What Baseball Says About Taiwanese Culture and Identity

What Baseball Says About Taiwanese Culture and Identity
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

As Taiwanese players have been shining on the baseball diamond these days, it may be a great time to examine the issues relating to Taiwanese culture and identity that linger over the local baseball scene.

Baseball is Taiwan’s national sport and a microcosm of Taiwanese society. As Taiwanese players have been shining on the baseball diamond these days, it may be a great time to examine the issues relating to Taiwanese culture and identity that linger over the local baseball scene.

Taiwan’s national baseball team has performed exceptionally well before international  games were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, it won the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s (WBSC) U-12 (twelve and under) and U-18 World Cups and the Asian Baseball Championship. 

Ranked fourth behind Japan, the U.S., and Korea in the latest WBSC Baseball World Rankings, Taiwan landed fifth in 2019 at the WBSC Premier 12 tournament — its highest finish in top-tier play since winning silver at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Thanks to the lobbying by former mayor and current vice president William Lai, Tainan acquired hosting rights for the U-12 tournament throughout 2027. 

National identity

Baseball’s current popularity in Taiwan highlights issues arising from the consolidation of Taiwanese identity. 

A series of longitudinal polls by National Chengchi University, which surveys Taiwanese people’s attitudes toward national identity, shows that around 60% of respondents identify as “Taiwanese,” up from 22% in 1994.” During the same period, the proportion of respondents who identify as Chinese dropped from 30% to 4%.

This shift toward to Taiwanese identity manifests itself in the sports scene. Last year, a campaign to for Taiwan to compete at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo as “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei” (“中華台北” or “中華隊” for short) collected enough signatures to appear on the ballot as a referendum choice in 2018. 

The effort ultimately failed, due in part to vocal concerns from local athletes that China may threaten to ban Taiwan from competing altogether.

Their fear is reasonable, but it cannot explain why Taiwan’s own games and news anchors, still refer to the national team as “Chinese Taipei.”

In November, 2019, fans gather outdoors to watch, on jumbotron, the team Taiwanese anchors called “Chinese Taipei” face Korea in a much-anticipated Premier 12 broadcast from Chiba, Japan. In the top of the seventh inning, fans cheer “Team Taiwan,” while the scoreboard shows “TPE 3, KOR 0.” 

As former Cleveland Indians’ AAA farmhand Chen Chun-hsiu (陳俊秀) blasts a three-run home run into left field to put Taiwan comfortably ahead, the Seoul Broadcasting System displays Taiwan as 대만 (Daeman).

If both Japanese and Korean media outlets call Taiwan by its real name, it leaves many in Taiwan scratching their heads over why local outlets choose to self-censor. By continuing to call Taiwan “Chinese Taipei,” the sports media demonstrates it has yet to align with Taiwanese society.

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Photo Credit: Nelson Chung
Japanese broadcast of the 2013 World Baseball Classic match between Japan and Taiwan. The kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese writing system) is clear on the names of both national teams.
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Photo Credit: Nelson Chung
The Seoul Broadcasting System displays Taiwan as 대만 (Daeman), instead of “Chinese Taipei” as Taiwanese broadcasts do.

Indigenous identity

While Taiwanese sports media does not call the national team by its real name, local broadcasters also neglect to call indigenous players by their indigenous names.

Before President Tsai formally apologized to aboriginals and elevated their languages to national language status, many indigenous people in Taiwan have reverted to their  aboriginal names to reconnect to their heritage. 

This phenomenon is particularly visible in the professional baseball scene, where 45.5% of the players are aborigines and their name change is reflected on their jersey. 

Mayaw Ciru was the first player to register with Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) under his indigenous name in 2011. Ciru had returned to Taiwan to compete after a career in the States as “Chen Yung-chi (陳鏞基).” Many followed, including Giljegiljaw Kungkuan (formerly known as Chu Li-ren), who was the first to change his name as a player in the MLB.

In four broadcasts of recent games where Ciru was in the starting lineup for the Uni-President Lions, a professional baseball team playing in the CPBL, he was referred to as Mayaw Ciru just once out of fifty-nine times.

Dire state of the Taiwanese language

Unlike aboriginal languages, Taiwanese is frequently heard in games broadcasting. But it does not mean the language is not endangered.

Historian Andrew Morris, in assessing the difficulty for the KMT to Sinicize baseball and sever it from its Japanese roots in Taiwan, asked the famous coach Chien Yung-Chang if Mandarin-only policies were enforced on the field. “There’s no Mandarin in baseball,” Chien replied, implying that Taiwanese is more widely spoken among baseball players.

In December, 2018, Wang Po-jung (王柏融), having played for four seasons for Lamigo Monkeys, agreed to a three-year, US$3.55 million deal

As he announced his departure from the Monkeys, a reporter asked him a question in Taiwanese. Wang answered in the same language and surprised the moderator, who responded with great excitement. “Fantastic! I love you Po-Jung!” she said.  

If most baseball players speak Taiwanese, as Chien suggested, why is Wang’s ability to answer a reporter’s question in Taiwanese considered impressive? Perhaps, the moderator’s reaction exactly reflects the dire state of the language as less and less young people in Taiwan know how to speak it. 

The Taiwanese baseball scene carries a rich tradition, with iconic events like Kano and Hungyeh, iconic pioneers, and an inordinately large volume of English-language scholarship telling its story. For better or worse, for change or continuity, it will always hold a mirror to Taiwanese society.


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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