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Monday, September 17, 2007


Linguistic nuance?

OK, I swore I wouldn't get dragged into these word games, but I think this one does make a interesting linguistic point. According to the China Times, the text of Ma's speech on Saturday to the half-hearted return to the UN rally in Taichung had the following sentence:


Taiwan is the Republic of China

In the torturous world of KMT discourse, this is another reluctant step toward normalization of the KMT as the Taiwan KMT.

But the deep blue theologists immediately began turning hermeneutic circles, claiming that this was not the same as saying:

The Republic of China is Taiwan.

While the two sentences probably have to be translated into English as if they mirror one another, the deep blues are insisting that they are not equivalent. Their point is that while Taiwan is a part of the Republic, the Republic is not equivalent to Taiwan. In other words, the sentence can be read as A is equivalent to B, or A is subsumed into B. This is why the deep blues can accept the first formulation because it leaves open the reading 'Taiwan is subsumed in the ROC' but reject the second since it admits two two unacceptable readings: The ROC is equivalent to Taiwan (and therefore its territory does not include China and Mongolia) or the ROC is subsumed into Taiwan (with the same or perhaps even worse implications).

As far-fetched as this hair splitting may sound, I think it is grounded in linguistic reality. The two formulations are not reciprocal.

To confirm this, a KMT spokesman has tried to split the difference and force the reading that 'Taiwan is the ROC' actually is, as they like to say 'in the same spirit' as :

The ROC is on/in Taiwan

Watch that weasel phrase 'in the spirit of' because it is a sure sign that you are trying to make two different things equivalent. Chen Shui-bian tried a similar rhetorical sleight of hand a few years ago when he tried pretend that he was sort of accepting the fictitious 1992 consensus by suggesting that talks with China resume on the basis of the spirit of that consensus. China didn't buy it just we shouldn't buy this one.

But turning back to the linguistic debate, note how the DPP has immediately seized on the asymmetry of the two formulations (Taiwan = ROC != ROC =Taiwan) by demanding that Ma say how big the ROC really is. In other words, does the ROC, in Ma's view from Alice in Wonderland, still in include China and Mongolia?

Round and round they go. But I don't think Ma can come out of this a winner by hedging around the key issue of identifying (in all the senses of the wold) with Taiwan. Linking the ROC with Taiwan will not enough. Ma is being forced to say something that he fundamentally does not believe and he is hedging to get out of it. And the more he talks about it, the greater his discomfort is revealed to be and the better the focus on fundamental nonreality of his position.

A-Gu's reading is close to mine, but I think we differ slightly in our conclusions in that I don't think Ma has taken another step, I think hes been forced to and now he's trying wth limited to success to spin his way out of it for the Deep Blues.

A Formosa TV story last night on an event to celebrate the founding of an organization known as Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce for Ma encapsulated Ma's difficulties well. As a businesswoman from Hong Kong went to the stage to present Ma with a doll of Wang Chien-ming, the MC intoned in a heavy Taiwan guoyu accent "The Glory of Taiwan" (taiwan zhi guang), as the Wanger is known among the heavy breathing set. The businesswoman immediately said that Wang was 'Glory of the Republic of China.

Ma later drove home this clumsily bifurcated message by saying:


The Republic of China' is the our country's official name. The Republic of China has been on/in Taiwan for so long that that it has been tightly bound together with Taiwan. So I'm running for President of the Republic of China. There are also some people who say that I am running for the Republic of China's Taiwan, but no matter what, I'm not running for the president of the Taiwanese state.

Implicit in Ma's comments is that his vaunted linking of the ROC to Taiwan really means a subordination of Taiwan to the Republic of China. Like all Confucians he instinctively buries hierarchies of power in faux gestures to harmony. And that Taiwan is not a state while the fictional Republic is. See Ma squirm.

OK, that's quite enough close reading for one day.


At 3:32 AM, Blogger Tim Maddog said...

Man, that's pure Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) "logic" for ya! The word "is" is not the linguistic equivalent of the mathematical equal sign.

A simple example should suffice to destroy such "logic." "Mothers are women" reversed becomes "Women are mothers." Since there are lots of women who aren't mothers and will never be mothers, the fallacy is exposed forthwith. The statements of Ma and Kuo seem to have been made "in the spirit of" deceiving voters who are much smarter than they give them credit for being.

Extracting Ma's answer to another simple question should send the KMT spinning themselves into a wormhole once and for all: "Does your definition of 'ROC' include Beijing, Tibet, and Mongolia?" I can't wait to see him try to squirm out of that one!

Tim Maddog

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Feiren said...

Mmm..but I think there logic is actually based on the realities of Chinese. That was the point I originally want to extract from this dross.

Shi usually has to be translated as 'is' but it is not the is of being and mathematical equivalence. And in this case, we are actually working with that slippery binome jiushui which is very much not the same as plain old shi.

What is really happening here is that the Blues are shifting between two plausible readings a it suits their convenience, but they are committing the cardinal sin of Chinese semantics by taking Ma's statement out of its natural context in which its Taiwanese interlocutors heard a statement of equality between the ROC and Taiwan.

I agree that this kind of reading is deceptive and will only annoy voters who immediately see the lack of good faith (cheng) in Mas statements. That's a big problem for Ma because not only does point up the lie in his efforts to connect the ROC and Taiwan, it also erodes his own stock in trade, which is his Confucian integrity. Horse hooves are popping out all over the place now.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Tim Maddog said...

Feiren, the Mandarin also works unidirectionally. Another example involving a set-subset might help.

"可口可樂就是飲料" ("Coca-Cola is [most certainly] a beverage") works, but "飲料就是可口可樂" ("Beverages are [most certainly] Coca-Cola") does not.

It is apparent from Ma's long-spinning position that no matter what he says on any given day, his mentality is China-centric, and anyone who's been observing for a decent amount of time would perceive "Taiwan" as a subset within Ma's definition of the ROC -- after all, a big part of his position is that there is but "one China." The question about "Beijing, Tibet, and Mongolia" which I posed earlier would settle the matter for anyone who doubts which side Ma is on. Either way, he's gonna lose this election.

Tim Maddog

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Feiren said...

I think we're very close to saying the same thing on the semantics of what Ma is trying to do here. And it's not helping him.

Alas I disagree with your conclusion. I'm just not convinced that Hsieh can win unless Ma loses it. Which he's doing a pretty good job of so far, but I'm a pessimist at heart.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger channing said...

Ma slipped his mouth, either accidentally or on purpose. "ROC = Taiwan" is a distortion of fact, and if he meant to say it then it's meant for an audience whose ROC-unfriendly minds he wishes to please--or confuse.


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