“Rewrite!” Changing Taiwan’s Script

by Translation Guy on August 9, 2010

Taiwan is on the fault line of the world stage, a glittering prize suspended between the competing commercial and political interests of China and the USA. And Mandarin Chinese as spoken on the isle is the linguistic star, spokesmodel for countless SKUs and memes. And due to a problem on the set with direction, rewrite is pretty busy cobbling together the script as the show goes on, character by character.

Victor Mair, one of my favorite bloggers over at Language Log, just got back from Taiwan. He writes of his experience, “I find myself stunned by the multilingual, polyscriptal creativity of the people on that ‘renegade island’ (formerly known as Ilha Formosa, Portuguese for ‘Beautiful Island’).  One thing that could not escape my notice is the widespread use of English letters for English words as well as for Taiwanese morphemes and Mandarin words.” And Japanese too, natürlich.

Take Chinese ideograms, combine with Roman letters, and mix with Taiwanese, Mandarin and English for unforgettable Taiwanese taglines. Victor takes apart 酷碰A個GO! (kùpèng A ge GO!) The slogan defies direct translation into English because it operates on several different levels at the same time.  A very rough attempt to convey the information it embodies would be something like “Just go ahead and take your chances of getting quite a windfall of cool coupons.” Read how Victor got to that translation…

But all this avant-garde alphabetical acromania is a sideshow to the real problem with script in Taiwan. It’s traditional. And that’s no good for their mainland neighbors looming to the left who insist on a simplified version.

Last month President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) spoke in favor of juxtaposing traditional and simplified Chinese in textbooks for schools for overseas Taiwanese.

“Ma caught the ire of lawmakers across the political spectrum in June last year when he expressed the hope that Taipei and Beijing could reach an agreement on the teaching of traditional and simplified Chinese characters at schools for overseas Taiwanese and Chinese, so that students would be taught to read traditional characters and write simplified characters.

“‘Academics from the mainland said many young people now read traditional Chinese because they listen to Jay Chou’s [周杰倫] songs so much that they just learn it like that,’ he said.

“Many people in Singapore and Malaysia also learned Mandarin by watching Taiwanese TV programs, he said, and many Chinese living in North America watch Taiwanese political programs more frequently than those living in Taiwan.

“‘It is a good thing to see a common language bridge the gap between Chinese around the world through modern technology,’ he said.”

Simplified Chinese is used and is the official writing system in mainland China (PRC) and in Singapore. Traditional Chinese is used and is the official writing system in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Important to keep in mind that the variants of Mandarin Chinese spoken in each region vary by more than character set alone.



  1. Cmon people, keep in mind too that not every character has been simplified, only some of the more complicated forms. Plus, this simplification of characters did follow some logical principles.

  2. Eric Talbert says:

    This tool converts Simplified Chinese characters to Traditional (Complex) Chinese characters and vice versa. I have not fully tested this tool. It works on IE. – http://www.khngai.com/chinese/tools/convert.php

  3. Mainland China interacts more all the time with other Chinese-speaking regions where only traditional forms are used. As a result, Mainland Chinese professionals are increasingly willing and able to work with traditional characters, or fàn tĭ zì. It’s nice to see.

  4. Kamikaze says:

    Traditional just looks a heckuvalot nicer, don’t they?

  5. Ryan Garwood says:

    In the 1950s, the government of Mainland China “simplified” the written forms of many “traditional” characters in order to make learning to read and write the language easier for its then largely illiterate population. My grandmother always said that ‘s when Chinese lost its elegance… something to think about…

  6. Andrew Blatt says:

    “Writing of the Han People.”

  7. Zero says:

    In certain border areas of Mainland China, people can pick up television signals from other Chinese-speaking regions, where all programs have have traditional character subtitling. In these areas, people have learned to recognize, and sometimes to write it.

  8. T-Rex says:

    I’m a Chinese poet and I must say that limiting yourself to just one set can be too, well, limiting. Just as you should become familiar with more than one system for romanizing Chinese pronunciation, learning both traditional and simplified characters will open up that many more resources for you. A good plan might be learning to read both sets, while focusing your writing efforts on just one at first.

    • Ken says:

      Those who slurp alphabet soup to read and write have only so many alpha bits to chose from. Adding new characters to the stock is just not kosher. But ideoglyphic scripts will adopt any old glyph at the drop of a chopstick. Interesting how “simplified” script hasn’t really simplified much at all.

  9. n00b says:

    Characters have been simplifying, evolving, or de-evolving as long as there have been characters. Korea and Japan adopted Chinese characters along the way, and some of the older forms they borrowed and still use have long since disappeared from use in China and Taiwan.

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