International Reserach Group for Transregional & Emerging Area Studies
The International Reserach Group for Transregional & Emerging Area Studies is a non-partisan and multidisciplinary Think-Tank Organization.
11:36 - 23 January 2000

The Japanese and Chinese Language Policies in Taiwan: 1895-1995


By Robert Sanders *


What is presented below is not intended as serious history or sociology.  Rather, this is one linguist’s attempt to assess the linguistic impact of two policies undertaken by two different countries on a single community of speakers.  In so doing, it is hoped that the Taiwan experience can become part of a wider discussion of colonialism and bilingualism. To better understand the two policies in question, a brief overview of the history and language of Taiwan up to the time that Japanese colonial rule began there in 1895 is in order.

Tsurumi (p. 3) notes that the first inhabitants of Taiwan were Malayo-Polynesians whose presence there at several sites has been dated to as early as 5,000 BP.  She goes on to say that:

Although the first Chinese settlers probably reached Taiwan in the twelfth century, Chinese immigration never really got underway until the eighteenth century.  At first the migrants came mainly from the province of Fukien across the 150 miles (250 km) of the Taiwan Strait…but soon they were joined by natives of the neighboring province of Kwangtung (Canton).

She also notes that many of these early Chinese ‘migrants’ to Taiwan were single, male agricultural workers who remained there only seasonally, returning to their home villages in Fukien after the growing season was over (ibid., 7-8).

From 1624 to 1662, just prior to the large influx of Han Chinese from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan was under strict Dutch colonial rule.  However, with the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the ‘barbarian’ Manchus in 1644, a large wave of ethnically Han Chinese migrated to Taiwan for the very first time.  Tsurumi (ibid., 6-7) reports that in 1662 the Chinese refugees from Manchu rule threw out the Dutch and used the island as a base for attack against the Qing.  These attacks were carried out from Taiwan until 1683, when the Chinese there were forced to surrender to the Manchu emperor.  At that point Taiwan was made a prefecture of Fukien province (ibid., 6).  Although it was made an administrative part of China in 1683 (ibid., 6), there existed an official ban on migration to Taiwan that lasted until 1760, though large numbers of illegal migrants and traders continued to make their way across the Taiwan Strait throughout the Qing Dynasty (ibid., 7).

It was only in 1887, just eight years before it was ceded to Japan, that Taiwan gained full-fledged status as an independent province (ibid., 8).  Despite this eventual integration into the Chinese Empire, Tsurumi (ibid., 2) notes that:

In the nineteenth century Taiwan was known, among Chinese officials who might have the ill luck to be posted there, as a malaria-ridden hole.  Its inhabitants–two and a half million bellicose Chinese settlers and almost 150,000 headhunting aborigines–were considered even less hospitable than the unhealthy physical environment.

Therefore, it is not unfair to claim that up until 1895 Taiwan only existed on the political and psychological margins of the Chinese Empire.  Furthermore, because almost all of its Chinese inhabitants were native speakers of either Taiwanese (sometimes also called Southern Min) or of Hakka, the population was linguistically ill-prepared to deal smoothly with the problem of learning Mandarin once the Chinese government regained control of the island in 1945.  As we shall see below, however, the nature of the Japanese language policy in its last years in Taiwan made it even harder still for Chinese to learn Mandarin in the first few years of the Chinese Mandarin campaign there.

The Japanese Language Policy

The Japanese colonial language policy in Taiwan, both in terms of its promotion of Japanese and in terms of its tolerance of Chinese, can be divided into at least three or four separate stages, based largely on the educational goals of the particular colonial governor and his government’s degree of concern over the threat of Chinese opposition.

The initial Japanese language policy in Taiwan, covering the governorship of Kodoma Gentaroo (1898-1906),  is described by Tsurumi (ibid., 18) as having several goals, including:

winning support for the new regime; developing a stratum of Taiwanese sufficiently well educated to service the administrative and clerical apparatus of the colonial government; educating Japanese nationals living in Taiwan; popularizing formal education for girls; and producing Taiwanese teachers and medical personnel.  To these ends, common schools, normal schools and medical schools were created.

