Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Yeh Yi-jin (葉宜津), who campaigned to be her party’s candidate in the Tainan mayoral election, proposed abolishing Mandarin phonetic symbols — also known as zhuyin fuhao (注音符號, commonly known as Bopomofo) — and adopting romanized spelling — also called pinyin (拼音) — as one of her platform policies.
Taiwan is the only nation that uses Mandarin phonetic symbols, while Chinese-language education around the world uses “romanization,” she said, adding that Taiwan’s practice puts more of a burden on schoolchildren, while failing to connect with the international community.
I largely agree with Yeh and support most of her political views. However, adopting romanized spelling is one thing, but abolishing Mandarin phonetic symbols is a more radical idea and no trivial matter. If such a policy were to ever be adopted, it would likely have considerable repercussions.
First, there is something that Yeh needs to clarify: namely, what she means by “romanization.” Does she mean the dominant Chinese spelling system used worldwide, Hanyu pinyin (漢語拼音), or Tongyong pinyin (通用拼音), which was a flash in the pan some time ago? Or does she mean the Wade-Giles spelling system, which used to have pride of place, or some other system of romanization?
“Romanization” is an umbrella term that means using Latin letters, or the Roman alphabet, to transliterate other kinds of script. There are many romanization systems for Chinese. The process was started by Western missionaries, and after several centuries of competition and evolution, Hanyu pinyin eventually emerged the winner.
Hanyu pinyin is the international standard for spelling Chinese and is now the main system used in the international community.
Before that, Wade-Giles was for a long time the dominant system, while other kinds of romanization, such as the postal system, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Yale romanization, Mandarin Phonetic Symbols II, Tongyong pinyin and so forth, have all taken the stage for a while, but have later gone quiet and been relegated to history.
If what Yeh means by romanization is Hanyu pinyin, that is the standard in Taiwan. However, after the DPP got into government in 2000, it adopted Tongyong pinyin, a system designed by Yu Bor-chuan (余伯泉), who at the time was an associate researcher at Academia Sinica, as Taiwan’s official romanization system.
It is reasonable to think that Tongyong pinyin was derived from China’s Hanyu pinyin, with certain adjustments and revisions. The purpose of these changes was to make it different, thereby expressing the difference between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) got back into office in 2008, it stopped using Tongyong pinyin and started using Hanyu pinyin instead, in an attempt to be more similar to China. In part, it was done for the sake of cross-strait integration and aligning more with international standards.
After the DPP in 2016 got back into power, it has continued the policy of its predecessor. It remains to be seen what will happen, but Yeh’s policy proposal might guide official attitudes.
Taiwan uses Hanyu pinyin mainly to transliterate the names of streets and other places. Not all counties and municipalities use it and it has very little impact on the general public.
If Yeh’s Hanyu pinyin policy ends up being implemented, thereby establishing a unified system instead of Taiwan’s spelling mess, it would be a boon.
However, Mandarin phonetic symbols have been a foundation of education in Taiwan for decades. Abolishing them would be an enormous challenge and any attempt to do so would no doubt provoke a powerful backlash from many quarters.
The upside is that Yeh is a well-known DPP politician, so she need not worry about the pan-green camp painting her as pro-Chinese for wanting to use Hanyu pinyin. At the same time, by calling for Mandarin phonetic symbols to be abandoned, she can “de-blue” the idea by drawing a line between her proposal and the KMT, and standing on her own authority.
When Premier William Lai (賴清德) was mayor of Tainan, he called for English to become Taiwan’s second official language. Now Yeh, although she failed in her bid for Tainan mayoral candidacy, has been calling for Mandarin phonetic symbols to be abolished in favor of romanized spelling. Tainan deserves a round of applause for its courage and determination.
Hugo Tseng is an associate professor and former chair of Soochow University’s Department of English Language and Literature.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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