Lost In Translation: How Language Is Used to Obfuscate Taiwan’s Reality

From “reunification” to “mainland” to “renegade province”, the way we talk about Taiwan affects the world’s perceptions of Asia’s most vibrant democracy

Consume any mainstream English-language media about Taiwan, and you’ll come across an abundant lexicon of terms that sound as though they help define the Taiwan-China situation: “renegade province”, “split in 1949”, “dialect”, “Mainland”, “reunification”, Chinese”, “One China Policy” and “status quo” are probably the most common. More recently, there’s also the term “one family”, though that doesn’t seem to have made the leap to English quite yet, and there’s the perennial “tensions”, a term which has already been covered extensively for its problematic usage.

These terms are readily employed by writers wanting to appear knowledgeable about the region — especially non-specialist journalists, though some specialists do it too.

The problem?

Many of these words and phrases don’t translate well into English, and the ambiguity created by imperfect translations appears to be used intentionally to imprint an inaccurate narrative of Taiwan in the international media.

In other cases, the meanings of the terms are clear, but the most common translation is simply wrong, yet encouraged by China because it promotes the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) preferred perspective.

In still others, the implications of the terms call to mind a state of affairs that simply does not exist.

All of these are invisible hurdles that Taiwan advocates must vault in order to make Taiwan’s case to the world. Every minute we spend arguing over the meaning or use of a term, we waste the attention of others. We are literally held back by language. This is not an accident.

There doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive breakdown of this strategic use of language anywhere else and why it’s a problem for Taiwan, so I’ve created one here. Let’s have a look — starting with the biggest headache of them all.

“Reunification”

The Mandarin term for Taiwan and China (ostensibly peacefully) uniting is 統(tǒng yī). It means “unify” or “unification”. If you wanted to add the meaning of the “re-” prefix in English to that, it would be something like 再統 (zài tǒng yī). There’s also the term “回歸” (huí guī), as well as 光復 (guāng fù), which means ‘retrocession’ or ‘recovery’, but is rarely used outside of formal speech.

So here’s the thing: nobody actually says these in Mandarin. They always use “tǒng yī”. The Mandarin term for this concept is “unification”. It doesn’t mean — and has never meant — “reunification”.

This is not a natural perspective arising from history. Before the Qing Dynasty, the sea was considered to be the natural border of “China”. The Qing era, which was an imperial era, and the brief interlude between 1945–1949 are the only times in the history of both China and Taiwan that one could argue that the two places were united. Both periods of “unity” are open to interpretation, however. The Qing Dynasty was an empire run by Manchus, who were not considered Chinese at the time. Arguably, Qing Dynasty China was a Manchu colonial holding, as was Taiwan. Moreover, the Qing only controlled the western part of the island, which for most of the Manchu period was not considered a ‘province’ in its own right.

Was there one China under the Qing Empire or were there two colonial holdings, Taiwan and China? That’s a discussion worth having for a clear historical perspective. After the Qing fell decades later, the government which accepted Japan’s surrender on behalf of the allies was the Republic of China (ROC): not the same government that originally ceded Taiwan to Japan. Likewise, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China were never united.

The problem with “reunification”, then, is not just that it is an erroneous translation of the Chinese. It also assumes a particular historical interpretation under which Taiwan and China were once clearly “unified” and that the change in government from ‘empire’ to ‘republic’ does not matter. “Unification” is a less politically marked word. Regardless of one’s interpretation of history, it provides the linguistic room for the conversation to happen. For that reason alone, it is the more appropriate term when discussing peaceful integration (violent integration would be “annexation”).

Thus, what to make of news outlets using “reunification” as though it is the correct term? I can only assume the editors don’t know what they’re talking about. Reuters, especially, has just put out some word salad on this point:

China translates the word “tong yi” as “reunification”, but it can also be translated as “unification”, a term in English preferred by supporters of Taiwan independence who point out that Beijing’s Communist government has never ruled Taiwan and so it cannot be “reunified”.