                It is important to point out that the early colonial governments had very modest educational and vocational goals for the Chinese population.  Their children were to receive their own segregated, six year primary school education, in what were called koogakkoo, or common schools.  Tsurumi (ibid., 18) notes that the existence of these common schools had two aims–to give Taiwanese children a good command of Japanese, and to teach them the ethics and practical knowledge necessary to be good Japanese citizens.  The subjects taught in these common schools included ethics, Japanese language, classical Chinese (composition, reading and calligraphy), arithmetic, music and gymnastics.  It was hoped that graduates of these common schools would be content to follow in their family’s humble footsteps and not harbor any ambitions toward social advancement or further education.

This emphasis on social stability led the colonial educational authorities to target the elite Taiwanese families in an attempt to garner their support for this new type of education.  By doing so, they hoped that the presence of children from these families would serve as a model for other local families to emulate.

However, in order to appeal to the elite of Taiwan who were steeped in the Confucian educational traditions of China, it was necessary to offer them some sort of incentive.  That incentive was the teaching of the Chinese classics, which was offered four to five hours per week in all six years of the common school curriculum.  In comparison, Japanese was initially taught for nine hour per week in each of the six grades.

This tolerance toward the Chinese language was reflected in other aspects of the earlier educational policy as well.  Traditional Chinese private schools, with a curriculum devoted primarily to teaching the prescriptive Chinese classics, were allowed to continue even after the colonial government had established their own public common schools.  That is not to say, however, that these shoboo were given free reign.  Tsurumi (ibid., 30) notes that:

In November 1898 shoboo were placed under the jurisdiction of the colony’s regional administrations, which were instructed to see that hours of instruction were fixed, that only government-general-approved textbooks were used, that shoboo teachers attended summer schools set up by the administration, and that Japanese language and arithmetic were gradually made required subjects.

The tolerance shown toward shoboo, however, was not the only other sign of a more relaxed attitude by early colonial authorities toward the continued use of Chinese by the local population.  Kubler (p. 60) notes that:

Schools could teach in native dialects, books and periodicals could be published in Chinese or imported from China, and scholars could travel freely to Fujian (Fukien) to take part in the annual competitive examinations.

In a further sign that colonial authorities did not feel particularly threatened by the presence of the Taiwanese language, it was actually offered to their own Japanese students enrolled in the highest grades of the Japanese-only public elementary schools (Tsurumi, 33).

 Gradually, however, the policy toward Chinese and the promotion of Japanese of subsequent colonial administrations would change.  In 1911, the year that revolution forever ended imperial rule in China, a directive was sent to all regional administrations demanding more thorough supervision of Chinese school texts and teaching materials used by private shoboo. Tsurumi (ibid., 61) says that:

Specific categories of books published in China were singled out for prohibition.  These included introductory works in ethics, geography, Chinese language, Chinese history.  Local authorities were ordered to encourage the use of Chinese language textbooks written and published in Japan, to see that the Japanese language and arithmetic were taught in all shoboo and to persuade all old-style schoolmasters to take the teacher training courses run by the government.

In 1918 Japanese language instruction in the common schools was increased from nine hours per week to twelve, while the number of hours per week devoted to Chinese language instruction was reduced to just two (ibid. 59).  The impetus for these changes in 1918 was the belief by the new Governor-General Akashi Motojiroo that:

Taiwan might become the center of an international diplomatic incident and Japan might risk losing the island altogether…if the inhabitants of Taiwan were not encouraged to become unmistakably Japanese, (and) if instead an unwise policy of creating an outcast (eta) type of separation was pursued….(Akashi) flatly stated that the Taiwanese must be educated Japanese in order to cement Japan’s hold on Taiwan (ibid., 84).

Therefore Akashi pushed forward a policy of assimilation, which in 1919 featured for the first time opportunities for Taiwanese to study beyond just the six years of common school, though in their own segregated system (ibid.).  With Akashi’s sudden death later that year came a new governor-general, with even bolder plans for the assimilation of the Taiwanese.

This new governor-general, Den Kenjiroo, immediately took two important steps toward this greater assimilation of the Taiwanese.  First, he ended the ban against mixed marriages between Japanese and Taiwanese (ibid., 93).  He also proposed integrating the island’s public educational system, allowing for a certain number of academically and linguistically qualified Taiwanese to attend Japanese-only shoogakkoo, and allowing for Japanese who lived far away from any large city to attend a Taiwanese common school if they so desired.  “During the 1920-1921 academic year sixty-seven Taiwanese children received permission to enter Japanese schools; during the following year 216 Taiwanese children were given this permission (ibid., 95).”

