What Does a Trending T-shirt Say About Taiwanese Identity and Politics?

What Does a Trending T-shirt Say About Taiwanese Identity and Politics?
Photo Credit: Instragram Screenshot

What you need to know

りしれ供さ小, pronounced lí sī-leh kóng-siánn-siâu, would be a Taiwanese Hokkien phrase meaning “The heck are you saying?” Here’s what its ubiquity signals about Taiwan’s youth culture.

Shirts with an unusual mixture of Chinese characters and Japanese hiragana, りしれ供さ小, seem to be everywhere these days. T-shirts, tote bags, mugs, and internet memes have all been inspired by the phrase. The term began as part of a set of interrelated memes originating from the popular online forum PTT — sometimes called Taiwan’s equivalent of Reddit — before leaping to apparel and accessories. 

りしれ供さ小, pronounced lí sī-leh kóng-siánn-siâu, would be a Taiwanese Hokkien phrase meaning “The heck are you saying?” In Chinese characters, this phrase could also be rendered as “你是咧講啥潲.” In Mandarin, this would be “你到底在講什麼鬼.” 

Before the emergence of the りしれ供さ小 meme, there had been other uses of Chinese characters to represent the Taiwanese Hokkien phrase of siánn-siâu, meaning something like, “The heck?” The most commonly seen example would be 三小, though other similar-sounding combinations have included 蝦小, 殺小, 蝦餃, and 殺洨. Both 三小 and りしれ供さ小 were often used as a retort to nonsensical comments on the internet. 

りしれ供さ小 originally appeared as a phrase on PTT in a thread riffing on the insertion of Japanese phrases into messages primarily written in Chinese. Subsequently, it became incorporated into a set of LINE stickers, alongside other mixed Chinese and Japanese phrases. 

But the explosive popularity of りしれ供さ小, when it left the internet and began to adorn clothing, appears to be linked to 2020 presidential elections. In particular, a sense of “national doom” prevailed among young people in the 2020 elections, based on the fear that Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate and Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu would win the presidential election and push Taiwan toward unification with China. りしれ供さ小 was often used as a phrase to respond to dubious claims by Han and other KMT politicians. 

As mayor, Han made outlandish promises to bring Disney World or invite Arnold Schwarznegger to Kaohsiung, or even to develop South China Seas islands. This continued during this presidential run, for example with Han claiming during presidential debates that he didn’t need to memorize policy, because he could use Google when needed. 

Although more than one online store began selling clothing labeled with りしれ供さ小 during this time, one of the best known was a series printed by activist comedian and celebrity Indie DaDee, a popular livestreamer during the Sunflower Movement. Indie DaDee runs an online store selling clothing branded with pro-Taiwan slogans, often derived from internet culture, and sometimes advertised by inviting well-known activists to wear his apparel. Otherwise, graphics released to ink t-shirts, mugs, and the like with the phrase りしれ供さ小, are often open-source in nature.

The juxtaposition of Japanese hiragana and Chinese characters is reflective of pro-Taiwan youth culture on the internet. Apart from that many young people consume a great deal of Japanese pop culture, inclusive of Japanese anime and manga, this counterposes the historical and cultural views of many Taiwanese young people versus those of the KMT.

The KMT, on the other hand, views Japan as a historical antagonist of the Republic of China, dating back to the Sino-Japanese War. By contrast, as a result of the legacy of the Japanese colonial period, many young people feel a cultural affinity for Japan that extends beyond consuming anime and manga. The Japanese historical period is seen as a time in history that distinguishes Taiwan from China. Interest in Japan — as well as the desire to communicate with grandparents that grew up during the Japanese colonial period — has inspired many young people to learn Japanese, too. 

Young people also show their displeasure at the KMT not only by writing the name of the party in Japanese characters but rendering it explicitly offensive to its members. The word ゴミ丼 (go-mi-don) combines ゴミ (go-mi), which means “garbage” in Japanese, and 丼 (don), as in donburi, a traditional Japanese dish. This sounds similar to the KMT, pronounced Kuo-min-tang, in Mandarin.

In this sense, the phrase りしれ供さ小 — indecipherable without some knowledge of Chinese, Taiwanese Hokkien, and Japanese — may be properly defined as a shibboleth. It emphasizes differing linguistic affinities between pro-Taiwan young people and older adherents of the pan-Blue camp. And so, although the 2020 elections ultimately resulted in a rout for the KMT, it is not surprising that the slogan has continued to be popular in the year since. Apart from that t-shirts branded with りしれ供さ小 are a common sighting in Taiwan, the phrase lives on as an internet meme to respond to eccentric statements by politicians. The vitality of the meme reflects our historical moment, in which the profanities of our political leaders are best met with creative profanities of our own.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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