV Drama #4 is Haru, which is in Hokkien. Technically, the TV show is in both Hokkien and Japanese, but the scene I linked is entirely in Hokkien. Here is the ending theme song which is also in Hokkien.

TV Drama #5 is A Step into the Past, which is in Cantonese. It also include clips from Datang Shuang Long Zhuan (that’s the Mandarin title; I didn’t bother to look up the Cantonese title), but the latter clips don’t have much talking. Both TV shows are adapted from Huang Yi’s most famous novels. Huang Yi was Hong Kong’s most popular novelist in the 1990s, and he died in 2017. I’ve read Datang Shuang Long Zhuan and, at 7000 pages, it’s the longest novel I’ve ever read.


“You’re Breaking My Heart” is in Hakka. It is sung by Vivi, a popular Hakka singer from Indonesia. One thing I’ve noticed about Indonesian Hakka songs is that tend to have romanization but ~not~ subs in Chinese characters, which is weird because it goes against the conventions of most Chinese-speaking societies. Though I do not know much about Chinese-Indonesians, I know the Indonesian government has historically (and by ‘historically’ I mean ‘as recently as the 1990s’) suppressed use of Chinese languages and public displays of ethnic Chinese culture. I’ve met Chinese-Indonesians who say they can’t read Chinese because they were not allowed to learn Chinese characters in school (I don’t know whether these Chinese-Indonesians were Hakka or not). I’m guessing that many Hakka people in Indonesia still speak the Hakka language but can only read/write in the Roman alphabet.

“Love Without Regret” is in Cantonese. It is sung by Raymond Lam. I was amazed at how hard it was to find a YouTube video of a song in Cantonese with romanization and English translation that did NOT say in the title or description that it was a ‘Cantonese’ song. Thus this song got picked because it was what I could find, not because I like it. That said, I do like Raymond Lam’s voice, even though I don’t like this specific song. He’s a popular Hong Kong actor/singer who also appears in Mandarin-language media. In fact, he was in A Step Into the Part, which was the source of the Cantonese language TV clip, and he starred in Datang Shuang Long Zhuan. He also starred in another Huang Yi drama, Lethal Weapons of Love and Passion. and I like the theme song he sings for that show.

“Chinese Language” is in Mandarin. It is sung by S.H.E., the most popular Taiwanese girl pop music group ever. The title of this song is ‘Zhōng​guó​huà​’ which is actually not a commonly used word in Mandarin. I suppose they picked that word partially because it fits the rhythm of the lyrics, but since it is a not-so-commonly-used word, it doesn’t have the strong political connotations of some of the other words which mean ‘Mandarin’ or ‘Chinese language’ in Mandarin, so by choosing that song title they conveniently manage to avoid offending a bunch of people. Also, you might have noticed the footage of Shanghai in this music video.

“Overcast Day” is in Hokkien. It is sung by Teresa Teng, who I introduced earlier. Her first language was Mandarin, but she also recorded songs in Japanese, Cantonese, Hokkien, Indonesian, and even English. This was the first YouTube video I found of a song in Hokkien which has romanization, so I picked it.

“Nothing I Can’t Do” is in Shanghainese. I don’t know much about this song or this cartoon. For what it’s worth, I do like this song. Unfortunately, I was not successful in finding a YouTube video of a Shanghainese song with romanization.

“Taxi, Taxi, Taxi!” is in Shanghainese. It is sung by Double Poon, a rap ground based in – wait for it – Shanghai (shocking, I know). I deliberately picked some Cantonese/Mandarin language media with Shanghai footage so that you would not automatically associate footage of Shanghai with Shanghainese. But this music video with footage of Shanghai is totally in Shanghainese.

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” is in Cantonese, Hokkien, and Mandarin (and English, but you knew that). If you were able to correctly identify every single one of those languages the first time you heard the song, and correctly identify every time she switched languages (yes she bounces between Cantonese, Hokkien, and Mandarin MULTIPLE TIMES), you are better at this than me (in my defense, the first time I heard this song was in 2011 or 2012 when I was much worse at distinguishing Sinitic languages). If you want a version of the song with romanization, an indication of each time a language is used for the first time, and Spanish translation (why can I find this song with Spanish subs but not English subs?) then click here.

This song is sung by Jeannie Hsieh, who is very popular/famous in Taiwan (and elsewhere?) Her 2013 song “Sister” was the most popular song in Taiwan in the year 2013. I know because I lived in Taiwan then and I heard the song many, many times.

“Peerless Youth” is in Cantonese. I deliberately found a fan music video of the Taiwanese Pili Puppet Drama which uses a Cantonese song in order to throw you all off. Just because the footage comes from a Hokkien-language TV show doesn’t mean that the song is in Hokkien. This song is sung by Leslie Cheung, who I already introduced, and Anita Mui, who was another superstar of Cantonese language media. Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui collaborated with each other a lot, and they both died in the year 2003. Here is a video of Anita and Leslie singing this song together in concert.

“Danshui Sunset” is in Hokkien. It is sung by Fong Feifei, who was one of the most famous singers in Taiwanese history. She is best known for songs she sung and recorded in Mandarin, Hokkien was her first language. She is definitely the most famous person ever born in Taoyuan, the region of Taiwan where I used to live. I wrote a blog post when her 2011 death was publicly announced in early 2012.

“Old Afternoon” is in Hakka. First of all, it features footage of tong flowers. The blooming of tong flowers is associated with Hakka culture in Taiwan, and I remember that time of year when the tong trees burst into flower. The flowers are sometimes called ‘April snow’ because from the distance the fallen blossoms look like snow sitting on the ground. Also, the music video says this was built on the trail which goes to the ghost village of Xiaozukeng. I’ve been on that trail and visisted that ghost village being reclaimed by the forest twice, and I have fond memories of hiking there and going from Houtong to Jiufen on foot via that trail.

So, that’s it. If you went through this challenge and read all of my commentary, I am impressed by you. I hope you got something worthwhile out of all of that.

2 thoughts on “A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear: Answers & Commentary

  1. Those two Sinitic languages posts are awesome! Thank you. I’ll try to get back to them to check all the links.

    I only did the TV drama test, and mixed up Cantonese and Hakka. As someone said, Shanghainese sounds a bit Japanese or Korean to me. And Hokkien was easy because they started out saying “pai sei”, an expression for “sorry” that I heard a lot in Taiwan.
    歹勢 ; phái-sè, “embarrassed”

    • Hakka and Cantonese are relatively similar, and every Hakka speaker I met said that they found Cantonese very easy to learn (easier than, say, Mandarin).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.