Giant on the move
By Ben Blanchard and Ralph Jennings
What’s in a word? A great deal if you are Chinese or Taiwanese. Despite unprecedented detente in recent months, China and Taiwan sometimes seem as far apart as ever when it comes to language.
Take, for example, the vexed question of the wording of a future political solution between the two sides.
China claims Taiwan as its own, and views it as a rebel province to be reeled in, by force if necessary. Beijing says Taiwan has been China’s “since days of old”, and it is only because defeated Nationalist forces fled there at the end of a civil war in 1949, and managed to hold off the Communists, that the island is still run separately.
China says it wants “reunification”, to bring back together that which was once whole.
But for many in Taiwan, that’s the wrong word. They would rather term it “unification”, saying that China, or at least the Communist Party, has never run Taiwan and has no legitimate claim over the island. Hence there is nothing to “reunite”.
Trouble is, in Chinese the word “tongyi” can be translated as either “reunification” or “unification”. That makes writing about the issue in English tricky for reporters who seek to stay neutral.
The politics of language go deeper, though. Taiwan, along with Hong Kong, Macau and many in the overseas Chinese world, use the traditional Chinese script, rather than the simplified version used in China and introduced by the Communists.
Some in Taiwan call their traditional script “correct font,” implying that China uses the wrong words.
The official spoken language, Mandarin Chinese, is largely the same on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, but Taiwanese often eject a mouthful at foreigners who speak in mainland-inflected Mandarin.
Likewise, mainland Chinese may laugh at foreigners who speak Taiwan-accented Mandarin when in China.
Taiwanese also love throwing in English and Japanese words when speaking Mandarin, which does not happen much on the mainland.
Taiwan is proud, too, of its non-Mandarin linguistic heritage. Taiwanese, also known as Hokkien, as made a big comeback since being supressed by the Nationalists and is now widely used in politics, on the television and in pop songs.
Written Taiwanese, using Chinese characters, is all but impossible for someone who only speaks Mandarin to understand, though they can guess at the gist of it.
Taiwanese is also spoken in China, in the southern part of Fujian province, the origin centuries ago for many ethnic Chinese people in Taiwan, and is generally called Hokkien. In China though, use of okkien in public life gets little official backing.
So while China and Taiwan may talk about moving closer together, they might not always be talking the same language.
There is a common myth perpetrated about China — that everyone speaks “Chinese”.
There is in fact no single “Chinese” language.
There is an official language, Mandarin, taught at schools and used on the airwaves, yet even the government admits that only about half the country’s 1.3 billion population speak it fluently.
It’s a piece of cake. In fact, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi says Chinese is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn.