Judy Heflin delves into the complexities of the Chinese dialect or topolect spoken in the former Formosa or ‘beautiful island’
According to the 2015 edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World, there are a total of 1.38 billion Chinese speakers in the world. However, despite the Chinese government pushing to establish a unified standardization, many variants of the language can also be considered Chinese. The sweeping title of “Chinese” erases a complex history of a constantly evolving language and the controversial political influence of warring regions.
Dialects vs. Topolects
China is made up of 56 recognized ethnic groups, and though their languages technically make up “the languages of China,” these languages don’t all belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family of which Chinese is a part. Modern Standard Mandarin, or Modern Standard Chinese, was created from the formerly prestigious Beijing dialect and is now an official language of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and Singapore. However, Mandarin is just one of the numerous varieties of Chinese, many of which are mutually unintelligible, blurring the line between dialect and language.
There is some confusion about the English translation of fangyan, literally translated as “regional speech,” again calling to importance the distinction between a dialect and a topolect. A dialect is defined as a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or group. However, the varieties of regional speech in China are frequently so peculiar that speakers from different regions cannot understand each other. The new term, topolect, to define the unique case of regional speech in China was coined by Victor Mair, a scholar of Chinese language and literature. The term can be used to classify a distinct language when the simple criterion of mutual intelligibility is not politically or socially acceptable as a qualification for a unique language. He cites that several varieties of Southwestern Mandarin are so distinct that if it weren’t for the dominant social and historical view of Chinese as a unitary language, they would be considered distinct languages.
The prefix dia- in dialect means “going apart or diverging,” alluding to the slight movement away from an original language. The prefix topo- in topolect means place or region, while -lect means “language or language variety.” This emphasis on region is important to consider when two varieties of a language cannot be understood by each other, but the languages are still politically and socially agreed to be of the same variety.
Taiwanese and Mainland Mandarin
Taiwanese, or Taiwanese Standard Mandarin, is different from the Standard Chinese of Mainland China. It is still debated whether Taiwanese is a dialect or a topolect, but either way it is considered a variant of Mandarin Chinese. Although speakers of the two tongues will more or less be able to communicate through the different accents, certain words can cause serious cultural misunderstandings. For example, “potato” in Standard Mandarin is 土豆, but in Taiwanese the same word with the same pronunciation and ideograms (tǔdòu) means “peanut.” Another difference is that Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, while Mainland China more often uses simplified characters. In Mainland China, these characters are usually typed onto phones and computers in Pinyin, a standardized system of romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese, while in Taiwan they more frequently type in Zhuyin, which is a strictly phonetic system that is not hindered by the Roman alphabet. Still, the Chinese-language student should not be worried about choosing to learn Taiwanese Mandarin or Mainland Mandarin as understanding can be achieved with very little adjustment.
Standard Mandarin Chinese has been the officially sanctioned language of instruction in schools in Taiwan since the island’s handover to the Republic of China in 1945. Taiwan was previously a colony of the Empire of Japan until the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. During Japan’s colonization, language policy went from tolerant to strict, and the Chinese language was banned from public spaces just before the handover. The Chinese Nationalist Party brought with it the newly standardized Mandarin Chinese language and a new ban against Japanese. The implementation of this language switch was executed poorly, but happened in an environment where many different language communities were striving for a standardized tongue under oppressive language policies, resulting in Taiwanese.
The categorization of Taiwanese is more controversial than other variations of the Chinese language because of this political division. After the island’s handover to the Republic of China, Mainlanders began to arrive, butting cultural heads with the native Taiwanese people. During the Chinese Civil War, the influx of Mainlanders was particularly significant, as the Chinese Nationalist Party retreated to Taiwan after losing to the Communist Party of China in 1949. The government began its ban on Taiwanese in favor of Mandarin, eventually banning the language from schools and official settings in 1964. This oppression continued until the lifting of martial law in 1987. Taiwan’s martial law created a period of strict political censorship; for a time, newspapers could not exceed six pages, new political parties could not be formed, and the right to assembly was severely limited. When martial law was lifted, Taiwan saw a surge of movements to promote the Taiwanese language.
The language that is represented by the name Taiwanese is technically called Taiwanese Mandarin, the variant of Mandarin Chinese that stemmed from Taiwan’s colonial history. Some feel that calling the language Taiwanese belittles other languages spoken on the island, such as Taiwanese Hakka, Taiwanese Hokkien, and other aboriginal languages that were part of the Taiwan region long before the influence of Standard Mandarin. The Chinese Nationalist Party punished people for speaking minority languages until around 1987. Indigenous-language broadcasts in Hakka or Min weren’t allowed until 1993, and the Hakka Affairs Council, a cabinet-level unit under the executive branch of the Taiwanese government, was founded in 2001.
Some prefer to call Taiwanese Southern Min or Hokkien, with the perspective that Taiwanese is a variant of Mandarin Chinese from the Fujian province of Mainland China. However, the unavoidable influence of these non-Mandarin languages in Taiwan during the language’s evolution greatly contributed to the creation of Taiwanese as it is today. As the languages continue to blend, some worry that many will disappear at the widespread hand of Standard Chinese, while others react positively to the potential of a China unified by one language.
AP. “Remembering Taiwan’s martial law.” The New York Times. Retrieved 8 October 2011. Hakka Affairs Council. http://www.hakka.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=126340&ctNode=2342&mp=2321&ps=
Roy, Denny. (2003). Taiwan: A Political History. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
“Summary by language size.” Ethnologue. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
Mair, Victor H. “What is a Chinese ‘Dialect/Topolect’?” Sino-Platonic Papers, 29 September 1991.
Judy Heflin received her BA in comparative literature in Seoul, South Korea. She has written for publications in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles. She speaks limited Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese.