Thursday, June 22, 2006

Some reflections on the use of dialects in Taiwanese politics

So, Tuesday night President Chen gave his response to the opposition's attempt to recall him. The opposition was demanding that he appear in the legislature to answer directly to their charges against him, but instead, he gave a two-hour, televised speech almost entirely in Taiwanese (Southern Fujianese), and didn't take any questions.

The following day I noticed a mixture of anger ("Why did he use Taiwanese and not Mandarin? That's lame!) and giddiness about what the Chen might have achieved through his speech.

Why did he use Taiwanese? This is a great question and I invite your comments. My obvious answer is that he was speaking over the opposition and the media who support them directly to his base--the Taiwanese people who can understand the Southern Min dialect.

This could be likened to Bush switching into his Texas drawl act, though with Chen I don't think it is an act. He really did come from South Taiwan; he didn't move down there from Tianmu, as far as I can tell.

What he did might be closer to a Latino politician in Los Angeles giving a televised speech covered by CNN all in Spanish.

The following day the AP dutifully reported that his speech failed to stop the recall from moving forward. It wasn't intended to stop the recall. Chen and his supporters knew all along that nothing he did would stop the opposition. They have been determined to oust him since he came into office.

Chen also knew that an appearance by him in the legislature would only legitimate their political game (of course that is a Green interpretation). Finally, he knew that the media were ready to pounce right after the speech.

So, why did he give it on national TV almost exclusively in Taiwanese? I'll repeat: to consolidate his base and to win back supporters who have been led to doubt him because of the recent scandal accusations against his son-and-law and his wife (two separate scandals).

By speaking in Taiwanese, he was in effect saying: "I am one of you." At the same time, it was intended to exclude everyone else in Taiwan, including the majority of the opposition, as well as to confound the media.

What Chen did was not really too far out of the mold in light of how Taiwanese is used in Taiwanese politics. Since my first exposure to Taiwanese society, I have been fascinated by how Taiwanese politicians switch back and forth between Taiwanese and Mandarin. Obviously, depending on the group, they will use more of one then the other. They use Taiwanese to speech directly to their constituents, and at the same time indicate that those politicians who address them in Mandarin are outsiders/mainlanders who don't have any place as leaders in Taiwanese society.

This doesn't just apply to politics. I don't know how many times I have seen someone on television telling a story in Mandarin, switch into Taiwanese just in time for the punch line. Aw shucks...confounded again.

My friend explained to me the other day. He was driving along, and I was sitting in the passenger seat. Pulling over to ask for directions, he called out to a construction worker walking on the sidewalk. After greeting each other in Taiwanese, the man gave us directions in Mandarin. I wonder if this is similar to Chen's use of Mandarin only when naming policies.

My friend explained that strangers will often greet each other in Taiwanese. It helps to set up a feeling of trust, at least among those who speak Taiwanese. Interestingly, my friend's wife is a Mainlander; her family came to Taiwan from Shandong via Brazil.

This all points to a basic dischotomy I have noticed in Chinese societies, though similar phenomena can certainly be found in other societies; it is the split between locals and outsiders (don't even get me started on: laowai). It is the basic division between people from a locality and those from another locality, sometimes a faraway one. A series of occupations by outsiders (the most notorious being the most recent one led by the KMT) accentuate this dichotomy in Taiwanese society and politics. Other dichotomies also play a role here, such as Northerner/Southerner and Aristocrat/Commoner, those with representation and those without, etc., but I will leave that for another day.

The key here is that the use of Taiwanese works to create a sense of connectedness between people, the feeling of being part of the same tribe. This is at least my take on why Chen used Taiwanese to address the nation.

Obviously, Ma Ying-jeou's televised response the next day was designed to counter the effect of what Chen did. Ma opened with introductory words in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Hakka, apparently to demonstrate that he has a broader view of Taiwan than does Chen. His speaking in Taiwanese and Hakka can be likened to American politicians saying a few words in Spanish to try to win over a Latino audience.

Ma was born in Hong Kong to Hunanese parents, though his family came to Taiwan when he was only an infant.

My favorite line from Ma's speech was when criticized Chen for speaking in Taiwanese: "Several Hakka and Aboriginal friends have come to me and said they didn't understand what the president said." I'll leave it at that.

2 Comments:

Blogger Charlie said...

Why president Chen spoke in Taiwanese (Minnan)? As you mention: "to consolidate his base and to win back supporters who have been led to doubt him because of the recent scandal accusations against his son-and-law and his wife"

But actually there is a problem with this affirmation: "By speaking in Taiwanese, he was in effect saying: "I am one of you." At the same time, it was intended to exclude everyone else in Taiwan, including the majority of the opposition, as well as to confound the media.".

Actually there is a confusion on National Identity on the Taiwanese population, many fluent taiwanese speakers are not Taiwanese people, and many Taiwanese people cannot speak taiwanese, specially young people. Even many politicians who arrived from mainland in 1949 are fluent taiwanese speakers.

Former president Lee Teng-hui pointed this problem (2005/09/04), the lack of a national identity, and the mislead by politicians using their Taiwanese "roots" and using taiwanese in public speeches.

I think president Chen Shui-bian is a great politician, and he is trying his best to make Taiwan a democratic country, but I think his use of taiwanese (Minnan, Hoklo) doesn't benefits in anything to build a national identity, instead it only worsens the existing ethnical divisions.

Hakka people and "Yuanzhu Min" (aborigines) are also Taiwanese people as the ones who were born in Taiwan after 1949 and only speak Mandarin.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Wulingren said...

Great comments, Charlie. This is really enlightening. Thanks! I'd like to move this to the front page, if you don't mind.

9:51 PM  

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