Reflections on Taiwan

I just spent a short week in Taiwan visiting friends and looking into grad programs. I kept seeing things that I thought would be post-worthy.

I’m still going to write about a few as individual posts, but I thought I’d share some general impressions here.

1. Taiwanese often say 和 as hàn. As my friend Jason pointed out, this is in fact a well-documented phenomenon but one I’d not encountered before.

2. Books on learning Sanskrit and Tibetan are readily available at major bookstores. When I was studying Sanskrit before I had to go out of my way to get the books I needed. Certainly Tibetan books were harder to find at the local Xinhua in Shanghai.

3. Despite the fairly rampant lack of pinyin or even consistency in transcription (e.g. 雪 as syue or 中 as zhueng) pretty much everywhere, Google Maps in Taiwan has pinyin with tones. I was thrilled. Here are two examples:

The Manjhou Township area had “mǎnzhōu” in every other instance of the name. Excellent help for when you’re trying to tell the taxi exactly where to go.

4. Taiyu 台語 classes are offered all over. In addition to a number of academies that teach the language, major bookstores (e.g. Eslite 誠品書店) have significant collections of dictionaries, phrase books and academic journals. I was blown away by how much information is out there. I would kill for that many different books on Wu having their own shelf in the middle of a downtown Shanghai store. And not just the silly phrase books that you can find in the subway station.

5. They have A&W root beer. In both cans and Slurpee form. Serious.

I’ll touch on some of the other things I noticed later on. All in all it was a great trip.

16 responses to “Reflections on Taiwan”

  1. Murat says:

    I’m a grad student in Taipei.

    What programs are you looking at?

  2. Mark S. says:

    The tone marks are nice. But otherwise Google really screwed the pooch on its maps of Taiwan. Although Google fixed a few problems since I wrote that post, most the big problems remain, such as the ExTra CaPiTal LeTters and the odd mix of Tongyong Pinyin (which is no longer supposed to be used) and Hanyu Pinyin (which is officially the standard for all of Taiwan — other than a few exceptions, which for the most part are annoying rather than practical).

    For example, have a look at the map for a section of Banqiao. Chengdu is misspelled Chengdou, Chongqing as Zhongqing, and Houpu as Houbu — which are the result of character-by-character rather than word-based translation.

  3. I love Taiwan, but I didn’t know the google maps are now pinyinized, too. Oh dear.. I hate hanyu pinyin, it can stay on the other side of the strait.. but well..

  4. Kellen Parker says:

    Out of curiosity, why do you hate hanyu pinyin? Isn’t it better than the total inconsistency of romanisations otherwise in use on the island? I swear I saw 中 written “jheung” at one point.

  5. Well, I’ve gone deeper into the issue on my blog, but basically I can sum it up in few words. I don’t mind how someone chooses to learn Chinese, be it with hanyu pinyin, bopomofo or wade-giles. That’s a personal choice. But it’s another thing to publicly use hanyu pinyin on Taiwan’s roads and cities. For me this Romanization is politically loaded, is full of flaws and inconsistencies and makes it hard to google Taiwan’s cities, because there will always be a city in China, that will appear first. Sadly, a lot of Taiwan is already pinyinized and I feel it will get worse. I want Taiwan to keep it’s identity and a romanization mix is what I love about it: It’s diversity, uniqueness and in no way does it cause confusion, like many hanyu pinyin fanatics like to point out. I traveled all over Taiwan and always found it very easy to find my way around. It’s been a while, since I’ve gone deep into this issue. Now I don’t really bother, even though most of Taipei is in hanyu pinyin. Maybe one day someone can revert this trend, but I fear not. At least I hope southern Taiwan will keep its charming Romanization.

  6. Kellen Parker says:

    I’ve read through your post. While I’ve complained about pinyin myself more than just a little bit, I think there’s some real value to it that is overlooked. Mainly the fact that, for a widely spoken language, standardisation is important. I do’t care if we use pinyin or bopomofo or jyutpin or long-short. The important thing is that we’re asking learners to learn only one system per language. While pinyin isn’t always intuitive, it’s consistent. Everyone knows it. Asking students to learn that zhong, chung and zheung are all exactly the same word is a bit much. By being mixed, it’s lost any value as romanisation. It doesn’t help anyone say the name of the place they’re going unless they already know full well the name of the place they’re going.

    And I really don’t buy the argument that learning zhuyin fuhao first will help one’s pronunciation. learning pinyin correctly is just as good as learning bopomofo correctly.

    It’s certainly politically loaded and I’m definitely more pan-green than pan-blue. But as romanisation it’s hard to beat pinyin simply for how widely used it is.

  7. @Kellen: It’s ok, everybody’s entitled to their opinion, right? Pinyin is not consistent, nor does everybody know it, especially not in Taiwan. If you speak for China, I can’t comment, as I don’t know that country too well.

    The important thing is that we’re asking learners to learn only one system per language.


    Japanese have kanji, 2 kanas and romaji and it’s widely accepted and in no way seen as bad (well, I’m sure there will be some foreigners complaining about it…). For me Romanization is only a tool or a path to master hanzi, not the goal itself or the final destination. I already read mostly Chinese characters on my way to work instead of pinyin. Relying on pinyin is not good, if your goal is to learn Chinese and live in Taiwan. Hanyu pinyin is like a crutch (a broken one), but eventually you need to learn how to walk on your own. I don’t think it’s important, if I see Zhongli, Jhongli, Jungli or Chungli on signboards, as long as it’s under a big fat 中壢, I feel I am at the right place and only that matters. Taiwan is a society, that first and foremost uses Han characters and for me, that’s what matters and that’s where I demand consistency. And luckily it always is consistent. Hope my point came across well to you and your readers :) Cheers.

  8. Kellen says:

    This is interesting but I’m not sure your point is all that clear.

    Pinyin is consistent in that it’s always the same letters in the same combination for the same word. You may thing they’re stupid letter choices applied counterintuitively, and I may agree, but you can’t say the system isn’t consistent. 

    Japanese isn’t a good analogy. It’s a writing system with different sets of glyphs, but again it’s a single consistent way or writing. Spell a word in hiragana and it will be spelled that way for each time you encounter it. Language learners shouldnt have to worry about knowing if “jou” is 州 or 肉 because the answer keeps changing on them. 

    You can say that for you it’s all about the hanzi. that’s good that you’re at that point and comfortable with the hanzi. Not everyone is, and it may not be realistic to demand everyone who’s learning hanzi to just do it without some help early on.

    I’m not sure if you’ve aware of the problems of illiteracy in many rural mainland areas and the responding proposals based on wider use of transliteration. It might be something you want to check out.

    It’s a crutch for learners. I agree. Sometimes people need to start with crutches. After that, it’s not the crutch that’s the problem but the walkers unwillingness to part with it when the leg is healed.

  9. Arguing with the enemies of Hanyu Pinyin is a battle no sane person should ever enter into.

  10. Peter Nelson says:

    I happen to think Hanyu Pinyin is just fine. I also don’t really care what Taiwan does for romanization. More to the point, I don’t think arguing about transcription is going to be a particularly productive activity.

    However, reading your anti-pinyin post/rant, I was really interested by your “Slovenization”. Do the sounds map well between the languages?

  11. First of all, I don’t see myself as an “enemy” of hanyu pinyin, I just don’t like to see it in public use in Taiwan, that’s all. I don’t care, how it’s used in other countries. My issue is with some people here in Taiwan, who think the country should be fully pinyinized. Believe me, there are tons of blogs and forums, where they (mostly foreign losers) debate this supposed problem all the time and ridicule this country that I happen to love. I’m probably the only person, who ever systematically and logically “decomposed” this romanization system and I did that only, after I have observed their tirades long enough. If you glance over my blog, you will quickly see, that I focus on travel and life in Taiwan. Although I’m a linguist by education, I see my blog as a platform to share the lighter sides of life. But from time to time it grabs me to speak my mind on issues I feel strongly about. And in this case I rather use my blog for that, instead of going on hanyu pinyin forums. Arguing with advocates of hanyu pinyin is a battle no sane person should ever enter into.

    When it comes to a slovenized Romanization of the Chinese script, we have our own formal one, which uses our alphabet and I can tell you, that it’s more accurate than the one used in hanyu pinyin. Most Slavic languages use 1 letter for 1 sound, similarly Slovenian. We don’t need to use “c” and “h” (two letters for 1 sound), we use “č”, which is 1 letter. There are many examples for that. On my Slovenian blog, I haven’t gone in such detail when it comes to Slovenization, I focused on the ease of pronunciation, rather than a 100% accurate transliteration of the standard Chinese phonetics, because I believe that the Romanization should adapt to the reader, rather than the opposite.

    Ok, this is my last comment here, I think I’ve said enough :)

    Just a small note: I think using the example of “中 as zhueng” is a bit unfair, it’s probably a misspeling, not a for you weird type of Romanization. There are a lot of spelling mistakes of this kind in Taiwan. That happens when officials, who just don’t have any idea about Romanization, put these things up in the public. And if people point it out, they do fix these things as well.

  12. Kellen says:

    I’m probably the only person who ever systematically and logically decomposed this romanization system

    For what it’s worth I’ve done so as well and I don’t particularly like pinyin. Probably many here have logically deconstructed it. My issue is not with alternative romanisations or with the promotion of pinyin. I just thought the points being made weren’t quite cogent.

    I think using the example of “中 as zhueng” is a bit unfair, it’s probably a misspeling

    Well I guess it’s good they’re willing to ‘fix’ it. But with no standard I’m guessing it’s more likely some official just making his own call on what it should be, and not actually a ‘mistake’.

    Thanks for the comments, My Kafkaesque life.

  13. Pinyin, Tongyong… Whatever. The real question is, why are Taiwanese street names and city names romanized in Mandarin and only Mandarin?

  14. Kellen Parker says:

    CIty names aren’t. Jhubei and Hsinchu, for example, where both Jhu and Chu are pinyin “zhu”, 竹. Manjhou Township, above, isn’t pinyin either.

    Street names, well who knows. Probably an automated thing on the part of Google. Personally I prefer it for times when I’d need to tell a taxi driver where to go.

  15. Right! I meant Mandarin, the language — as opposed to Paiwan, Amis, Atayal, Hokkien, Hakka, etc.

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