Preserving Taiwanese

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Article by Rhoda Kwan, Hong Kong Free Press (31/10/21):

‘The loss of language is the loss of heritage:’ the push to revive Taiwanese in Taiwan

"You can't completely express Taiwanese culture with Mandarin – something is bound to be lost in translation," says one advocate for the local language.

When I go to Taipei, I seldom hear Taiwanese being spoken, especially by people under forty or fifty.  That is always saddening to me, especially considering the fact that about 70% of the total population of Taiwan today are Hoklos.

The rare usage of Taiwanese, particularly on the streets of its capital Taipei, is a legacy of decades of colonial rule. During 50 years under Japanese rule, and the Kuomintang’s subsequent martial law from 1949 to 1987, generations of Taiwanese were banned from speaking their mother tongue in public.

“A whole generation’s learning in this language was washed away, and with this language a culture and identity was also washed away,” said Lí Sì–goe̍h, a Taiwanese language advocate.

Before the arrival of the Kuomintang, Taiwanese – a language from China’s Fujian province also referred to as Taigí, Taiwanese Hokkien, Hoklo or Southern Min – was spoken by most Han immigrants who arrived on the island from the 17th century onwards. Other languages, including other Chinese languages such as Hakka and dozens of different Austronesian indigenous languages, were also spoken on the island, a reflection of the diversity of ethnic groups that have lived on the island for centuries.

Today on the streets of Taipei, Mandarin – the language imposed on the island by the Kuomintang – reigns as the lingua franca.

“Some Taiwanese stigmatised the language and believe that it should not be used in formal situations,” [Frank Wong] told HKFP. “I had an experience in southern Taiwan where a Taiwanese said to me angrily, ‘How can you speak the Taiwanese language in such a formal situation? I am very surprised that the university employed this kind of faculty member!'”

This anger speaks to the threats facing the Taiwanese language in the island today, where its use is almost confined to certain social milieus.

“You often hear construction workers or police officers speaking Taiwanese… so there’s always been these environments [to speak it], even though it’s been formally suppressed,” Catherine Chou, a Taiwanese-American history professor, told HKFP.

It's ironic that Taiwanese who grew up and lived in diaspora communities abroad, as in Australia, often speak much better Hoklo than those who grew up in Taipei.


Selected readings


[h.t. Don Keyser, Chiu-kuei Wang, and Norman Leung]


  1. Honey Bunny said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 7:02 pm

    Personally, I think most of this stuff is politically driven. For the KMT, they are politically motivated to get rid of the foreigners and to unite the Chinese people as one nation, and as one nation, they needed an official language… or perhaps, five official languages for the five races of China. The CCP came along and extended the number of ethnic groups and the number of indigenous languages. Now, as part of the DPP's politics, the DPP plays on identity politics in order to win a couple of votes from the people. They can just say, "Oooh, China is bad. It's authoritarian. It's evil. Don't listen to the KMT. They are a bunch of China supporters. We are Taiwanese, and we have our own story. Vote for us!!!" It's like how the Democrats and Republicans in the USA try to use identity politics on ordinary American citizens, and ordinary American citizens think that they are making the change in society simply by voting Democrat or Republican. For the Taiwanese, it's just easier to blame everything on the KMT, because (1) the DPP needs the votes to maintain power over the country, and (2) identity politics works. We can talk about the loss of indigenous languages in Japan and how they are dying because the ethnic minority people now speak Japanese, the language of the Yamato people in Japan. But, who cares about them? That's not a political issue. The loss of Taiwanese Hokkien, on the other hand, is political, because Taiwanese Hokkien can be used as a tool in identity politics. "We speak Taiwanese, and we are Taiwanese! So, not Chinese!!! You can't control us, CCP or KMT! DPP forever!!!" Furthermore, the author Victor Mair is a well-known, well-published scholar in sinology, and in his personal life, he once had a wife (now dead) from the Republic of China (Taiwan). I'm pretty sure Mair loved his wife, so it's understandable why he's very sympathetic to the Taiwanese perspective and the 台独 movement. Nevertheless, I still think most of this stuff is politically motivated/driven.

    With that said, the Hoklo people on Taiwan have lived there since the last imperial dynasty of China, so they may feel detached from the ancestral homeland and would regard Taiwan as the true home. On top of that, they just want the Republic of China to maintain sovereignty, and continue life as normal. By that, the ROC government does not want to lose sovereignty, and this fear of loss of sovereignty plays in the current international stage.

