Queens Becoming Dogs: We Don't Speak Taiwanese










"I feel I am Taiwanese when I go abroad but I am sometimes not so sure when Iím in Taiwan. I donít speak Taiwanese. A minority of people cannot speak Taiwanese. I used to work as a journalist and when people spoke it, I didnít understand. Also when you go to the shop, and they hear I donít speak it, they say 'you drink Taiwanese water, eat Taiwanese rice, why can't you speak Taiwanese?í"

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries there was a mass migration of people from the mainland Chinese southern province of Fujian to Taiwan. The language of the migrant population, Fujianese, evolved and became what is known today as Taiwanese.

Language is, as anyone whoís been abroad will know, a key determinant of whether you can identify with the dominant group in an area.

Itís all about noises. Do you make the same noises as me? Do your noises refer to the same things? Do you have the same intonation and cadence when you make your noises?

In 1949, the Chinese government army, fleeing from the Communists, arrived in Taiwan with their Mandarin tongue. This tongue is significantly different from Taiwanese.

The Chinese government, which installed itself as the dictatorial power on the island, banned the use of Taiwanese in schools and limited its use in the mass media. The sons and daughters of the Chinese government, schooled in the noises of Mandarin, knew nothing of the Taiwanese noises.

"Why can't you speak Taiwanese?" "The KMT (the ruling party) banned it. They saw the Taiwanese language as a lower class language. When I was young in elementary school - teachers banned us from speaking Taiwanese - my friends didnít use it at school - my mother married my father whose family is very big and which has its own dialect (from Hunan) - because they speak this dialect they all spoke in Mandarin. She didnít speak Taiwanese because married women live with and speak the language of their father's family."

Taiwanese was and is considered as a lower-class and masculine language, something women needed to avoid if they don't want to be identified as a tomboy (Baran, 2006).

However, when a king or coloniser from a minority group, which spends most of its time trying to impose a common language on the people, meets its end, the question of language is rather like building a matchstick tower and seeing if it will hold. When Taiwan evolved from dictatorship to democracy, and the DPP, the main political representative of the Taiwanese speaking population came to power, the predominance of Mandarin was undone. The noises of the old days returned.

"When I was doing my BA ten years ago - Taiwan's political situation opened up. The leading political party is now the DPP which advocates for and actively promotes the Taiwanese identity. Indeed the partyís ultimate aim is to declare independence for Taiwan. At the same time the KMT had to adopt Taiwanese culture to get votes, so their candidates started to speak Taiwanese and adopt a Taiwanese identity. Taiwanese members of the KMT, who had previously backed the censorship of the Taiwanese language, started to change their colours.

Under democracy and the rule of the DPP, people have found a new found confidence to express their Taiwanese identity. This has been accompanied by hatred towards those who came with the KMT in the 1950s, and those who could not speak Taiwanese. Some of my classmates would call me a Chinese Dog or Pig - this is part of the new Taiwanese political ideology. There are various reasons for resentment towards the KMT and their ancestors. The Chinese came over to control the island - and after the bloodshed of 22/8 people called my father 'old tarot' (tarot is a root vegetable), which means old Chinese person. Whenever the discussion amongst Taiwanese people switches to politics, I find my identity being challenged. I think I'm Taiwanese, but other people donít, and sometimes I get quite confused."


All of a sudden those who felt they had been oppressed, take their turn to oppress. Pain, hurt and a wanting to injure seep from hearts. You fucked us big time, didnít you? We ought to kick your asses. What did you do to protect us? Nothing, you simply sat there in your government jobs, taking home the dough and making a comfortable living by being part of the machinery that kept us down.

"In 2003, there was a controversy when parts of the civil service examination for judges were written in characters used only in Taiwanese. After strong objections, these questions were not used in scoring. As with the official-language controversy, objections to the use of Taiwanese came not only from Mainlander groups, but also Hakka and aborigines." (See Encylopedia, Labor Law Talk, 2006).

The language issue is complex. As well as Mandarin and Taiwanese, there are a host of other languages spoken by other tribes who were present on the island long before the Chinese influx began in the seventeenth Century. Will there ever be a dominant language in Taiwan (before it gets either taken over or destroyed by China)? What does a daughter of a KMT father do?

"I think I should learn Taiwanese, and sometimes I try to do it by listening to Taiwanese television shows. However whilst supporters of the DPP advocate Taiwanese culture, and look down on you if you donít speak the language, the DPP does not offer free classes. People tell me you should learn it by yourself. For this reason, I resist, because I donít like people forcing me to do it."


James Johnson - December 2006




The Taiwanese - a people set adrift




Relevant Links




Are you Taiwanese? Have you been to Taiwan? Any comments? Would you be prepared to be interviewed via email? Please write and tell us!