The CCP does promote the use of “reunification” over “unification” to describe 統一(tǒng yī), but the rest of this is laughable. It subtly gives credence to the CCP’s preferred term by referring to it as “China’s” choice of translation, not that of a political party with a particular objective regarding Taiwan, and marks the less problematic and more accurate/directly translated term as political by saying that it is used by “supporters of Taiwan independence” — as though to use it is to make a political statement. When, in fact, the opposite is true: “reunification” is an inherently more politicized word, as it is promoted by a particular political group (pro-China/CCP supporters) and is not a direct translation of the Mandarin term.

“Renegade Province”

This one is interesting, because it does not seem to appear in Mandarin-language media regarding Taiwan. Although the term has been used by China to discuss northern Vietnam, and appeared in English-language media as early as 1982, media from China discussing Taiwan never use “renegade province”, because that would imply that the majority of the people in that province wanted to be “renegades”, and that they’d elected a government that represented that wish. China can never admit to its own people that this is in fact the case. Instead, it refers to those who support Taiwanese independence as “splittists” and make them seem like a loud minority.

This view that Taiwanese national identity is a minority separatist movement is underlined by the recent comments of a Chinese general, who warned that “Taiwanese independence supporters” would be considered “war criminals” if China “were forced” to invade. That would only be possible to carry out if it were a minority of Taiwanese. Otherwise, the implication of that statement is that the majority of Taiwanese (so, somewhere between 11 and 23 million people) would be war criminals. This general, along with the Chinese government, cannot admit openly that the majority of Taiwanese favor independence (more on that under “status quo”).

“Renegade province” in Mandarin would — to the best of my knowledge — be 叛變的省份 (pànbiàn de shěngfèn). That phrase pops up in Internet searches, but does not seem to appear in any major Chinese-language media.

The phrase gives the international media an easy way to avoid clarifying that China calls pro-independence support in Taiwan the work of a “splittist” minority, but that in fact, such a category would include most Taiwanese.

I do not believe the international media are intentionally trying to distort the narrative. They just do not know better. The CCP, on the other hand, tacitly encourages this usage, as it keeps Taiwan’s perspective from being fully included. It frames the Taiwan issue as being similar to ‘separatist movements’ that Westerners, at least, seem to think of as destabilizing, overly ethno-nationalist, or not their business (how many Westerners do you know who actively support a Kurdish state?), rather than accurately portraying the desire of most Taiwanese to merely maintain the sovereignty they already enjoy.

“Chinese”

In Mandarin, there are two ways to refer to a person as “Chinese”. The hypernym for this is “華人” (huá rén), and it means a person of Chinese ethnic heritage. Not everyone from China is similar genetically — the Uighurs and Tibetans certainly are not — and plenty of people who are certainly not from China are Chinese, and not all Chinese speak the same language or are Han. Hence, like any ethnic identity, it is a fuzzy sociopolitical construct rather than a clearly definable thing.

Let’s say you had ancestors from China whom most people would consider “Chinese”. It is quite possible in Mandarin to call oneself huá rén the same way I call myself “Armenian” even though I’m a US citizen: without making any statement about one’s nationality. You can be Singaporean, Malaysian, Taiwanese, American, Australian or whatever and also huá rén.

The other term is more of a hyponym: 中國人(Zhōng guó rén), and it specifically means “from China, the country” — as in, a citizen of the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwanese who also claim Chinese ethnic identity overwhelmingly refer to themselves as huá rén. Only a unificationist or someone actually born in China would call themselves Zhōngguórén.

Yet, in English, both terms are translated as “Chinese”. It is very confusing, and the Chinese government benefits from the ambiguity and wants to keep it that way. It treats all Chinese regardless of citizenship as primarily Chinese.

This bleeds over into another confusing term: “overseas Chinese”. “Overseas Chinese” can be citizens of China who happen to live abroad, or citizens of other countries who emigrated from China, or from other countries with ancestral heritage from China. The Chinese government also benefits from this ambiguity because it makes it easier to defend not only their harassment of Chinese citizens abroad, but their interference in the actions of citizens of other countries (many members of the Chinese Australian community referenced in the pieces linked above are citizens of Australia, not China).

Thus, when some know-it-all Dunning-Kruger type says “but the Taiwanese are Chinese!” as though that is a good argument for Taiwan being part of China, he’s confusing huá rén (a person of Chinese ancestry, the same way most Americans have ancestry outside the US) and Zhōngguórén (a person from China). Or he’s deliberately equivocating: intentionally using the huá rén meaning of “Chinese” to convince listeners that Taiwanese are the Zhōngguórén kind of Chinese.

If you’re wondering whether this quirk of English translation is intentionally exploited by the Chinese government, well, they equivocate in the exact same way. Yes, it is.

Bring this up, and you might well get some version of “yeah but to be Chinese is a different notion, because of…uh, cultural differences, so the two terms connote more closeness than when Westerners talk about their ethnic backgrounds!”

Except it is not and never has been. First, if it were, there would not be two clearly separate terms for it. Second, ask any Taiwanese what they think of the term huá rén and you won’t hear that it is similar in meaning to Zhōng guó rén. If anything, they will tell you the opposite. For this “but they are the same” nonsense to have any purchase, the Taiwanese would have to agree with it, yet most do not. When someone says “Taiwanese are Chinese” they are telling others what they should think of their own language and identity. Don’t be that person.

This makes it difficult not only to talk about the parts of Taiwan’s cultural heritage which come from China, but for Taiwanese to talk about their ancestry without it being politicized. I’m sympathetic to Taiwanese who do not want to cut off their connection to their Chinese ancestral heritage, and how difficult it is to express that clearly in English without implying that one wants to be a citizen of China, when the two words are the same in English.

If you’re wondering why Singaporeans, Malaysians, Americans and others of Chinese heritage refer to themselves as “Chinese” without hesitation, it is because China is not trying to take over Singapore, Malaysia, or the US. They are trying to take over Taiwan. The political implications are simply more dire, and that is not an accident.

“Dialect”

As someone who studies Applied Linguistics, this one has me clawing at the air with rage.

First, forget the stupid adage that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, or however it goes. That was an off-the-cuff joke by a non-linguist. It explains the political reasons why we have separate “language” names for dialects like Hindi and Urdu, but linguistically it means nothing.

The labels “language” and “dialect” can only be applied in relation to other languages/dialects. In relation to Urdu, Hindi is a dialect, but in relation to Tamil (which is entirely unrelated), it is a language. American English and Australian English are dialects in relation to each other. In relation to German, each is a language.

Languages are mutually unintelligible. Dialects may sound different and have some different features, but are mutually intelligible.

By that rubric, Minnan (Southern Fujianese) and Taiwanese are dialects of each other. In relation to Mandarin, they are languages. Cantonese is a language in relation to Mandarin. Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible.

But oh look, here comes Dunning-Kruger Guy again, and he took Chinese 101 as an elective in college. “But the Chinese [he means Mandarin] word for them translates to ‘dialect’! Hah! I explained it!”

That’s true. In Mandarin, the word 方言 (fāng yán) — as in 地方的語言 or “language of a place” — is translated as “dialect”, but the underlying implication is more like ‘tongue spoken by people of a nearby [in China] place’. This is entirely a sociopolitical construct: in defining what “is” and “is not” China, the tongues spoken “in” China are more conveniently referred to as “dialects” to promote a sense of political unity that helps the leaders of China to maintain control and discourages the formation of unique cultural and national identities within China.

