Mandarin or Shanghaiese?

Question from Mike looks like this

Hi there Shanghi blogger …

My name is Mike and I am very seriously considering moving to China for a year or two. I had decided to move to Beijing but am now considering Shanghi because it is the business hub of China and a more modern city.

I have been taking classes from a tutor in Mandarin but I understand the people of Shanghi speak a different language – a derivative of cantonese I think.

My question to you is what language should I learn if I move to Shanghi ? If I learn Mandarin will I be able to speak to people in Shanghi ? My barber is a Chinese woman from Shanghi ans she says she speaks Mandarin but in a way that makes it difficult to communicate with people in Beijing because the accents ( tones ) are so different.

I would really appreciate any input you can give me on the languages in China and specifically in Shanghi.



Well. I would definitely suggest you to learn Mandarin, not the local Shanghai dialect – or Shanghainese. It is true that Shanghainese are different from the Mandarin. But almost all the people you can reach can speak Mandarin but not all speak Shanghainese.

Taking me as an example, I don’t speak Shanghainese and can hardly understand Shanghainese, but that does not infect my life. It is a nice place to live.

Unlike Cantonese, Shanghainese is only used in Shanghai, not even in nearby cities like Hangzhou and Suzhou. So it will be almost useless if you go out of Shanghai…

Hope it helps.

P.S. This entry is created on Oct 9, 2003, not the date listed above.

29 thoughts on “Mandarin or Shanghaiese?

  1. Hi! I’d personally like to learn Shanghainese. Any suggestions? This is not because of practical reason or usefulness, but because of personal reasons: I’ve found Shanghainese interesting, fun, nice-sounding, and much easier for me to pronounce than Mandarin. I don’t mind learning to read or write with Chinese characters – except to the extent of as I happend to find it adding to the “fun factor”. Being able to carry some basic conversation on daily matters in Shanghainese… yes, I’d like to be able to do that :-)

  2. shanghainese is not only interesting,but practical as well.

    cuz, i found out that some pronunciation of the word is very similar to japanese or korean.

    just like the pronunciation of the word “doctor” in shanghainese: “yi sang” in korean “er sang”

    funny, huh?

    and also, in shanghainese, there are many funny expressions.

    “ze de ying” means show off.ha!

    “gang du”means idiot!

  3. Shanghainese is NOT a derivative of Cantonese. The two are not even close. Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, and Min all belong to one end of the Chinese language spectrum. Shanghainese is by itself as part of the Wu Chinese subset. Characteristics of Wu Chinese is that it retains ancient Chinese’s set of initials; it has high occurence of tone sandhi (hence tones are hardly important and its existence is treated in a manner similar to modern Japanese); it has lost all of the Chinese finals (except -n); and it has short/long vowel distinction (something Mandarin speakers would not be able to comprehend). Also Shanghainese can be spoken using the following syntax: Subject-Object-Verb. This is practically impossible in Mandarin and Cantonese.

    Jian Shuo Wang is wrong to say that Suzhou people speak a different dialect from Shanghai. Both are Wu Chinese with VERY MINOR variations (something like British English vs. American English). There are 85 million speakers of Wu Chinese, making it the second largest Chinese dialect after Mandarin (Cantonese has 60 million speakers). Any Shanghainese speaker can easily understand and speak to a person from Suzhou, Ningbo, Wuxi, Wenzhou, etc without resorting to Mandarin.

    A lot of Japanese words loaned from the Chinese were from the Wu/Go (Shanghai, Suzhou) area, and hence in many cases Wu Chinese sounds very similar to Japanese. Wu Chinese is definitely the most unique dialect within the Sinitic language group. It is also much easier to pronounce than any other Chinese dialect (again tones are also irrelevant).

  4. There is no -ng ending in Shanghainese. the -n ending is nasalized like in French, but not vocalized into -ng as in Mandarin or Cantonese. It’s wrong to spell Shanghai as Zanghei; not a throat produced -ng sound (it’s a nasal n instead). Zanhei is much more accurate. Shanghainese has no pinyin ch/sh/zh sounds (as in the zh in Zhongguo) either. So when spelled chi below, the Shanghainese pronounciation is close to pinyin qi and not to pinyin chi (likewise pinyin x-> sh). And no pinyin -an, -ao, -uan, -ian, -iao sounds (again, no -ng either). However, Shanghainese has v and z (English z, as in zebra); Mandarin does not have the English z. because of this pinyin z is spelled as tz below; and pinyin c is spelled ts.

    two “to be” verbs: zi (to be) and lei / lahei (to be, existence). lahei used always at the end of sentence. leira = was/were. negation is va (for to be verbs) or mach (for to have verbs), similar to Mandarin.

