Socio-political aspects of language behaviour in Taiwan

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

24 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)








6.1. CHERLENE, MAY 11TH, 1999
6.2. CHERLENE, MAY 21ST, 1999
6.3. CHERLENE, MAY 30TH, 1999
6.4. CHERLENE. JUNE 7TH, 1999
6.5. CHERLENE, JUNE 16TH, 1999



The Seminar ‘Sociolinguistics and Anthropological Linguistics: A Merger’ included an e-mail exchange with Taiwanese students. My partner, whose adopted English name is ‘Cherlene’, told me a lot about the linguistic diversity of her country. Besides, I had the opportunity to read the letters which were exchanged between my classmates and their assigned ‘keypals’.

People in present Taiwan have to deal with a multilingual society. Although Mandarin Chinese is the official language, there are in fact several more languages one is confronted with in everyday life. Cherlene pointed out that choice of code differs not only between social classes, ethnic communities and generations, but also between other domains of life such as school, university, jurisdiction, the media and advertising.

Each of our e-mail partners was multi- or at least bilingual in Mandarin plus one or two other Chinese languages. Besides, all of them knew English or/and another European language. The reality of Taiwanese society requires the ability to switch codes flexibly according to the occasion.

This complex situation is the result of political changes, power-shifts, two main, contradictory waves of language promotion, and a strict language policy by the government until the late 1980s. Consequently, it is indispensable to look at historical and social developments in order to understand and evaluate the present situation.

This paper is based on Cherlene‘s first-hand information and the general impression received from the other e-mails. The linguistic information is embedded in a historic-political context, because I was especially interested in how such a situation could develop and how language use reflects power-relations.


Taiwan is a small country, situated 150 km off the coast of Mainland China, around 380 km long and 140 km wide.

The aborigines of Taiwan are Austronesians who are assumed to have reached the island via the Philippines some thousand years ago.

The first Chinese immigrants entered the island in the 9th century. Until the beginning of the 16th century, Taiwan was under Chinese rule and belonged to the Province of Fukien, from which the settlers originated.

In the 17th century, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish invaders occupied the island successively until they were defeated by soldiers from the Chinese mainland.

The major wave of Chinese settlers followed in the beginning of the 18th century. There were two major groups: around two thirds of the newcomers were Southern Min People from the province of Fukien which is located almost ‘vice versae’ on the mainland; around one third were Hakka-People from a southern province. Both brought their traditions, customs and dialects with them. They were the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese (see Senftleben, 23-28f). Since then, Taiwan or ‘Formosa’ was considered as being Chinese, although it belonged only since 1886 officially to China.

In 1895, Taiwan became Japanese after the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese colonised the island and implemented Japanese as the official language. This status lasted for 50 years, until the end of World War II in 1945, when the Allies returned the island back to the Republic of China.

China in those days experienced a civil war due to which the Communists took over the mainland. The anti-communist National Government of the ‘Republic of China’ under the general Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949; they considered the island as part of China and as a base from which they would be able to reoccupy the mainland. They were accompanied by about 1.2 m retainers, members of the former administration and parts of the army (see Cheng, 361-62).

At first, the population was joyous, but this quickly changed:

First, after retrocession of Taiwan to China, early euphoria that Taiwan was returning to the motherland dissipated as Taiwan natives recognized the differences between themselves and those who, even before 1949, were already formally called [...] mainlanders. In one village in Pingdong County, [...] informants remember that there were puppet shows and festivities at retrocession, but that attitudes changed. (Bosco, 392).

Other sources express this in a ruder way. Tsai and Ng quote a Taiwanese saying about the change from Japanese to Chinese colonialists: ‘Pigs come after dogs are gone’. This refers to accusations of plundering and rape through the new rulers (Tsai; Ng, 1).

An authoritarian regime was established on Taiwan, led by the Nationalist party KMT, which has been governing the country since then. Unpopular measures were taken with the help of the Martial Law which was lifted only in 1987. Just until recently, the KMT held the claim to be the only legal represantation of entire China and hoped for reunification under non-communist rule. This claim is fixed in the official name of the country: ‘Republic of China on Taiwan’. In contrast, the Peoples’ Republic of China’ also aims for reunification on their terms. This conflict is still not solved, and both Taiwan and the mainland keep the status quo rather than ‘solve’ the problem ultimately (which would mean that one of the opponents would have to submit).

The new rulers replaced Japanese by Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin) as the official language:

Since the end of the Second World War, the Nationalist Chinese government of Taiwan enforced its policy of spreading Mandarin under two assumptions: (1) Taiwan is a province of China, and (2) Mandarin is the national language of China. (Cheng, 361).[1]

They also prohibited the use of Taiwanese and Hakka in school, army and government and promoted Mandarin in public life. Cherlene reports that she was fined for speaking Taiwanese when she attended elementary school (see Cherlene, May11th, 1999).

They even prohibited the learning of Taiwanese to their fellow mainlanders (see Bosco, 394). The mainland-standard was established for Mandarin, but no standard was developed for Taiwanese and Hakka.


Cherlene and the literature consulted used different terms for the major local vernacular. It is either called Min-nan (Senftenberg), Minnan Hua (Feifel), Southern Min (Young; van den Berg), Hokkien (Bosco) or Taiwanese (Cheng; Cherlene and the other students). I have chosen the term ‘Taiwanese’ in order to avoid confusion and because it seems to be the most clear and frequent one. Cheng mentions in a footnote:

The terms Taiwanese and South Min (or South Hokkien) are both problematic. [...] I follow the general use of the term, namely, the Taiwanese people include Taiwanese and Hakka speakers who immigrated to Taiwan before World War II. When referring to language, the term includes only the Min variety of Chinese spoken in Taiwan. (Cheng, 390).

The establishment of this term says a lot about power-relations. Southern Min People and Hakka have been living here for the same period, yet only one dialect is identified with ‘Taiwanese‘. This shows how much power and number of speakers influence the perception of a language as ‘the’ regional language.

All authors as well as our Taiwanese pen friends used both the terms ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ interchangeably for all languages originating from China. I am going to follow this pattern because there is obviously no clear definition. Cheng compares their degree of difference to the relation between English, German and French (see Cheng, 368), but he also adds that this distinction is rather ideologic than scientific:

Whether Taiwanese, Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin etc. are different languages or different dialects of the same language is a problem. Western linguists have regarded them as different languages on the ground that they are not mutually intelligible. Some Chinese patriots view this to be an attempt by imperialists to divide China. (Cheng, 389).


Today, Taiwan has around 21 m inhabitants. The population-density is the highest in the world (see Senftleben, 21).

There are 358.305 (Yun, 7) aborigines, parts of whom live at remote places in the mountains and on some of the smaller islands. They comprise less than 2% of the population (see Cheng, 5). The nine major tribes speak different languages, some of which are mutually unintelligible. Inter-tribal communication often takes place in Japanese which they have kept as a lingua franca from the occupation. Yet, some of them have adapted to Taiwanese society, are assimilated and speak either Taiwanese or Hakka (see Senftleben, 24). Many aborigines are bilingual or even trilingual.

Japanese is also widely spread among elderly Taiwanese who grew up under Japanese rule. It was their language of instruction at school. Their mother tongue is usually Taiwanese or Hakka. Most of them are mono- or bilingual in one local vernacular plus Japanese, (only some also know Mandarin).

Today, many Taiwanese students learn Japanese again because it enhances career prospects (see Cherlene, May 30th, 1999).

People who themselves or whose ancestors immigrated before 1945 are commonly called Taiwanese. There are about 65% Southern Min people who speak Taiwanese, and 15% Hakka whose mother tongue is Hakka (Chung, 5). Their languages are mutually unintelligible and during Japanese colonialisation, these speech communities used Japanese as a lingua franca.

Today, Hakka is mostly spread in the North West, but it is losing more and more ground, and some think that it is dying out. As the speech community is comparably small, they tend to be ‘unilateral bi- or multilingual’ because they learn Taiwanese, but the Taiwanese usually do not learn Hakka. Additionally, educated people are expected to know Mandarin. Cherlene mentions a friend who is Hakka, but who does not know her dialect, and says that this is a common situation (see Cherlene, June 7th 1999). One can assume that most Hakka people put emphasis on the ”powerful” languages and that her friend’s parents did not think it would be worthwhile to teach their child Hakka.

Those who came after 1945 with the National Government (and their descendants) are usually referred to as Chinese or mainlanders. They comprise approximately 16% (Chung, 5) of the population and live mainly in the big cities of the island. Their language is Mandarin. As they are from different regions of the mainland, some of them are also multilingual, because their families have kept the regional dialect. Van den Berg says that these mainland dialects, e.g. Cantonese, are marginal on Taiwan because only few people speak them, mostly elderly persons (see van den Berg, 5).

Recently, many mainlanders and their descendants have started to become ‘bilaterally bilingual’, i.e. they learn Taiwanese, and the Taiwanese learn their language (Mandarin).

All of these Chinese languages have their regional varieties. There are different styles of Mandarin and Taiwanese. These varieties mark the speaker’s origin, but they are mutually comprehensible.

English has an important status as the most important international language. As Taiwan is a highly industrialised, very small country depending on international trade, it is economically neccessary to be able to negotiate in English. I assume that the close relations to the USA also play a role (the USA supported Taiwan economically after the war and used it as a base against Communism, especially during the Cold War). Again, one can see how a powerful speech group influences the language behaviour of a less powerful group. English is the first ‘foreign’, i.e. non-Chinese language taught at school. Cherlene even speaks it for fun with her friends, and describes how much reputation it has (see Cherlene, May 11, 1999).

In 1993, the Education Ministry launched a programme for pupils who want to learn another foreign language on a voluntary basis (see Her, 37).


[1] Historically, Mandarin is a northern Chinese variety, rooted in the dialect of Beijing, the power centre of China throughout the centuries.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Socio-political aspects of language behaviour in Taiwan
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics: a merger
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
425 KB
The present diverse - and seemingly confused - linguistic situation in Taiwan is the result of various historical layers and issues of power-distribution. The island, originally inhabited by aborigines of approx. 10 different languages, then settled by a people from a province of the Chinese mainland, then occupied by the Japanese, then reconquered by the Chinese and refuge to the general Chiang Kai-shek and his followers, has experienced the promotion of different "official" languages.
Socio-political, Taiwan, Sociolinguistics, official language
Quote paper
Cornelia Neumann (Author), 1999, Socio-political aspects of language behaviour in Taiwan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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