Taiwanese / Hokkien in Sino-Japanese script, part 2

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[This is a guest post by Ying-Che Li]

Being Taiwanese myself, I very much appreciate Victor’s frequent attention to Taiwanese code utility, code crossing, and other linguistic phenomena, which interestingly reflect Taiwan’s current political and cultural atmosphere.

I have several immediate comments after reading Victor’s two recent postings on Taiwanese. As I became immersed in writing, though, it has turned into a longish reflection unexpectedly.

1 I admire Victor’s (and others’) explication of layers of nuances and his insightful ideas on the ‘vulgar’ expression discussed.

2 To me, the ‘vulgar’ and the intentionally sexual implication in the Taiwanese expression was here used as a specifically reactionary retort to the notorious internet and campaign speech vulgarities of Kaohsiung mayor, Han Kuo-yu (Kuomintang [KMT] presidential candidate), which invariably exhibit his sexually explicit tendencies and his chauvinism (and his womanizing habits). Han, unfortunately, attracts huge followers (many of whom are descendants of 眷村 juancun, the military dependent villages, Han being one himself), even now, and they take his big promises, such as 大家發大財 dajia fa dacai,  ‘I’ll make everyone rich’ (echoing Trump’s slogan of ‘making America great’) at their face value.

3 This is precisely the reason when more Taiwanese, who couldn’t believe why his followers swallow Han’s empty promises, react strongly by retorting ‘what the shit are you saying?’  Han reminds me of Trump so often, and Han’s lingering ‘popularity’ indirectly shows me the ‘bizarre’ (can’t bring out the right word to use) association as to why so many people in the US still eat out of Trump’s hands.

3 We talk about ethnic identity, linguistic loyalty, linguistic function, and other things in code choices. All these certainly play differing roles in our use of a language or a topolect, or, even just an expression. In public or in work setting, it may be required or simply more functional to use Mandarin or English. Speaking to elders and, especially, grand parents in Taiwan now, one is more inclined to use familiar mother tongue or Japanese, even as one struggles to speak it. In cultural and political settings, Taiwanese tends to become the main venue, although a Mandarin speaker may continue to use his favorite lingo, but he will make an effort to use some Taiwanese phrases or words, just to demonstrate that he has acquired the underlined ‘cultural sensitivity’.  

4 In my mind, this ‘cultural sensitivity’ to Taiwanese / Hokkienese choice has grown into such a prevailing and ingrained concept that it, at least, partially causes frequent code mixing / crossing. In everyday life and in the public media (I daily consume Taiwan direct news and political discussions by expending 3-4 hours), I frequently detect mixing of codes within a sentence or even inside a phrase (as in the case under discussion), which is still hard for a non-resident novice like me to get used to during my short Taiwan visits.

5 I mentioned above about usage of a topolect as a reactionary linguistic retort or, maybe, a ‘cultural competition’. Ups and downs in the utilization of many languages in Taiwan history reflect this.  In the case of degree of usage for Japanese and Mandarin in the last several decades, my personal experience, I believe, reflects the trend similar to others’ observation in Taiwan. I grew up learning from my parents that my ancestors were 唐山人 Tengsuann-lang, Tang-mountain men (on the other side of the strait). I knew I needed to maintain my mother tongue, although I was going to the Japanese school. The Japanese surrendered when I was in the third grade. When school re-opened in my fourth grade, there was a poor boy who could only speak Japanese, and he was harassed constantly with name calling, ‘three-legged dog’, since anti-Japanese Taiwanese called Japanese secretly ‘four-legged dog’. This demonstrated that there were still some anti-Japanese elements in Taiwan, even after fifty-years of imperial rule, and that Japanese wasn’t always a popular language.

6 When Mandarin came along as a school and national language in my fourth grade and was enforced with severe punishment, it didn’t progress very well for several years, at least, partly because of its compulsion and partly due to heavy-accent southern teachers. Within just a couple of years, the heavy-handed KMT rule incited a serious uprising with the innocuous name, 2/28 Incident, which turned into an intentional massacre of thousands of selected Taiwanese elites, doctors, and teachers.

