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Pinyin move hurts Taiwan's pluralism

Kaohsiung City government said that it needed to take NT$216 million to change the traffic signs.

Kaohsiung City government said that it needed to take NT$216 million to change the traffic signs.

On September 16, a cross-ministerial commission of the right-wing Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) Cabinet resolved to change our official romanization system for Chinese characters from the current Taiwan - developed Tongyong system to the Hanyu Pinyin system used by the People's Republic of China.
At the same time, the Cabinet decided to deny any subsidies or official support to any internet or cultural promotion projects that do not use Hanyu Pinyin.
These decisions took place in the context of an intense professional and ideological controversy in the late 1990s over how to end the chaos in Taiwan's Chinese character transliteration systems for transliteration, city names, street signs and language instruction.
Frankly, that fact that each romanization system has its advantages and disadvantages for different purposes was, unfortunately, not appreciated and battlelines were drawn between the Hanyu and Tongyong systems, which are 90 percent similar.
The politically derived hegemony of Hanyu Pinyin derived from China's global clout must be balanced against the difficulty for persons unfamiliar with Chinese and with the Cyrillic alphabet to correctly pronounce its "zh" and "x" and "c" sounds.
Although the systems are broadly similar, the Tongyong system arguably is easier for non-Chinese and non-Russian speakers to pronounce with an understandable approximation to standard Chinese pronunciation.
Moreover, Tongyong's structure also allows its use to romanize other Sinitic languages spoken in Taiwan besides the Beijing dialect, such as Hoklo (or Minnan) and Hakka and can better embody the value of lingual pluralism, a value absent from the arbitrary Hanyu Pinyin system which can only be used to transliterate the Beijing dialect.
In any case, two years after the Democratic Progressive Party took office in May 2000, Tongyong was adopted as the official romanization system, but the DPP government notably decided to make its use in civic society voluntary. Since then, 68 percent of central government agencies and local governments have adopted the Tongyong system despite the resistence of KMT - administered districts such as Taipei City, which adopted Hanyu Pinyin. Changing this policy in midstream will involve considerable costs and intensify burdens on fiscally strapped local governments.
Ironically, Taipei City has not been consistent as it has yet to adopt the "correct" Hanyu Pinyin romanization of "Taibei," while KMT President and former Taipei City mayor Ma, who publicly declared that Taiwan needs to use the PRC system to "link with international society," still uses his idiosyncratic "Ying-jeou" instead of the "Yingjiu."
Indeed, the argument that sole adoption of Hanyu Pinyin is essential for Taiwan's internationalism is something of a false issue. For example, different spellings coexist without claims that the "internationalization" of the United States or England has been hindered because the English spell words like "color" or "labor" with a "u."
Monism or pluralism
In Taiwan, the gravest problem involved in the adoption of Hanyu Pinyin as the "sole" standard concerns the fact that it is totally locked on the Beijing dialect of standard Chinese (Mandarin), which the KMT regime imposed on Taiwan as the sole "national language" in the late 1940s.
Even though the PRC backed system is dominant internationally, it simply cannot adjust to the multilingual, multiethnic and multicultural reality of Taiwan society and its compulsory use will repeat the historical injustice imposed on Taiwan society by the KMT through the imposition of the Beijing dialect as the sole "national language" on Taiwan during its four-decade authoritarian period.
Even though the Ministry of Education claimed that the adoption of Hanyu Pinyin "is unrelated" to "Taiwan centrism or internationalism" or" unification or independence," the decision to deny subsidies or project awards to civic groups that desire to continue to use Tongyong is evidently aimed to punish groups that adopted Tongyong and to indirectly make use of Hanyu Pinyin compulsory.
The ultimate result of this policy will be to promote linguistic and cultural uniformity under a monist "Chinese" system and to unify Taiwan's writing system with that used in the PRC.
The KMT's decision to cut of subsidies to websites that use Tongyong shows that it has turned its back on the practice of the former DPP government to promote use of Tongyong by local governments, civic society and individual citizens voluntarily and has taken an unfortunate step backward toward the imposition of a China-centric uniformity on Taiwan's pluralistic and multilingual civil society.
We believe that this complex issue is best resolved by a pluralistic method of adopting one system for official government use through a deliberative democratic process and allowing civic society, the private sector, individual citizens and even local governments make their own decision based on their distinct needs and respect for the dignity of all of Taiwan's languages and cultures.
We therefore condemn the KMT government's decision to deny subsidies to other internet or cultural development projects that use other transliteration systems and urge its reversal for the sake of Taiwan's lingual and cultural diversity and ethnic harmony.