How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language

by Victor H. Mair

University of Pennsylvania

Wu fāng zhī mín, yányǔ bù tōng.
"The languages of the people in all directions are [mutually] unintelligible."
Li ji [Record of Ritual], "Wang zhi [Royal Institutions]"

Sì fāng tán yì.
"Speech is different in the four directions."
Wang Chong, Lunheng [Balanced Disquisitions], "Ziji [Autobiography]"

Yányǔ bù dá.
"We cannot understand each other's languages."
Zuo zhuan [Commentary of Zuo Qiuming], Xiang 14

Wǒ shǒu xiě wǒ kǒu.
"My hand writes [what] my mouth [speaks]."
Huang Zunxian (1848-1905)

Mǔyǔ shì wǒmen de gēn.
"Our mother tongue is our root."
Taiyu wenzhai, 2 [September 15, 1989], 148


The concept of guoyu ("national language") is deeply embedded in the consciousness of everyone who has grown up in Taiwan during the past half century. Lately, however, people have begun to speak of their muyu ("mother tongue") as being worthy of inculcation. Guoyu, of course, refers to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), which in China is called putonghua ("common speech"). Mandarin is not native to Taiwan, yet it is the national language of Taiwan's citizens and is the sole official written language. In contrast, the citizens of Taiwan are discouraged from writing their native languages (viz., Taiwanese, Hakka, and various aboriginal languages) and it is only recently that it has been possible to teach them in the schools. This paper will examine the complicated processes whereby the citizens of Taiwan are transformed from speakers of their mother tongues to speakers and writers of the national language. This transformation does not rely purely on educational activities carried out in the schools, but involves political, social, and cultural factors as well. The transformation of Cantonese and Shanghainese speakers into Mandarin speakers and writers will also be examined for comparative purposes.


  1. Preliminaries
  2. The Fundamental Unwritability of the Nonstandard Sinitic Languages
  3. Mechanisms Whereby One's Mother Tongue Is Displaced by the National Language
    1. Basse-Vulgarisation
    2. The Pursuit of Prestige
    3. The Myth of Monolingualism
    4. The Sinographic Snare
  4. The Prognosis for Written Taiwanese
  5. Reflections

I. Preliminaries

We may take it for granted that a child born in Taiwan of Taiwanese-speaking parents will begin his or her life speaking Taiwanese. 1 We may also take it for granted that, when it comes time for this child to acquire literacy, he or she will necessarily have to learn a second language, namely Mandarin. Not only is there no expectation that this child will learn to read and write Taiwanese, at the present moment in history it is virtually impossible for this child to read and write Taiwanese because there are no accepted norms for writing in that language. In other words, Taiwanese is fundamentally an unwritten (and arguably at this point in time an unwritable) language.

How did it happen that a society which values education highly would opt to seek literacy in a language other than its own? The purpose of this paper is to investigate this conundrum from a number of angles (political, social, cultural, historical, and linguistic).

Perhaps it would be better to rephrase the question. It may not at all be the case that the Taiwanese have opted to seek literacy in a language other than their own. Rather, they may have been conditioned by circumstances to do so. Our task, then, will be to delineate these circumstances and describe how they have had such an enormous impact upon the Taiwanese people. We shall examine the processes whereby Taiwanese children are weaned away from their mother tongue and acquire in its stead a second language for the purpose of becoming literate. It is remarkable that this shift of emphasis from mother tongue to acquired language takes place within an environment where one's mother tongue is the common spoken language of society. It is not due to migration into another speech community where it is necessary to acquire competence in the local language, which is the usual environment for the displacement of an individual's mother tongue.

II. The Fundamental Unwritability of the Nonstandard Sinitic Languages

Let us assume that there is an ardent Taiwan nationalist who is desperate to write literature in his or her own language (viz., the mother tongue of the Taiwanese people). Certainly there have been no lack of such individuals during the past century and, indeed, up to the present moment. Unfortunately, such persons will be frustrated at every turn when they try to put their dearest and nearest thoughts and emotions in Taiwanese down on paper: there simply exist no established conventions for writing out Taiwanese language in its unadulterated form. Of course, a determined individual may devise various idiosyncratic, ad hoc methods for writing Taiwanese in Chinese characters,2 in Japanese kana, in Mandarin phonetic symbols (bopomofo; zhuyinfuhao), in roman letters, etc., or some combination thereof. The problem is that whatever ingenious solutions this individual may come up with to write down Taiwanese to his or her own satisfaction or to the satisfaction of his closest associates, there is no guarantee that other Taiwanese speakers will understand what he or she may have written because there is no consensus among them about how their language should be written. Quite the contrary, as time passes, there is greater and greater confusion about how Taiwanese should be written. The number of competing schemes grows daily, and each scheme has its ardent supporters, leading to dissension and despair. Even the government cannot institute a workable scheme because its own advisers have different views on how to cope with the dilemma. What is more, the government lacks an unmistakable mandate from the people to institute a unified writing system for Taiwanese.

Why is it so hard to write Taiwanese? Despite the fact that many people have a strong desire to write in their mother tongue, there are numerous factors militating against an easy realization of a workable script for Taiwanese. The first and foremost is that the characters are perfectly suited for writing Literary Sinitic (LS; Classical Chinese) but ill adapted for writing practically anything else. Thus, for nearly two millennia (from around 1200 BCE till about the eighth century CE), the characters were restricted almost entirely to writing solely in LS. Still today, after a century of promotion of the national vernacular by social and educational reformers, there is a strong tendency to backslide into semi-literary (bànwén bànbái 半文半白) styles because they comport so readily with the genius of the script.

The second factor is the conspicuous absence of a tradition of writing in the regional vernaculars. Indeed, until the mid- Tang period, there was not even a precedent for writing a national vernacular. Hence, the initial attempts to write extended vernacular texts were fraught with orthographic and other errors, and the basic matrix of writing remained LS, with only a relatively small amount of vernacular added in. During the medieval period, and largely under the aegis of popular Buddhism, a written koine haltingly developed. (Mair 1994a) In the following centuries, the koine gradually continued to mature until it became Early Mandarin under the Mongols, báihuàwén 白話文 under the Manchus, and then Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) after the May Fourth Movement and with the support of the governments of the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China.

Throughout this long gestation and maturation of the national written koine, there never was any question of writing the nonstandard regional vernaculars. It is worth pondering that the earliest extant texts containing a significant admixture of a regional vernacular are four Southern Min dramas from the late Ming and early Qing periods. (Wu and Lin 1976; Mair 1994b: 1295-1298) Written Southern Min did not prosper, however, because it was insufficiently distinguished from LS and Vernacular Sinitic (VS). That is to say, the writing style of these Southern Min plays was greatly alloyed with LS and the national vernacular; it was certainly far removed from a pure representation of Southern Min spoken language.

The third factor inhibiting the growth of regional vernaculars is a strong scholarly bias against such writing as crude and vulgar. This theme, which is a constant refrain in literati comments on popular culture, may be epitomized in the maxim bù dēng dàyǎ zhī táng 不登大雅之堂 ("cannot ascend the hall of great elegance").

The fourth factor is outright political prohibition against writing the regional vernaculars. Until the lifting of martial law on July 14, 1987, not only was it considered subversive to write in Taiwanese, one could be punished for compiling Taiwanese dictionaries and instructional materials, or even for speaking Taiwanese in public arenas such as schools, governmental bodies, the media, and so forth. This tight control of the nonstandard vernaculars is still operative in mainland China. As MSM (putonghua) extends its reach across the land through education, mass media, commerce, and other channels, the noose around the neck of the regional vernaculars is inexorably tightening. Now, with the third successive generation after the founding of the People's Republic of China, youths are beginning to feel more comfortable speaking MSM than their mother tongue.

As a consequence of these four factors, writing in the regional vernaculars is at best atrophied, if not entirely stillborn. The sole exception is that of Hongkong Cantonese, which itself can hardly be said to be flourishing, but at least there are those in the former crown colony who are actively seeking ways to write the full panoply of colloquial speech (Snow 1991; Gunn forthcoming). The main reason why written Cantonese could thrive in Hongkong to the extent that it has is due to the unique colonial experience under the British. Freed from the political controls and cultural dominance of the North China mandarinate for a century, the people of Hongkong were able to experiment with true vernacular writing. Since 1997, however, the restrictions on the use of the vernacular are once again beginning to be enforced, and rule from Peking is inevitably leading to greater use of MSM in the courts, in schools, in the media, and other public arenas.

The Japanese colonial experience in Taiwan was partially liberating for those who wished to write in Taiwanese, but the focus was very much on education and writing in Japanese. With the resumption of control by mainlanders from the middle of the twentieth century, guoyu was harshly imposed on the populace and there was no open talk of muyu (except by those who equated it with guoyu). Under such circumstances, there was little prospect for the development of writing in Taiwanese.

Now that the people of Taiwan have taken political control into their own hands, there is a tremendous amount of energy directed toward the establishment of written Taiwanese, but no functional models have been created to actualize such hopes. To put it succinctly, until a little over a decade ago, the Taiwanese people have been deprived of the opportunity to publicly practice their written mother tongue, so it remained manifestly moribund.

One of the greatest obstacles to writing Taiwanese is the undeniable reality that many of the most frequent morphemes, especially very common grammatical particles, cannot confidently be written with Chinese characters. Most estimates of the Taiwanese morphemes that lack an appropriate sinographic written form are about 20-25% for typical running texts3 (Cheng 1978: 307-308; Chiung 1999). Supposedly, the remaining 75-80% of Taiwanese morphemes are adequately covered by recognized Mandarin or LS cognates, or special graphs have already been invented and are fairly widely accepted by the Taiwanese-speaking populace. While these estimates may be more or less correct for highly Mandarinized Taiwanese styles, if one were to attempt to write in a more purely colloquial Taiwanese (i.e., closer to the way people speak in day-to-day circumstances), the percentage of morphemes that cannot be matched with Chinese characters would rise sharply. In learned studies of Taiwanese vocabulary, such as that of Hong Weiren in his Taiwan lisu yudian [A Lexicon of Taiwanese Etiquette and Customs], where profound scholarship is brought to bear on the proper sinographic way of writing colloquial terms, it is immediately obvious that there is much controversy over how to write basic Taiwanese words in characters. Even when there are fairly well-established ways of writing Taiwanese words, it is easy to demonstrate that the characters chosen for them are often "wrong" in the sense that they are arbitrary homophones or near homophones, and that their meanings are completely irrelevant.

The very name "Taiwan" is perhaps the best example to begin with. 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.4 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.

One of the most lively districts in Taipei is Wanhua 萬華 ("Multitudinously Floriate"), which sounds like a lovely name for an urban area. When we look a little closer at the derivation of this place name, however, we find that the two characters chosen to write it are entirely specious with regard to the original meaning and are phonologically remote from the correct pronunciation. The old sinographic form of this name is 艋舺 , which would be pronounced bɑ́ng-kah in Taiwanese. Here the radicals are useful in helping us to understand that this was an old word of the non-Sinitic indigenes for "boat." It was only during the Japanese occupation that the sinographic form of the name was changed to the two graphs meaning "Multitudinously Floriate." Phonologically this makes some sense in Japanese where they are pronounced banka, but not in Mandarin where they come out as Wanhua.

If a goodly portion of the old place names in Taiwan are of this confused nature, there are even more common words for which the sinographic form is problematic and conflicted. One that has long intrigued me is chhit-thô or thit-thô ("play [around]"). This word has the fairly widely accepted sinographic form of Sinographs for chhit-tho (although there are those who vigorously dissent and state that it really should be written as ㄔ陶 or with some other totally different characters -- the trick is to find two graphs that sound more or less like what people say) (Hong 1986: 21; Zheng and Zheng 1977: 14). However, when we examine the two extremely obscure graphs used to write this Taiwanese word meaning "play," we find that they have nothing to do with it (the first means "near" and the second means "cunning, deceitful"). I suppose that people who stick with this false writing of chhit-thô do so because radical 162 (chuò ["move fast and stop abruptly"] in both of the graphs reminds them of the same graph in the Mandarin word yóu 游, which can mean "play," and because playing is something that one would like to day and night (the phonetic parts of these two characters are "sun" and "moon"). One might also mention in this context the title of the first chapter of the Zhuang Zi [Master Zhuang] which modifies yóu ("play / wander [around]") with xiāoyáo 逍遙 ("carefree[ly]"), both syllables of which are also written with radical 162. Such interpretations are forced, of course, and cannot persuade a skeptic that these are the best two characters for writing the Taiwanese word.

Many very common usages in sinographic Taiwanese writing are counter-intuitive to the reader of MSM texts. When I first started trying to read written Taiwanese, I could not understand why the graph for shàng 傷 ("injure; harm") occurred so often in circumstances that made no sense to me. Only later did I realize that in written Taiwanese this graph stands for the degree expression siun ("too"). (Cheng 1981: 6) Still later I found out that almost all characters have at least two often quite distinct pronunciations in written Taiwanese, and that these pronunciations may signify different meanings.

  dúyin 讀音 yǔyīn 語音 / jieshuō 解說  
  reading pronunciations  spoken pronunciations / explications  
1. 白 pek pèh white
2. 面 biān bīn face
3. 書 su chu book
4. 生 seŋ sen / sin student
5. 不 put not
6. 要 iàu beh / ài want
7. 返 hoán tńg return

The romanizations in the second column are called dúyin 讀音 ("reading pronunciations"), while those in the third column are known as yǔyīn 語音 ("spoken pronunciations") or, as with the last three items, jieshuō 解說 ("explications"). (Hong 1988: 344-345) The elaborate phonological regimen pertaining to the sinographs as practiced by precontemporary Southern Min scholars is exemplified in their careful reading of classical verse. (Branner 2002)

Another instance of how such bewildering sinographic usages keep proliferating in written Taiwanese may be found in the very recent character conversion of texts that were formerly written in romanization. There is a well-known novella entitled Kho2-ai3 e5 siu5-jin5 (Beloved Enemy) that was originally composed in Church romanization by Lai Rensheng (Rev. Lai Jinsheng) and first published in 1960 by the Taiwan Presbyterian Press. In 1991, Zheng Liangwei (Robert Cheng) published a character version of this novella (a rough estimate is that about one eighth of the syllables in the text are still written in romanization). Even after conversion to characters, it is still impossible for a person who is sinographically literate but does not speak Taiwanese to follow the story. What is more, the transcriber has often chosen characters that are disturbing to native Taiwanese. For instance, the word for "gangster" appears on p. 20. In the original romanized text this was written lo˙5-moa 5, which surely must be cognate with MSM liúmáng 流氓, yet the transcription given is 鱸鰻. Supposedly the transcriber chose these two particular graphs to make sure that his reader pronounces the syllables in question exactly the right way (remember that virtually all Chinese characters have multiple pronunciations in Taiwanese) to yield the meaning "gangster." Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine why the transcriber would not write 流氓 and expect his reader to make the necessary adjustments for Taiwanese pronunciation, rather than using two unusual characters with fish radicals. If this proposed sinographic usage is accepted for Taiwanese, not only will poor policemen and detective fiction writers have to write a total of 49 strokes every time they want to mention the word for "gangster" (or if they are typing in a computer there is a good chance that they will not be able to find these two odd characters expeditiously, if at all), the hapless Taiwanese reader will be struck with fishy cognitive dissonance ("perch-eel") each time he or she stumbles upon these two ungainly graphs. The character version of Kho2-ai3 e5 siu5-jin5 is replete with such perplexing assignments of sinographs to Taiwanese morphemes. With this sort of stumbling block being thrown in the way of readers and writers alike at every step, it is hard to imagine that Taiwanese writing in characters will ever become the working script for daily use of the island's people.

This poorness of fit between Taiwanese words and Chinese characters is a far more pervasive and complex linguistic phenomenon than that of characters having multiple pronunciations (duōyīnzì 多音字) or "separate" pronunciations (pòyīnzì 破音字) regularly encounters in reading LS or MSM texts. In the latter cases, the variant pronunciations are usually phonologically and semantically linked, and can be explained by historical evolution and grammatical roles (e.g., ["loathe, hate"], è ["evil, wicked"], ě ["feel nauseous; feel that somebody / something is disgusting"], ["oh!"] for 惡, where the first three readings are etymologically closely related and the last is being used to express an interjection). The situation concerning the use of characters in written Taiwanese is similar to, but even more complicated than, that of Japanese where many common kanji have several Sinitic-style pronunciations (ondoku or onyomi) and several Japanese-style readings (kundoku or kunyomi). For example, 直 has the Sinitic-style readings choku and jiki ("straight, immediate, direct, correct") and the Japanese-style readings nao(su) ("fix, correct; revise; convert into; [as suffix] "re-, do over"), nao(ru) ("return to normal, be fixed / corrected, recover"), tada(chi ni) ("immediately"), su(gu) ("immediately; readily, easily; right [near]"), and jika (ni) ("directly, in person"). Despite all of the widely different pronunciations for this single kanji, all of the definitions are semantically related.5

Many old-fashioned scholars are of the opinion that they can solve the problem of sinographless vernacular morphemes by engaging in a search for what are known as běnzì 本字 ("original characters"). Their belief is premised on the notion that words lacking characters are actually old usages that have survived in the spoken language and that all one has to do to remedy the deficiency is assiduously comb early lexicons and rhyme books for characters that sound more or less right and mean approximately the same thing. Undoubtedly, such searches sometimes result in valid identifications, but in far too many cases the rare characters culled from such sources as

Shuo wen jie zi [Explanations of Simple and Compound Graphs; 100 CE] and Guangyun [Expanded Rhymes; 1008] are self-fulfilling prophecies of the obsession with authentication from the national past. No matter how diligently one searches, it will be impossible to find benzi for such essential Cantonese words as nei1 / ne1 ("this") and m4 ("not") because they are not based on common Sinitic roots. A similar situation obtains for all of the other nonstandard regional vernacular and colloquial languages including Pekingese, Sichuanese, and Taiwanese.