    The USA, being the USA, likes to meddle in world affairs, and from the recent news reports, the USA has made a promise to recognize the one-China policy, and it has made a promise to defend Taiwan. And any kind of democratic capitalistic nation sounds more attractive than a socialist authoritarian one. If the KMT were still in power, then the USA could definitely keep both promises – one-China policy and defend Taiwan (as the KMT perceives that Taiwan is part of China). Just get rid of the CCP and pretend that China is all controlled by the ROC government. However, times have changed, and the USA is stuck in a sticky situation.

    To sum it up, this issue is maybe 5% about cultural identity and 95% about politics.

  2. AntC said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 11:00 pm

    When I go to Taipei, I seldom hear Taiwanese being spoken, especially by people under forty or fifty.

    When I go to Taiwan (or rather when I used to be able to), I keep out of Taipei. I hear plenty of Taiwanese spoken in the regional cities/towns and countryside. But yes it's chiefly by older people.

    the DPP plays on identity politics …

    The DPP won handsomely the election in early 2020. Clearly 'identity politics' was popular — because the KMT/Han Ko-yu's main platform emphasised rapprochement with PRC. That's how democracy works. Taiwan's democracy works reasonably well. I wish I could say the same about whatever's going on in U.S.A. But advocates for PRC have no right to lecture anybody on how to run a democracy.

    They can just say, "Oooh, China is bad. It's authoritarian. It's evil.

    That election was before martial law was imposed on Hong Kong. Also before the PLA Air Force was flying nearly-daily intrusions into Taiwanese airspace. Seems to me the DPP was talking only the truth, and very prescient. (Although the whole debate went on in oblique terms, so as not to rouse the monster next door.)

    Promoting democracy, and promoting cultural diversity (for Austronesian Formosans, as well as non-Mandarin Chinese languages) is one of the ways Taiwan differentiates itself from PRC.

    If CCP wants to appeal more to the Taiwanese, it could re-establish democracy and freedom of speech in Hong Kong/Macau, it could stop imprisoning and executing Uighurs in Xinjiang, it could re-open the temples in Tibet. It could tolerate and promote linguistic/cultural diversity in its own territories. It could stop persecuting Falun Gong — as if they're any sort of threat to the state! Also it could reimburse the millions of ordinary working people who've lost their life savings in the Evergrande debacle/property bubble.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 10:56 am

    There seems to be a general phenomenon that, in societies with near-universal secondary education, the local vernacular tends to be replaced by the school language (or a dialect closely related to it), unless there is a general consensus against this process (as may be the case in German Switzerland or in Norway outside Østlandet). This seems to happen all over the world, and to be independent of politics.

  4. jkreuscher said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 11:07 am

    That the language seems in better use among emigrants shouldn't surprise. Emigrant communities tend to become cultural fossils. Around the time of the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence the I remember the BBC World Service reported that conservative Hindus were sending young people to a Caribbean island (forgot which) to study religion because it had changed much less there than at home.

  5. Conal Boyce said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 3:28 pm

    Treating this as a local political issue (or 'identity politics' or nostalgia) is to myopically trivialize a topic that is much bigger than the island politics of the ROC. Citing Barbara West (from the Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania), the Wikipedia article on 'Hokkien' reminds us that:
    "In Southeast Asia, Hokkien historically served as the lingua franca amongst overseas Chinese communities of all dialects and subgroups, and it remains today as the most spoken variety of Chinese in the region, including in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and some parts of Indochina — particularly Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia."
    And quite aside from all of that, Hokkien is, after all, rooted in Fujian, not Taiwan! As such, along with Cantonese and Shanghainese, it stands as one of the three or four "real" languages of China, in contrast to the poodle-language, Pǔtōnghuà. It matters.

  6. KIRINPUTRA said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 9:22 pm

    Consider the alternative, to be written in the future by somebody quite different from Prof. Mair:

    "When I go to Taiwan, I seldom detect any acknowledgment — least of all among those under 50, who speak Standard Chinese brokenly if at all, and don’t know what a Sun Yat-sen is — that Taiwan was ever part of the fatherland. That is always saddening to me, especially considering that Taiwan was occupied by a modern Chinese state for over 70 years."

    To detrivialize the matter for the farsighted, we could tack on another chapter:

    “But what is truly upsetting is that Hokkien too has become a foreign mainland country, much like Korea, with their own to-us-screwed-up interpretation of pre-modern Asian history. When the merchants at the night market discover my incomprehension of their overly-politicized tongue, they are more likely to switch to Cantonese or English than Chinese, which is Greek to many of them. So sad, especially considering how willing their forefathers had been to go along with the eradication of their culture for the sake of the Chinese Dream.”

  7. KIRINPUTRA said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 9:28 pm

    @ Coby Lubliner

    Sharp is the emphasis on "secondary". But which language is used in the secondary schools seems to be a fundamentally political question.

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