Taiwanese vs. Mandarin in a village school half a century ago

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When Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) came to Taiwan with his two million soldiers plus their families as well as many civilians and refugees, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) imposed a speak Mandarin order on the local population.  Before the coming of the mainlanders who followed Chiang, the local people spoke mainly Taiwanese, although the montagnards spoke one or another Austronesian languages, and the use of Japanese was widespread, since the island had been a colony of Japan from 1895-1945.  Even today, Japanese is still remembered by many older people.

The total population of Taiwan is currently around 24 million, but in 1950, it was a bit over 6 million.

This video comes with serviceable subtitles in Sinitic (Mandarin and Taiwanese mixed) and English, so you can mostly figure out what they are saying.  The most important thing to understand about what's going on is that it was against the rules to speak Taiwanese in school.  If you were caught doing that, they would hang a placard around your neck saying "Wǒ ài shuō guóyǔ 我愛說國語" ("I love to speak Mandarin").

The story depicted in this video is particularly meaningful to me, because the young teacher in it might well have been my wife, Chang Li-ching.  She was born in Shandong, but fled with her family to Sichuan during WWII.  There she picked up some Sichuanese and then, at around the age of 11 she went to Taiwan with her father, who was in the ROC air force. 

Li-ching attended what was called a shīfàn xuéxiào 師範學校 ("normal school").  Upon receiving her high school graduation certification, she was sent to a seaside fishing village to teach in the elementary school there.  Li-ching told me many stories of how the local children struggled with Mandarin, and she described the surroundings of the school, the stern principal, the naughty little boys, and so much else about her job as a teenage elementary school teacher.  What I see in this video is almost exactly what I imagined from Li-ching's accounts of her years as a young teacher in such a school.  What was especially funny was to hear Li-ching (who knew no Taiwanese) imitate the way the Taiwanese children speak Mandarin with very heavy Taiwan accent and mixed Mandarin-Taiwan grammar and syntax.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Grace Wu]


  1. Neil Kubler said,

    August 5, 2021 @ 4:29 pm

    All true and to be reflected upon, though this account does omit another important native language, Hakka, with around 15% of the population. Alas, the Mandarin Promotion Movement in Taiwan was so successful that today, even though native languages can now be spoken and are even taught at schools, it's almost too late: most native Taiwanese living in the large and mid-size cities speak Mandarin better than they speak Taiwanese; and many young Taiwanese (under the age of 40 or so) have little or no proficiency in any native language other than Mandarin. At the same time, we should note that the requirement in the 1940s to 1980s to speak only Mandarin at school applied not only to Taiwanese Hokkien, Taiwanese Hakka, and native Austronesian language speakers, but also to mainland refugees who were native speakers of non-Mandarin languages like Shanghainese, Hunanese, Cantonese, various Zhejiang dialects, Fujian dialects, etc. Of course, in terms of numbers, Taiwanese Hokkien speakers were the most affected.

  2. Scott P. said,

    August 5, 2021 @ 4:47 pm

    If you were caught doing that, they would hang a placard around your neck saying "Wǒ ài shuō guóyǔ 我愛說國語" ("I love to speak Mandarin").

    Couldn't you just show up to school wearing the placard, and if anybody asked, say "I really like Mandarin, is there something wrong with that?"

  3. M Lin said,

    August 5, 2021 @ 5:09 pm

    This is a cute video, though the way my dad tells it there was a lot more corporal punishment involved if students slipped into Taiwanese than this video depicts. Things are better now, but most of my family had no love for the KMT and the suppression of Taiwanese language was one grievance among many. To this day a number of my family members refuse to speak Mandarin until their partner in conversation proves to be completely helpless at Minnan. (And then my dad didn't teach me Mandarin *or* Minnan so on this branch of the family the language has been lost anyway!)

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    August 6, 2021 @ 7:22 am

    I hate to be the one who brings this up…. but is no one else going to ask about "Dog nuts?" Does that mean what it sounds like? Is it a nickname? Something else?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2021 @ 4:34 pm

    @cliff arroya

    That's a legitimate question, and you have every right / reason to ask it.

    The word in Chinese is gǒudàn 狗蛋 ("dog's eggs"), where dàn 蛋 ("egg") stands for gāowán 睾丸 ("testicles"), so "dog nuts" is a workable translation for gǒudàn 狗蛋 ("dog's eggs").

    The idea behind this is that most kids have a respectable, even presumptuous proper name, but this makes them hard to handle, so their parents, relatives, or friends will give them such a vulgar, demeaning nickname to make them easier to control.

    Similar customs exist in Nepal and other countries.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 6, 2021 @ 7:39 pm

    Hmm, the implication here is strongly that Tw. kàn 'fuck' (?) preceded Mand. (Pinyin) gàn 'id.'… is the latter actually a recent loan and not simply < 'do'? … and whence the former, if (AFAIK) Tw. does not even have an item kàn 'do'?

    Re: "mixed" titles, this is straight up Guoyu titles with the exception of a word or so… honest-to-god Taiwanese (or Cantonese, etc.) titles on media of this kind is a precious find… in this case the result is that neither the wordplay with kàn nor with that with 'loach' and 'cockroach' is accessible if one can only read the titles (whether Mandarin or English).

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 6, 2021 @ 7:48 pm

    ^ Tw. kàn appears in Douglas (1873) ("to commit fornication […] much used in vile scolding"); the implication is that it is related in some way to kan (note Tone A1), the higher-register term for all things illicit sex (cf. Mand. jiān 姦).

  8. Reader said,

    August 8, 2021 @ 9:52 pm

    My father grew up in a primarily Taiwanese speaking rural community but doesn't recall anything like displaying a sign happening. Corporate punishment was the norm back then, so students were just beat and humiliated in front of the class for any minor trespass.

  9. KeithB said,

    August 9, 2021 @ 8:11 am

    In "Empire of the Summer Moon" One of the last power medicine men for the Comanche was named "Coyote [vulgar name for female genitals]"

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