If we were to set out to write pure, unadulterated (with as little unnecessary Mandarin admixture as possible) spoken vernacular Taiwanese in characters, well over 25% of the morphemes in a running text would be lacking characters, approximately another 25% would be written with arbitrarily chosen (but more or less conventionally accepted) homophones or near-homophones and concocted special characters, perhaps another 10% would be written with extremely rare but correctly identified benzi, leaving roughly 40% of the morphemes being written with the "correct" characters. In reality, more colloquial styles of Taiwanese would undoubtedly have fewer than 40% of their morphemes written with characters that everyone could agree were the right ones.6 Given that so few morphemes in the nonstandard regional vernaculars are writable with undisputedly correct hanzi, it is no wonder that their literatures have been subject to arrested development, to put it mildly.

III. Mechanisms Whereby One's Mother Tongue is Displaced by the National Language

1. Basse-Vulgarisation

The simplest way to make speakers of a language feel that their tongue is inadequate is to stigmatize it as 俗 ("vulgar"), lǐyǔ 俚語 ("slang"), tǔhuà 土話 ("earthy speech"), and so on. Once such evaluations are accepted by the speakers of a given language themselves, the psychological impact is tremendous. Subjected to such indoctrination, they lose confidence in their mother tongue and may become acutely embarrassed when outsiders hear them speaking it. In my travels around China, I constantly encounter the following types of scenes:

An apple seller in Chengdu, "I'm so ashamed of my vulgar native tongue."

A father in a Shanghai bookstore to his pre-school child, "Speak putonghua or people will think you're stupid."7

A taxi driver in Changsha, "Please forgive me; our local language sounds so horrible."

A female postal worker in Ürümchi, "I'm sorry. My Mandarin sounds too much like Uyghur."

A scholar from Manchuria (Dongbei [the Northeast]) upon hearing Peking teenagers conversing in their local tongue, "These boys are uneducated. They don't know how to talk properly."

Speakers of local languages throughout China are customarily complicit in these characterizations. They willingly accept the inferior status and deficient nature of their native forms of speech in comparison with MSM. In such an environment, a sensitive person eventually wishes that he / she could forget his / her mother tongue and acquire a new and more respectable language (guoyu, putonghua).

The debasement of local languages and cultures in China (whether they are Sinitic or non-Sinitic) is so ubiquitous that people become inured to it. They internalize the negative stereotypes associated with peripherality and sheer difference (from the orthodox language and culture of the center). This subtle (but sometimes also brutal) psychological conditioning extends even to the names people call themselves and the totemic myths with which they identify. For instance, the people of Fujian and Taiwan are proud to identify themselves as being from Min, but seldom do they consider that the character adopted to write this name over two millennia ago (it did not yet exist among the oracle bone and bronze inscriptions) includes the infamous chóng ("insect; serpent") radical. There it is staring you right in the face every time you look at the character: a bug inside of a door, but people do not see the insect / snake, perhaps because they do not want to see it or cannot bear to see it. Here is how Xu Shen explained the character used to write mín around the year 100 CE: "Southeastern Yue [i.e., Viet]; snake race. [The character is formed] from [the] insect / serpent [radical and takes its pronunciation from] mén." 東南越蛇穜从虫門聲 (Xu 100: 282b)

Southern Min speakers refer to themselves as bân-lâm-lâng, which is usually written with sinographs meaning "Southern Min person" 閩南人, but should actually be written with sinographs meaning "Southern barbarian fellow" 蠻南儂. (Hong 1988: 343) The graph pronounced lâm in Taiwanese is the notorious mán ("barbarians [of the south]") as pronounced in MSM. Here is how Xu Shen explains the graph used to write lâm / mán: "Southern barbarians [who are a] snake race. [The character is formed] from [the] insect / serpent [radical and takes its pronunciation from] luàn 南蠻蛇種从虫looks the the 巒 character, minus the 'shan' at the bottom聲." 8 (Xu 100: 282b) The Mán inhabitants of Mǐn are thus doubly southern, doubly barbarian, and doubly serpentine. Since these explanations have been enshrined in the most authoritative, foundational dictionary of the sinographs, a dictionary which is still invoked with reverence today, there is no denying them. The impact that such designations have had on the consciousness of those who are on both the receiving end and the giving-end is enormous.

Although their ancient ancestors may not have been Sinitic speakers, the Min people of today at least speak one of the languages among the so-called Southern and Northern Min "big topolects" (or branches) of Sinitic.9 Other southern peoples who still do not speak a Sinitic language, of whom there are many tens of millions, have been subjected to more subtle forms of psychological manipulation. Just as the Mán and the Mǐn are said to belong to the "serpent race," early Chinese commentators declared that many southern peoples were the descendants of dogs. As these accounts of ethnogenesis have come down to us, the southerners themselves believed that their ancestor was a dog. Now, this would not be a problem if one were a speaker of an Indo-European language, since most Indo-European speakers hold canines in great esteem. This is especially true among Iranian speakers where the dog is considered to be possessed of supernatural powers akin to those of gods. (White 1991; Brewer et al. 2001) But Sinitic speakers in the past have tended to despise the dog as a filthy creature worthy only of being eaten. Hence, for non-Indo-European speakers within the Sinitic world to state that they are descended from dogs puts them in an extraordinarily self-compromising position. As to the convoluted process by means of which Tibeto-Burman speakers and speakers of other non-Sinitic and non-Indo-European languages in the southern portions of what is now China acquired myths of canine origins, one may consult the author's "Canine Conundrums: Dog Ancestor Myths of Origin in Ethnic Perspective." (Mair 1998)

2. The Pursuit of Prestige

In contrast to the negative images attributed to the regional vernaculars, Mandarin is constantly portrayed as yǎzhi 雅致 ("refined"), hǎotīng 好聽 ("pleasant to the ear"), liúchàng 流暢 ("expansive"), and the like. Never mind that Mandarin is permeated with Tungusic, Mongolic, Turkic, and other "barbarian" features,10 making it the furthest removed of all the vernaculars from earlier forms of Sinitic. Never mind that characterizations of the regional vernaculars as "vulgar," etc. and of Mandarin as "refined," etc. are entirely subjective. And never mind that there are plentiful resources for vulgarity in Mandarin, whereas a regional vernacular such as that of Suzhou may actually be hyperrefined. The fact remains that Mandarin is the prestige language of the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the Republic of Singapore, and the Hongkong Special Administrative Region.

The commanding position of Mandarin is premised upon the following factors which do not require amplification in a paper of this length: 1. its association with military might, political power, and economic clout, 2. its designation as the official national language (putonghua, guoyu, huayu), 3. its background in the koine of a thousand and more years ago, 4. a long history of written literature in a wide variety of styles, 5. large amounts of scholarly research and reference materials devoted to it. In comparison with Mandarin which possesses all of these overwhelmingly favorable conditions, the regional vernaculars have a difficult time competing for attention. The result is that the dominant position of Mandarin grows ever stronger, while the place of the regional vernaculars grows ever weaker. The dynamics of the relationship between the regional vernaculars and MSM may be summed up in the following slogan seen on a wall in Shanghai during the summer of 2002: Zūnzhòng wénhuà; xué pǔtōnghuà 尊重文化 學普通話 ("Respect culture; learn Mandarin"). The obverse is obvious.

3. The Myth of Monolingualism

The myth that there is only a single Chinese (Han) language and that it is spoken by more than a billion people (Chen 1999: 1) is as widespread, relatively recent, persistent, and obnoxiously misleading as the myth that the Great Wall was the only man-made object on earth that could be seen from the moon. Furthermore, both of these myths were perpetrated by Westerners and foisted upon the Chinese. Fortunately, the Ripleyesque "Believe It or Not!" nonsense about the Great Wall (Waldron 1990: 214, 253n596) has at last been disproven by astronauts who went to the moon and could not see any man-made structures on earth with the naked eye. The myth about a nation of Chinese speaking a single language made up of countless "dialects" with only negligible differences of "accent" continues to root itself ever more deeply in the global consciousness, plaguing common sense and scientific observation all the while.

The Chinese originally knew better. Right through the Ming Dynasty, the inhabitants of the Central Kingdom realized that there were innumerable varieties of mutually unintelligible speech in the provinces and districts of their vast empire, and they knew equally well that if one wanted to convey one's sentiments to persons fifty or a hundred miles away, one had better do one of the following: a. hire an interpreter, b. hire a scribe, c. learn the dead written language (LS) which no one had used as a flexible spoken medium for at least the previous two millennia, or, if one did not have the considerable resources to do a., b., or c., try d. learn a few hundred or a couple thousand characters so that one could pick one's way through texts written in the national vernacular (VS). It was only with the advent of sizable numbers of Westerners in China that people began to get the foolish notion of there being but a single Chinese (Han) language. This was the result of foreigners' own incomprehension of the multitude of local tongues as well as their utter confusion over the nature of the exotic Chinese script and its complex relationship to spoken languages.

The mischief surrounding the myth of monolingualism was further exacerbated during the middle of the first half of the twentieth century with the mistranslation of the word fangyan as "dialect."11 In linguistic classification, a dialect is normally defined as a variety of a certain language, the language being the larger unit and the dialect the smaller unit. Furthermore, although different dialects of the same language may have slightly different phonological, lexical, and grammatical properties, they are usually considered to be mutually intelligible. Naturally, subdialects -- which are smaller, lower level divisions of dialects -- have fewer differences among each other than do dialects. By uniformly translating fangyan as "dialect," this gives the misleading impression that all Sinitic languages are mutually intelligible, but this is patently not the case.

As for units of classification above the level of subdialects, dialects, and languages, there are -- at the top -- families, then groups, and then branches. Taking the Indo-European language family as a well-known example, it is composed of the following groups: Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Italic (or Romance), Albanian, Hellenic, Armenian, Anatolian, Indo-Iranian, and Tocharian. The Germanic group, in turn, is composed of the following branches: North Germanic, East Germanic, and West Germanic. English is one of the languages of the West Germanic branch, which also includes Frisian, Dutch, German, and Yiddish. The dialects of English, which are all mutually intelligible (!), include those of Australia, Boston, Texas, Newcastle, Lancashire, and so forth. The subdialects of the Boston area include Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Quincy, Roxbury, and so forth.

Since the inauguration of modern linguistic science in China from the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, this entire system of classification has been imported to China -- lock, stock, and barrel: family ( 系), group ( 族), branch (zhī 支), language (yǔyán 語言), dialect (fāngyán 方言), sub-dialect (cìfāngyán 次方言), which I shall refer to below as the FGBLDS system. This system of classification is now adopted by Chinese linguists for all the other languages of the world, including the many non-Sinitic languages of China, but it has strangely never been applied comprehensively to the Sinitic group of languages. In the ensuing paragraphs, I shall examine the reasons for this failure to include Sinitic among the language groups of the world that are eligible for unrestricted classification.

The importation of the FGBLDS system would appear to be all well and good by itself. A serious problem arises, however, from the fact that this modern system of linguistic classification has been superimposed upon a preexisting indigenous tradition of language studies. Traditional language studies in China, called xiǎoxué 小學, ("minor learning") in distinction to dàxué 大學 ("major learning") which deals with questions of morality and values, emphasized investigations of the sounds, structure, and meaning of characters. It did not include grammar, etymology,12 morphology, taxonomy, cladistics, or dialectology.

At the turn of the Western Han to the Eastern Han (around the beginning of the Common Era), the multitalented literatus, Yang Xiong (53 BCE-18 CE) is said to have compiled a synonimicon known by the short title Fangyan (it also has a much longer title which shall not concern us here). By the term fāngyán 方言, Yang Xiong (or whoever the compiler of this work actually was) meant simply "[examples of synonomous terms [from various] places." He did not mean what we mean by "dialect," namely "a variety of language that is used by one group of persons and has features of vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation distinguishing it from other varieties of the same language that are used by other groups." (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. [1988],4: 63a [emphasis added]) After the appearance of Yang Xiong's great work, a tradition of fangyan studies (now referred to as fāngyánxué) developed. Its aims and methods remained essentially those of Yang Xiong: to catalog synonymous terms from various localities.

When traditional fangyan studies encountered modern dialectology during the first half of the twentieth century, chaos ensued. A full accounting of the stark confusion resulting from the clash between fangyanxue and dialectology requires separate treatment. Suffice it here to say that the confrontation of the traditional and modern disciplines resulted in the creation of such monstrosities as the notion of dàfāngyán ("big fangyan"), which is comparable to a branch in the FGBLDS system. It also led to the disastrous identification of fangyan and "dialect" as used in the nomenclature of the FGBLDS system.

Now, some may object that no harm has been done by coining euphemistic neologisms such as dafangyan for "branch" and equating fangyan with "dialect" because, after all, these terms mean approximately the same things. Such, however, is not the case. Regardless of what Yang Xiong may have originally meant by fangyan, by the late imperial period of Chinese history, fangyan had come to mean roughly "variety of speech typical of a certain place." The concept of "place" in this definition could be near or far, large or small. It is absolutely essential to bear in mind that the concept of fangyan in traditional Chinese language studies had no bearing on the issue of relatedness, whereas "dialect" in the FGBLDS system necessarily implies linguistic consanguinity. (The issues concerning linguistic classification being discussed here must not be clouded by non-linguistic and non-classificatory usages of the word "dialect.") In an earlier paper (Mair 1991: 4-5), I demonstrated that fangyan during the late Qing period could just as easily refer to a foreign language as it did to one of the Sinitic languages. Here I shall reinforce that demonstration with additional proof by pointing out that, in 1863, the renowned statesman Li Hongzhang established a Guang Fangyan Guan [Broad fangyan Office] where fangyan clearly refers to foreign languages. In emulation of Li Hongzhang's innovation, similar translation and interpreting bureaus were set up in the provinces. These were called fāngyán xuétáng 方言學堂 [fangyan academies]. (Brunnert and Hagelstrom 1911: 254, 263) It would be an egregious error to translate fangyan in such situations as "dialect," since the fangyan xuetang were in reality colleges where interpreters learned how to translate to and from English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, and other languages.

In an attempt to clear up the massive confusion resulting from the mistranslation of fangyan as "dialect," I long ago proposed that fangyan be rendered in English as "topolect," which conveys precisely the meaning of the Chinese term. I am pleased to report that this rendering has now been accepted by such major, authoritative dictionaries as The American Heritage Dictionary of English (2000: 1822a) and the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (1996: 161b). A fangyan can be huge (Cantonese, Mandarin) or it can be tiny (Dunhuang, Meixian); it can be near (Pekingese, Shanghainese), or it can be distant (German, Hindi). The term fangyan simply designates a variety of speech characteristic of a certain place, no matter how small, large, near, or far it may be, and no matter whether it be related to other Sinitic languages or not

If "topolect" solves the problem of how to translate fangyan into English, how then do we translate "dialect" into Sinitic? The best way to approach the problem is etymologically, just as was done with the word fangyan. The prefix and root (both Greek derived) of the word dialect respectively mean "through" and "[form of] speech." According to this analysis, the most straightforward and exact translation of "dialect" into Mandarin would be tōngyán 通言. Aside from being far more accurate than fangyan, this rendering highlights the fact that dialects (especially in the FGBLDS system) are normally mutually intelligible. (The supreme irony of the old translation of "dialect" as fangyan is that most Sinitic fangyan are mutually unintelligible.) For those who are hesitant to accept this radically new Mandarin translation of "dialect," it may be pointed out that "dialect" is ultimately derived from the same Greek roots (dia- ["through"] + legein ["to speak"]) as English "dialog(ue)" which means "a conversation between two or more people." Engaging in a dialog obviously requires a high degree of mutual intelligibility. It should be further noted that the usual translation of English "dialog" as Mandarin duìhuà 對話 is correct in that it conveys the sense of talking across to or back and forth with someone.