                After this two year experiment had been conducted it was opened up for review.  Not surprisingly, there was tremendous opposition to integration from the Japanese community, and as a result, integrated education at the primary school level was dropped.  “Of all the obstacles to integration they found the language barrier the most obvious (ibid.).”  However, integration remained the official policy from the secondary level on up (ibid., 99).

Accordingly, in 1922, to better assimilate the population and to better prepare those Taiwanese students planning to pursue an integrated education after common school, “the Taiwanese common school curriculum was brought closer to that of the (Japanese) primary school.  Japanese history was added, vocational subjects were shifted to the periphery, and classical Chinese, which was not taught to (Japanese) primary schoolers, was made an elective.  Many schools used this reorganization of subjects as an excuse to drop Chinese altogether (ibid. 99).”  Kubler (p. 60) also notes that in 1922 “the Japanese language officially replaced Chinese as the language of education in all schools.”

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, as Japan’s expansion into Manchuria and elsewhere in China began to unfold, the movement to promote the Japanese language in Taiwan increased.  Huang (1993:91-92) details various government directives and Japanese language training schools that were disseminated and established between 1930 and 1933.  In February of 1937, when Japan and China officially went to war:

The Japanese (colonial government) led a movement to assimilate the Taiwanese as subjects of the Japanese emperor,…and eliminated the use of Taiwanese in the instruction of Chinese.  In April they then stopped the publication of Chinese columns in Japanese newspapers, closed down all of the Chinese shoboo, directed all Taiwanese civil servants to use only Japanese, regardless of whether they were in a public or a private setting, prohibited the use of Chinese, and promoted the use of Japanese in the home (ibid., 92).

Assessing the Linguistic Effect of the Japanese Language Policy

Certainly education is the vehicle by which a colonized population can possibly lose competency in its own native language and be left, rather ironically, with greater fluency in the colonizing language.  The question can thus be asked just what effect the various stages of the Japanese language policy had on the linguistic aptitude and behavior of the Taiwanese population.  To what extent did these colonial subjects retain command of their own native languages and to what degree did they master the language of their colonial overlords?  To properly answer this question it is probably best to consider language from two separate angles–oral fluency and written literacy.

Like all spoken Chinese prior to the 1920s and 1930s, neither Taiwanese nor Hakka had any sort of written tradition.  To this day, being literate in modern Chinese only means being able to write in a manner resembling spoken Mandarin, not that of any of the so-called modern dialects.  However, to be literate in Chinese in Taiwan either before or during the Japanese colonial era meant being able to write in a very terse, classical style not at all resembling the way anyone spoke.  Because of this, only a very small minority of Chinese either in Taiwan or on the Chinese mainland ever became literate.  Therefore, on the macro level, it is very difficult to argue that the Japanese language policy denied the people of Taiwan literacy in their own native language.  This is especially true during the earliest period of Japanese rule, when only a very tiny percentage of the Chinese population were ever enrolled in common schools (see Table 1 below).  On the micro level, however, among the targeted families of the Taiwanese educated elite, the eventual decline in command of classical Chinese at the expense of mastering written Japanese does represent a true loss of literacy in their own native language.

In terms of the spoken language, at a macro level it is doubtful whether Taiwanese or Hakka prior to the 1930s was ever seriously affected by the Japanese language policy.  At the micro level, it is doubtful whether this policy had much affect prior to the second decade of this century.  There are several reasons for these conclusions.

First, the number of Taiwanese Chinese who attended Japanese common schools up through 1906 was stunningly low.  This is shown in Table 1 below (cf. Tsurumi, 19):

Table 1.  Common school attendance, 1898-1906



Percentage of School-Aged Population


Average Daily Attendance (%)


7,548 boys

290 girls



9,932 boys

443 girls



11,759 boys

1,133 girls



15,298 boys

1,657 girls



17,492 boys

2,090 girls




19,800 boys

2,469 girls




21,136 boys

2,896 girls




24,398 boys

3,653 girls




28,186 boys

4,095 girls



Table 2, listing the average daily attendance and common school dropout rates between 1906 and 1918, further confirms the trend shown above, that a common school education was clearly not a high priority for a large proportion of the Taiwanese population.  This being the case, the influence of Japanese on their native languages was minimal (cf Tsurumi, 62-63).

