The politics and linguistics of bread in Taiwan and China

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Taiwanese master baker Wu Pao-chun 吳寶春 with a loaf of his famous bread:

The photograph comes from this article:

"Cross-straits outrage rises up over Taiwan baker’s remarks:  Wu Pao Chun defends himself as Shanghai shop opening is blighted by China and Taiwan fury", Jethro Kang, Shanghaiist (12/12/18)

The tempest surrounding the opening of Wu's new store in Shanghai arose because of the following remarks by Wu (maliciously dredged up from a 2016 interview with Taiwan People News):

Wu said he was uninterested in opening in the mainland then: “China has a market of 1.3 billion people, but the whole world has more than 7 billion people, so I won’t just look to China.”

Mainland netizens interpreted Wu’s statement as support for Taiwanese independence and flooded the store’s page on Dianping, a Chinese food review platform, with hateful comments and patriotic images. The listing has since been taken down.

So much for the politics.  Now for the linguistics.

Unless you are literate in Sinographic Taiwanese, chances are that you will not recognize the non-Unicode character written on the loaf of bread held by Wu and occurring in the name of his shop:

That's  (mài 麥 ["wheat"] + fāng 方 ["square; topo-"])

Apparently, it’s supposed to be pronounced pàng in Taiwanese (as the link below states, describing the name of a movie about this baker, “ 'Shìjiè dì yī màifāng' de 'màifāng' wéi Táiyǔ fāyīn pang4《世界第一麥方》的「麥方」為台語發音ㄆㄤˋ” ("the 'màifāng 麥方' of 'The number one bread [màifāng 麥方] in the world' is pronounced pàng in Taiwanese") — though this pronunciation looks more like Mandarin than Taiwanese), and it means "bread", so it’s apparently a phonetic loan from the Japanese / French / Spanish / Italian / Portuguese pan パン / pain / pan / pane / pão.

Starting in 1543, the Portuguese were the first modern Europeans to visit Japan.  Consequently, many words of Portuguese origin entered the Japanese vocabulary, including, of course, the word for bread:  pan パン, from Portuguese pão.

Surprisingly, such a quintessential Japanese dish as tempura derives from Portuguese (cf. tempero ["seasoning"]).

The Japanese word for "pants; trousers") is a little bit more complicated.  Portuguese jibão ("underwear") led to Japanese juban / jiban ("underwear for kimonos"), but its cognate in French, jupon, led to zubon in Japanese.

Likewise, kappa ("raincoat") derives from Portuguese capa (nowadays yielding to reinkōto).

A few more:

Jap. manto < Port. manto ("cloak")

Jap. chokki < Port. jaque ("jacket; vest")

Jap. kurusu < Port. cruz ("cross")

Jap. rozario < Port. rosario ("rosary")

Jap. fetisshu < Port. feitiço ("spell; charm; sorcery"), though I suppose this may have come via English

The name of the establishment, then, is Wú Bǎochūn pàng diàn 吳寶春店 ("Wu Pao-chun's bakery").  This information comes from this blogpost, which you can find by Googling "麥方字”, though there are plenty of other articles about it online, including this Baidu Baike entry and this Wikipedia article, which was the source of the image of the character ().

[Thanks to Matt Anderson]


  1. ouen said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 12:30 am

    Absolutely fascinating. I’ve seen the shop so many times but never paid close attention to the name before.

    The use of Taiwanese in the name of a well regarded bakery shows that the language has become more prestigious in the past few decades. It’s very common to see small restaurants, market stall, betel but stands etc have names that are written in such a way to prompt a Taiwanese reading. It’s now the case that all sorts of varied brands use Taiwanese language for names and promotion material, both affordable and luxury and everything in between.

    I can think of two tea related examples. One is the artisanal tea leaf purveyor 琍好呷茶. The other is a brand of milk tea that can be bought in convenience stores all over Taiwan called 萬丹奶茶.
    I hope it’s possible to post links, this is an image of the side of the packaging of the tea, it’s interesting as an example of written Taiwanese. It’s probably being used to evoke nostalgia and local pride, which can only have a positive effect on the language as a whole

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 12:37 am

    From Matt Anderson:

    I just noticed there is a note in the Wikipedia page (only findable by hovering over the image of the character [麥+方]), which states, “读音:phang2,字符描述:左「麥」右「方」,臺羅拼音:pháng;IDS:⿺麥方”. So, I guess pàng is the MSM pronunciation, and phang2 is the Taiwanese (assuming this note and assorted blog posts are basically accurate, that is).

  3. John Rohsenow said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 2:52 am

    From my time as a student in TW many. many years ago, I dimly remember a kind of cake which I believe was called something like
    "catsura" (?), that we were told came from the Portuguese/Spanish "castille". Can anyone expand on this?

  4. AntC said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 4:04 am

    I'm in Taiwan, staying near Kaohsiung — Wu's base.

    The mayor-elect of Kaohsiung is indeed all over the news, on every topic. (More so than was the mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, last time I was in Taiwan.)

    The same round of elections that brought in Han Kuo-yu, also severely dented Tsai Ing-wen's majority, to the extent she's regarded as a lame duck President.

    On the linguistic aspect: my informants claim pàng is Hokkien (Taiwanese), and used a quite different-sounding word for the putonghua equivalent. They'd no knowledge it was from Japanese let alone Portuguese. (The Portuguese were the first Europeans to have a presence on Taiwan/Formosa, but nothing remains of their influence AFAICT, except perhaps "Taiwan" itself, and a chain of gas stations 'Formosa'.)

