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.
First, Tongyong pinyin more accurately replicates the pronunciation of Taiwan-accented Mandarin; second, it is closer than Hanyu pinyin to the English phonetic system. Both of these claims are “language-as-identity” political statements masquerading as “language-as-a-tool” linguistic ones.
To support their first claim, that Tongyong pinyin is closer to Taiwan-accented Mandarin and therefore easier for foreigners, the legislators cite the combination “si” as being closer to the Taiwanese pronunciation of 西 than “xi.” Fair enough, but why should one cause the other?
I can repeat the first sentence in my children’s Chinese book from memory, suggesting that it was imitation through chanting and not script recognition that worked.
I had to use Google Translate for some of the characters, inputting the text using Hanyu pinyin.
Romanization systems are blunt instruments when it comes to getting some language learners to imitate an idealized standard sound, while others can switch instantly and unconsciously between sounds. The Hanyu pinyin rendition of the letter “x” would be perfectly logical to speakers of many languages as it stands and the purpose of a standard script is to present an ideal type, not to cover all regional possibilities. After all, the DPP legislators do not claim that the sound radicals in traditional Chinese characters should be changed to reflect Taiwanese pronunciation. Rather, they choose pinyin because it helps project Taiwan’s identity internationally and is, therefore, a potential soft-power tool.
The legislators’ second claim that Tongyong pinyin is closer to how English is pronounced around the world and therefore easier for foreigners to is a bold one. It dismisses other languages, privileges English as an international benchmark and is not supported by any linguistic evidence.
The purpose of pinyin is to render Chinese sounds in romanized script, not English, so that it is accessible to speakers of all languages who can read the Latin alphabet. In this sense, romanization systems, be they Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Japanese or Klingon, are simply codes. Some may be easier but, like any code, once you have learned it, you are good to go.
Therefore, it does not matter linguistically whether Tongyong or Hanyu pinyin is easier for foreigners, or whether it aligns more closely to English or to Taiwan-accented Mandarin. In any case, to prove these claims, you would need to carry out some serious empirical research — something politicians worldwide who like to pronounce on linguistic matters tend not to do.
It is poignant and ironic that this protest should have arisen when the father of Hanyu pinyin, Zhou Youguang (周有光), died in Beijing aged 111. Zhou was a professor, translator and linguist who associated with Albert Einstein at Princeton University, New Jersey, and gave up a comfortable life working for a Chinese bank in the US in 1949 to return to China and help the Revolution.
A deeply humane and fearless critic of the Chinese Communist Party and archetypal “good communist,” when he developed Hanyu pinyin in the mid-1950s, it was as a practical tool for adult literacy campaigns. Only afterward was it recognized as a tool for the teaching of Chinese as a foreign language.
Hanyu pinyin was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1982 and is now globally recognized in business, language teaching, academia and international relations.
When Zhou died, the media lauded him as the man “who made writing Chinese as easy as ABC.”
Conversely, Tongyong pinyin is unheard of outside Taiwan, but the fact that Zhou’s greatest achievement is seen by many in Taiwan as a threat simply shows that when it comes to language, identity is everything.
Returning to Guoyu and adult literacy in Hsinchu in 1993; there was no Tongyong pinyin at the time and bopomofo was a literacy tool clumsily applied to the teaching of Chinese as a foreign language along with Wade-Giles and Yale. Our fellow adult-literacy students kept telling us in Taiwan-accented Mandarin that we had to learn it in order to know how to pronounce Chinese “properly.”
Since 1995, I have taught many Chinese and Taiwanese university students in the UK. Chinese students cannot understand bopomofo, but can read and write Hanyu pinyin with ease.
Most Taiwanese students, while they are able to understand bopomofo, cannot understand either Hanyu or Tongyong pinyin. Granted, both systems project power and identity, but Hanyu pinyin also effectively serves a dual literacy/language-teaching purpose while Tongyong appears to serve neither.
In hindsight, I know that the reaction to Hanyu pinyin in Hsinchu/Xinzhu/Sinjhu in 1993 was the tail end of a Chinese Nationalist identity, yet there must have been an awareness among Taiwanese educators at the time that Hanyu pinyin actually worked.
However, Taiwan’s identity shift meant that there was always going to be a strong localization influence in language policy.
The result is Tongyong pinyin and it seems that the Tongyong pinyin lobby’s reaction to Hanyu pinyin is the same as that of the old Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime, only this time it is driven by Taiwanese and not Chinese nationalist feelings about how the world perceives Taiwan.
Martin Boyle is a language-teaching consultant who has worked at SOAS University of London, Imperial College, Queen Mary University of London and University College London. He taught in Taiwan from 1993 to 1995 and is completing a doctorate in international relations.
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