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Hanyu, Tongyong: survival of the fittest?

Taiwan is the Galapagos Islands of romanization systems. Nowhere in the world do romanization systems thrive as they do in Taiwan. The many systems coexist and even evolve, allowing the occasional mutation, in every corner of the island.

Some places use Tongyong Pinyin and some use Hanyu Pinyin. Others hang on to vestiges of older romanization systems like Mandarin Phonetic Symbols 2 (MPS2), Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR), Chinese Postal Map Romanization (CPMR) and Wade-Giles. Still others take their own creative liberties and disregard romanization rules altogether or mix-and-match these with wild abandon.

Much political controversy has surrounded romanization’s main contenders in Taiwan, where the battle of Hanyu vs. Tongyong has been waging for years.

Hanyu Pinyin was adopted in 1979 by the People’s Republic of China and is the Chinese Romanization system recognized by the United Nations and many other countries. Hanyu even replaced China’s former method of phonetic instruction, Zhuyin Fuhao, more commonly known as Bopomofo, which is still taught in Taiwan (and Taiwan only).

Tongyong Pinyin is a modified version of Hanyu adopted by Taiwan in 2002 (and Taiwan only).

But is this romanization diversity really called for?

Taipei City says a resounding “no.” The central government says a resounding “maybe, maybe not.”

The capital city has overridden the 2002 administrative order and converted to Hanyu Pinyin.

“The (Taipei City) government has long realized that Taiwan cannot be isolated from the international community and Hanyu pinyin is in a better position to link Taiwan to the outside world,” said Wu Ching-chi, director of Taipei City’s education department, which is in charge of implementing the romanization system in the city.

“The system is in line with the construction of a bilingual environment in the city. It is more internationally acceptable, and it is more cost-efficient to adopt the system,” he added.

As for whether he perceives this issue to be political or not, he makes it quite clear: “Adopting Hanyu Pinyin has not hurt the nation’s pride and identity...and has nothing to do with political disputes.”

The central government disagrees. According to Wu Sung-lin, director of the Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission (RDEC), in charge of the Executive Yuan’s Action Plan for Creating an English-friendly Environment, “it is definitely a political issue.”

A very delicate political issue, apparently, since the central government is iffy about taking a clear stance. “While we support Tongyong pinyin, there is no regulation that requires every government agency to adopt it officially,” said Wu. “We respect local governments and agencies in whatever system they choose.”

“We do wish to standardize (romanization) for foreigners, but we can’t impose a particular system. We do realize this situation is not ideal,” Wu added.

As for the future of romanization systems, it seems that this diversity will continue thriving. “We have no immediate plans to standardize romanization systems throughout the country. To (do this) would take too much money,” said Lilan Chuang, deputy director of the RDEC.

So what has the central government done to ameliorate this catch-22 situation?

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