The Washington Post reported on changes to Taiwan's language policy a couple of days ago:
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 [sic] 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.
These changes were probably inevitable -- though I have never been in favor of them. It is fascinating to watch how both sides share the same assumptions about cultural imperialism -- Beijing defines what "being Chinese" means, and Taiwan either accepts this or rejects this. The weird fact is that the government here is recognizing other Chinese languages as national languages -- and both sides regard this as becoming less Chinese. In fact, I am sure that the pro-China crowd is going to scream that increased use of Chinese languages like Hakka and Taiwanese is an act of "de-Sinicization." Pro-China legislators actually made that charge yesterday:
Lawmaker after opposition lawmaker grilled Su on the language bill, which was condemned as another move to de-Sinicize Taiwan.
Opponents of the proposed bill describe it as one "to get rid of guo yu."
Sadly, by insisting on only one unitary Chinese culture defined by Beijing, Beijing is strangling the development of Chinese culture. In the later stages of the Cold War era scholars descried the way Taiwan was falsely presented as an idealized Chinese cultural location, where you had to go to get the Authentic Chinese Culture because the Communists had killed it in China. Ironically, this is now slowly becoming true: as Taiwan attempts to permit a number of different Sinic cultures to flourish under the rubric of Chinese/Taiwanese culture, China is slowly making everyone learn Mandarin and bow to Beijing's definition of what Chinese culture is. China is becoming a state that has never existed in Chinese history -- unified under one government, speaking only one language, enjoying a unitary culture -- whereas Taiwan is looking more and more like China used to look -- one government, many languages in use, and a diversity of cultures.
Meanwhile the Washington Post has positioned the story somewhat incorrectly. Taiwan is not getting rid of the official language; it is merely elevating the status of the other languages. As the Taipei Times reported the other day:
"The core purpose of the bill is to prevent native tongues from dying out as a result of `incorrect' language policies that were adopted by the government in the past," Su said.
Su was responding to a question from Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Su Chi (
蘇起), who asked whether the government was planning to make Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) rather than Mandarin Chinese, the official language.
The Chinese-language United Daily News reported yesterday that all languages would in future be regarded as "national languages."
Su said that the new policy was intended to preserve all languages rather than encouraging their extinction by forcing everybody to use Mandarin Chinese. All languages should be regarded as "national languages," but there is still only one "official language," he said.
Council for Cultural Affairs Chairman Chiu Kun-liang (邱坤良) noted that, more than a decade ago, UNESCO listed Taiwan as a place where mother tongues are vanishing.
Language-wise Taiwan will probably resemble the US, where English is more or less the official language, but many other languages are officially recognized.