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Friday, September 21, 2007


Disecting Ma Ying-Jeou's "台灣是中華民國"

Feiren's post "Linguistic nuance?" discussed the meaning of 台灣是中華民國 that Ma Ying-jeou claimed. Here is my take on that subject, based certainly not on professional linquistic studies but on my education and life long experience of usage.

Conditional Interpretation of "是"

In English, the "is" in "Jason is a dog" and that in "Jason is strong" do not have the same meaning. This indicates that the meaning of "is" in "A is B" depends on what A and B are.

This happens to be the situation in "是" in Mandarin too. Consider the following:

(1) 她是我媽媽 (She is my mother)
(2) 白馬是馬 (White horses are horses)
Obviously in (1) the character "是" means "equivalent", but in (2) it is not. In (2), more precise meaning of "是" is:

白馬是馬的一種 (white horses are one type of horses)
So "是" here means "one of".

This shows that in "A 是 B" the meaning of "是" depends on what A and B are.

The most important requirement for "是" to be of meaning of "one of" in cases like "A 是 B" is that

-- The B has to be a collective term
-- Any member inside B can be called B as well
-- A is equivalent to a single B or is a subset of collection B

In madarin there's no plaural form for a noun. So there are some terms/characters sometimes refer to its singular form, and some other times refer to its plaural form.

The "B" in "A 是 B" has to be in this category for the "是" to mean "one of".

In short, only when "B is a collection of Bs" and "A is a B", can "是" mean "one of". Under this situation, "A 是 B" means "A is one of Bs".


Some examples will help to understand this.


白馬是馬 (White horses are horses) -- The character "馬" is used as a collective term, meaning "a collection of all horses", in which every single member in this collection is a "馬" too. In this case, "是" means "one of."


可口可樂是飲料 ("Coca-Cola is [a] beverage) -- Here, the term 飲料 is a collection of objects and each object is called 飲料 too. In this case, "是" means "one of."


男人是人 (Men are human) -- 人 is a collection of all 人, and 男人 is a subset of this collection. In this case, "是" means "one of."


她是我媽媽 (She is my mother) -- The term 媽媽 couldn't be "a collection of 媽媽", 'cos you can have only one mom. Therefore "是" here couldn't possibly be "one of". It can only mean "equivalent".


他是我弟弟 (He is my younger brother) -- This is a more complicated case in which 弟弟 could mean "the only younger brother" or "a collection of all my younger brothers". So this could mean "He = my younger brother" or "He is one of my younger brothers."

The above examples demonstrate that there are very specific situations in which the madarin "是" can be interpretated as "one of."

"Part-Of" Distortion of "是"

One important point is, although "是" can be "one of" in some specific situations, it could NEVER mean "part of".


手臂是人 (an arm is a person) -- If "是" can be interpretated as "part of", then this sentence should have been correct. But it is obviously not. The "是" here can't even be "one of" (an arm is one of a person).

Note that in this case:

a. Even though "人 is a collection of all 人", but "手臂" couldn't possibly be equivalent to the member of this collection.
b. Even though 人 could be "a collection of all body parts," none of the body parts could be called 人 in its singular form.
It will only make sense if it is revised as:

手臂是人的一部份 (an arm is a part of a person)
Therefore, to describe "A is a part of B" in Mandarin, you would NEVER say "A 是 B", because in Mandarin the character "是" never means -- or even remotely hints -- "part of."


台灣是中華民國 (Taiwan is ROC) -- This is an analog to Example-6. Obviously, ROC is NOT "a collection of all ROCs", therefore "是" here couldn't possibly be "one of." It couldn't possibly be "part of" either, 'cos, as suggested above, "是" could never mean "part of."

So the only possible correct interpretation for "是" in "台灣是中華民國" is "equivalent to": "台灣=中華民國"; "台灣" and "中華民國" are exactly the same thing. I believe this is why Tim Maddog is eager to ask Ma Ying-jeou this question: "Does your definition of 'ROC' include Beijing, Tibet, and Mongolia?" Because Ma now suggests 台灣是中華民國, and in Mandarin the only interpretation for it is that Taiwan is exactly the same as ROC, and that would mean "Beijing, Tibet, and Mongolia" are no longer ROC's territory, which is a violation to the claim of pan-blue that Beijing, Tibet, and Mongolia still belong to ROC.

To describe "Taiwan is part of ROC", as Ma intends to, correctly in mandarin, you have to say:

台灣是中華民國的一部份 -- "Taiwan is part of China". Here "是" means "equivalent to".

台灣是中華民國的省 -- Taiwan is one of ROC's provinces. Here 中華民國的省 means a collection of all 中華民國的省s, and "是" therefore means "one of"
Saying that 台灣是中華民國 means "Taiwan is part of ROC" is a two-fold distortion of the meaning of "是":

First, it distorts ROC as a collection of ROCs;
Secondly, it distorts the meaning of "是" as "part of";
It's as rediculous as saying that the phrase "手臂是人" and "手臂是人的一部份" are equivalent.

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At 11:04 AM, Blogger Naruwan said...

Nah! Ma just made that pronouncement to seem like he was breaking with the old dogMA (geddit?), safe in the knowledge that if needed he could fudge and dodge with semantics about the definitions of "Taiwan" and "R.O.C." til the cows come home.

I honestly think he threw that out there more as a kind of Mid-Autumn riddle, a distraction, rather than a policy statement.

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Taiwan Echo said...

That could be the case.

I do think that Ma really don't have any idea where he is going in his elite brain. So when pressed, he has to say something and he will just give you what he has in mind at the time the question is raised. Ask him next time he will change the answer.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger N.J said...

The correct definitions of Taiwan and ROC is Taiwan is part of ROC.
The reality is Taiwan is already a de facto independent state. It's offical title is ROC. If there is no ROC, there is no independent Taiwan. If there is no free Taiwan, there is no ROC. I think all in Taiwan understand this.

At 3:45 AM, Blogger Taiwan Echo said...

n.j: The correct definitions of Taiwan and ROC is Taiwan is part of ROC.
The reality is Taiwan is already a de facto independent state. It's offical title is ROC.

If Taiwan is an independent state with official name=ROC, then "Taiwan" and "ROC" means the same thing.

Then how can Taiwan be part of ROC ?

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Sean Su said...

Off topic: can one of you guys make a Facebook Cause called Taiwan Matters!?

I think a lot of us would join.

Just a thought.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Michael Turton said...

Sean, there is already such a facebook group.


At 5:27 PM, Blogger channing said...

I'm not sure about composing two hours of analysis for a two-second slip of mouth...this whole Taiwan/ROC thing is fairly straightforward. Taiwan is legally part of a sovereign entity named ROC--any other interpretations are purely cooked up.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Michael Turton said...

Taiwan is not legally part of the ROC, Channing. It's an established in international law that a government in exile cannot make itself the government of the territory it is exiled to, just as the Free French government could never become the government of the UK. The ROC did not own Taiwan prior to its exile here; sovereignty belonged to Japan until 1951. The ROC is a useful fiction, but no more than that. Its days are numbered -- either the locals will declare independence, or the Chinese will stamp it out.


At 11:30 PM, Blogger channing said...

Sure, that's possible if the government changes the constitution first--that is, if the DPP can even get that to pass.

The government named ROC governs Taiwan, whether one likes it or not.

At 11:31 PM, Blogger channing said...

Sorry; one more comment about Japanese sovereignty--it was every bit as legal as the ROC's is. Not very legal or morally correct, but very effective, factual and established.


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