Some linguistic notes on the Taiwan election

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Taiwan has just concluded its general elections with some amazing results.

From a long-term resident in Taiwan;

A twenty-five point victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the presidential election!

Tsai Ing-wen: 56.1%
Eric Chu (KMT): 31.0%
James Soong (PFP): 12.8%

A huge, emotional crowd in Taipei for Tsai.

A very, very good day for the DPP, which will also control the Legislature for the very first time.

Here are a couple of articles giving an idea of what happened:

"Taiwan Elects 1st Female President, Rejects Pro-China Party", abc NEWS  1/16/16
"Landslide win for Taiwan’s pro-independence party", FRANCE 24  1/16/16

Michael ("Taffy") Cannings, who from time to time contributes to Language Log, referred to the massive DPP victory as a "Tsainami", a term that has really taken off:

"The internet is celebrating the election of Tawain's first female president with a clever hashtag", Business Insider  1/17/16

An unexpected factor that may have helped Tsai achieve her overwhelming victory has to do with a South Korean Pop group called Twice.  This is an all girl band, which includes members from Taiwan and Japan, a truly East Asian group.  Twice stirred up quite a controversy recently after a member of the band named Chou Tzu-yu waved a Taiwanese flag during a broadcast.  Apparently, some people in China were not happy about this, with the result that Tzu-yu's South Korean agency, JYP Entertainment, felt compelled to release a statement saying in essence that "Tzu-yu respects one China policy…."  Tzu-yu herself made an abject apology, the video of which immediately went viral and was viewed millions of times, resulting in a torrent of protest that the young girl had been forced to humiliate herself in such a fashion for merely displaying a small amount of enthusiasm for her native country (the flag was little, and she also held a Korean flag when she waved it).

For the video and the flags, see the following article in Slate:

"Did a 16-Year-Old Pop Star Help Pro-Independence Party Win Taiwan’s Election?", Slate  1/16/16:

“In Taiwan, online commentators compared her apology to hostage videos released by the Islamic State, although it was probably more reminiscent of the sort of humiliating confessions that dissidents are increasingly forced to make on Chinese state television,” notes the Washington Post’s China bureau chief Simon Denyer. Shortly after winning the election, Tsai made reference to the video that has been viewed millions of times. "This particular incident will serve as a constant reminder to me of the importance of our country's strength and unity to those outside our borders," she said.

See also "Singer’s Apology for Waving Taiwan Flag Stirs Backlash of Its Own" (1/17/16).

In the video recording at the head of this article in Apple Daily (1/17/16), the then candidate Tsai Ing-wen can be heard defending Chou Tzu-yu saying that it is the natural right of any citizen of the Republic of China on Taiwan to express their feelings for their country by holding its flag, that they should not be rebuked for doing so, and that they deserve the support of their fellow citizens.

Grammatically, some new adversative passive constructions have been devised that are based on Chou Tzu-yu's experience (having to deliver her forced, abject apology):

bèi dàoqiànle 被道歉了 ("to be apologized")

bèi zuò Zhōngguórén le 被做中国人了 ("to be Chineseized")

Many other examples of searing weibo (microblog) criticism concerning the election in Taiwan are collected in this aboluowang article.

Such adversative passive constructions have been common in online political discourse in recent years.  Some of the most popular examples include, of course, "to be disappeared", which already had a long history outside of Chinese, but has been particularly prominent in China within the last few months with regard to human rights lawyers, Hong Kong booksellers, mainland feminists, and so on.  Another (in)famous instance is "be harmonized" or punningly "be river-crabbed" (see here), which is unique to China.

Finally, it's a curiosity that Tsai Ing-wen's given name, Yīngwén 蔡英文, means "English".  I don't know how that came about, whether it was chosen deliberately because it means English", or whether that meaning was not a factor in its choice.

[Thanks to Youngmin Lee and Mark Swofford]


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 9:55 am

    Is there a reason for your use of simplified characters in your transcription of what are traditional ones on the poster? Actually I am aware of only one, guó, but I wonder if there is a method here.

  2. rgove said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    Translation of the image:

    To be apologized, to be Chineseified
    Today it's Chou Tzu-yu, tomorrow it's you

  3. Not a naive speaker said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

    Why is her given name in English written with a hyphen? Looks demeaning to me: nobody writes Mer-kel An-ge-la

  4. David Morris said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    Are the losing candidates Chu and Soong invariably known by their English names? Wikipedia lists them as Eric Chu Li-luan and James Soong.