Once we clarify the distinction between traditional fangyanxue, on the one hand, and dialectology and linguistic cladistics on the other, the fallacy of the monolingual myth is exposed. Up to the present moment, however, a vigorous pretense is maintained that there has only been a single Hanyu (Sinitic) from its very beginning and wherever its countless fangyan are spoken. According to this phantasmagoric scenario, Hanyu is uniquely uniform throughout all time and space. Diachronically, it has no counterpart to Latin or Sanskrit; synchronically, there are no significant differences between Southern Min and Mandarin. It is all just one stupendous Hanyu.

When one looks at language trees for Sino-Tibetan published in China, virtually all of them show an incredibly elaborate branching structure for Tibeto-Burman languages, but none whatsoever for Sinitic. Whereas there is a proliferation of scores of Tibeto-Burman branches and languages, many of which have only a few thousand to several ten thousand or a hundred thousand speakers, there is but one unbranched line for Hanyu with all of its billion and more speakers. The portrayal of Hanyu as utterly monolithic is a politico-cultural fiction. In secret, no honest linguist who has studied the huge lexical, phonological, and grammatical differences between LS and VS, and among the numerous varieties of VS, could possibly accept the diachronic and synchronic uniformity of Hanyu.

If the truth be told, there have been coded attempts to break out of the ideological straitjacket that demands acquiescence in the monolingual myth. Both in the Nationalities volume (1986: 554b) and in the Languages and Scripts volume (1988: 523b) of the authoritative Zhongguo da baike quanshu, we find the following rather weird sentence: Hànyǔ zài yǔyán xìshǔ fēnlèi zhōng xiāngdāngyú yī ge yǔzú de dìwèi (漢語在語言係屬分類中相當於一個語族的地位 "In linguistic classification, Hanyu [Sinitic] occupies a place equivalent to a language group"). Apart from its grammatical and logical defectiveness (Hanyu... is equivalent to... a position), this sentence is peculiar in many other respects. First of all, in both instances it occurs in an article on "languages of Chinese national minorities," not in an article on Sinitic or even Sino-Tibetan. Secondly, it was written not by a specialist on Sinitic, but by a well-known expert on non-Sinitic languages, Fu Maoji. Thirdly, it is very careful not to come right out and say that Hanyu is (shì 是) a language group, but only that it occupies a position equivalent to (xiāngdāng yú) a language group. Fu Maoji is bound by the fiction of a monolithic Hanyu not to admit that Hanyu really is a language group, for -- if he were to do so -- it would automatically mean that it is composed of more than a single language. At the same time, common sense and linguistic reality demand recognition of the multiplicity of constituents within Hanyu. Hence the blatantly evasive wording.

What does all of this discussion about the mistranslation of fangyan as "dialect" and the monolingual myth concerning Sinitic have to do with the main topic of this paper? Simply this: if there is only a single Hanyu, and if all of its constituent members are mutually intelligible dialects, then there is no need for education in the regional vernaculars, nor is there any reason to write them down. The only thing that matters is MSM / guoyu / putonghua since it miraculously subsumes and exemplifies all other varieties of Hanyu, which supposedly differ only in insignificant ways.

This sort of elaborate masquerade might have succeeded decades ago when naive Westerners labored under the misapprehension that, because China only has one script and literate people from different parts of the country can read what is written in it, then surely there must only be one language in China. More recent studies, however, have revealed the following pertinent facts:

  1. Those who wish to become literate must learn MSM, which has its own grammar, syntax, phonology, lexicon, and idioms that -- for most people -- vary substantially from those of their own mother tongue. (In the past, they would have had to learn LS, which was even much more difficult to acquire than MSM.)
  2. The regional vernaculars are almost never written down. In the rare instances when heroic attempts are made to write them in an integral fashion, speakers of other Sinitic languages -- including Mandarin -- cannot read them at all, or read them only partially and with great effort.13
  3. Recent investigations of the grammar, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, and phonology of the regional Sinitic vernaculars show that they differ among themselves as greatly as do the Indo-European languages of Europe. (Yue Hashimoto 1972; Killingley 1993; Matthews and Yip 1994; Chappell 2001)
  4. Personal observations by fluent native and foreign speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, and other Sinitic languages affirm that there are hundreds of varieties of mutually unintelligible speech classifiable as Sinitic.

Although the monolingual myth is starting to crumble under the weight of empirical evidence that there truly exist many different Sinitic languages belonging to a number of branches, the politico-cultural conceit of a single Hanyu for all time and all space dies hard.

4. The Sinographic Snare

Still more seductive than the myth of monolingualism is the allure of the sinographic script. Even illiterate Chinese and foreigners who cannot recognize the simplest character are convinced not only that the script is a thing of great beauty, but that it is the cement that binds Chinese society and culture together. The corollary of this belief is that, sans the script, Chinese society and culture would dissipate or even disappear. But -- assuming that one accepts this mode of thought -- the characters present speakers of the nonstandard regional vernaculars with a troublesome dilemma: if they wish to remain patriotically loyal to the Chinese polity and culture, then they naturally must embrace the sinographic script wholeheartedly, yet, by doing so they make it well-nigh impossible to write their mother tongue.

Zheng Liangwei ( 1990) has summarized some of the deficiencies of writing restricted solely to Chinese characters:

  1. low capability of auditory symbolism
  2. easy to confuse literary and vernacular styles, making it difficult to bring writing more in line with speech
  3. temporal imprecision and social division lead to linguistic confusion
  4. encourages cultural self-centeredness
  5. causes intellectuals to adopt a prejudicial view toward other scripts and cultures
  6. inconvenient for cultural exchange
  7. requires an educational system that overlooks, is biased against, or even prohibits indigenous, local cultures

While I am not confident that I fully understand or agree with each of Zheng's points, there is no doubt that the sinographic script is inimical to writing the nonstandard vernaculars (i.e., anything other than MSM, which is a very special type of deracinated national vernacular), whether it be Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, or even Pekingese.

Wang Yude, who has authored an informative series of lectures on Taiwanese language, puts it this way: "When one uses Chinese characters to write Taiwanese, the first problem one confronts is that it is impossible to find correct characters for the more frequently appearing vocabulary items...." (Wang 1993: 62-63) Wang states that, according to his investigations, it is impossible to find correct characters for approximately one out of every four Taiwanese vocabulary items. He gives the following list of pairs of Taiwanese words where the items in the left column are vernacular terms, together with their customary sinographic form, and the items in the right column are the literary readings of the relevant Chinese characters. The translations in the center column, which apply to the items in both the left and right columns, have been added by me.

vernacular term translation literary reading
súi 漂亮 beautiful
siáu wild, crazy kông
sán thin ˙
koân tall ko
short toán
khiā stand
siūn think sióng
hêng return hoân
˙ 給 雨14 give kip
koāi 齟齬 , 搶奪 go against koai
lâng person jîn
bah flesh jiók
thang 窗户 window chhong
lāu-pē 父親 father 老父 ˙-hū
tsa-po˙ 男人 man 査哺 tsa-po˙

It is obvious that some of the characters in the left column have been chosen because they represent precisely or roughly the meaning of the Taiwanese terms in question, while other characters have been selected because they are either exact or near homophones of the given Taiwanese terms, but in no case do both the meanings and the sounds of the characters "borrowed" (Wang's word [jǎijiè 假借]) to represent the Taiwanese words coincide. The same clumsy techniques, with all of their concomitant difficulties and ambiguities, apply to sinographic writing of the other vernaculars.

Already in the 1870s, Edward Parker realized that there were many words in the Sinitic vernaculars that he called "characterless." He compiled a list of a hundred words from the vernacular languages of Peking, Hangzhou, Canton, Fuzhou, and the Hakka that were considered to have no sinographic written form. With effort, he was able to assign characters to thirteen of these words, leaving 87 words without characters to match them.

