Taiwan mulls abandoning official language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Mar 21 12:41:56 UTC 2007


Monday, March 19, 2007  Last updated 11:15 p.m. PT

Taiwan mulls abandoning official language


TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwan is considering abandoning its long-standing
policy of recognizing Mandarin Chinese as the island's only official
language, the premier said Tuesday, in a move that would likely anger
rival China. Su Tseng-chang said the Cabinet is examining a draft for a
"National Language Development Act" to promote the use of local dialects
and prohibit linguistic discrimination.

"Taiwan is a plural society, and all languages should have equal standing
and be respected and supported," Su said, indicating an intention to
confer equal status on the Taiwanese dialect of Chinese, as well as Hakka,
another Chinese dialect. Such a move would likely be renounced by Beijing,
which regards Taiwan as part of its territory and opposes any efforts by
the island's leadership to loosen cultural and other bonds. Taiwanese is
widely spoken by descendants of Chinese immigrants who arrived on the
island in the 17th and 18th centuries, but is less well known by the
families of people who fled to the island in 1949 after the defeat of
Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists at the hands of the Communists.

The earlier Chinese immigrant descendants make up the core constituency of
Su's Democratic Progressive Party - many of whose members favor Taiwanese
independence. In contrast, most 1949 immigrant families support the
Nationalists and favor its plank of eventual unification with Beijing.
Su's announcement is consistent with recent efforts to distance Taiwan
from mainland China in the run-up to this December's legislative elections
and March 2008 presidential poll. Other DPP moves included scrapping a
government body charged with supervising eventual unification with the
mainland and attacking the legacy of Chiang, who was an avatar of the
unification doctrine.

President Chen Shui-bian made promotion of local dialects one of the
centerpieces of his campaign when he first ran for Taiwan's top office in
2000. Since then he has frequently used Taiwanese in speeches,
particularly when appealing directly to his core DPP constituency. In the
1950s and '60s, Taiwan government policy banned the use of Taiwanese and
Hakka in schools and radio broadcasts, but that prohibition was gradually
set aside.

Mandarin was made China's official language after a series of student
protests in 1919, and achieved the same status in Taiwan when the Japanese
were forced from the island following their defeat in World War II. The
indigenous dialect of Beijing and other parts of northern China, Mandarin
is vastly different from Taiwanese, which is native to the mainland's
Fujian province, the source of the vast majority of pre-1949 Taiwanese


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