Platform on tai?

President Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election campaign slogan is “Táiwān jiāyóu,” so one can see that all around Taiwan these days, as the election is only about two weeks away.

The Ma campaign has decided that the English translation of “Táiwān jiāyóu” is “Taiwan, Bravo,” which isn’t quite right but at least sounds positive. Of Ma’s two opponents, Tsai Ing-wen (Cài Yīngwén / 蔡英文) of the anti-Hanyu-Pinyin Democratic Progressive Party chose the somewhat cryptic English slogan of “Taiwan next,” while third-party candidate James Soong (Sòng Chǔyú / 宋楚瑜) chose as his slogan “Me, me, me!”

OK, I made that last one up, but only because I couldn’t find the real one, other than maybe it’s “Renew.” (Does anyone know for sure?)

What I really want to talk about here, though, is how Ma’s slogan gets written: 台灣加油.

There is of course nothing unusual about that — except that Ma likes to make a big deal out of using traditional Chinese characters rather than simplified ones. Every year or so Ma talks about how he wants to get the United Nations to declare traditional Chinese characters a super-duper world something-or-other. He has already purged government Web sites of versions that people in China and Singapore could read more easily than versions in traditional Chinese characters. And if he criticizes the PRC, it’s often to tell Beijing that people in China really ought to use traditional characters. Ma’s devotion to people in China being able to have traditional Hanzi reminds me of George W. Bush during the Hainan incident:

“Do the members of the crew have Bibles?” “Why don’t they have Bibles?” Can we get them Bibles?” “Would they like Bibles?”

In other words, while that might be a concern, I sometimes wonder about his priorities.

By now a lot of you are probably thinking, “But is one of those simplified characters that is not only OK to use in Taiwan but also by far more commonly seen than . So what’s strange about this?”

That’s entirely correct. In most cases there would be nothing noteworthy about using “台灣加油” rather than “臺灣加油.” It seems entirely normal. What’s strange here is that the Ma administration actually has a position on the matter of 臺 vs. 台: Although the form can be tolerated in some instances, is supposedly better and is mandatory in certain cases.

About a year ago, for example, the Ministry of Education reported that official government documents (gōngwén/公文) would have to use the form. And textbooks would need to be updated to change instances of 台灣, 台北, 台南, 台中, etc., to 臺灣, 臺北, 臺南, 臺中…. Webmasters of some government Web sites scurried to perform a whole lot of search-and-replace. There were not, however, so many instances of 台灣 to change to 臺灣 because Ma had already declared that in Mandarin pages “台灣” (Taiwan) was out and “中華民國” (Zhōnghuá Mínguó / the Republic of China) was in; so mainly this was visible in city names in addresses.

Predictably, though, lots never got changed. (“Close enough for government work.”)

Yes, I know: None of you are deeply shocked by the notion that a politician would tell people to do one thing but do something else himself. And the way the premier downplayed the policy makes me suspect many find it pointless or even embarrassing. Still, the fact remains that the administration did decide not to leave well enough alone and went out of its way to favor 臺 over 台.

Supposedly this is because after the Ministry of Education studied the origins of 臺 and 台, it decided that the tai in the name Taiwan should be written as 臺, according to Chen Hsueh-yu (Chén Xuěyù / 陳雪玉), executive secretary of the ministry’s National Languages Committee.

This doesn’t much sense. Whichever form got used first — which is a dubious method for determining the correctness of usage for something now — the tai in Taiwan doesn’t have anything to do semantically with platforms, terraces, tables, stations, etc. In the case of the origin of the name of Taiwan, there’s no more meaning inherent in than there is in — or than there is in the Roman letters Tai, either, for that matter. As Victor Mair has noted:

Superficially (according to the surface signification of the two characters with which the name is customarily written), “Taiwan” means “Terrace Bay.” That sounds nice, even poetic, but it is an inauthentic etymology and has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual origins of the name. (This is a typical instance of the common fallacy of wàngwénshēngyì 望文生義, whereby the semantic qualities of Chinese characters interfere with the real meanings of the terms that they are being used to transcribe phonetically.) The true derivation of the name “Taiwan” is actually from the ethnonym of a tribe in the southwest part of the island in the area around Ping’an. As early as 1636, a Dutch missionary referred to this group as Taiouwang. From the name of the tribe, the Portuguese called the area around Ping’an as Tayowan, Taiyowan, Tyovon, Teijoan, Toyouan, and so forth. Indeed, already in his ship’s log of 1622, the Dutchman Comelis Reijersen referred to the area as Teijoan and Taiyowan. Ming and later visitors to the island employed a plethora of sinographic transcriptions to refer to the area (superficially meaning “Terrace Nest Bay” [Taiwowan 臺窝灣], “Big Bay” [Dawan 大灣], “Terrace Officer” [Taiyuan 臺員], “Big Officer” [Dayuan 大員], “Big Circle” [Dayuan 大圓], “Ladder Nest Bay” [Tiwowan 梯窝灣], and so forth). Some of these transcriptions are clever, others are fantastic, but none of them should be taken seriously for their meanings.

I’m not sure how best to characterize — sorry — the differences between “台灣加油” and “臺灣加油.” Although using the 臺 form would definitely come across as more formal, it wouldn’t be exactly the equivalent of “Fight Fiercely, Harvard.” Yet the use of the 台 form isn’t really the equivalent of a campaigning politician droppin’ his g’s either.

臺 vs. 台

Additional sources:

Please don’t write to comment for or against simplified characters in general. This post isn’t about that really, even though 臺 could serve as a poster child for Hanzi simplification.

13 thoughts on “Platform on tai?

  1. Well, there are practical considerations: looking from a certain distance, the characters “??” on a campaign poster may look simply as two black spots, while ? in ?? may still be easily readable. (Of course, ?? would be even more legible, but obviously it’s absolutely incorrect politically).

    Incidentally, does not the popularity of the ?? thing (as in ????) come from the mainland (the 2008 Olympics)?

  2. ?? (ji?yóu) – literally, “add oil” (e.g. to a fire etc.). This seems to be a common slogan at sports events etc, with people rooting for their team. You certainly could see it all over during the Olympics.

  3. Sorry, you don’t get to opine that ? is a poster-child for simplification after admonishing people not to get into the traditional vs. simplified debate and expect them to honor your request. ;)

    While studying at ICLP back in the good old days of the Chen Shui-bian administration, I nevertheless always favored ? over ?.

    First, I thought then and still think now that it simply is a better balanced, better looking character. Nothing to do with issues of “meaning,” which I agree are dubious. Obviously ? has more strokes, but outside of daily tingxie in language classes or calligraphy (where one would want to use more complex forms), people use character input generators on computers for most written work. In this regard, I believe technology has outstripped issues of character complexity. So if one finds ? to be the superior character for aesthetic reasons (or any other reason) there’s no reason not to use it.

    Second, because I preferred traditional characters on general principle, I wanted to stay as traditional as possible in writing which naturally favored the use of ?.

  4. I want to amend one comment. I agreed that the issue of “meaning” was dubious but I’m not sure that I agree with the statement that “whichever form got used first . . . is a dubious method for determining the correctness of usage for something now.” The issue for the KMT government seems to be which written form is more “traditional.” One could interpret that strictly in the context of the traditional vs. simplified dichotomy in which case ??? are indeed not a typical pair (both appear in traditional character dictionaries and seem to carry similar meaning). But if the written language uniformly used ? at the inception of the name back in the 1600s or whenever (long before formal simplification, whatever the case), I think that is relevant to ascertaining the “traditional” written form of Taiwan. In other words, if I were reading a map from the 1600s or 1700s, what character would be used?

  5. Tai in Polynesia meaning the “Sea”. Wan is the last name the Siraya people call themselves after Chinese force them to have a Chinese sounding name.

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