IV. The Prognosis for Written Taiwanese

Technically, writing Taiwanese in romanization would be a very easy thing to do. Indeed, during the twentieth century tens of thousands of Taiwanese-speaking individuals quickly became literate in what is popularly known as church romanization. (Christine Lin 1999; Albert Lin 1999) Although, due to the presence of tone marks, hyphens used to connect the syllables of words, superscript nasals, and a few other special symbols, church romanization appears somewhat ungainly, it is actually a fully functional script. It is used mainly within the Presbyterian Church for religious purposes, but many people (including my brother's own mother-in-law) have used it for private correspondence and to write literary works. But church romanization has not spread widely in secular society, probably because of its close identification with Christianity. There are at least half a dozen competing romanization schemes for Taiwanese on the scene, with new ones popping up all the time. (Chiung 2003)

The problem is not that workable schemes have not been proposed for the romanization of Taiwanese, but that the people of Taiwan do not have the collective will to ensure that a superior scheme is selected as an official script. The main obstacle to the creation of an effective romanization for the whole of society is undoubtedly the affection for Chinese characters felt by a majority of the population. Despite the manifest inadequacy of the characters for writing Taiwanese, people keep striving to force their mother tongue into the sinographic mold. For all of the many reasons outlined above, I believe that such efforts are doomed to failure. Sinographically written Taiwanese will never become a widespread phenomenon. If, on the other hand, Taiwan continues to maintain its current quasi-independence for a considerable period of time, it is quite possible that a romanized script for Taiwanese will gradually and naturally develop as the result of electronic information processing, the inducements of international commerce and cultural exchange, the increasingly frequent insertion of English words in sinographic texts and of romanized Taiwanese terms in English texts, and similar eventualities.

We must remember that it has only been about fifteen years since the Taiwanese people have been sufficiently free to discuss publicly the desirability of writing their mother tongue. When the first attempts were made to raise the status of Taiwanese, they caused a violent reaction among proponents of guoyu and all that it entailed. The following newspaper article is a good example of the moral indignation and political outrage that is capable of being directed against the regional vernaculars:

"Cultural Taiwan Independence" Is More Terrifying Than "Political Taiwan Independence"

"The Transformation of Taiwanese into a Written Language" Exposes Separatism

"Taiwanese" is a fangyan of Chinese (Zhōngguóhuà), similar to Cantonese and Shanghainese. Although its sounds are different, the shapes of the characters are the same. There is truly no reason for it to set itself apart from Chinese characters.

A person harboring strong desires for "Taiwan Independence" (Tái[wān] []) and employing twisted theories has falsely claimed that Taiwanese can be transformed into a written language. What is more, this individual has made a commitment to this doctrine by personally compiling a dictionary [of Taiwanese] to prove the feasibility of his theories. Not only is such blather ridiculous, it makes you clench your fists in anger. Everybody knows that Taiwanese is a branch (yī zhī) of Hanic (hànyǔ), not a language (yuyan) with an independent (duli) system. All the more, it is not the language of a people (mínzú 民族), but rather should be considered as a kind of fangyan within Chinese (Zhongguohua). Any of the fangyan already has a script (i.e., the Chinese characters), so there is absolutely no need to "transform it into a written language" (wénzìhua 文字化). Using Taiwanese to read the Four Books and the Five Classics (sì shū wǔ jīng 四書五經) is like using Hakka, Cantonese, or Shanghainese to read them. Although all of these fangyan are mutually incommunicable (wú fǎ gōu tōng 無法溝通), they all belong to the "Hanic Family" (Hànyǔ xì 漢語系), so they all can use written Chinese (Zhōngwén) to communicate, and there is no question of being "transformed into a written language."

Within the territory of our country, the different languages having different scripts are Manchu, Mongolian, and Tibetan because these are different races (zhǒngzú 種族) belonging to different language families (yǔxì 語系) and having different cultures. But Taiwanese is an authentic fangyan that uses written Chinese (Zhongwen) to communicate, so there is really no necessity for it to be "transformed into a written language." What is more, it definitely cannot be divided from Hanic and set up a separate language family.

After the Second World War, when the backward peoples of Africa were liberated from the colonial oppression of the European imperialist countries, because they only had languages but no scripts, they had to promote the "transformation into written language" of their native tongues to strive for survival in modern, civilized societies. In contrast, Taiwanese (the correct name should be Southern Min), in terms of its standing with regard to culture and civilization, is not inferior to any of the fangyan on the mainland, but is actually more ancient and elegant. Why, then, would the Taiwanese want to reduce themselves to the level of the backward peoples of Africa? This is incomprehensible and shows the self-destructiveness of "Taiwan independence" (Taidu).

"Taiwanese" has the same script (wénzì 文字) as the national language (guoyu), and Taiwanese compatriots belong to the same nation as the compatriots of the other provinces [of China]. Willfully wanting to set up another script and another nation (mínzú) are obvious indications of "separatist consciousness" (fēnlí yìshi; 分離意識) This kind of "Cultural Taiwan Independence" is more frightening than "Political Taiwan Independence" because political questions can be solved through compromise, but once culture takes root, it is hard to eradicate. I recognize that Taiwanese is a precious heritage of our [country], and that it is deserving of protection and respect. I also personally approve of using discretion to increase the amount of fangyan programs in broadcasting, and all the more would encourage our brothers from other provinces to learn Southern Minnan [speech]. But I am strongly opposed to viewing [Southern Minnan] as an "independent language" (dúlì yǔyán). I believe that "the transformation of Taiwanese into a written language" is a plot to destroy the country. Everyone should rise up to denounce it orally and in writing. (Taipei City, Li Shengwei)15

The violence of the rhetoric in this article is palpable. The author feels threatened by the prospect of written Taiwanese and proposes extreme measures (kǒuzhū bǐfá 口誅筆伐 ["execute with the mouth and cut down with the pen"]) to prevent its happening. The irrational fury and uncomprehending linguistic fallacies that pervade this indignant denunciation of the mere suggestion of written Taiwanese are clear proof of the kinds of intimidation and pressures that have been brought to bear against writing in the regional vernaculars in China. Yet, no matter how much ranting and raving Li Shengwei and his ilk might indulge in, the speakers of Taiwanese themselves feel a genuine and legitimate need to transform it into a written language, Furthermore, not only are they keenly aware of the tremendous differences between Taiwanese and Mandarin, they are also deeply frustrated by the intractability of the Chinese characters when it comes to writing out their mother tongue. With the lifting of martial law, they would no longer be intimidated by the fierce, dogmatic rhetoric of Great Han chauvinists like Li Shengwei. Hence, no sooner had a modicum of democracy been instituted on the island than a surge of publications concerning Taiwanese language ensued. Among these were Taiyu wenzhai (Tai5-gi2 bun5-tiah4; Taiwanese Digest; vols. 1-4, late eighties) and Tâi-Bûn Thong-Sìn (Newsletter for Written Taiwanese; late nineties). And now there are numerous easy-to-find sites dealing with Taiwanese on the World Wide Web.

Among the more intriguing pedagogical offerings of recent years is a large format, thin textbook entitled Kejia Taiyu jiaocai [Teaching Material for Hakka Taiwan Language] that was published in September, 1998 by the Taipei Municipal Government under Mayor Chen Shuibian and with an energetic preface by him. The first volume in a series entitled Taibei shi muyu jiaocai [Mother Language Teaching Materials for Taipei City], this is a colorful, luxuriously produced textbook. In his Preface, Mayor Chen begins and ends by invoking pluralism (duōyuǎn 多元), and in the middle stresses pedagogy and teaching materials for the mother tongue (muyu). It is curious that the Mayor, whose Preface is written in perfect Mandarin (guoyu), stresses the need for providing instruction in Hakka and aboriginal languages, which had been suppressed during the previous forty to fifty years as a result of the distorted views of the preceding government, but he does not mention a word about Taiwanese (Hoklo). The Mayor's Preface is full of subtexts that speak to his political opponents in Taipei, to Taiwanese nationalists farther south on the island, to the Communist authorities and the people of mainland China, and to his future aspirations for the presidency. Although it is only about 550 characters long, this is a fascinating document that deserves full analysis elsewhere. Suffice it to say here only that the Mayor is an astute analyst of social and cultural dynamics who recognized early on the centrality of language in the political equation that will determine the fate of Taiwan.

The Taiwanese author Zhong Zhaozheng has likened writing in Mandarin (i.e., zhōngwén) to a type of translation. In a thoughtful article first published in Lianhe bao (United Daily), Zhong shares his reflections upon the rise of the mǔyǔ yùndòng 母語運動 (Mother Tongue Movement) to replace the old guóyǔ yùndòng 國語運動 (National Language Movement) that had been in effect for the previous forty years:

I am a native of Taiwan, born and bred. When I was growing up, especially when I was seven years old and entered public school (during the Japanese occupation, the schools that were set up for local children were called "public" schools), I was forced to learn Japanese. Before that time, I had only used Hoklo and Hakka. This was because my father was of Hakka descent and my mother was of Hoklo descent. My relatives were also half Hakka and half Hoklo, so I grew up hearing both languages. After I went to school and gradually got older, my Japanese ability also advanced. By the time I entered middle school, while we were in school we used only Japanese. During those middle school years, I even thought only in Japanese. Now I've abandoned Japanese and switched to Chinese (zhongwen, i.e., Mandarin) when I write. After getting a bit used to it, I've also started to think in Chinese (zhongwen).

