OPINION: Hanyu Pinyin Should Not Be Political, Kaohsiung

OPINION: Hanyu Pinyin Should Not Be Political, Kaohsiung
愛河流經高雄市區|Photo Credit: Henry Trotter@Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
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Eryk Smith rails against the unconventional spellings that plague Taiwan's southern streets.

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Here's a true story: as a teenager learning elementary Chinese, I thought Hanyu Pinyin was crap. "What's this 'X' and 'Q' stuff? - Preposterous!"

Here's another true story: I was a pretty stupid teenager.

Today, 99 percent of the planet has adopted Hanyu Pinyin, a system credited to Zhou Youguang, a scholar who passed away in January 2017 in Beijing at the age of 111. Hanyu was adopted by the People's Republic of China in 1958, the International Organization for Standardization in 1982, and finally by the United Nations in 1986.

Oh, it was also adopted by Taiwan's Ministry of Education in 2008 as the official standard for the Republic of China (Taiwan), beginning in 2009.

Taichung City begun the swap in 2004, years after Taipei had already replaced 'SinYi' with 'Xinyi.'

As far back as 1605 there were those who saw the need to repurpose a letter or two of the Latin alphabet for a workable Chinese romanization system. That year a Jesuit missionary in China published The Miracle of Western Letters [西字奇蹟], rendered by the priest as 'Xizi Qiji." A few decades later, another Jesuit wrote [西儒耳目資], which he romanized as 'Xi Ru Ermu Zi'. But the trend didn't catch on until centuries later - probably due to people like my stupid teenage self.

Taiwan was a late adopter to be sure, but much or even most of the island has moved or is moving to total standardization under the Hanyu Pinyin system — except for Kaohsiung City and a few other holdouts.

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Credit: Eryk Smith

So while the entire planet has decided, "Yeah, this works. We'll use this," a few dots on a map have decided, "Nah, we'll use something else. And just for fun, we won't even standardize it!"

Wade-Giles, developed during the mid-19th century, might be loved by some, but I doubt they'd fill a large KTV room. Taiwan used Wade-Giles, as did the rest of the world, for around a century, giving us spellings such as Taipei, Kaohsiung, and the unsightly Hsinchu.

The capital will not see its name re-christened "Taibei" anytime soon and that's fine, but why does Kaohsiung City insist on making visitors guess what 'Shihcyuan' is supposed to represent? Especially when a few blocks away, the same road has somehow morphed into 'Shiquan' (十全路) Road?

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Credit: Eryk Smith

Move away from Kaohsiung's city center and streets, neighborhoods or townships can have several romanized names ... sometimes on the same signage.

This evidence for using a standard Pinyin in Taiwan seems self-evident: Pinyin in Taiwan is mostly for people who cannot read Chinese characters. If that is the case, shouldn't the Pinyin be as simple and universal as possible to make navigating Taiwan as easy as possible?

Not adopting Hanyu Pinyin was and is a political decision – a choice that was immature and harmful. Shooting oneself in one's foot is never advisable.

Kaohsiung says it invites the world to visit and is now gloating after taking the fifth spot on Lonely Planet's "Top 10 Cities to Visit in 2018" list. This port city is doing a lot right. Its MRT has announcements in Japanese. It was also the first city in Taiwan to simplify station names using letters and numbers, a move since copied by Taipei. English hotlines in the city offer tourist support – but when it comes to general romanization, it appears southern Taiwan is bending over backwards to torture non-Chinese readers.

Why are we confusing students, tourists and others who want to visit and live here? Those who argue this is an academic debate are being disingenuous. The refusal to adopt Hanyu in Kaohsiung seems based on nothing more than groundless fear of loss of identity or diminished regional autonomy.

Listen, Kaohsiung: we won't lose our identity or our freedom by changing the romanized spelling of Singjhong Road (興中)to Xingzhong.

It's time to jump on the Hanyu bandwagon. It's not a sign of surrender, it's a sign that non-Chinese speakers will be able to read.

Local scholars have every right, and indeed some might say the duty, to develop or perfect Pinyin systems for Taiwanese, both local versions of the Hakka dialect or any of the numerous languages spoken by Taiwan's indigenous peoples. But as far as Mandarin Chinese goes, Hanyu won.

In short: Having an "original spelling" for Kaohsiung’s roads isn't making Beijing quiver; it's just confusing my postal carrier and my U.S. relatives and the business person from Europe trying to get a meeting on "Tzliheng Rd."

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Credit: Eryk Smith

If Kaohsiung wants to be an international player, let's start by playing according to international standards whenever possible.