8 This was a huge, eye-opening tragic event and also a complete dissolution for the islanders. Just a few years before, Taiwanese thought their island was finally returned to the ‘motherland’, but quickly they found they had to suffer many years of brutal martial law and political suppression, living as second-class citizens under the Tang-mountain-ers, whom they had expected to embrace them as their own family. Mandarin was, from then on, considered the new rulers’ speech, but, luckily, Taiwan people were slowly exposed to more Japanese, which brought with it ideas of openness, youth’s favorite pop culture, and other modern attractions. This caused a psychologically quick turn-around and a much welcomed, reactionary rejection against Mandarin. The road ahead became a gradual return to one’s mother tongue and a renewed acquisition of Japanese and other forms of speech, side by side with the Mandarin campaign.

7 The choice of Taiwanese vulgar expressions rather than those of Mandarin may, therefore, not so much be due to Mandarin as a refined speech form. Taiwanese have already learned many similar crude Mandarin expressions. As mentioned, Han grew up from the military dependent villages and has been fluent in these crude expressions. Thus, despite his status as a mayor and a presidential candidate, he could not refrain from continuously throwing out those crude expressions during his political campaigns. Perhaps he’s so used to spit them out in his daily life that he became incapable of segregating them from the ears of the public and the media. Perhaps he intentionally utilizes them for shock value, despite the negative political consequences. The negative reactions, obviously, haven’t stopped him, as he apparently thought that his fans continued to adore him for showing his true colors. I should say that Han’s non-believers also intentionally use the Hokkienese expression, ‘Li si leh-kong siann siau’, for its shock value, but it doesn’t indicate the users as customary vulgar speakers. Its use clearly demonstrates the status of the expression as a reactionary retort and a topolectic competition, which was equal, if not superior, to the cultural occasion.

8 These are some of Han’s well known vulgar expressions: 他奶奶的 ta-nainai-de (X), his grandma’s (X), 淋爸等你 lin-pe-tan-li, your dad (I’m ‘your dad’ implies that I slept with your mom to have you) is waiting for (X) , 孬種 nao-zhong, bad seed / SOB, 雜種 za-zhong, impure seed / SOB, 器官小 qi-guan-xiao, small organ (penis), 淋爸真正受氣啊 lin-pe-tsin-tsiann-siu-khi-a, I (your dad) am so mad (expecting X), 三立電視應該改成兩立/粒 San-Li-Dianshi-yinggai-gaicheng-liang-li / li, San (three) LI TV (also called I-News) should be renamed Two-Balls.


Selected readings


  1. Bert Scruggs said,

    February 14, 2021 @ 1:23 am

    Thank you Victor, thank you Ying-Che for this post. I'm familiar with the three-legged dog slur (for lack of a better word), in fact Zheng Qingwen 鄭清文 made use of it in his story "The Three Legged Horse" 三腳馬. On the matter of 唐山人, it seems that those who cooperated with the Nationalists during the time before and after 228 as the three-legged dogs did with the Japanese were called 半山, as in "half Tang-mountain person", at least that is what I gleaned from Wu Chuoliu's Taiwan Forsythia 臺灣連翹.

  2. AntC said,

    February 14, 2021 @ 3:58 pm

    Han reminds me of Trump so often

    I'm no fan of Han. I spotted him as a demagogue from his campaign for mayor of Kaohsiung. But comparing him with Trump seems unfair: Han can at least speak English competently.

    I was in Taiwan around the time of the 2019/2020 election campaigns. I was surprised by how divisive was some of the TV coverage, very comparable to Fox News, with a constant stream of unsubstantiated slurs against both main candidates, coming from different channels. (For example, allegations that Tsai Ing-wen's doctorate was not legitimately obtained.) Unlike Trump's penchant for insulting his opponents, I didn't observe either Taiwan Presidential candidate repeating those allegations.

    Then I don't think LLog should be repeating these rumours. The only 'gambling' for which there was evidence against Han seemed to be family Mahjong — which pretty much the whole population would be 'guilty' of during the Lunar New Year holiday. The allegations of 'womanizing' seem to revolve around one (historic) episode only, for which there is only innuendo.

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