It is very convenient for the Chinese government to refer to Taiwanese, which is intelligible by people from southern Fujian, but nowhere else in China, as a “dialect”. It implies that Mandarin speakers can understand Taiwanese, though they cannot. It promotes a sense of unity where there is otherwise none. It makes it more difficult to talk about this aspect of Taiwanese identity in English, especially as Mandarin was essentially forced on Taiwan by the KMT’s language policies, so that the vast majority of Taiwanese now speak it.

Dunning-Kruger Guy: “But they can understand each other through writing because the writing systems are the same! Nyah!”

Sort of, but no. Since Taiwanese does not have its own standardized writing system, Chinese ideographs were adopted to write it. Someone who can read Mandarin can puzzle out some Taiwanese writing, but that does not mean they are mutually intelligible, any more than Japanese and Mandarin (two different language families) are mutually intelligible just because one can write Japanese in Chinese ideographs. Further, with meaningful differences in how the characters are used and how the grammar works, it is not as intelligible as many think.

Don’t believe me? Ask a Mandarin-speaking/reading friend who is not from Taiwan and does not speak Taiwanese or Minnan what this says:

哩講三小! 恁祖媽係大員郎。

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

“…split in 1949”

This is not completely wrong, but it leaves out key details that change the entire story.

First, the Republic of China (ROC) fought a civil war with the Communists, who won, drove out the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and their ROC government, and formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC). To split, two sides must have once been united, and the ROC and PRC were never united.

It also implies, through omitting the history immediately prior to 1949, that before that date Taiwan and China had been united. For how long? Who knows? The media never says!

It is true that from 1945–1949 the ROC “controlled” both Taiwan and China. Yet China was torn asunder by civil war, and ROC “control” of Taiwan was a postwar occupation conducted at the behest of the wartime allies as their representative.

But before that, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, and before that, a colonial holding of the Qing. To boil that complicated history down to “split in 1949” makes it easier to write succinctly, but also implants in readers’ minds the idea that for a significant period of time before 1949, Taiwan and China were part of the same country. That is simply not the case. Many who consider themselves well-versed in international affairs likely do not even know that Taiwan was Japanese, not Chinese, before it became controlled by the ROC. Why? Because the media rarely mentions it!

And why doesn’t the media mention it? In part because it takes up valuable word count, but in part because the “China experts” that the media talk with never bother to emphasize this point. And why would they? It helps China’s case that Taiwan is Chinese if the rest of the world conveniently forgets that Taiwan used to be Japanese.

“Mainland”

Let’s take a quick look at the first dictionary results for the term “mainland”:

The clear connotation of “mainland” is that it is the main/continental part of a territory, and that outlying islands which are referred to in relation to it are also part of said territory.

By that metric, the only reason to use the phrase “Mainland China” in relation to Taiwan is if you want to imply that China and Taiwan have some sort of territorial relationship, or that Taiwan is a part of China. If you believe they are two sovereign or at least self-ruled entities, it makes no sense at all. In that sense, Taiwan does not have a mainland, unless you want to refer to “mainland Asia” (as Taiwan is a part of Asia, but not a part of China).

Why then do people keep saying it? Partly it is force of habit. Pro-China types insist on it, and the media often follows. It is unclear how people came to believe the word was neutral or apolitical. It is not.

How political is “mainland”? It is required as a corresponding term to “Taiwan” in Xinhua’s style guide, a reflection of Chinese government policy.

Yet, it has become so ingrained in English discussions about Taiwan that people I know have asked for other options to refer to China (like, oh, “China”), and then resist, saying that just calling it “China” is political, but “Mainland” is not, when the opposite is true.

If you want to talk about Taiwan exactly the way the Chinese government prefers, by all means use “mainland”. I, however, prefer not to be a useful idiot.

“Status Quo”

The thing about the term “status quo” is that it is not wrong. It correctly describes the situation of Taiwan being de facto independent but not de jure independent.