But then a problem came along. Normally when I'm writing, I think in Chinese (zhongwen) and write my thoughts down in Chinese (zhongwen). This is as it should be, and I find nothing objectionable about it. But when I come to dialog, then there's a big difference. When a character in one of my stories says something, clearly it's one kind [of language], but when I write it down it's another kind [of language]. It goes without saying that, between these [two kinds of language, my writing has} to undergo a process of translation.

The subjection of literary works to translation is something that has long been done throughout the world, so of course it can stand, and there is no need to be suspicious of it. Nevertheless, a given place has its own special language and mode of expression. Sometimes a short oral utterance can bring a character's status and personality vividly to life. However, after undergoing this process of translation, that special flavor is completely lost and that kind of freshness no longer exists. Consequently, the character's personality is also distorted. (Zhong 1992: 21-22)

It is interesting that I felt exactly the same type of frustration and unnaturalness when I was translating Pu Songling's Liaozhai zhi yi (Strange Tales from Make-do Studio). (Mair and Mair 1989) I had no particular problem or difficulty dealing with narration or description, but when it came to dialog, it was almost painful to contemplate the fact that Pu's characters could not possibly have spoken the LS that he has coming out of their mouths in his stories. In my long career as a translator, these were the most existentially unnerving challenges I had ever coped with. Often when I was agonizing over the inappropriately literary register and rarefied diction of Pu's dialogs, I would think of the strong local color and speech of William Faulkner, the Hispanic tinge and parlance of Ernest Hemingway's novels, and the uncanny ability of Tom Wolfe to recreate the speech and mannerisms of different social and ethnic groups. I suspect that much of such great writers' success in these respects relies on the phonological versatility of the alphabet.

Will there ever come a day when Taiwanese authors can routinely write genuine Taiwanese language dialogs, not just formulaic prose translated through a Mandarin filter? According to Lin Zongyuan (b. 1955), an award-winning songwriter and poet known for his Taiwanese translations of Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats, the future of Taiwanese literature is closely bound up with political democratization.

"I believe that if we ever get bilingual education, Taiwanese will become mainstream. If you look at the number of people speaking the southern Fukien dialect in Taiwan, mainland China, and Southeast Asia, it's quite significant. I think the future looks quite good. But right now we are still establishing the written language." (Balcom 1992: 73)

More than a decade later, the situation has still not changed much. If anything, the Taiwanese are further from achieving unanimity on how to write their mother tongue than they were twenty years ago.16

Nonetheless, it is now possible to put together a college-level textbook of poems, stories, and essays written in Taiwanese with introductions and language notes for each selection. (Cheng et al. 2000) There seems to be a growing market for works written in Taiwanese, and publishers have responded by offering an increasing number ofa wide variety of Taiwanese language materials (novels, short story collections, anthologies, dictionaries, vocabulary lists, primers, and so forth). Many such recent publications, however, display a strange phenomenon that does not bode well for the future of writing in Taiwanese. The editors of such publications, which are intended for broad consumption among the population of Taiwan, have adopted the practice of taking works which were originally written wholly in romanization and converting them into primarily hanzi texts with a slight admixture of romanization, or taking works that were originally written with a mixture of hanzi and romanization and drastically reducing the amount of romanized words in them. Superficially this might appear to be a reasonable strategy, since it comports with the general affection and familiarity felt by the people of Taiwan toward hanzi and recognizes that there are still many high frequency Taiwanese morphemes for which no suitable hanzi have been discovered. The problem, however, is that -- in a disturbingly large number of cases -- hanzi are assigned to Taiwanese words in a completely arbitrary and often rather amusing fashion, as we have seen above.

When Carstairs Douglas published his monumental dictionary of Amoy vernacular in 1873, there was not a single character in it. In 1923, Thomas Barclay published from the Commercial Press in Shanghai a Supplement to Douglas's dictionary. Although Barclay added characters for many of the entries, he still left many entries without any characters assigned to them. For the completely new entries added by Barclay, most lacked characters. This is in sharp contrast to a bizarre dictionary compiled by the Department of Sinitic Topolects in the Institute for Chinese Languages and Script of Amoy University and published to great fanfare in 1982. All of the entries have characters and MSM pronunciations, by which they are ordered under head characters. All definitions are given in MSM and, indeed, the MSM elements of the dictionary are openly based on the well-known Xiandai Hanyu cidian [Dictionary of Modern Sinitic {i.e., Mandarin}]. A sizable portion of the entries in this dictionary from Amoy University are not really authentic Southern Min terms at all, but are simply Mandarin words with Southern Min pronunciations added to them.

V. Reflections

Just as the speakers of the regional vernaculars have been perennially sloughing off their mother tongues and acquiring their national language, for the last generation and the current one, they have started to forget their national language and remember the global language. Code switching involving English is very widespread in Taiwan, Hongkong, and Singapore, and it is now being heard ever more frequently in China. An impressive amount of traffic on the internet in these areas is being carried out in English, and parents are eager to have their children start learning English at younger and younger ages. It should be observed, however, that -- just as with the regional vernaculars -- when foreign languages are reduced to sinographic forms, surpassingly strange transcriptions are liable to be put forth. For example, in Taiwan and Hongkong, a very well- established sinographic transcription of "cool" (meaning "wonderful, neat, great" in youth speak) is 酷 ("cruel"), and my Shandong father-in-law writes gǒutóu māoníng 狗頭貓嚀 ("dog's-head cat's meow").17 The commonly accepted writing of "cigar" with characters that mean "snow" and "lotus stem" at least sounds plausible when pronounced in Shanghainese (where it was first coined), but it is totally baffling in both sound and sense when pronounced xuějiā 雪茄 18 in Mandarin. Even more unsettling is the demonstrated ability of the sinographic script to incorporate letters of the alphabet as characters, e.g., BB for "baby" in Cantonese, BP or BB for "beeper" in Shanghainese, and so forth. (Hansel 11994)

Li Yang, using his Fengkuang Yingwen ("Crazy English") methods, claims that he has taught English to 20,000,000 of China's citizens. Li says that he has a mission to teach everyone in China how to speak English, not because he loves the language but because, as he puts it, "Microsoft and Coca-cola own the world." All together, there are well over 250,000,000 Chinese actively engaged in learning English right now, and that number is sure to grow in the coming years. (McArthur 2002: 357) In 1990, bilingual education (shuāngyǔ jiàoyù 雙語教育) in Taiwan signified instruction in Mandarin and Taiwanese or Hakka. (Lin 1990) In 2003, bilingual education in Taiwan is more likely to signify instruction in English and Mandarin or Taiwanese. The inclusion of English in the compulsory curricula of Taiwan, China, and Singapore (where it is still the most important language of education) may seem like a heavy burden, but the government of Hongkong has gone several steps further and instituted a policy of sān yǔ liǎng wén 三語兩文 ("three [spoken] languages -- Cantonese, English, Mandarin -- and two [written] languages -- Chinese and English"). The government of Taiwan will soon make the momentous switch from vertical alignment (shùpái 豎排) to horizontal alignment (héngpái 橫排) of texts for ease of incorporating English in official documents. In the words of Premier Yu Shyi-kun, "As it's our goal is to make English the quasi official language within the next six to 10 years, the use of English is bound to increase in official papers and private publications " (Ko 2003) To paraphrase the title of a noteworthy book that came out earlier this year, " the writing is on the wall." (Hannas 2003)

Despite the deep inroads of Mandarin and the steady incursions of English, the people of Taiwan cling tenaciously to their native language. They clearly sense that forgetting one's mother tongue is the severest form of cultural amnesia. To show the depth of feeling that many Taiwanese have for their native language, I would like to close with a poem by Chen Lei (b. 1939):

Love of the Mother Tongue

You can beat my skin,
You can eat my flesh,
But you cannot take away
The right to my language.

The language my parents taught me
Is the feeling in my heart;
The voice my native soil gave me
Is the thought in my head.

Why? Why do you say I cannot express myself!
It's because you have your megalomanic ideology of a culture
     lasting five thousand years,
And half a century of despotic control on this island;
Thus you have become a chicken-livered, bird-brained person
With a baleful face and barbarous hand.

Just take a look: come to America
And speak Shanghainese, Cantonese,
Speak Shandongese, Pekingese;
Would anyone dare to beat you for it?
Just take a look: Why is it
Only you behave this way?

You can beat my skin,
You can eat my flesh,
But you cannot take away
The right to my language;
My voice is my feeling,
Language is my thought.