    Subject-Object-Verb examples:

    We are eating the chocolate.

    [We-SUBJ][Chocolate-OBJECT][To Eat-VERB1][Am being-VERB2]

    ala chokalei chie lahei.

    He is writing the letter.

    [He-SUBJ][Letter-OBJECT][To write-VERB1][Am being-VERB2]

    yi shin sha lahei.

    We were really tired from work yesterday.

    [We-SUBJ][Yesterday-TIME][Work-OBJECT][Did-VERB(past)][Exhausted-MODIFIER(past, flavored)]

    ala zachnich sanwoch tzura chierissattara.

    zachnich = yesterday

    sanwoch = work

    tzura = did (to do: simple past)

    chierissattara = so exhausted (flavored, past).

    We had SO much fun playing soccer over the weekend.

    ala tzoumach tzochjou bisshandarei keishinsattara.

    tzoumach = weekend

    tzochjou = soccer

    bisshandarei = playing (-darei form must be followed by modifier), bisshanra (played) would have also been acceptable. although -darei form further flavors the verb (but must be followed by a modifier to the verb).

    keishinsattara = happy/fun/excited (past, flavored form)

    We played soccer over the weekend.

    ala tzoumach tzochjou bisshanra. (bisshangura = we had played also acceptable). -ra / -gura form do not need modifier, -darei form must need modifier (-darei form is also tense-neutral, so tense is obtained either from modifier or other parts of sentence).

    You ate my food.

    [You-SUBJECT]nei[My Food-OBJ][Ate-VERB]

    non nei u-a vei chittara.

    I haven’t been there.

    [I][There][have not][Gone]

    u emida mach chigu.

    (-ch ending, such as mach, or double consonant indicates syllable before is a short vowel. Don’t pronounce -ch endings as “ch”, it’s silent indicating abrupt halt and expiration of air). l = has not twirl. r = has slight twirl (like in Japanese and Korean); both r/l sound close to l for English and Mandarin speakers.

    So as you can see. It’s quite different from Mandarin and Cantonese. Also, urban Shanghainese is spoken very quickly and clear.

  5. doctor should be isan. there is no y consonant, it’s a pure vowel. Also, it’s not -ng (vocalized by the throat) nor should the san be pronounced like in pinyin for three (san). it’s SA + N = SAN, with N nasalized (like the N in “France” when pronounced in French not English). Shanghainese doesn’t have the Mandarin pinyin -an sound, so there is no problem using san to indicate Sa+N sound (like isan for doctor). Mandarin words like San (three) and Shan (mountain) are just /sE/ (sei) in Shanghainese.

    Hence idiot should be gandu. The Shanghainese word for insane/silly is literally “thirteen-dots.” In Mandarin it will be shisandian (in pinyin). In Shanghainese it would be zasseidi. the z is the English z and the za is a short vowel (indicated by double consonant s). since there is no pinyin -an sound in Shanghainese, san (three) –> sei, and dian (dot) –> di. Another example: xiansheng (mister) –> shisan.

    Don’t spell Shanghainese words with -ng ending! there is only -in, -on, -an (example: nin, non, nan).

    ok that’s it. hope this entire rant was somewhat interesting.

  6. Dear all,

    I have done three years Japanese and love it so much. Also, recently I have done 3 months Shanghaiese in Hong Kong and I found that their vowels and tones are very similar. Now I got the confirmation from Will that what I thought was correct which makes me so thrilled. Will seems to know so much about Shanghaiese language, will you offer Shanghaiese lessons in Shanghai?


  7. I think there are many small classes in Shanghai offering Shanghainese tutorial. :-)

    In Shanghai, maybe to find a buddy friend for language exchange is a better option.

  8. Dear Will:

    Are you a linguist? I never thought anyone would do a grammatical analysis of Shanghainese. Personally, I learnt colloquial Shanghainese by communicating with my family in the dialect.