The status quo as it exists today does allow Taiwan to rule itself. It has sovereignty. From the Taiwanese perspective, it may be said that Taiwan is already independent (if we leave aside the compelling argument that the ROC is a colonial entity and true independence will come the day we formally change to a government of Taiwan).

Yet, when people who do not know Taiwan that well refer to the “status quo”, they seem to think it means that Taiwan is in a much more precarious state of limbo. I’ve met people who genuinely think that Taiwan’s current status is “a part of China but wanting independence” (like East Turkestan, or what the CCP refers to as Xinjiang), or that China has some official say in how things are run in Taiwan (it does not), or that Taiwan simply does not have a government (how would that even work on an island of 23.5 million people?). In any case they do not realize that the ‘status quo’ effectively renders Taiwan as de facto sovereign.

Thus, if you are wondering why I would say that the Taiwanese favor independence when polls show they favor the status quo, it is because the status quo basically is independence. Considered alongside the fact that there is almost no support for unification, the public will is clear.

I do believe this is somewhat purposeful: while the Chinese media refer to Taiwan as a part of China in their own media, internationally they are quite happy to encourage the misconception that “status quo” means Taiwan does not currently have sovereignty in any form, when in fact it does.

“One China Policy”

Last but not least, we have the most misunderstood policy in… quite possibly the history of modern international relations.

A frightening number of laypeople and writers confuse the US’s “One China Policy” with China’s “One China Principle”.

The American “One China Policy” — which is not so much a single, formal policy as a set of confusing and ambiguous policy decisions, acts, communiques, and official documents — stipulates that there is one government of China. Somewhere in this dizzying array of papers, there is an “acknowledgement” that “Chinese people” on “both sides” agree that there is “one China” and Taiwan is a part of it (wording that was penned back when the ROC government felt that way, but was a one-party military dictatorship and therefore not representative of the will of the people).

These documents, however, are more of an acknowledgement of the situation rather than a formal statement about what the US believes vis-à-vis China. That is to say, the US government acknowledges China’s position that their territory includes Taiwan, but does not say that the US necessarily agrees (or disagrees). The US affirms that issue should be settled bilaterally.

Leaving aside the fact that a bilateral solution is not possible, the clearest interpretation of the “One China Policy” is that the US takes no formal stance other than that there should be no unilateral moves. That means Taiwan cannot unilaterally declare independence, but also that China cannot take Taiwan by force.

Why then do so many people seem to think it means “the US believes Taiwan is a part of China”?

First, because China’s own “One China Principle” (which does say that Taiwan is Chinese) sounds so similar to the “One China Policy” — and there is no way that is unintentional. Of course they want it to be confusing.

Second, because every time someone points out that Taiwan is already self-ruled, and that the US maintains close (unofficial) ties with Taiwan which include arms sales and trade as well as unofficial consulates, a bunch of yahoos butt into the conversation with “but One China Policy! The US says Taiwan is Chinese!

Some of these are surely Dunning-Kruger Guys, but I suspect a fair number of them are PRC trolls who deliberately muddy the issue and crap all over these conversations, forcing Taiwan advocates to spend time fighting with them rather than getting our message out to people who might listen.

Let me repeat: China wants you to think that the US agrees that Taiwan is a part of China, and so it (probably) deliberately gave its own policy a similar name in the hope of confusing you, and is all too happy to let Internet trolls (who may be on its payroll) further obfuscate the truth.


I hope that one day the international media will wise up and start reporting on Taiwan and China with more accurate terminology and clearer explanations. But the sad truth is that most folks writing for said media do not know Taiwan and the region well enough, and I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, everyone reading this should take a long look at the language they use to talk about these issues, and start using accurate terms that make Taiwan’s case to the world, rather than holding Taiwan back with terminology deliberately crafted to make it more difficult for us to do so.

Jenna Lynn Cody is a Taipei-based writer, teacher trainer and graduate student. She is a regular contributor to Ketagalan Media and Taiwan Scene and blogs at Lao Ren Cha.


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