Table 2.  Daily attendance and dropout rates in common schools, 1906-1918


Average Percent Daily Attendance

Percentage Dropout


Percentage Dropout






















































Another reason for arguing that on the macro level the Japanese language policy in Taiwan prior to the 1930s had little effect on the fluency of spoken Taiwanese and Hakka is that up until 1922 precious few opportunities for education beyond the common school existed for Taiwanese.  After completing this six year education they were expected to stop their schooling and become productive cogs in the local economy.

Finally, as late as 1933 the percentage of people in Taiwan who ‘understood’ Japanese was just 22.7% (Huang, 1993:92).  Therefore, one can conclude with a strong sense of certainty that at the macro level both Taiwanese and Hakka continued to enjoy widespread use up until 1933.  The same cannot be said, however, at the micro level for the educated elite.

As early as 1911, because of the lack of opportunities in Taiwan to study beyond the common school, wealthy Taiwanese families were already sending their children to study in Japan (Tsurumi, 66).  This trend continued to increase over time, even after 1922, because the colonial practice of granting preferential admission to Japanese children squeezed out all but the most talented of Taiwanese from the local system.  The result of this keen competition for advanced education among the local educated elite was the premium that they came to place upon the Japanese language.  Once they were educated monolingually in Japanese then they became more at home using Japanese to conduct serious discourse than they were doing so in their own native languages.

The remaining question, then, concerning the linguistic legacy of the Japanese colonial period is to what degree did policies after 1933 or 1937 affect the use and command of Taiwanese and Hakka at the macro level?  As noted above, the overall rate of understanding among the Taiwanese population in 1933 was merely 22.7%.  By 1940, however, it had reached a level of 51% (Huang, 1993:94).  One can only assume that this meteoric rise in Japanese ability among the total population of Taiwan did not slow down very much up through the surrender of Japan in 1945.  Therefore, it is not surprising that in 1946, a member of the Mandarin Promotion Committee on Taiwan listed the following Japanese-related problems in teaching Mandarin to the local population, as reported in Huang (1993:101):

1.  When Taiwanese write compositions they show some degree of influence from Japanese grammar.

2.  When Taiwanese recognize Chinese characters they do so almost exclusively from a Japanese cultural perspective.

3.  When Taiwanese learn Mandarin they have a lot of phonetic influence from Japanese, and the majority of the people use the Japanese method of learning Mandarin.

4.  It is not as easy for Taiwanese to speak Taiwanese as it is for them to speak Japanese.

5.  In communication with others, Taiwanese virtually use Japanese unconsciously.

Clearly the toll on Taiwanese and Hakka over the last few years of the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan was rather great, especially among younger people and those residing in the more urban areas.

The Chinese Language Policy
As mentioned in the introduction, knowing how to speak Taiwanese or Hakka does not prepare one very well to learn how to read or write Chinese.  Nor does it prepare one to be able to attain a mastery of spoken Mandarin.  The prominent Chinese linguist Y. R. Chao once said that spoken Cantonese (a southern variety of Chinese) differs from the spoken language of Peking by approximately the same degree as spoken English differs from spoken German.  That is to say, a speaker from one city trying to carry on a conversation with a speaker from the other city would find it extremely difficult to communicate orally, even though both languages or dialects in question can be traced back to a common historical ancestor.  It just so happens that the language of Peking is the variety of Chinese most resembling the prescriptive standard of spoken Mandarin.  The two native dialects of Taiwan, Southern Min and Hakka, are also examples of southern Chinese.  Therefore, they too lack any degree of mutual intelligibility with spoken Mandarin.

It is very instructive to compare the early days of the Chinese language policy in Taiwan with that of the early days of the Japanese language policy.  In so doing, we find one similarity and at least one glaring difference.

The one similarity is the initial tolerance shown to Taiwanese and Hakka by both governments, when in fact this tolerance was actually governed by ulterior motives.  In a list of stated objectives spelled out in 1946 by the Taiwan Provincial Committee for the Promotion of Mandarin, it was proposed that the teaching of Mandarin be carried out from the point of view of the local dialects (ibid., 100).  “At the very least, Taiwanese and Mandarin shared a number of similarities in vocabulary, pronunciation and structure.  Those similarities could be exploited in the effort to promote Mandarin” (ibid.).  However, Huang (ibid., 101-102) goes on to say that “At the beginning of the Mandarin Movement in Taiwan it was considered advisable to temporarily make use of Taiwanese to get rid of Japanese.  Once Japanese had been expunged from the lives of the Taiwanese, then the government could go about getting rid of the dialects.”

