The Cost of Pinyin Disputed in Taiwan

October 21, 2008 3:26 pm Last Updated: October 22, 2008 12:20 pm

TAIPEI—When the Kuomintang administration announced plans to standardize Taiwan’s system of Romanizing Chinese characters in early October, the projected financial cost was not the only thing in dispute.

The Minister of Education, Cheng Jei-cheng, said that the cost would not exceed NT$1 billion (US$30.69 million), the Central News Agency (CNA) reported on October 21. During the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Parliament, Jei-cheng repudiated other reports that it would cost NT$7-8 billion to fully make the switch.

The Ministry of Education plans to supersede both the Wade-Giles Romanization traditionally used in Taiwan, and the recently introduced, politically-charged Tongyong Pinyin system, with the international standard, Hanyu Pinyin, which was invented in Mainland China.

According to the Taipei Times, seven local government chiefs in the south of the country, all members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), released a statement expressing their displeasure soon after the announcement was made. They said a preliminary estimate of the cost of converting public signs across the seven counties was NT$500 million (US$15.44 million).

The Kaohsiung City Government also brought further complaints. They had only recently finished a two year program turning the majority of their signage to Tongyong Pinyin, under the previous DPP government, and did not want to spend NT$213 million in another round of conversion.

The Tongyong Pinyin system raises another complication. It was instituted by the DPP government close to a decade ago, in what some commentators saw as a political move to strike a differentiation from mainland China by not using Hanyu Pinyin. It was argued that Tongyong Pinyin could handle Romanization of the other languages spoken in Taiwan beside Mandarin.

Tongyong Pinyin, Hanyu Pinyin and Wade-Giles are different systems of turning Chinese characters into words formed by the Roman alphabet. Wade-Giles is the system traditionally used in Taiwan, which produces words such as Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching as opposed to Hanyu’s Laozi’s Dao De Jing. Although Wade-Giles is still used in other places around the world, Hanyu Pinyin has overwhelmingly become the international standard.

Apart from the cost, detractors argue that the move to Hanyu Pinyin endangers Taiwan’s pluralism, while others warn that the measures be allowed to extend only so far. The issue has become enmeshed in perennial questions of Taiwanese politics and nationalism. The question of which Romanization system to use is linked with the various pro or anti-China stances.

A staunch editorial in the local Taiwan News, for example, defends the Tongyong system and argues that the move to Hanyu Pinyin will stifle cultural pluralism in the country. They suggest that use of Hanyu system will only serve to “promote linguistic and cultural uniformity under a monist ‘Chinese’ system, and to unify Taiwan’s writing system with that used in the PRC.”

Mr Aquia Tsay, President of the Taiwan Association of University Professors, told The Epoch Times in a telephone interview that this is another instance of Chinese influence extending into Taiwan: “In Taiwan, why do we have to follow their rules?” he asked.

“We are against Hanyu Pinyin in Taiwan, we already have Tongyong Pinyin for Mandarin, which has already been used for street names… When you come to Taiwan or I go to your country I should follow whatever you have. I don’t think your country has to do something because it has to be the same as other countries,” he said.

In other quarters, however, the change is seen as most welcome. Since Hanyu Pinyin is used around the world, advocates say that Taiwan’s conformity with it will make things easier for foreigners in Taiwan, and boost the country’s competitiveness by bringing it in line with international standards. Any move to simplify the Chinese characters, however, would be met with fierce resistance, according to the Taipei Times.

Others simply regard the switch as unnecessary use of taxpayers’ money. The China Post, for example, thought the Ministry of Education had enough to do, and that foreigners in China will get along just fine regardless of which Romanization system is used.