A crack in the hegemonic edifice of hanzi

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Stunning report from Pinyin News:

"Chinese characters no longer required for Taiwan Aborigine names" (5/21/24)

Last week Taiwan’s legislature passed an amendment stating that members of Taiwan’s tribes will no longer be forced to adopt names written in Chinese characters. Instead, their names can be presented solely in romanization if so desired. Thus, at least in this specialized category, Chinese characters have been stripped of their primacy and romanization is officially allowed to stand on its own (not appear only in conjunction with Chinese characters).

Source: Lìyuàn tōngguò: yuánzhùmín shēnfen zhèngjiàn — kě zhǐ xiě pīnyīn zúmíng (立院通過:原住民身分證件 可只寫拼音族名), United Daily News, May 15, 2024

Selected readings

(Thanks to Mark Swofford)


  1. Chris Button said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 10:07 am

    Why romanization rather than bopomofo?

  2. David Marjanović said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 10:11 am

    I would guess that the official orthographies of these languages are in Latin letters, and that bopomofo doesn't cover some of the globally rarer sounds found there.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 10:28 am

    @Chris Button

    As I've pointed out several times, Taiwan is on the verge of making English an official language of their nation, and pinyin already has a solid footing there.

  4. Coby said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 12:32 pm

    @ Victor Mair: If "pinyin already has a solid footing" in Taiwan, why are most people's names presented in the media in Wade-Giles?

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 2:31 pm

    I don't think BPMF has been used as / regarded as a script per se in Taiwan — it's for annotation~transcription in the context of pedagogy. Romanization OTOH is associated (for good reason) with internationalization.

    It 's not Hanyu Pinyin but Romanization generally that has a "solid footing" I guess, often some approximation of Wade-Giles for personal names but with very considerable ad hoc variation extending e.g. to representations of names as pronounced in Taiwanese or Hakka as opposed to in Mandarin… often a concern seems to be (perceived) pronounceability for non-Chinese readers/speakers.

  6. AntC said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 3:16 pm

    I don't think BPMF has been used as / regarded as a script per se in Taiwan — it's for annotation~transcription in the context of pedagogy.

    Yes. Most older Taiwan houses will have a leftover child's desk or blackboard with the BPMF characters. But what you see in street signs for example is Wade-Giles — although of varying vintages: a street name spelled one way at one end; a different way the other end, or on street maps.

    Indigenous languages names usually are more prominently shown in Romanisation. I visited a Hakka cultural centre in Pingtung district, again Romanisation more prominent.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 3:21 pm

    Jonathan — "often a concern seems to be (perceived) pronounceability for non-Chinese readers/speakers" — I can certainly believe that. My wife (Vietnamese born) has a pair of given names (generational name followed by personal name) that are pronounced in English as /li kæn/. She, however, believing that the orthography of her personal name ("Khanh") will cause native English speakers to believe that it is pronounced /kɑːn/ or similar, chooses instead to use the generational name "Le" (/liː/) that she shares with her sister, on the basis that it is easier for English people to pronounce.

  8. Chris Button said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 7:43 pm

    Come to think of it, I was really only exposed to bopomofo for pedagogical purposes. It's interesting that bopomofo never went beyond a "furigana" (annotation) usage. I suppose it makes sense though because you don't need "okurigana" (for inflections etc.) as you do in Japanese.

  9. Mike Ryan said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 11:14 pm

    If English is made an "official language" (as mentioned in a previous post) what does that mean in practical terms for the common folk? Everyone will have to speak English: from the elites to cab drivers and nurses? If not this, then, what would be the point? Here in Japan, foreign financial firms can now present their basic financial documents to the authorities in English upon registering in Japan. So, maybe something along these lines?

  10. IA said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 11:17 pm


    Reading the daily anglophone press — Focus Taiwan, Taiwan, Taiwan News — you will see that all of the following are used in rendering personal and place names: deformed Wade-Giles (WG), Postal, Tongyong Pinyin (TP), Hanyu Pinyin (HP), Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR). (A name is only rarely in pure GR. More often only one or two syllables are. For example 'Ma Ying-jeou' — which in full GR is 'Maa Ing-jeou', and probably without a hyphen.) Some municipalities use HP for their signage and bus stop names; some use TP. It often depends on which party was in power where during the Romanisation War. The last time I checked — a few years back — you had a choice of four systems for your English [sic] name on your passport. (The relevant ministery has an online transcription engine for determining this). The choices are WG, Yale, TP, and Juyin -2 (注音二), which latter is an utter emasculation of GR, removing its tonal spelling and in some respects making the letter-use similar to Yale.