  5. liuyao said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

    Both ying and wen are extremely common as names (the outgoing Ma Ying-jeou for example) to the point that few Chinese (and Taiwanese) would think of "English" when seeing this name. The Chinese wikipedia claims that she was in fact originally named 瀛文 according to family genealogy.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

    Yíngwén 瀛文, near homophone (identical except for the tone of the first syllable).

    The hyphens are not demeaning. They are standard in Wade-Giles and other romanizations. The new president's name in Wade-Giles would be Ts'ai Ying-wen, so you could say that the spelling she uses, Tsai Ing-wen, is modified Wade-Giles.

    Ditto for her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (Pinyin: Mǎ Yīngjiǔ 馬英九; Wade-Giles: Ma Ying-chiu).

    I know many people, including scholars, who insert hyphens where Pinyin would join syllables, e.g., Pinyin: Zhè shì Luòshānjī de xīn fēijīchǎng; modified Pinyin: Zhè shì Luò-shān-jī de xīn fēi-jī-chǎng; Wade-Giles: Che shih Luo-shan-chi te hsin fei-chi-ch'ang ("this is the new Los Angeles airport"). I tell them it looks ungainly to have so many hyphens; they tell me it's easier for those who are not familiar with Chinese to spot the syllable boundaries when they are marked by hyphens.

  7. julie lee said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 1:04 am

    I wondered why Tsai's original name Yíngwén 瀛文 was changed to Yingwen 英文 (English language ). Found on Wikipedia that her father thought the character ying 瀛 had too many strokes and so changed it to the simpler ying 英。 So her name can mean Tsai English Language. But ying英 also means "hero, outstanding, excellent, flower, blossom, etc." and wen文 also means "cultured, cultivated, gentle, literary, etc." so the name can also mean many other things.

  8. Michael Cannings said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 5:22 am

    @David Morris

    In the English-language media, they are normally referred to as Eric Chu and James Soong, though Chu's name is sometimes seen as Chu Li-luan. The form "Eric Chu Li-luan" is rarely if ever seen – it's something I associate with Hong Kong, so I think some Wikipedia editor has been rather overzealous in applying a Hong Kong standard to Taiwanese people's names. It should simply be "Eric Chu".

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 8:10 am

    My impression is that rather ad hoc romanizations of proper names are fairly common in Taiwan. You could call it modified Wade-Giles, although I am struck by the "Ing," since Wade-Giles, hanyu pinyin, and almost all other systems (at least those in the handy comparison chart at concur on "ying." The "Ing-wen" spelling (assuming Wikipedia is right as to the tones ….) appears to be proper Gwoyeu Romatzh, but a: her surname would come out Tsay if that system were applied consistently; and b) that system seems like such an idiosyncratic choice for a personal name that "idiosyncratic/ad hoc" seems more plausible. But is there some obvious ad hoc reason why someone (or her parents) might prefer "Ing" to "Ying"? Regional pronunciation variation? (My sense is that while proper-name romanizations reflecting Cantonese pronunciation are quite common in HK, Taiwanese proper-name romanizations almost always reflect Mandarin rather than Taiwanese/Hokkien pronunciation, but there may be some local regional variations in the pronunciation of Mandarin.)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 8:27 am

    A colleague comments on the Chou Tzu-yu affair:

    This pop band girl has also been (被)Cultural-Revolutionized (被文革了), meaning that she has been victimized like a typical victim during the CR.

  11. A-gu said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

    Actually I think Ma Ying-jeou is using the Tongyong Pinyin spelling of his name (or it is coincidentally the same), which is ironic considering his own push for Hanyu Pinyin in Taipei City.

    I believe for Tsai Ing-wen, I believe Gwoyeu Romatzh would have been used for her first name when she applied for a passport back when she was young; I don't know why her last name would have used a different system off hand though.

  12. Jean-Michel said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

    Ma's name in Tongyong would be "Ma Ying-jiou," not "Ma Ying-jeou." Jeou is actually the correct GR romanization, but ying and ma aren't. My guess is that Ma or someone started with Wade-Giles but felt that chiu wasn't "intuitive" enough for English-speakers, so it was swapped out for the GR equivalent. But then if that was the case I don't know why they wouldn't also replace ying with ing, which I also feel is more "intuitive" for English-speaking foreigners. (As an aside, Ma has been using this romanization since at least the 1980s–see, for example, this article from 1984.)

