"Vegetable English" vs. "Korea Fish" in Taiwan's presidential election

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As we have seen over and over again, banning, blocking, and censorship of the internet make it almost impossible for Chinese citizens to openly discuss anything that is slightly sensitive on the political scale (see "Selected readings" below).  But netizens are highly resourceful, and they have continuously been able to think of creative ways to comment on current affairs through punning and other linguistic maneuvers.

"Chinese netizens declare 'Vegetable English' defeats 'Korea Fish' in Taiwan election:  Chinese netizens mock censors by describing Taiwanese presidential candidates as 'Vegetable English,' 'Korea Fish'"

By Keoni Everington, Taiwan News, Staff Writer (1/12/20)

"What?" you say.  "How does this work?"

Well, the Taiwanese president's surname is Cài 蔡 (Wade-Giles Ts'ai, her own spelling is Tsai), which is an exact Mandarin homophone with Cài 菜 ("vegetables", etc.), and her given name is Yīngwén 英文 ("English", though character by character it means "outstanding; heroic", etc. and "written language; text; civil; refined; cultured"; her own spelling is Ing-wen).  Thus, in PRC netspeak, she became Cài Yīngwén 菜英文 ("Vegetable English").

Here are transcriptions of her full name (蔡英文) in various relevant languages:

MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin)


Yue:  Cantonese

Southern Min


She is … the first president to be of both Hakka and aboriginal descent (a quarter Paiwan from her grandmother), the first unmarried president, the first to have never held an elected executive post before presidency and the first to be popularly elected without having previously served as the Mayor of Taipei (Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Ma Ying-jeou all served as the Mayor of Taipei).

Her given name, Ing-wen (英文), was chosen by genealogical naming practices*. While these suggested the spelling 瀛文, her father considered the character 瀛** too obscure, replacing it with the character 英. The resulting name 英文 could be translated as "heroic literature" or "English language".


*VHM:  It was traditionally very common for all the members of a single generation, including cousins, to share the same generational name.  For example, in my wife's family, all the brothers and sisters had "lì 立" ("stand; set up; erect; establish") as the first syllable of their given name.

**VHM: Yíng 瀛 ("sea; ocean"), 19 strokes, frequency #3890

Tsai Ing-wen is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The full name of her Kuomintang (KMT) opponent is Han Kuo-yu 韓國瑜 (Pinyin:  Hán Guóyú; Wade–Giles:  Han² Kuo²-yü²).  Since PRC citizens were not supposed to be talking about the Taiwanese non-election at all, they resorted to another subterfuge to refer to Han.  Namely, they combined his surname with the first character of his given name, which yields Hánguó 韓國, i.e., "Korea".  This leaves the second character of his given name, yú 瑜 ("flawless gem or jewel"), which they reinterpreted as the homophone yú 魚 ("fish"), yielding Hánguó yú 韓國魚 ("Korea fish").

Neat, eh?


Selected readings

[h.t. Bryan Van Norden]


  1. Mango said,

    January 14, 2020 @ 7:17 pm

    Are these names really PRC inventions? I‘ve seen 韓國魚 being used a lot among Taiwanese people, sometimes even in emoji form.

  2. B.Ma said,

    January 14, 2020 @ 9:51 pm

    This only looks impressive because the "names" were translated to English.

    If the PRC netizens were conversing in English then it would be more difficult to block discussions about English vegetables and Korean fish.

    But 菜英文 is meaningless, and trivial to block. The fact that it isn't blocked either means the censors are really slow / not doing their job, or the topic is tacitly authorized. There could be genuine conversations with the string 韓國魚, but if that was desirable to block it would also be trivial.

  3. alex said,

    January 15, 2020 @ 2:45 am

    Yes, the censors could go nuclear especially with AI and become North Korea like.

    I think the point is in these darker times one needs to find the humor where one can.

  4. Mango said,

    January 15, 2020 @ 6:13 am

    Tsai's father has 11 children – 5 sons and 6 daughters, Tsai Ing-wen being the youngest of all. Most of them have 瀛 in their names, except for three of the daughters for which he exchanged it with the simpler 英 (the oldest, the fifth and the sixth – Tsai Ing-Wen). I sense a bit of gender discrimination here (重男輕女) – it seems like the father made sure all sons had the correct genealogical character, while for the daughters he didn't care that much (隨便啦!).

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2020 @ 8:56 am


    Thanks for the additional information.

    Actually, the father did Tsai Ing-wen and her two sisters a favor by giving them a simpler and more straightforward, positive name. Think of how many hundreds of thousands of fewer strokes they have had to write in their lifetimes and how much more transparent their names are by having been granted 英 as the first syllable of their given names instead of 瀛.

  6. AntC said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 10:25 pm

    Tsai's father has 11 children … and there seem to be plenty of large families in Taiwan: was there never a one-child polcy, or similar?

    OTOH China is in the news this week over concerns about its falling/ageing population, with allegedly now one of the lowest birthrates in the developed world (around 10.8 per 1,000). AFAICT Taiwan's birth rate is much lower (crude rate around 7.5), slightly larger than its death rate. ("crude" rate excludes immigration effects).

    I'm confused by the statistics. What language is CCP using to a) encourage more births/more marriages; b) abnegate their responsibility for the brutal one-child policy, its heinous implementation at the time and its after-effects?

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