Shanghai Proverb Against Forgetfulness


Original Script in Mandarin Characters:


Pronunciation in Shanghai Dielect, Noted in Mandarin Pinyin:

ā lā zù zi tì fá háo té te lò pie


We do things better not with a fell-off button and a dropped button loop.


The proverb is used to remind people to not be forgetful.


The informant is a 24-year-old female who was born and raised in Shanghai, and currently studies in the United States. Shanghai dialect is her first language. The informant first learned this proverb from elder family members, who oftentimes use this proverb to educate younger generations to mind their habits and social upbringing. The informant found the metaphor of button and button loop to be quite intriguing.


Though the informant did not know about the origin of the metaphor “脱头落襻” (button falling off and the button loop dropping) when she first heard it from older generations, she later deliberately searched for the proverb’s origin. As it turns out, it’s likely that this proverb first emerged in the Shanghai dialect in the late 19th or early 20th century, when the old-fashioned clothes from that time period were known for having buttons and button loops to fasten. Hence Shanghai people started correlating a person being forgetful and being slovenly in their appearance with worn and unattended clothes characterized by their fasteners falling off. After learning about the button metaphor, the informant was both intrigued by it and surprised to find out that the proverb has been so natural in Shanghai dialect that she never actually found it to be incomprehensible.

Correspondingly, this proverb helped us learn about old-fashioned Shanghai clothing, but more importantly, it inevitably revealed how much Shanghai people value social upbringing and decency as reflected in their clothing and manner. Shanghai is historically known for its cosmopolitan lifestyle, and in this highly modernized metropolis delicacy, dignity and pride for themselves are highly valued. It’s no wonder that Shanghai people choose a metaphor regarding one’s looks to remind themselves to pay extra attention to their self-image, sending a social signal that they are decent, mindful people who don’t easily forget.