    As for romanized surnames in Taiwan, there's plenty of variation in romanization, but they're relatively consistent compared to given names–the vast majority of romanized surnames are simply the Wade-Giles forms without the aspiration marks, diaereses, and circumflexes. I have a Taiwanese book from the 1970s on how to prepare a job application in English, and it contains a table with the top 50 or so Chinese surnames and the aforementioned "conventional" spellings derived from Wade-Giles. My suspicion is that such tables were and are used in many other places, possibly including passport offices, but it would've been more difficult to employ such a table for the thousands of characters used in given names, resulting in more variation for those. Sometimes you even see names that mix a Wade-Giles surname with a Hokkien given name, like the prominent DPP member Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴).

  13. Hiroshi said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

    The current ROC passport service ( offers 護照外文姓名拼音參考 that include several romanizations and it says people are free to choose their preferred romanization character-by-character. Interesting that a search for 蔡英文 doesn't come up with any result that contains "Ing." However, I don't think "Ing" is uncommon as there are famous Taiwanese figures like Ing Chang-ki (應昌期) and his 應氏集團.

  14. Jean-Michel said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    I suspect most people in Taiwan with ing in their names are either using an ad hoc spelling or got it from Gwoyeu Romatzyh, where it corresponds to the Pinyin yīng. (I'm betting the former in Tsai's case, as in GR the second syllable of her given name would be spelled wern.) The table on the passport office's site doesn't include GR, perhaps because its tonal spelling system would require a much, much longer table.

    I know of one other Mandarin romanization system that would transcribe 英 and 應 as ing: the rather obscure Latinxua Sin Wenz. Ing Chang-ki lived in China at the time Sin Wenz came into use, and his romanized name (outside of the hyphen) is completely consistent with Sin Wenz spelling, including the unusual use of k- for the sound written in Pinyin as q-.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 12:56 am

    Further to Jean-Michel's point re surnames having less variation than given names when it comes to Romanization, the parallel move to President Ma using -jiou or -jeou for -chiu would be to transliterate the surname 張 as "Jang" rather than "Chang," which . . . may have happened one or more times but is certainly as best as I can tell not what you'd call a common variant, whether on Taiwan or elsewhere.

  16. John said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 5:22 am

    @Not a naive speaker

    The only thing that is demeaning is not having the choice as to whether to use a hyphen or not.

    Hiroshi notes that ROC citizens can choose their own Romanizations but I'm not sure if they can choose between a hyphenated and non-hyphenated version.

    Hyphenation occurs in many European names:

    I believe the trend in Singapore in recent decades is to use Mandarin Romanizations for given names while retaining the original Hokkien/Teochew/Hakka-Romanized surname. Initially Pinyin was not always used for the given name as parents were not familiar with it. However, Cantonese speakers resisted this and tended to Romanized their childrens' names in Cantonese.

  17. Jean-Michel said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 6:48 pm

    The use of Hanyu Pinyin for names in Singapore is (as in Taiwan) a somewhat fraught issue; in the last election the ruling party nominated a woman named Sun Xueling, whose use of a Pinyin name brought immediate accusations from nationalist hotheads that the ruling party was nominating a PRC immigrant. It turned out she was a third-generation Singaporean who previously went by the decidedly non-Pinyin "Soon Sher Rene" and had spent a number of years working in Hong Kong, where I suspect she adopted the Pinyin version. In the 1990s it was apparently government policy to encourage all-Pinyin names, but from what I've read they don't push that so much anymore, and I wouldn't be surprised if in the future an all-Pinyin name (or even just a Pinyin given name) is seen as a liability in certain fields such as politics–which could be bad news for Lee Kuan Yew's grandchildren, who use all-Pinyin names (Li Hongyi, Li Shengwu, etc.).

  18. Rachel said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

    In my experience, very few people in Taiwan know how to, or have ever been taught to, systematically romanize Mandarin. Of course this is mostly because they use MPS to learn Mandarin. This leads to a lot of non-standard romanization and spelling things how it 'feels right' (which unfortunately often equates to unintelligibility, because there is no 100% 'natural' way to romanize Mandarin).

    When I taught EFL students in the early 2000s, I often did units on romanization. I taught Wade-Giles and Hanyu Pinyin, the two methods I know. I took pains to explain that students could and should choose whichever romanization system they wanted, so long as they were consistent. I also explained that I use HYPY, because it's the system I learned Mandarin with, but my preference for HYPY doesn't necessarily equate to a desire to make Taiwan unify with China. I just use HYPY because it's the most common system used to romanize Mandarin, and because it's what I learned Mandarin with.

