I am a member of the Ministry of Education's Mandarin Promotion Council, but did not vote for the Tongyong Pinyin (通用拼音) system as has been reported in the papers. Since anyone approving of the Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音) system has been cast as someone who "does not identify with local culture," most have adopted a low profile.
I am the only one in the council with a background in information science and so I would like to explain why, from an information technology perspective, Tongyong should not be blindly promoted.
The most important reason is that the social cost of adopting Tongyong Pinyin would be too high. Hanyu Pinyin has been used by the international community for 20 years and in 2000, US libraries made it their standard system of Romanization of Chinese. The publishing industry and educational organizations have invested an enormous amount of money in its promotion.
If Taiwan wants to adopt the Tongyong system, it will face the following problems:
First, all Web pages meant for an international audience will have to exist in both Hanyu and Tongyong Pinyin versions to be searchable. All software involving the Romanization of Chinese would have to include an internal application for conversion from Hanyu to Tongyong and vice versa. This is not a problem that can be solved with a simple external application and accuracy can't be guaranteed.
Such conversion software would have to have the capacity to differentiate between words with generally accepted spellings that should not be converted and words that should be converted. A comparison table, for example, would be necessary for place names, and since new words arrive in a steady stream, it would have to be regularly updated; personal names would have to be automatically detected.
When it comes to high-quality document conversion, each and every document would have to be checked manually. Such conversions would not only increase the cost of software, but would also cause great harm to network efficiency and become a nightmare.
Second, and even worse, since Pinyin abbreviations use only the first letter of each word (the Hanyu abbreviation for 中研院, [Zhongyanyuan, Academia Sinica] is ZYY, while the Tongyong abbreviation is JYY [Jhongyanyuan]), not only would it be difficult for any software to perform a correct conversion, but, in the future, Taiwanese will not understand Hanyu abbreviations, while international users will not understand Tongyong's.
Wouldn't the easiest way to promote local culture be to adopt the method that creates the least trouble for international users?
It is true that Tongyong Pinyin differs from Hanyu Pinyin only in terms of its substitution of certain letters. But Hanyu is in use around the world, while Tongyong is targeted only at Taiwan.
If Taiwan wants to promote Tongyong internationally, the cost would be substantial. A greater worry is that foreigners would consider it too much trouble to come to Taiwan, which would harm the nation's image. Is it really worth asking the people of Taiwan and Taiwan's international friends to pay such a price just to get rid of the letters "q" and "x"? Taiwan's resources are limited. Can we really spare resources to fight for Tongyong Pinyin, too?
The most appropriate solution would be for all organizations in Taiwan with an international outreach (the National Central Library, the Tourism Bureau and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and all information and road signs to adopt the Hanyu system, in which case there would be no harm in using Tongyong for domestic education. If there is a reckless decision to adopt Tongyong, government departments will run software conversions until they turn blue in the face and foreigners may abandon Taiwan for China out of pure convenience.
I hope that at this critical juncture Taiwan will be able to make a historically responsible decision that benefits everyone.
Hsu Wen-lian is a researcher at the Institute of Information Science of Academia Sinica and a member of the Mandarin Promotion Council.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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