Kubler (pp. 70-71) also notes that “in the mid and late 1940s, a great debate raged in the newspapers (involving) influential figures like Sung P’ei-ju, the Assistant Minister of Education, who felt that the dialects should be done away with once and for all…”  In this sense, then, the Chinese respect for the local language was not that much different from the Japanese respect for the local language fifty years earlier.  In each case the government of the time paid lip service to the value of the local language.  For the Japanese, it was to win over the support of the local elite for their new educational policies.  In the case of the Chinese it was to purge Japanese from the island.  But in each case, it was the ultimate survival of another language more near and dear to them than Taiwanese or Hakka that the government of the time was really only concerned about.

Where the Chinese and Japanese language policies really differ, however, is in their respective attitudes toward the written language being used by the island’s residents at the time that the new government came to power.  Whereas it took Japan 39 years before it finally banned the use of written Chinese, the Chinese government banned the use of written (and spoken) Japanese immediately upon arrival in Taiwan.  The significance of this act cannot be underestimated.  By 1944, 71.31% of school-age Taiwanese were enrolled in common schools (Tsurumi, 148).  Their language of instruction, as well as that of their teaching materials, was Japanese.  Therefore, Japanese was the language of their more advanced thinking and discourse, as well as of their writing.  The same was true of the 233 Taiwanese enrolled in medical school in Taiwan in 1935 (ibid., 253), as well of the 11,635 Taiwanese students enrolled in lower level vocational schools there in 1942 (ibid., 247), and the 7,011 Taiwanese students studying in Japan in 1942 (ibid., 128).  In a single signing of the pen, an entire generation or more of well-educated citizens were transformed into illiterates or semi-literates. This effectively turned them into second-class citizens unable to compete for civil service jobs or any other positions of authority with their less-educated, Mandarin-speaking cousins who had just arrived from the Mainland.

How, then, did the Chinese government approach the task of promoting Mandarin in Taiwan after 1945?  As mentioned above, in the first few years local dialect was accepted as a means of teaching written Chinese.  But tremendous effort was also put into making the population at all levels functional in Mandarin as quickly as possible.  Kubler (p. 67) details many of these early measures taken up by the Committee on the Promotion of Mandarin:

In addition to the main office of the Committee…so called Mandarin Promotion Centers were opened in Taichung, Taitung, Hsinchu, Kaohsiung, Changhua, Chiayi, and Pingtung.  They operated in close cooperation with the local school systems and city government.  From 1946-1950, a total of 296,150 people were taught Mandarin in 6,338 different classes organized at these centers.  This was in addition to special summer Mandarin institutes held at colleges and universities throughout the island for the purpose of retraining elementary and high school teachers to teach Mandarin.

Kubler (p. 72) also points out the important role that obligatory two-year military service had in the popularization of Mandarin.  “In the 1940s and early 1950s, all young men planning to enter the army–new recruits, engineers, doctors, etc.–were encouraged first to enroll in a Mandarin course since Mandarin was (and still is) the language of the Taiwan military forces.”

In Taiwan, both then and now, to be functional in Mandarin has primarily been understood to mean exhibiting proper pronunciation.  Little attention is usually focused on issues of acceptable vocabulary or correct grammar.   Therefore, in teaching Mandarin in Taiwan, particular emphasis has always been placed upon pronunciation, making use of a special set of phonetic symbols that function much the same as furigana do in Japanese.  In 1948, the Ministry of Education founded the Mandarin Daily News, a newspaper that is written in Chinese, but with the special furigana-like phonetic symbols placed next to each character.  This newspaper has always enjoyed a very high subscription rate, especially among school-age children.  The publishers also produced a wide number of similarly designed books and magazines intended for readers of all ages.  The impact of this newspaper and its sister publications on the promotion of Mandarin during the first decade of its history was very considerable indeed, as was the use of Chinese subtitles at the bottom of Mandarin movies and television programs.

The next major development in the Chinese language policy came about in 1956.  As Huang (1993:106-107) notes:

At this time the Central Government started to regulate that only Mandarin be used in government offices, schools and public places.  At the same time they started the specious campaign slogan ‘If the language is not unified this will affect the unity of the people.’  On May 30, 1956 the provincial government ordered all secondary schools to try their best to use Mandarin and to avoid using dialect.  On October 9, 1957 the education office informed all counties and cities that the romanized dialect writing used in bibles impeded the promotion of Mandarin, and thus banned its use…In November 1959 the Ministry of Education forbad Taiwanese explanations to accompany Mandarin movies.  Violators would be punished or shut down.

This crackdown on native dialects and all other perceived competitors with Mandarin continued further.  On July 10, 1965 the provincial government sent an order to all government offices at the city and county level, and to all schools as well.  Huang (ibid.,107) reports that this order stipulated that:

1.  All teachers and students at all grades needed to use Mandarin at all times.  Student violators would be punished.

2.  The broadcast or transmission of dialect or foreign languages by movie theaters was prohibited.

3.  A street campaign effort would be used to exhort people to stop using dialect and foreign languages.

4.  A campaign at all levels would be carried out to prohibit the use of dialect when making reports.

5.  Movie theaters would be exhorted in the strongest of terms not to provide dialect translations.

This being done the so-called ‘problem’ of dialect use in government offices did not completely go away.  Even as late as 1979 the head of the provincial education office sent a letter to all government offices at the county and city levels, as well as to schools at all levels urging them to use Mandarin at all meetings and reminding them that the ability to use Mandarin was one necessary condition for being a national or provincial civil servant (ibid.).

Interestingly, the Committee on the Promotion of Mandarin that had implemented the early campaign to popularize Mandarin in Taiwan was disbanded in 1959.  However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as more and more nations around the world began to recognize the government in Peking as the sole legal government of all of China, the legitimacy of just 15% of the total population (Cheng, 1979:547) in Taiwan to disproportionately dominate the political and educational spheres there was becoming less and less obvious.  Therefore, to bolster the image of the national government as the protector of all Chinese culture and traditions, measures were announced on November 26, 1970 to step up efforts to promote the use of Mandarin.  These measures included the revival of the Committee on the Promotion of Mandarin.  Kubler (pp. 81-82) reports that:

On several occasions during the 1970s, various governmental agencies proposed to the central government the total elimination of television programming in Southern Min (Taiwanese).  Radio broadcasts in Southern Min and Hakka TV (there has never been Hakka TV programing) could continue though Japanese language radio broadcasts were not allowed.  Each time the government first had newspapers write up the issue in the papers so as to fathom people’s reactions.  They soon discovered that in each case the proposals had to be scrapped.

With the death and retirement of the older and more conservative elements of the government in the 1970s and 1980s, an ongoing process of liberalization has been taking place in Taiwan that includes the lifting of martial law, the creation of opposition political parties, direct presidential elections, quasi-direct contact with the Chinese mainland, and a very high degree of freedom of speech.  This has given the 85% of the population whose families were living in Taiwan prior to 1945 considerably more political influence than ever before.  In fact, the current president, Lee Teng-hui, is a native Taiwanese who received his early schooling under the Japanese.

One direct result of this political liberalization has been a greater tolerance shown to the use of native dialects, that is best described as laissez faire.  Huang (1997:78) reports that:

On March 31, 1993 the new Minister of Education made a special report to the Legislative Yuen , entitled ‘Mother Tongue Education and Homeland Materials.’  He explained that the Ministry has begun compiling mother tongue materials and training teachers, but mother tongue education, included in regular teaching, should not obstruct the promotion of Mandarin.

When asked recently via e-mail to what degree this new policy has changed the actual behavior of people in schools, government offices and in the broadcast media, a Taiwan-based scholar of this issue replied:

I think that there is only a little change, since the relationship between Mandarin and the native languages is still best described as diglossic.  The status of native languages is still very low; none of them are recognized as official languages, none of them are used as a medium of instruction or as a subject in school.  Vernacular literature (i.e. literature written in spoken dialect) is also not taught in schools.  However, there is more local language broadcasting, especially in Taiwanese.  Only a few Hakka and Aboriginal television programs can be seen.