    Also, I'll note the tricky distinction between "a Taiwanese flag" and "a flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan". 周子瑜 waved the flag of the ROC on Taiwan, not a strictly-defined "Taiwanese flag". The DPP's flag, with a green Taiwan and four green squares on a field of white, is more akin to a specifically Taiwanese flag than the ROC flag. There is no official Taiwanese flag, of course (since no government of Taiwan has yet declared one to be official), but Wikipedia has a nice page about proposals: As a result, many supporters of Taiwanese independence have already pointed out that 周 wasn't even waving a radically pro-independence flag; she was only waving the quite official, rather neutral flag of the ROC on Taiwan. And yet was still harshly punished for it.

  19. Rachel said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 9:23 pm

    Another related linguistic note: the character 菜 cài 'vegetables, dishes' has two divergent colloquial meanings in Taiwan. (And perhaps in China as well, though I don't know enough to say.)The phrase 你是我的菜 colloquially means something like "you are just what I like", as in expressing attraction (physical or emotional). Maybe vaguely parallel to how "my cup of tea" or "not to my taste" can be used in colloquial ways, albeit much more current and hip than the English phrase. A search on the phrase 我的菜 gives 14 million ghits, with most of the top results being this colloquial use. (Many are from China, so the meaning is also apparently quite common there; I don't have that much experience with recent Mainland Mandarin, nor a reliable way to separate Google hits from Taiwan with those from the PRC.)

    The other meaning of 菜 is 'crappy' or 'junk'. Here's a TV show whose title illustrates this use: It apparently has this meaning in both China and Taiwan; a search on the phrase "很菜" gives 3.9 million ghits. (Again, this includes results from both China and Taiwan.) In this use, 菜 tends to be used as a stative verb (or adjective, if you prefer), rather than as a noun as in the other use. It may derive from 菜鳥 'rookie, amateur'.

    That TV show has a very interesting use of the negative meaning. The TV show is one of several talk shows that feature foreigners living in Taiwan who speak quite good Mandarin and discuss, along with hosts and special guests, various aspects of Taiwan and the world. Some dip deeper into stereotype, others have deep insight. This particular show features foreigners talking about problems with various nationalities' ability to use English.

    So, very interestingly, the show's title features the phrase "'菜‘英文" — 'crappy/amateurish English'. This phrase is, of course, completely homophonous with the name of the president-elect.

    I have no idea what the political content of this title is; the show itself, from what I remember, doesn't make any direct political allusions at all.

    As an additional wrinkle, one of the president-elect's most common nicknames is 空心菜, water morning glory, a very common vegetable in Taiwanese cooking. The vegetable's name literally means "empty heart vegetable", because the stalks (which are the main part eaten) are indeed hollow. 蔡英文 is called this for her somber, composed demeanor — or for her lack of passion and emotion, if you want to take it negatively.

    This nickname shows that Ms. 蔡's name can most definitely be punned on with the homophonous 菜 character, and makes me wonder if the TV show and other uses of the phrase "菜英文" intend a subtle jab at her. I'm guessing not, but really not sure. This, as they say, is a topic for further research…

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    FWIW, I had likewise initially assumed that "Taiwanese flag" in the news story about the hapless pop singer meant one of the unofficial flags associated with the more pro-independence "Green" faction in Taiwanese politics, rather than the ROC/KMT flag which originated on the mainland and still represents at least a nominal/theoretical commitment to the notion that Taiwan and the mainland are part of the same nation-state. I'm personally partial to the flag supposedly used by this prior regime during its failed bid for autonomy but I accept that I'm not really entitled to a vote in the decision for any future flag.

  21. Eidolon said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    @J.W. Brewer there's a certain political inconvenience with using the Republic of Formosa flag because it, too, bears a theoretical commitment to "One China." That commitment is indicated in the very article you linked to. The difficulty with finding a historical symbol to represent an independent Taiwan has to do with the fact that Taiwanese nationalism really emerged in the wake of the KMT's repressive rule of Taiwan, coupled with the PRC's antagonism of Taiwan in international politics. The result of these events is a general disdain and distrust of mainlanders from bodies such as the pan-Green coalition. Most pan-Green supporters would not see any symbol associated with the KMT or with the mainland as being positive, and this would include the symbols of the Republic of Formosa and the Kingdom of Tungning, for that matter, as Tungning's function in Taiwanese/Chinese history was disturbingly similar to that of the RoC in being a temporary retreat of migrant loyalists who just recently lost control of the mainland.

  22. Rachel said,

    January 21, 2016 @ 2:31 pm

    A Hollywood star, or the person handling his Chinese communications, has made just the pun I alluded to above as part of a promotion for his movie, and his arrival in Taiwan to promote it:

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