Last week, the American senior congresswoman Nancy Pelosi made international headlines by spending an afternoon on the island of Taiwan. Reactions by politicians and pundits were swift, passionate, and confused. Beijing, which normally encourages foreign dignitaries to visit China, blasted Pelosi for visiting Taiwan, which of course is part of China. American leaders vehemently expressed their support for Taiwan’s freedom, then clarified that they did not officially think that Taiwan is or should be independent, then, more often than not, implied that America would defend with military force Taiwan’s independence.
Here, as in practically every other international conflict, language plays a critical role. But the role of the Chinese language in Taiwan’s struggle is unique, and quite ironic: Taiwan’s own language policies have done more than any Chinese battleship to clear the way for China to take over.
The rift between China and Taiwan opened in 1949, when Communist forces emerged victorious in China’s civil war. Loyalists of the defeated Nationalist government fled in terror, finally arriving on the island of Taiwan, the one place where the landlubber revolutionaries could not reach.
Before they arrived, few of Taiwan’s inhabitants spoke Mandarin. The vast majority spoke local varieties of Hokkien, the dialect of Fujian Province across the Taiwan Strait, or the related Hakka dialect. Some relict indigenous groups still spoke tongues of the Austronesian family, which originated in Taiwan before spawning daughter languages as far-flung as Indonesian, Malay, Malagasy (Madagascar), Maori (New Zealand) and Hawaiian.
Chinese emperors had treated Taiwan a bit like the Wild West, encouraging unruly subjects to settle there with the promise of free land and minimal law and order. China’s cultural and linguistic touch was so light that Taiwan almost went a very different way: during fifty years of Japanese rule from 1895–1945, most people learned Japanese. Former President Lee Teng-hui and Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen noodles, were native Japanese speakers. Late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigned for a revitalisation of Japanese in Taiwan as a means for the country to assert its separate identity.
But when the Nationalists arrived in 1949, separateness was the opposite of what they wanted. They were the sole legitimate government of all China (Taiwan officially maintains this to this day), and they were determined to forge their new home into a miniature of the country they wanted to rule. That meant everyone would learn standard Mandarin, whether they liked it or not.
Say what you will about nationalist authoritarianism, but it really can reshape a country’s linguistic landscape. By the time the government finally lifted thirty years of martial law, practically everyone in Taiwan spoke Mandarin.
As we mentioned earlier, the Taiwanese government became a victim of its own success. As China become richer, more powerful, and less psychotic, the draw of reunification became more attractive to the people of Taiwan. Thanks to the government’s cultural policies, there was little difference between Taiwanese people and Mainlanders. Family members and pop culture flowed freely over the Taiwan Strait. Unlike in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, there was no common local dialect for those who opposed Beijing to rally around.
There is one significant difference between the Chinese of Taiwan and that of Mainland China. Whereas the Communist government promulgated a lexicon of Simplified characters to make it easier for peasants and proles to learn how to read, Taiwan kept the Traditional ones. Some books are still written top to bottom and right to left, as Chinese used always to be (Japanese manga comics use this orientation as well).
It is surprisingly easy for people who know one set of characters to figure out the other. This is a bit baffling given how different they sometimes can be, but in any case, it means that the language barrier is not high. It also helps that Taiwanese people are exposed to plenty of Simplified characters through Mainland media, and that Traditional characters have become fashionable in the PRC in recent decades. However, the distinction is noteworthy. Hong Kong uses the old characters, too. The symbolism of preserving the pre-Communist script is lost on no one.
From 1949 on, most Taiwanese thought of themselves simply as Chinese. However, from around 2000, growing numbers of people have begun to identify as citizens of a separate nation. With that shift, independence-curious people and politicians started promoting local culture. Key features of this campaign are media and education in Hokkien and Formosan, the standardised version of the largest Austronesian indigenous tongue. The government has even set a goal to make English co-official with Mandarin by 2030.
Taiwan’s standard version of Mandarin, called Guoyu, is essentially identical to PRC Putonghua. However, some critical political terminology differs. Officially, both Taiwan and China claim to be the sole government of China: the former is the Republic of China, the latter the People’s Republic of China.
In English, we refer to the organs of both states using the same vocabulary, but things get tellingly trickier in Chinese. The Taiwanese president is known as zongtong, the standard title for the head of state of a republic — Joe Biden is a zongtong as well. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is guojia zhuxi, “state chairman.” Both states use unique names for their legislatures. Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan was christened in reference to the old imperial court, while the Chinese name for the PRC National People’s Congress evokes a proletarian mass rally.
Observers in the two Chinas and abroad often draw a connection between their conflict and that between Russia and Ukraine. The two political situations are very different, both language plays a key role in both. Hopefully, for them and for the rest of us, these two sides have better luck reaching an understanding.