Assessing the Linguistic Effect of the Chinese Language Policy

As was noted earlier, literacy in Chinese has never traditionally meant the ability to write one’s native spoken dialect in Chinese characters.  Moreover, in many cases, Chinese characters don’t even exist for the particular words in question.  Therefore, as in the case of the Japanese colonial period, one cannot accuse the Chinese language policy of doing anything unusual to deny the local inhabitants literacy in their own native dialects.  However, it should be pointed out that it is in fact possible to write out these dialects using either romanization or the existing set of Chinese characters supplemented by a set of addittional, specially-created ones.  To that extent, up until 1993, and even now, the Chinese language policy in Taiwan has prevented literacy in the local dialects.

In the case of the spoken language, the Chinese language policy in Taiwan can be seen to mimic the Japanese language policy of systematically suppressing the local languages at times in order to justify the power and privilege of a relative minority of outsiders.  The result of this suppression in both cases was an educational system that produced higher level graduates unable to discuss more advanced topics in their own native languages.  Although there are no accurate statistics indicating just how many people in Taiwan speak Mandarin, credible estimates do exist.  Cheng (1979:549) suggests that more than 90% of those born in Taiwan after 1965 are capable of understanding Mandarin.  In the cities, the number is probably much closer to 100% and include many children of Taiwanese families who now primarily speak only Mandarin.

What, then, is the linguistic state of this Taiwan Mandarin?  To natives of northern China, Taiwan Mandarin sounds very bookish at times, both because of the narrowness of its word order, and because of the written words and expressions that sometimes appear in oral conversation.  Given the fact that Mandarin was first introduced in Taiwan in the classroom through the medium of prescribed textbooks, it should come as no surprise that spoken Mandarin there should sound so formal and bookish.  After all, compared with the natural, casual speech of family members, neighbors and friends, classroom language presents a very stiff and unnatural model to learn from.  It is therefore also not too surprising to learn that Taiwan Mandarin is almost devoid of all vulgar Mandarin expressions and curses.

Phonetically, Taiwan Mandarin lacks certain distinctions in pronunciation found in the North.  These distinctions are also not found in either of the two native dialects of Taiwan, or in the native dialects of most of the refugees from the Mainland.  Additionally, there are a handful of other phonetic features in Taiwan Mandarin that can be exclusively attributed to Southern Min (Taiwanese) influence.  Lexically and syntactically, too, one finds clear examples of influence from Southern Chinese in general, and in some cases, from Southern Min in particular.  Generally speaking, the higher the level of education and the more of an urban background one has, the fewer features from Southern Min phonology and syntax one finds.  However, at the same time, one finds that it is less likely that such a person will be able to express the full range of his or her thoughts using only Taiwanese or Hakka.  In this sense, then, the legacy of the Chinese language policy in Taiwan up to now parallels the Japanese language policy of more than fifty years ago.  Oral proficiency of the best and the brightest has been rendered exclusively into the chosen language of the ruling linguistic minority.

It is still too early to tell whether the present laissez fair attitude of government toward the dialects will eventually see any change to the status quo.  Until Southern Min and Hakka become the language of instruction in the schools, and until efforts are made to teach students literacy in their own dialects, it is highly unlikely that the present linguistic state of Taiwan will alter very much.


Cheng, Robert L.  1977.  “Taiwanese Morphemes in Search of Chinese Characters”.  Journal of Chinese Linguistics 6:306-131.

__________.  1979.  “Language Unification in Taiwan: Present and Future”.  In William McCormick and Steven A. Wurm, eds., Language and Society.  The Hague: Mouton, 541-577.

Hansell, Mark Donald.  1989.  Lexical Borrowing in Taiwan.  Ph.D. Dissertation: University of California at Berkeley.

Huang Chuen-min.  1997.  Language Education Policies and Practices in Taiwan: From Nationism to Nationalism.  Ph.D. Dissertation: University of Washington.

Huang Shuan-fan.  1993.  Yuyan, Shehui yu Zuqun Yishi [Language, Society and Group Identity].  Taipei: Crane Publishing Company.

Kubler, Cornelius C.  1985.  The Development of Mandarin in Taiwan: A Case Study of Language Contact. Taipei: Student Book Co., Ltd..

Sanders, Robert.  1987.  “The Four Languages of Mandarin”.  Sino-Platonic Papers 4.

Tsurumi, E. Patricia.  1977.  Japanese Colonial Education in Taiwan, 1895-1945.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

* Associate Professor at Faculty of Language and Culture, Tohoku University.

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