  5. ouen said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 5:06 am


    even where i am in new taipei, on election night most people were talking about Han Kuo-yu rather than the local contest. as far as i know his poll ratings have dipped slightly since election night, but he's probably one of the most talked about politicians in taiwan.

    also, apologies if i misunderstood what you intended to say, but these recent elections were local elections and on the national level Tsai Ing-wen's party, in theory at least retains control. I assume you know this, but saying that she's a lame duck president with a dented majority implies there was a change in the balance of power in the national legislature so it may mislead others. it is certainly true that her reputation is in tatters, even among her own party to some extent.

    i'm also very interested that the taiwanese speakers in your immediate vicinity didn't know that the taiwanese word for bread originated in japanese. similar to what you found, the taiwanese speakers i've spoken to had no idea the ultimate root was portuguese or european. (i also asked a japanese friend who said she'd always assumed the japanese loan came from english.) however, my taiwanese friends were all aware that it's taiwanese and are generally keen to talk up the connection between japanese and taiwanese. they like to say that exclusively using the term 臺語 rather than 閩南語 is justified by the presence of japanese loanwords in taiwanese, they sometimes even wrongly assume a word comes from japanese if it's significantly different from its mandarin equivalent.

    of course, i can't claim the position of my friends is more 'typical' than that of your informants, they are a small group with similar backgrounds and, maybe most importantly, they are all pro-taiwan when it comes to politics and identity

  6. ouen said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 5:08 am

    that should be
    'Taiwanese friends were all aware that it's JAPANESE in origin'

  7. SO said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 8:36 am

    @John Rohsenow:
    Sounds like Jp. kasutera, said to derive from Pt. pão de Castella. Delicious.

  8. Chris Button said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 11:31 am

    I think the use of the velar nasal "ng" /ŋ/ coda of 方 is very telling in terms of the actual Japanese pronunciation of パン "pan" in isolation in which the "n" is pronounced with the back of the tongue toward the uvula with which velar /ŋ/ rather than coronal /n/ (which is only really a conditioned variant before another coronal) is a much better approximation in spite of its Japanese romanization.

  9. SO said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

    Velar nasals are actually rather common reflexes of the syllable-final nasal in Jp., as long as the loans are not mediated by romanized forms. There are a number of other such examples for loans into Chinese languages or Korean for instance (including but not limited to ppang 빵 'bread').

    Current romanization schemes simply retain a few things going back to the missionaries' use of around 1600, at which time the syllable-final nasal in Jp. was quite different from its modern counterpart in terms of its phonetic realizations. At that time, alveolar [n] was still the default realization (besides [m] and [ŋ] before bilabial and velar consonants respectively).

    Incidentally, the mismatch between what is implied by writing and the actual realizations was sometimes addressed by 19th century writers, including Hepburn in the 1st ed. of his JE dictionary: "The final n (ン), when at the end of a word has always the sound of ng; as, mon = mong, san = sang, shin = shing; […]" (see e.g. here:

  10. SO said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 12:49 pm

    Shouldn't have used any angle brackets, sorry. The last paragraph is supposed to read "… what is implied by writing -n and …".

  11. Lars said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

    A baker called Pão? Interesting.

  12. JB said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 8:57 pm

    This reminds me of the Vietnamese for bread, "bánh mỳ", which sounded irritatingly familiar until I realised it was from the French "pain de mie".

  13. Chris Button said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 10:05 pm

    @ SO

    Current romanization schemes simply retain a few things going back to the missionaries' use of around 1600, at which time the syllable-final nasal in Jp. was quite different from its modern counterpart in terms of its phonetic realizations. At that time, alveolar [n] was still the default realization (besides [m] and [ŋ] before bilabial and velar consonants respectively)

    I'm neither a specialist in Old Japanese nor Old Portuguese so please forgive my naivete, but I do find that a little surprising. My understanding is that the Old Portuguese orthographic syllable final "n" would already have been somewhat retracted in articulation with concomitant nasalization of the preceding vowel. As such, it seems not markedly different from a modern Japanese "n" characterized by loose uvular contact and/or vowel nasalization. Specific to this case, I can see how "pão", which presumably would have sounded fairly similar to its modern pronunciation of /pɐ̃w̃/, could have been treated as something like Japanese /pãɴ/ (particularly if we go with incomplete uvular occlusion and an association of labialization with uvular articulations), but I cannot see how it could ever have been associated with a pronunciation like /pan/ with an unequivocal segmental coronal /n/.

  14. Matt Anderson said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 1:01 am

    Bánh sure sounds a lot like French pain, but I think it’s actually from Chinese 餅 (MSM bǐng, Middle Chinese pjiengX, or thereabouts), meaning something made out of dough. It is amazing, though, that bánh has come to mean pain in the sense of baguette.

  15. AntC said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 12:16 am

    @Lars A baker called Pão

    No. 'Pao' is pronounced quite differently. No nasal at all/ no connection (I asked).

    Sunday morning I spent the most informative half-hour I've ever stood in a bread line. (Not that I'm in the habit of standing in bread lines.) Clearly going to Mr Wu's shop is 'a thing', and there's a well-organised line with tasting samples handed out. (I have photos if Prof Mair wishes to post them.)

    There was a wide variety of opinions on whether páng is Japanese. I think I detected a generational difference: the older people scowled at any mention of Japanese (those old enough to have parents who suffered under the occupation). Whereas Japanese influence is undeniable in the food culture amongst those younger.

    Oh, and the connection runs deep to the mayor-elect: Mr Wu's shop is slap across the boulevard from Kaohsiung Council HQ.

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