    Still, I disagree with many of your transcriptions. Your transcription system makes Shanghainese sound like Japanese or Russian.

    For instance, instead of:

    “ala tzoumach tzochjou bisshandarei keishinsattara.”

    (We had SO much fun playing soccer over the weekend.)

    I would write:

    “a-la zou-mo zu-jieu b?xian-da-l?k?xin-sa-da-la”

    I have inserted hyphens to clearly distinguish the syllables and used a transcription system roughly based on Chinese hanyu pinyin rather than the quasi-Eastern-European system you used.

    – Ma Chengze

  9. By the way the accent on the “? in my phonetic transcription above is meant to represent the “e” sound in English “let” and French “éléphant”. It does NOT represent stress (which is the case in hanyu pinyin).

    So, to make my transcription clearer,

    a= a in “fAther”

    ? e in “lEt”

    u= oo in “bOOt” (approximate)

    x= sh in “sharp” (approximate)

    The word “jieu”, which means “ball”, is hardest to transcribe. It is a little like something between “jee-oh” and “jee-uh”, though not exactly. The vowel sound in the word exists in neither Putonghua nor English. But it does exist in French and it sounds something like how the French would pronounce “jieu”, which is why I transcribed it that way.

  10. hi every one. i heard different versions from my friends concerning the tone of shanghainese. One told me it’s tone free, and above Will’s quote “It is also much easier to pronounce than any other Chinese dialect again tones are also irrelevant” suggested the same,while others complained in my face how shanghainese tones vary all over the place, and they are a hell lot more complicated than manderin, more like cantonese.

    I don’t know who to trust.

    Will, are you shanghainese? i found your input of Shanghainese history very interesting. You mean if I speak shanghainese to the people from the surrounding cities outside shanghai, they will understand me with no problem? If so I would like to learn some shanghainese. I read your shanghainese alphabet,- Ma Chengze is right. They are very confusing, Ma chengze’s is much pleasant to my eyes and mouth.

    Anybody know where they offer shanghainese tutorials?

  11. “ala tzoumach tzochjou bisshandarei keishinsattara.”

    (We had SO much fun playing soccer over the weekend.)

    I would write:

    “a-la zou-mo zu-jieu b?xian-da-l?k?xin-sa-da-la”

    Your transcription system misses a few points though (exactly because it mimics pinyin too far).

    First, Shanghainese has an English ‘z’, how are you going to transcribe that if you use ‘z’ instead for /ds/ (Pinyin z)? Second, Shanghainese has the ancient Rusheng (fast syllables with glottal stops), how does your system account for that? How can you tell Da (big) from Da (to pedal, to receive) in your romanization? They are pronounced completely different in Shanghainese. The Da for to pedal is Rusheng and short. And foot is not “zu”, it is Rusheng (short); it sounds nothing like the zu in “ancestor” or “tribe.”

    Another thing, Shanghainese has voiced consonants 浊音 (English and Japanese have them too), while Mandarin and Cantonese do not. Voiced consonants are romanized in pinyin by an awkward double consonant. “Great” 大 would thus be romanized in pinyin as dda, 带 as da, and 太 as ta. In Wade-Giles, they would be romanized as da, ta, and t’a, respectively.

    ‘= 短音符号 (塞音, glottal stop Rusheng) , 古代汉语的入声


    脱 = te’ (the’) = 送气 (Aspiration)

    德 = de’ (te’)

    夺 = dde’ (de’) = 浊音 (Voiced consonant)

    遢 = ta’ (tha’) = 送气

    搭 = da’ (ta’)

    达 = dda’ (da’) = 浊音。 ?#36798;?#26159;入声(音发了很短), 繁体字?#36798;?#26159;?#36948;?#65292; 简体字用?#22823;?#31616;化?#36948;?#26159;错误。 大 和 达/達 在古代汉语(和现代上海话,吴语)里根本不是一个韵音。


    太 = ta (tha) = 送气

    带 = da (ta)

    大 = dda (da) = 浊音

    退 = tei (thE) = 送气

    对 = dei (tE)

    谈 = ddei (dE) = 浊音

  12. >>>i heard different versions from my friends concerning the tone of shanghainese. One told me it’s tone free…. while others complained in my face how shanghainese tones vary all over the place, and they are a hell lot more complicated than manderin, more like cantonese. <<<

    Shanghainese tones are nothing like Cantonese. Cantonese tones are really rigid; you memorize the tone (of possible 9) of the Chinese character and that’s it. Whenever that character needs to be pronounced, you pronounce it with that tone. There is a little tone sandhi, but nothing compared to the extent in Shanghainese. The few tones that Shanghainese has ends up morphing, overlapping, neutralizing all the time depending on the word.

