The current controversy on Romanization (Hanyu pinyin (
In the early 1920s, China adopted Mandarin Chinese as its new national language. It was a simplified form of the classical written language (文言文), and approximated the spoken form of the Beijing dialect. Taiwanese studying abroad or residing in China were swept up by the rising tide of Chinese nationalism. Writing in The Taiwan Minpao (台灣民報), a propaganda journal published by Taiwanese students in Japan, they started to advocate the use of Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan as a means to elevate Taiwan culture in view of a discriminative and second-rate Japanese educational system.
This idea was bound to evoke opposition. Forces from within Taiwan society expressed their concern on the feasibility of implementing Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan. Based on a northern dialect, Mandarin Chinese differed too much from the spoken form of Taiwanese and Hakka. Some argued that it was not the ideal solution for promoting the elevation of Taiwan culture in the colonial context.
From the late 1920s onward, the idea to write in a Taiwanese vernacular gained ground. The idea to use Mandarin Chinese as a foundation for the creation of literary works in Taiwan, making slight adjustments based on the spirit of Taiwanese, was discussed. In essence, the debate developed along similar lines to what we are witnessing today. Hanyu pinyin represents the linguistic universality of Mandarin Chinese, whereas Tongyong Romanization tries to accommodate the linguistic reality in Taiwan, that is, it tries to embrace one phonetic system for all the languages spoken in Taiwan.
In the 1930s, it was equally a matter of preserving the native languages in the wake of the Japanese linguistic policy. However, one should take the discussion one step further. In the 1930s, the idea to experiment with the creation of a written Taiwanese vernacular was also an expression of a Taiwanese linguistic consciousness. Being separated from the Chinese ancestral homeland, and under a colonial system, the only way to sustain and elevate Chinese culture was a continuation of the Chinese language as was known and spoken in Taiwan. This was not Mandarin Chinese, but the literary tradition of Southern Min. Again we can draw a parallel with the present. Despite 40 years of KMT Mandarin language policy, the spoken languages in Taiwan (in the first place Hoklo -- Taiwanese) have perpetuated themselves. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, it has become fashionable to study Taiwanese again, and research on the Taiwanese language is developing fast. Likewise, it comes as no surprise that this also includes a discussion on developing a system of Romanization for Taiwanese, in addition to the long-existing system used by the Presbyterian Church.
In this light, the question to be asked becomes: why develop a system that could represent several languages with one Romanization? Why not simply adopt Hanyu pinyin for Mandarin and Tongyong for the other native languages? Again, we can look at the 1930s for some tentative answers. The advocates of a written Taiwanese were also divided on the issue of how this new written form should look. Some wanted to use the purely colloquial version, and to this end created new characters. Others were more in favor of accommodating Mandarin Chinese, especially for words for which new characters had to be created, or for phrases of which the pronunciation was in doubt. These words could also be loanwords from Japanese, such as for ice cream or cocoa. The advocates of Mandarin Chinese did not accept that Taiwanese could develop into an independent written language. This would have questioned the universality of the Chinese language with a unified script system. It was presented as a coarse language and unrefined. As a matter of fact, the same arguments have been used against the "immature" nature of Tongyong.
Likewise, Tongyong underscores the fact that there is not a single phonetic version for Mandarin Chinese. Indeed, Tongyong Romanization questions the uniformity of Mandarin Chinese and might represent the wish to create a separate Taiwan. As such, it has rights and a consistency of its own. However, having one system to represent the several languages of Taiwan raises troublesome political and cultural issues. Although it wants to stress the Taiwanese specificity, it illustrates a Chinese mentality, very much concerned about the unification of the written and the spoken word, taken to the extreme by devising a Romanization system that represents all languages in Taiwan society. In doing so, it awards the same status to all the languages, and lifts Hoklo, Hakka and the Austronesian languages out of their lifelong clusters and social settings.
Once more, we can look at the situation in the 1930s. Then also, the discussion on dialects was popular. Taiwanese intellectuals were arguing that the creation of a written Taiwanese would lift Taiwanese out of the realm of dialect. They said that since it was part of the Chinese literary script tradition, it could not be considered as completely separated from the Chinese language. Therefore, once Taiwanese was to have a written form, it could be read and understood by Chinese people from the other provinces.
This argument is also used by the Tongyong advocates: Tongyong is compatible with Hanyu pinyin, and easy to study. At the same time, it exemplifies the "Taiwanization" (本土化) of society. Conversely, the opposition camp argues that Tongyong is at odds with globalization. In the 1930s, those opposing the creation of a written Taiwanese vernacular argued that if every province were to write in its dialect, the relation between Chinese language and Chinese culture would be undermined. Moreover, this would reveal the smallness of Taiwan.
Accepting Hanyu pinyin as the official Romanization for Taiwan might be the most pragmatic solution. Does this mean that the defeat of Tongyong is to be seen as a defeat of Taiwanese linguistic identity? I do not think so. It merely expresses the dominant position of Mandarin Chinese in the world of Chinese languages. In any case, the development of a Tongyong system is valuable in that it makes people able to challenge the universality of Mandarin Chinese as a unifying factor of Chinese identity.
The debate is not simple. It shows that the building up of a specific ethnic or linguistic identity is a complex process which calls for arbitration between the local and global dimensions. Such a process is always uneasy and transitory. In fact, the debate that started in the 1930s remains undecided up to the present day.
Ann Heylen is Associate Researcher at the Taipei Ricci Institute, a Jesuit research center focusing on Taiwanese and Chinese culture, past and present.
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