Dialectal provincialism and Taiwanese democracy
This is a sociological discussion of Taiwanese society and a study of Taiwanese socio-political history.
A recent comment in Taiwan’s social media asked: Is speaking Taiwanese (Hokkien dialect) in the city of Taipei being looked down upon?
The comment is about being stared at by a female university student when a group of male students spoke Taiwanese in public.
When the Nationalist government of the Kuomintang came to Taiwan in 1945-1950, it implemented a national policy of teaching and educating all students from elementary school onwards to use and speak Mandarin only. In the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwanese was used only by underground radio stations. All official broadcasts were in Mandarin. The Taiwan Normal University and its subsidiary elementary school, the Kuo Yu Shih Hsiao led the way of Taiwan’s “Mandarinization” beginning in the early 1950s.
Taipei was the capital where Mandarin became dominant while in central and southern Taiwan, Taiwanese remained the dominant common dialect. Mandarin and Taiwanese (Hokkien) are mutually incomprehensible.
Beginning in 1992, following the abolishment of martial law on July 15, 1987, the official ban against the popular and official use of Taiwanese was lifted. The use of Taiwanese was “officially condoned” with the Democratic Progressive Party’s government of former president Chen Shui-bian in 2000-2008. Nowadays, both Mandarin and Taiwanese are used interchangeably on television talk shows and some television stations and programs broadcast entirely in Taiwanese.
From 1949 to 2000, when the Kuomintang government ruled, Mandarin was the “national language” while Taiwanese and Hakka were the “provincial spoken languages” of the local Taiwanese population of those who trace their ancestry to the 1600s.
The use of Mandarin as the official language and the popular use of Taiwanese created a social dichotomy based on linguistic preference. Mandarin speakers all came from the Chinese mainland up to 1950, and their offspring speak Mandarin or a Chinese mainland dialect at home. The Taiwanese students had to learn to speak Mandarin. They spoke with a heavy Taiwanese accent. Thus, the Mandarin spoken on Taiwan became known as “Taiwanese Mandarin” that is tonally and pronunciation-wise different from “proper” Mandarin spoken on the Chinese Communist mainland. The same phenomenon is also observed on the Chinese mainland where northern Chinese speak a form of “proper” Mandarin or “pu tong hua” closer to the “Peking dialect” than central, western and southern Chinese mainlanders who speak “pu tong hua” with heavy local provincial accents. In Hong Kong, where Cantonese is spoken, Hong Kong people who learn to speak Mandarin also speak with a heavy Cantonese accented “pu tong hua”, i.e., vernacular Mandarin.
The dichotomy of Mandarin and Taiwanese on Taiwan or in Taiwanese society is both culturally and politically significant, reflecting political orientation and cultural “de-Chinalization”. The use of Taiwanese rose and fell depending on which political party is in power. More Taiwanese was spoken when Chen Shui-bian, a Taiwanese, came into power as president and his DPP won the 2000 election. It dwindled when Ma Ying-jeou became president and the Kuomintang returned as the governing party in 2008. And with the rise and fall of the two parties in and out of government came an alternating increase and decrease in social schism based on dialectal provincialism. During Ma Ying-jeou’s government (2008-2016), Mandarin was the main spoken language on television with little if any mix of Taiwanese expressions. However, since January 16, 2016, when the Democratic Progressive Party and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen won the general election, more Taiwanese expressions are now in mixed use with predominantly Mandarin on television talk shows. One curious phenomenon is that female newscasters and television meteorologists have been reporting on the weather in mostly Mandarin with a mixture of Taiwanese expressions for some time.
The dichotomy of speaking Mandarin versus speaking Taiwanese (Hokkien) also reflected “Mandarin or Chinese mainlander superiority, their social superiority, their linguistic superiority, and their political superiority”. Some have commented that the Kuomintang was the “refined Mandarin’s political party” that governed by “gentility” and “abiding by law and procedure” whereas the Democratic Progressive Party has not been able to shed its grouchy roughneck nature and behavior as the opposition party for so long, and that in the first 100 days of President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration, the new government and chief cabinet minister Lin Chuan have been using “extralegal” committee decisions to set and implement policy.
The rise of the Democratic Progressive Party and Tsai Ing-wen has heightened social schism, disharmony and dialectal provincialism.