Sun, Jan 22, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Pinyin and a Taiwanese identity

By Martin Boyle

Between 1993 and 1995, I taught English in Hsinchu for the China External Trade Development Council (CETRA). CETRA is now the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) and its name change reflects the Republic of China’s (ROC) subsequent change in state identity. At CETRA, a German colleague signed us up for free Mandarin classes.

However, these classes were not Chinese as a foreign language class, but adult literacy classes for local people who could not speak Guoyu (Mandarin) “well.”

I still remember the first sentence that we had to chant from our children’s reading books: 我起來了。媽媽早,爸爸早!我拿我的書包 (“I’m up. Good morning, mom, good morning, dad. I’m taking my school bag”).

The traditional characters were glossed with “bopomofo” (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) and the theory was that, as beginners, we were like children. The teacher told us she spoke Beijinghua (Beijing dialect) and was, therefore, a good model for pronunciation as she exhorted everyone to “curl your tongue.”

Many local people denigrated their own Taiwan-accented Mandarin in front of foreigners and my own students recommended waishengren (外省人, Mainlander) students as good models for Mandarin pronunciation. Our little group of teachers — English, German, French and Spanish speakers — sat at tiny desks on tiny children’s stools and nodded respectfully along with the local taxi drivers and betel nut sellers, absorbing this subtext of Chinese power and identity.

These literacy classes carried a not-so-hidden curriculum of the ROC on Taiwan as the repository of authentic Chinese culture, even as Taiwan was undergoing massive constitutional changes that would transform its identity.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the recent protests over Hanyu pinyin on the MRT described in the Taipei Times this week by four Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators can be seen as part of this state identity change, Taiwan’s ambivalent relationship with Mandarin and what I suspect might be a very different adult literacy curriculum this year.

No longer does the ROC claim to be China and the writing systems that Taiwan uses for Chinese have changed to reflect this. Taiwan has held on to traditional characters and bopomofo, resolutely resisted simplified characters, mostly retained Wade-Giles and Yale for personal, political and geographical names in Taiwan, but grudgingly accepted the linguistic arguments for Hanyu pinyin signage in public spaces.

However, this has not prevented pro-localization groups seeking to replace or augment Hanyu pinyin with Tongyong pinyin on public signage. This promotion of Tongyong pinyin reflects Taiwan-identifying political elites seeking to supplant Guoyu with Taiwan-accented Mandarin as the prestige language variety in Taiwan.

There is nothing new about this; it is a feature of language policy the world over and is well documented by linguists and political scientists. However, it needs to be seen for what it is — politics, not linguistics.

The substance of the DPP legislators’ argument is that the government’s use of Hanyu pinyin, and exclusion of Tongyong pinyin, on the MRT is ideologically, not linguistically, motivated and that it privileges a Chinese identity over a Taiwanese one — or at least does not accord due respect to Taiwanese identity. This argument seems to be centered on two separate, but interlinked claims.

This story has been viewed 6581 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top