A Chinese Poem in the Hoiping (Kaiping) Dialect

by setohj

One of the first poems that I learned to read in Chinese is Li Bai’s (李白) poem entitled Quiet Night Thoughts (靜夜思). It is probably the most popular of the poems from the Tang Dynasty (7th – 10th century A.D.) Until now, I don’t recall having heard it read aloud in the Hoiping dialect of my parents.

Li Bai’s poem may have been read aloud in my presence while I was growing up in Canada, but I wouldn’t have even understood it then. Living in a small town, I didn’t have the benefit of a Chinese school that would have been available on weekends in a big city such as Toronto or Vancouver. Besides, the difference between speech and writing is much greater in Chinese than that found in English. This is especially true of the Chinese language that is used in classical poetry.

Making matters even more confusing, the main Chinese dialect spoken in the Chinese communities across Canada has changed over the years. From the building of the transcontinental railway in the late 1800s till the arrival of the new wave of immigrants from Hong Kong after the late 1960s, the main Chinese dialect spoken in Canada is known as the Four Counties dialect. The Four Counties (or in Chinese characters 四邑) consist of four counties in Southern China, namely Toisan (台山), Sunwui (新會), Hoiping (開平), and Yinping (恩平), where the vast majority of the early Chinese immigrants to Canada originated. There is even an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for this region of China: Sze Yap. The pronunciation used in the OED entry though is closer to the standard Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters than that of the Four Counties.

More accurately, the Chinese immigrants from these four counties speak separate but related dialects; so similar are the dialects, a person from one county can easily understand someone from one of the other Four Counties. The people of the Four Counties living in Canada have referred to their combined dialects as though it is one language: 四邑話. I personally find Toisan and Hoiping almost indistinguishable. Since the late 1960s, standard Cantonese, and later on, along with Mandarin have gradually replaced the Four Counties dialect as the Chinese dialect most spoken in Canada. To these new comers to Canada, the Four Counties dialect is often unintelligible.

Using Prof. Deng Jun’s romanization system for the Hoiping dialect, I wish to render the reading of Quiet Night Thoughts into the Hoiping dialect. (In Mandarin, “Hoiping” is called “Kaiping.”) I present a romanization of the Chinese characters in this poem as follows.

靜夜思 Den Yie Lhu

床前明月光 cong tin men ngid gong
疑是地上霜 ngei xi ei xieng song
舉頭望明月 gui hao mong men ngid
低頭思故鄉 ai hao lhu gu hieng

My attempt at an English translation follows:

Quiet Night Thoughts

Bed bright before moonlight,
I suspect frost is on the ground,
Raise my head, gaze at the bright moon,
Lower my head, think of home.

The Hoiping dialect has nine tones. Five tones are used for syllables ending in a vowel, four for syllables ending in a consonant. Professor Deng uses five tonal marks at the end of each romanization of a Chinese character with a vowel ending syllable. Four of these marks are also used with consonant-closed syllables. The five tonal marks are: ‘ * – > `. For this blog, however, I drop the tonal marks. This is consistent with the standard practice of how pinyin, the official PRC romanization of Mandarin, is used when transliterating Chinese words into English in English language publications.

One of the notable peculiarities of the Hoiping dialect is its use of the consonant known as the fricative. The sound of this consonant is produced when the tongue is raised up to the roof of the mouth to restrict the exhaled flow of air. Pronouncing the combination of the consonants “TH” and “L” used in English comes close to approximating the fricative. Prof. Deng’s romanization represents this sound with this letter combination: “LH.” For example the number three is pronounced in Mandarin as “San.” But in Hoiping, one says, “Lham.”

Another quirk in Dr. Deng’s romanization of the Hoiping dialect is its use of “en” to represent a cross between the “eng” and “ing” sounds. Whereas in pinyin, the “ing” sound is spelt just as it sounds. For example, the word “Hoiping” is a spelling used in Canada prior to any development of a standardized romanization of the dialect. Using the Deng romanization “Hoiping” is spelt “Hoipen.”

I hope this blog contributes toward the preservation of the Hoiping dialect in Canada.

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