    Although Shanghainese technically has 5 tones, there are actually only 2 live contrasts in Shanghainese. The other three tones are incorporated into the structure of the syllable. For example, syllables with voiced consonants (that is: b-,d-,g-,r-,z-,shj-,gn-) will always have the exact same tone. Think about the pitches in English: (t-d) table and desk; (p-b) pea and bee; (k-g) kee and geat. These pitch contrasts are very similar in Shanghainese. The other two “inherent” tones are due to Rusheng (short syllables with glottal stops). One Shanghainese Rusheng vowel is very similar to the “i” in English words: itch, ship, or disk (disk has a voiced consonant, which in Shanghainese makes it technically considered another tone, making 3 inherent tones total). BTW, a non-Rusheng, long “i” sound would be: eat, sheep, deep.

    The two ACTUAL live Shanghainese tones (independent of syllable structure) are somewhat close to the Mandarin flat tone (1) and the Mandarin down tone (4). So compared to Mandarin, Shanghainese has two to three less tones; and compared to Cantonese, Shanghainese has 4 to 7 less tones.

    This should make life easier for those Westerners who only care to be understood in China.

    Some of your friends however had also commented that Shanghainese tones are really hard. What they mean is that it is really hard for non-native speakers to apply the tones that they learned or know when to use them or modify them. In fact the Shanghainese tones they learn from single (stand-alone) Chinese characters are essentially useless in spoken Shanghainese. This is because Shanghainese has a very strong tendency to NEUTRALIZE its tones (combine the two live tones to one) for every syllable after the first syllable of each word or idiom. The problem is that this neutralization (tone sandhi) is not entirely systematic for all words, and as a Mandarin speaker you do not know what the boundaries for these “words” are as Chinese characters are monosyllabic and have no spacing. What makes Shanghainese tones (or lack of) difficult is that you have to learn the pronounciation of WORDS and *not* CHARACTERS. There are a lot more polysyllabic words than Chinese characters. This makes learning Shanghainese for native-Mandarin/Cantonese speakers a lot harder than many other dialects. As hard as a full blown language. For Cantonese, I could just sit down and memorize 3000 characters and their proper pronounciation plus tone; I could basically pick up a dictionary and pronounce the words very accurately by having tone marks on the Romanization. The same for Mandarin. Once you know pinyin, you can pronounce nearly all Mandarin words when given pinyin. In Shanghainese, a non-native speaker will ALWAYS have an accent, because it is impossible to systematically mark the wide range of tone sandhi and neutralization. Shanghainese having only two tones and being extremely laxed even in those two actually makes it much harder to pronounce accurately. If you want to pronounce Shanghainese with as less accent as possible, you have to practice pronouncing and hearing each WORD. Transcribing pronounciations from one dialect to another, will not work; simply knowing the characters and their stand-alone Shanghainese pronounciation is not enough at all. In this sense, Shanghainese is very much like learning English. You have a hint at how a word or phrase is pronounced, but you don’t really know until some native speaker pronounces it. And it’s hard mimicking that pronounciation because there are SO many subtleties, exceptions, and idiosyncracies that you can only learn through experience and time..

    Mandarin and Cantonese are indeed easy to pronounce with less accent compared to Shanghainese and English. Standard Mandarin with its 4+1 tone marks pretty much tell you exactly what is required. Very rigid, very systematic. Master the four tones, plus the consonant-vowel combinations, and you are set. Cantonese is also very rigid in tones, but is a little harder since it has more of these tones (6 to 9), you have to develop the ear for it. But Shanghainese is much harder than both simply because its tonal system is not rigid, nor is it practically quantifiable. But the positive note is that you are more likely to be understood with bad Shanghainese than with bad Mandarin or Cantonese (more daily Shanghainese words are polysyllabic and tone-independent than any other Chinese dialect). The other problem though is that Shanghainese people don’t like listening to bad Shanghainese, even though they understand it perfectly. Once they figure out you are not native-Shanghainese (usually from the first couple of words), they will speak Mandarin to you. Which doesn’t help you at all in improving your Shanghainese.

  13. “The other problem though is that Shanghainese people don’t like listening to bad Shanghainese, even though they understand it perfectly. Once they figure out you are not native-Shanghainese (usually from the first couple of words), they will speak Mandarin to you. Which doesn’t help you at all in improving your Shanghainese.”

    That depends.

    As a foreigner /laowai / na guo ning that speaks a fair bit of Shanghainese, I find I’m considered a curiousity. I do get responses in Shanghainese if I start off in Shanghainese.

    I learnt my Shanghainese from dinner mostly. One of my american friends only speaks Shanghainese – he doesn’t read, write or speak Mandarin. I used to go to dinner with him and his parents all the time, eventually I picked up enough Shanghainese to be “the amusing foreigner who speaks Shanghainese” at dinner.

    I actually find Shanghainese to be easier than Mandarin, but I seem to be reasonably good at hearing how things should sound than other people.

    Shanghainese has changed a lot over the last few years though. I would consider what I picked up to be more ‘classical shanghainese’ – ie the stuff spoken by oversea’s shanghairen who left in the 40’s to HK, New York etc.


    dong di vs t’so piao for money, and a lot less – luo hau, luo ling ah’s :)

    One of my greatest moments in language learning was when I answered the phone to my flatmates mother. She later told asked her daughter who was the xia wo ning answering the phone :)

    For some links on Studying Shanghainese and further reading check this site out:

    I’ll also plug my website – – good general info on Shanghai for foreigners.



  14. i dont want to get into politics here, but the future of shanghainese is quite grey. i say grey because it is an uncertanity between the black pessemism and the white hope. the future of chinese language is grey.

    as a young outter-china shanghainese, i want to share my view on the matter based on my personal expeiences and thoughts.

    i was born in the mid 80s. The communist government has imposed the literacy of mandarin upon all cultures in china, and it’s effective. i dont want to admit that i like the sound of shanghainese a lot more than mandarin, but that’s the fact. although the interesting thing is that i didn’t find it that way before i start to analyze how shangahinese sound. before that, i use to consider mandarin the better language, that’s from the bottom of my heart. i know this is a common feeling so conditioned in the young ppl’s minds in china. it’s the direct result from the communist’s work. but that’s ok, cuz if u r conditioned, u taste shit and feel it’s delicious. sorry to use that popular dirty word for emphasizing my emotion toward mandarin.

    mandarin is a bad route.

    many will disagree with me, but this is what i personally feel.

    the tonal system of mandarin literally makes it a language of “singing mountain songs”. and how it’s spoken, i say this for a reason.

    for those mandarin speakers out there, u can try this, and i’ve already got this idea clear. if u say sth in ur normal mandarin way, and then say it for a couple of more times, and let urself listen just to how it sounds rather than themeaning of the words. Especially for those who speaks another language, english, korean, or whatever, u’ll find mandarin ways of speaking very…like singing.

    it’s not good.

    this is a biased opinion too. but, it is not good because it attaches to ur identity. i dont wnat to sing songs, especially mountain songs…i want to speak…regularly, making good sound to other ppl’s ears. so when they dont udnerstand what i say, they can at least take on the sound. that’s just nothing the case for mandarin.

    well, we can imagine that china’s language is like singing mountainsongs….in the 21st century of human’s greatest modern era…

    oh, my mom…haha

    good luck to the future of shanghainese, best wishes.

  15. I am sure cantonese and madarin are not even close…someone pointed out that hokkien, hakka and mandarin belongs to one group of language and that is nowhere near the truth. mandarin is closer to shanghainese than cantonese…for goodness sake, if you dont know enough about chinese dialects, i’m sure you know some geography?

  16. ^^Mandarin closer to Shanghainese than cantonese still does not mean it’s similar.

  17. Choosing a Chinese dialect is based on opinion. People will make bias decisions for which dialect is a better one or a better sounding one, from the basis of which area they are from. In a sense, that is their pride and a way to distinguish themselves from others.

    Why do you want to learn a language? For most people is it to communicate. There are so many languages in the world, and different forms of the language based on slang and accent. What makes a person’s dialect better than others? There is no judgement for which dialect is better, but based on discrimination and pride for oneself.

    Each dialect is different, some dialects may be more similiar to others, but they are all different from each other. Shanghainese and the surrounding area are evolved from the Northern Wu language, but that does not mean that they are exactly the same.

    Guangzhou dialect, is spoken mainly in Guangzhou Province, and within the Guangzhou dialect there are also differences from the area you are from. Cantonese is more referred to the language used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou. The surrounding areas, for instance TaiShan and their dialect even has different forms called SiYi language used in Enping, Kaiping, and Xinhui. I could go on and on, but there are way too many dialects spoken in China, therefore the country uses Mandarin as the universal language to communicate with the different areas. Although not all of the population can speak mandarin, but the majority can.

    So what dialect to learn? Learn the dialect that is the most appropiate for your needs.

  18. “So what dialect to learn? Learn the dialect that is the most appropiate for your needs.”

    And that’s really what it all boils down to. If you’re moving to a province for work, then learn what is most commonly understood there. If you’re learning for fun, then choose the Chinese dialect you most like.

    If you’re a kid, it’s even more encouraged that you learn multiple languages at once, so that when you grow up, it’ll be easier for you to learn new languages. Apparently, your tongue’ll be soft and flexible enough to permit quick shaping of new sounds.

  19. Shanghaiese is richer in pronouciation, and it has no tonality(I think), so maybe it’s even easier for the europeen people to learn. and it also has many interesting expression.

    but for the practically reason, you should also know that it’s used by less people, and I wonder if it exists a very systematic teaching documentation. And even living in Shanghai, you might not be able to find the everyone who speaks Shanghainese.

    But nothing can disturb you living in Shanghai, because it’s a city more open for the foreigner than Beijing, and it has a multi-culture, because the historic and geographical reason.

  20. As a westerner trying to get a handle on both mandarin and Shanghai dialect at the same time – and often getting frustratingly confused (and my wife even more frustrated at me)… although I find some components of Shanghai dialect a little easier, overall it is much, much more difficult for me (being Australian, and I presume for most people who have grown up using just english)… our mouths are not physically able to cope without a huge amount of practice – that is, positioning of the tongue, teeth and lips – sounds that are never even considered in our home tongues… mainly due to consonants following one another that are just unheard of in english. I really do get ‘tongue tied’…

    Furthermore (and this goes for mandarin as well), our ears are not naturally trained to cope with the subtle differences, especially tones… once again takes much practice… my wife says a word, I repeat it and she says ‘no’ and makes me repeat over and over again and it’s still wrong – but to my ear it sound exactly like what she has said…. *sigh* – she gets so impatient with me… hehe…

    At least I’m having a little more luck learning to read and write simplified characters – even if my oral pronunciation may be way off… so if I get stuck one day speaking chinese, I can just write it down to communicate… :D

    To answer the topic – I believe mandarin would be much more useful, given it can be used in so many other places outside Shanghai… even outside of China (eg. Singapore)…

  21. I can understand 90+% shanghaiese. But I can understand 0% Japanese. Where are the similarities between them?

  22. Great to see so many people interested in learning the dialect. I’m from Shanghai, but grew up in Australia, but I speak it at home. I’m surprised that all of my friends who came here when they were 10yrs old, and all of my cousins in Shanghai, can no longer speak it. Once they start school, it’s all mandarin.

    I’m quite sad about that, but I guess it means that maybe there really isn’t a future for shanghainese. If the next generation of natives can’t understand or speak it, then foreigners might as well learn mandarin.

    Another trend i’ve noticed is that there are so many people working/living in shanghai who come from all over china. So basically businesses, services etc carry out their work more and more in mandarin.

  23. The most important dialect to learn – after Mandarin – is Cantonese. You can get anywhere with Mandarin except one place : Hong Kong

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  25. The Shanghainese accent maybe a bit too difficult, maybe you can just learn several useful words, some common words in Shanghaiese, this will be quite helpful and definitely a ‘surprise’ when you are talking with your Shanghainese friends, etc. To speak Mandarin in this country is enough. But its not impossible to learn Shanghaiese well, there is a TV host called Wei Li, whose originally from Romania. She speak Shanghainese extremely well, now she even has a Chinese blog.

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