    But when it comes specifically to personal names, the main point is this: media apparently uses what the person is question *wants* used. (How they are able to divine what the person in question 'wants', I have no idea.) As for names of municipalities and the like, the same publication will regularly use TP for place A, WG or postal for place B, and HP for place C. It is unpredictable.

    Further, you may wish to consult https://www.sinistra.net/els/sup/transcript.html#taiwan ,which was written some 24 years ago.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2024 @ 6:11 am

    @Matt Ryan

    It would be more to do with government usage in all sorts of official publications and public settings, as in Singapore, which has four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil (as well as many other languages that are not official). Of the four official languages, English is dominant in government, business, education, and most other public settings.

    And compare India:

    "The clause 3 of the Official Languages Act, 1963 allows for the continued use of English language for official purposes of the Union government and for parliamentary business. Hence Indian English and Modern Standard Hindi are the Official Languages of the Government of India."


    Japan has also been giving serious consideration to adopting English as an official language.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2024 @ 6:52 am

    This statement by Jonathan Smith is very significant and should be taken to heart by anyone who is interested in the status of various scripts in Taiwan:

    "I don't think BPMF has been used as / regarded as a script per se in Taiwan — it's for annotation~transcription in the context of pedagogy. Romanization OTOH is associated (for good reason) with internationalization."

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2024 @ 6:53 am

    Many thanks to IA for his authoritative account of the situation regarding romanization of Mandarin in Taiwan. It's interesting that the long article titled "English, French, German, and Chinese Romanisations of Chinese" that he cites at the end of his comment bears the humble surtitle «A Non-Exhaustive Euro-Hannic Transcription Engine».

    I recall that when Hanyu Pinyin was initially used in fairly regular, formal ways in Taiwan, it was referred to by designations such as Liánhéguó Huáyǔ pīnyīn 聯合國華語拼音 ("United Nations Mandarin Spelling"), as in Liang Shiqiu's great Far East Chinese-English Dictionary (1992). No matter how you put it, I stand by my statement that pinyin has a solid footing in Taiwan.

  14. Mark S. said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 5:34 am

    "But what you see in street signs for example is Wade-Giles"

    I'm puzzled by this remark. Is it in reference to a particular place in Taiwan? [Bastardized] Wade-Giles hasn't been seen much on Taiwan's street signs this century. The names of streets are shown mainly in Hanyu Pinyin (throughout the country), Tongyong Pinyin (in Kaohsiung and scattered other locales), and MPS2 (on some older signs in small towns). The plague of misspellings has largely abated but not disappeared completely.

    Or perhaps by "street signs" what is meant is not particularly the signs giving the names of streets but rather toponym signs one might see along highways, for example. Bastardized Wade-Giles has indeed retained a foothold there, as the central government adopted Tongyong Pinyin (later Hanyu Pinyin) for the vast majority of place names but retained old spellings for the names of counties and the cities of the same names (e.g., Kaohsiung, Taitung, Hsinchu, Taichung for what would be Gaoxiong, Taidong, Xinzhu, and Taizhong in Hanyu Pinyin). In practice, that worked out so that most of the largest cities (thus also the places that get most announced on signage) are in bastardized Wade-Giles while smaller towns are in Hanyu Pinyin.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    June 3, 2024 @ 5:23 am

    Mark — speaking as someone who has only formally studied Hanyu Pinyin (as opposed to Wade-Giles, etc.), may I ask "If a native English speaker with no former exposure to Chinese were to attempt to pronounce {Kaohsiung, Taitung, Hsinchu, Taichung}, would he be more easily understand than if he were to attempt to pronounce {Gaoxiong, Taidong, Xinzhu, Taizhong} ?". And would the same be true in (say) Beijing, as opposed to in Taiwan ?

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 3, 2024 @ 8:56 am

    "who has only formally studied Hanyu Pinyin […]" — arrggghhhh — "who has formally studied only Hanyu Pinyin".

  17. Sanchuan said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 9:03 am


    This is about allowing 族語拼音系統, ie romanisation systems of minority languages. This is not about Hanyu Pinyin (which only works with Mandarin, a language that hardly falls under the rubric of 族語). If anything, the official recognition of yet more romanisation systems will mean Pinyin may lose, not gain, any footing it may have as the default spelling system.

    So, strictly speaking, this is only a victory for the Latin alphabet (or for "romanisations generally", as Jonathan Smith put it above).

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