The opacity of a bilingual, biscriptal Taiwanese headline

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From a Taiwanese website

Dūnmù jiànduì fángyì chūbāo! Mǎ Yīngjiǔ cue Cài Yīngwén dàoqiàn wǎng bào 1450 xiǎngfǎ

敦睦艦隊防疫出包!馬英九cue蔡英文道歉 網曝1450想法

For someone who is not intimately acquainted with the political and linguistic scenes in Taiwan, it is hard to make sense of this headline.

Here are the easy parts:

jiànduì 艦隊 ("fleet")

fángyì 防疫 ("epidemic prevention; anti-epidemic")

Mǎ Yīngjiǔ 馬英九 ("Ma Ying-jeou", former President of Taiwan [Republic of China], 2008-2016)

Cài Yīngwén 蔡英文 ("Tsai Ying-wen", current President of Taiwan [Republic of China], 2016-)

dàoqiàn 道歉 ("apologize")

wǎng bào 網曝 ("internet exposure; expose on the internet")

xiǎngfǎ 想法 ("ideas; thoughts; opinions; views; beliefs")

Here are the not so easy or hard parts:

Dūnmù 敦睦 (must be a name, but I'm not familiar with it: "amity; concord; harmony; promote friendly relations"; lit., "honest / sincere / kind-hearted harmonious / peaceful / friendly")

chūbāo 出包 (doesn't look like a Chinese term, lit., "produce a package; leave / go out of a package")

cue (English word; hard to tell right away what it's doing here)

1450 (a number; I doubt that it means "one thousand four hundred and fifty", since that's overly precise and doesn't really fit in the context)

Doing a bit of investigation, I can solve all the not-so-easy and hard problems thus:


Dūnmù 敦睦 is the name of a three-ship fleet in the Taiwan Navy, also called the "Fleet of Friendship".  In late April, several cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the Dunmu Fleet, which caused great consternation in Taiwan.  As the whole world knows, despite being right next door to the PRC, despite being excluded from the WHO, and despite not going into lockdown, Taiwan prides itself on having the best record of coping with the pandemic of any country in the world.  So the occurrence of the disease among its sailors was quite troubling, to say the least.


Chūbāo 出包 is a Sinographic transcription of English "trouble".  For the Cantonese equivalent, see "Don't Kettle" (11/4/10):  caa4bou1 茶煲 ("trouble", lit., "tea kettle").


"Cue" is an English word that comes from the film, television, and entertainment world in Taiwan.  It is widely known in Taiwan as indicating a "hint, suggestion, reminder, or prompt" that someone ought to do something.  In this case, it means that Ma Ying-jeou suggested to Tsai Ying-wen that she ought to apologize for her handling of the novel coronavirus cases in the Dunmu Fleet.

Here's the grammar of the construction:

"A cue B 道歉 " means that person A makes a public statement as a signal to urge person B to apologize.

Ma may have been prompted to make this suggestion to Tsai by a past incident that took place during his administration. Back in 2014, there was misconduct in military training that caused the death of a soldier and eventually led to large-scale public protest. Ma ended up making an official apology as the Commander-in-Chief. In this case, he seems to be urging Tsai to do the same thing to calm the panic resulting from the spread of the virus among Navy sailors.

4. Here's one possible explanation (in Chinese) for the origin of the term "1450".  However it arose, 1450 is the nickname for the alleged DPP (Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai's party) "internet army" (wǎngjūn 網軍) used by anti-DPP forces in Taiwan.  It is said mostly to defend Tsai Ing-wen and DPP policies. The term first surfaced in early 2019 when the media reported that the Council of Agriculture used 1,450 wàn 萬 (x 10,000 = 14,500,000 NT dollars = 478,000 US dollars) of the government budget to hire people to spread opinions defending its policies on the internet.  To what extent that is a true account of the actual situation regarding the budget is beyond my capacity to determine.

With this supplementary information, we can now attempt a translation:

Dūnmù jiànduì fángyì chūbāo! Mǎ Yīngjiǔ cue Cài Yīngwén dàoqiàn wǎng bào 1450 xiǎngfǎ

敦睦艦隊防疫出包!馬英九cue蔡英文道歉 網曝1450想法

"Trouble with epidemic prevention in the Dunmu Fleet!  Ma Ying-jeou suggests that Tsai Ying-wen apologize.  Views of the internet army exposed"

This is not Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, with its extreme terseness and abundance of allusions, which requires even more exegetical gymnastics to understand.  See, for example, "Ancient Chinese mottos" (4/5/20).  Still, it's excruciating enough if you want to get it anywhere near right.  No machine can do what is essential to make full sense of this sort of language.


Selected readings

[h.t. Eoin Cullen, thanks to Melvin Lee and Grace Wu, ]


  1. cameron said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 2:09 pm

    Feeding that headline into google translate gives: "Dunmu Fleet Outbreak Prevention Package! Ma Ying-jeou cue Tsai-in English apologizes for 1450"

    That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it's not a complete train wreck either.

    The selected readings list above could also have provided abundant examples of Language Log posts about inscrutable headlines from English-language news sources around the world.

  2. AntC said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 4:39 pm

    but it's not a complete train wreck either.

    Hmm? We must have different criteria for train-wreckism. I spot it's translated the 'Ing-wen' of Tsai's name as 'English'; so we're lucky it didn't try to translate the Tsai.

    There has been a lot of agonising in the Taiwan media about the so-called 'Friendship Fleet'. The fleet had been on various good-will visits around the region (some of them never revealed for security reasons). So we don't know whether that included any COVID-19 hot-spots. As soon as they got back ashore, it seems three sailors went on a jolly visiting all the population centres from Kaohsiung up to Taipei. They left a trail of infection behind them.

    So for a month the daily infection situation reports have been saying zero locally-transmitted cases, apart from the 'Friendship Fleet'.

    Since anybody newly arriving into Taiwan is put into 2-week quarantine, it's puzzling why the same didn't apply for the whole fleet. Presumably the Armed Forces are a law unto themselves and/or immigration controls are focussed on airports not seaports.

    So yes it's a case of 'heads should roll'/someone should apologise. But who?

  3. Mark S. said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 6:34 am

    What's perhaps most interesting to me about this is how "cue" has retained its own spelling rather than shifting to the homophonous and frequently usedQ.

    Also, FWIW, although the website of the China Times newspaper is technically Taiwanese, under its latest management for the past decade or so it has been widely seen as a mouthpiece friendly to the CCP and opposed to the currently ruling DPP.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 2:10 pm

    What's perhaps most interesting to me about this is how "cue" has retained its own spelling rather than shifting to the homophonous and frequently used Q.

    Interestingly, the karaoke version of the song 大叔不要跑 provides these written lyrics:

    OMG到底想干嘛 [我的天哪, what [was I] trying to do?]

    The vocalized lyrics are of course "oh my god daodi xiang gan ma".

    But the written OMG fits very neatly into the Chinese writing system. One character, one syllable. It can only help that "omg" is commonly used by English speakers in informal written communications.

  5. Mark S. said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 11:02 pm

    OMG has been around in Mandarin texts for more than ten years. As Michael notes, it fits neatly with one character per syllable. These days, though, I think most people — at least in Taiwan — would say "oh my ga" (ou mai ga) rather than "oh my God", the saying having become somewhat Mandarinized, rather like how people here tend to say "Fu Panda" rather than "Food Panda" (a food-delivery service).

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