I refuse to be wrapped up in your "national language,"
And become a Taiwanese
Who has lost his own soul.

Chen Lei desperately wishes to assert his cultural identity, and he realizes that his native language is at the heart of that identity. At the same time, he decisively rejects the hegemonistic national language imposed upon him and his countrymen by an alien political force. Nonetheless, the irony of Chen's predicament escapes him: every Taiwanese syllable that he writes with a Chinese character merely reinforces the control of the central culture. If Taiwanese language is the heart and soul of Taiwanese identity, as Chen asserts, Chinese characters are the heart and soul of Chinese identity. To write in Chinese characters is to evoke the deep cultural memories that he trenchantly opposes and to consign to ultimate oblivion the sounds and words with which he articulates his innermost thoughts and feelings.


I wish to express my gratitude to the following individuals: Grace Wu for lending me books relating to Taiwanese language and helping me to read Taiwanese texts; Linda Chance for checking Japanese terms; Mark Swofford for keeping me abreast of current events concerning the evolution of writing in Taiwan; Anthony C. Yu for telling me of his personal experiences with language in Hong Kong and Shanghai; Wu Shouli for introducing me to the intricacies of old Minnan writing; and Robert Cheng (Zheng Liangwei) for energetically endeavoring to comprehend the reasons for the non-development of Taiwanese writing, for striving against all odds to create a workable means that would enable the people of Taiwan to write their mother tongue, and for patiently explaining it all to me.

  1. Taiwanese (the English equivalent of Daiwanway [MSM Taiwanhua]) is a dialect of the Southern Min big topolect or branch of Sinitic (Hanyu). A century and more ago, it was still very close to the language of Amoy, but has now diverged sharply under the following influences: Malayo-Polynesian substrate borrowings, Dutch usages, Japanese elements, Mandarinisms, English loans, and so forth. Thus, by "Taiwanese" I mean the highly evolved form of Southern Min spoken on the island of Taiwan that can no longer be equated with any language spoken on the mainland of China.
  2. During the thirties of the last century, there was a movement to use Chinese characters strictly phonetically and without any regard for their meanings to transcribe the sounds of Taiwanese in what was known as kua-a ts'eh or koa-á-chheh 歌仔册 (Xu 1993: 4; Wang 1993: 45) From the name of the genre, it is apparent that this method was used primarily to write down playscripts. N.B.: 1. Since there is no standard form of romanization for Taiwanese, I follow the various sources that I cite. 2. I refer variously to "Chinese characters," Hànzi 漢子, and "sinographs," all of which are synonymous for the purposes of this paper and have only slight differences of nuance.
  3. The figures are comparable for Hakka, which is supposedly much closer to Mandarin than is Taiwanese. In a glossary of 900 or so frequently used words (Luo 1985: 306-325), 20% have no known sinographic form for one or more of their syllables. For the very common trisyllabic words iatappe ("here"), ketappe ("there"), and naitappe ("where"), for example, none of the syllables are written with Chinese characters. Because of greater substrate influences from Austroasiatic languages (Zhuang, Tai, etc.) and massive assimilation of English words and expressions, the percentage of sinographless morphemes would certainly be much higher in Hongkong Cantonese, were it not for a much more proactive invention of special graphs, which now amount to well over a thousand. (Cheung and Bauer 2002)
  4. A few scholars (e.g., Xu 1998: 36) mistakenly contend that the name Taiwan derives from the Siraya word taian or tayan ("outsider"). Although this ignores the evidence from Dutch and Portuguese records, it does not negate the fact that the origin of the name Taiwan has nothing whatsoever to do with terraces or bays.
  5. The difficulties with Japanese place names, however, are comparable to the problems one encounters with sinographic Taiwanese writing in all subject areas. For example, there is a town in Hokkaido named Otaru which is written with characters that mean "little barrel." In actuality, the name is derived from an Ainu word referring to the sandy riverbed nearby.
  6. These are, of course, only very rough estimates, and there is probably no way to arrive at a precise quantification of the various categories of hanzi usage in written Taiwanese because of the wide range of more or less Mandarinized styles versus more or less colloquial styles, subjective attitudes concerning correctness of fit between hanzi and Taiwanese morphemes, and so forth. One thing, however, is certain: an alarmingly high proportion of Taiwanese morphemes either have no established sinographs assigned to them or have sharply contested sinographic assignments.
  7. I am always astonished when I hear people from Shanghai (China's greatest city) tell me that their language is "crude" ( 粗) and that they are embarrassed by it. It should be noted that service personnel (of department stores) in Shanghai are required by the government to greet customers in Mandarin, not Shanghainese.
  8. In pre-Han times, the phonophore stipulated by Xu Shen was associated with graphs that might have been pronounced roughly as **b/m/pl[j]wan. (Karlgren 1957: 66-67 [no. 178a-q]) The slashes indicate that the labials would alternate in different cognates, and the "j" in brackets indicates a "y" sound that occurred in certain derivates but not all.
  9. See below for a discussion of "big topolects" and branches in linguistic classification.
  10. The influence of northern non-Sinitic languages on Mandarin has been broached by historical linguists such as Mantaro Hashimoto, David Prager Branner, Charles N. Li, Jerry Norman, and Jiang Lansheng.
  11. I have not been able to determine the exact date when fangyan was first used as a neologism for "dialect," but it seems to crop up around 1927 or 1928. My suspicion is that this is one more in a long line of "round-trip words" that began with one meaning in China (in this case Yang Xiong's notion of "topolect[al synonymous expression]"), acquired a new, Western-inspired meaning in Japan (in this case "dialect"), and was then sent back to China. (Mair 1994c) After all, the Japanese (aside from Yang Xiong's fangyan [Jap. hogen]) had their own traditional usages that were somewhat akin to "dialect," viz., ben 辯 ("dialect, brogue, accent" -- as in Osaka-ben) and namari 訛 ("an accent, dialect, patois"). Indeed, China itself had similar indigenous terms, e.g., xiāngtán 鄉談, tǔyǔ 土語, and so forth. It was only with the importation of Western linguistic science that fangyan / hogen ("topolect") acquired the additional, technical meaning of "dialect" as part of the FGBLDS system. (There is no space here to discuss the experimental rendering of "idiom" and other folkloristic English words with fangyan during the teens and twenties of the last century, apparently slightly before Yang Xiong's term became unhappily wed to "dialect.")
  12. Etymology is the study of the derivation of words with particular attention to their roots. This is a different matter than the study of the structure, origin, and evolution of characters. In the China field, the latter types of investigation are often incorrectly referred to as "etymology."
  13. My own informal tests of students, colleagues, and friends indicate that Mandarin speakers can make sense of only about 50% of Taiwanese texts written in sinographs and can make next to no sense of Taiwanese texts written in romanization. Mandarin speakers can make even less sense (about 30-40%) of pure Cantonese texts written in sinographs and almost no sense at all of Cantonese texts written in romanization. (The percentages vary with the degree to which the texts in question have more or less Mandarin and Literary elements in them.) The mutual readability of the written Sinitic vernaculars is every bit as limited as that which exists among the languages of Europe or the northern half of the Indian subcontinent.
  14. I have added the character for "rain" (MSM yu3, Taiwanese ho) because it is used by some writers to represent the homophonous Taiwanese word ("give").
  15. A photocopied facsimile of this article from Qingnian bao [Youth Daily] has been reprinted in Taiyu wenzhai (Tai5-gi2 bun5-tiah4; Taiwanese Digest), 12 (July 15, 1990), 168, so the original must have appeared during the first half of 1990 or slightly before, On the same page of Taiyu wenzhai is also reprinted an article from Zhanghua bao [China Daily] with the headline "The "Chinese People (Zhangguaren) Should Consider It Glorious to Speak the National Language (guoyu)," Although less inflammatory than the diatribe from Qingnian bao, this article insists that it is wrong for legislators in Taiwan to speak Taiwanese,
  16. In Taiyu wenxue yu Taiyu wenzi [Taiwanese Literature and Taiwanese Script], Hong Weiren (1992) addresses the perplexing issue of the fervor surrounding the Taiyu wenxue yundong [Taiwanese Literature Movement] and the failure to create a workable script with which to write it.
  17. I have collected several English phrasebooks written entirely in Chinese characters that date from the late Qing period to the late twentieth century. Almost every entry in them is hilarious if one takes into account the meanings of the characters used to write down the English.
  18. The second graph should not be read in MSM with its alternative pronunciation qie2, which means "eggplant, aubergine," for that would yield the wrong equivalent (dʐia23-22) in Shanghainese, where the graph, in any event, is usually pronounced ga2-3.


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