Some academics recently demanded that when describing Hoklo, the term minnanyu (閩南語) should be avoided in favor of “Taiwanese” (台語). The reason was that min means “snake” and nan — Chinese for south — implies “barbarian.”
Both implications are obviously derogatory. The demand makes an interesting contrast to the comic strip used by the Ministry of Economic Affairs to explain the economic cooperation framework agreement with China, in which one of the characters is from Tainan and “speaks with a Taiwanese accent.” Will replacing the word minnan with the word “Taiwanese” really eliminate discrimination? And is language discrimination inherent in language itself, or is it created by deliberate manipulation?
Min does mean “snake,” but the question is if “snake” really is discriminatory. In some religions, snakes are seen as a sacred animal and are often worshipped as a totem, as can be seen in the beliefs of Taiwan’s Paiwan and Rukai Aborigines. Snakes are also highly praised in ancient Chinese mythology, in which they were deemed immortal. Some academics even think the dragon, so highly revered in China, was originally a snake. For example, Nuwa (女媧) and Fuxi (伏羲), the brother and sister that are the mythological creators of the Chinese people, are often portrayed as snakes.
I therefore don’t think that the character min is derogatory just because it contains the character chong (虫), an old Chinese word for a kind of poisonous snake. Many people believe that Chinese in the past named peoples in outlying areas after animals as a means of looking down on them, but I would be cautious of this interpretation. An increasing amount of research shows that the formation of these names may have had more to do with the totems and beliefs of these tribes rather than with a wish to liken them to animals.
As for the word nan, the traditional Chinese view sees the north as the political center, so “the south” implies a certain discriminatory attitude. We must not forget, however, that more often it is simply a direction or a location, in the same way Nanjing is named in relation to Beijing.
Both the Ming Dynasty and the government of Republican China used Nanjing as its capital, and they certainly would not have done so had nan been a derogatory term. In addition, The Book of Odes (詩經) contains the chapters The Odes of Zhou and the South (周南) and The Odes of Shao and the South (召南), but academics now think the word here referred to a musical instrument called the nan.
There are also examples in the Analects (論語) of a beautiful concubine named Nanzi (南子), and in the work of the ancient Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (陶淵明) the term “southern mountains,” implying a “retreat” and “leisurely.” I really can’t see how the word nan could be derogatory.
The question of whether the two components of the word minnan are derogatory thus depends on the intent of the user and the interpretation of the recipient. As a Taiwanese born and bred, I have always felt that the word minnan is a geographical name, and that discrimination is not inherent in the two words but a matter of ethnic prejudice created by a certain political ideology.
If we do not eradicate that kind of prejudice, it doesn’t matter what name we use. To clarify whether or not replacing the word minnan with the word “Taiwanese” in and of itself will eradicate this kind of prejudice, just take another look at the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ comic strip and you will have your answer.
Hsu Yu-fang is an associate professor and chairman of the Chinese Department at National Dong Hwa University.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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