Many Taiwanese and Chinese have an “English” first name, for the benefit of English-speakers: Jim or Jane, Bob or Betty. Sometimes, in my opinion, these names are unnecessary, as their actual first names are easily pronounceable, and, in any case, people should make an effort — should certainly make an effort about other people’s names.
But, frankly, sometimes these English names are a kindness: for the Chinese names fit an English mouth like a cactus into a glove.
‐Transliteration is a mess, a total mess — I am speaking of the rendering of Chinese names and words into English (or at least the Roman alphabet). It’s not just that this transliteration is often inconsistent; it’s that it’s illogical, barely usable.
If someone would put me in charge of transliteration — Jay Nordlinger, Czar of All Transliteration — I could do the world a great favor. Stubbornly, the world doesn’t ask.
Take transliteration from Indian tongues. I have complained about this before. If you want people to call the old language “Sunskrit” — and if you’re an Indian, you do — don’t write “Sanskrit.” If you want them to refer to the yogurt drink as a “lussi” (rhymes with “hussy”), don’t write “lassi.”
Oh, I could go on (and, luckily for you, I won’t).
‐Chen-Shen Yen is a scholar at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, here in Taipei. He is virtually an American. He spent 18 years, from 1978 to 1996, in our country. He studied and taught in Texas, Indiana, and Alaska. One thing he and his family miss about Alaska? That lovely oil-dividend check.
The question of his identity — what he feels like: Taiwanese, Chinese, some mixture — is a little complicated: He was away from the country during the years when a Taiwanese consciousness was really developed.
‐In Taiwan, the main languages are Mandarin, “Taiwanese” (a form of Chinese also known as “Hokkien”), and a couple of other, less common tongues. I ask Yen what he and his wife speak at home.
He says, “Mandarin, sometimes English — sometimes Cantonese.” They used to speak Cantonese with each other when they didn’t want their kids to understand. Then, the kids learned some Cantonese. Now, the elder Yens speak Cantonese when they don’t want their dog to understand.
This smart canine understands key, doggy words in Mandarin and English. (“Out,” for example.) But she has not yet gotten wise to the Cantonese. Only a matter of time, I suppose.
‐Yen is sometimes interviewed by the Chinese media — the PRC media, such as they are. And when he speaks of Taiwan’s president as “President Ma,” they tell him, “Don’t say ‘President Ma’: Say ‘Mr. Ma.’” And “Don’t say ‘presidential election’; say ‘leadership election.’” Because, you see, the PRC will not recognize Taiwan’s system and sovereignty.
What does Yen do? He tells them to go jump in a lake.
Sometimes, as I understand it, the censor simply beeps out the word “president.” So Chinese viewers will hear Yen say, “So-and-so is running for [beep] against the incumbent, [beep] Ma.”
Another term the censor doesn’t like: Taiwan’s formal name, “Republic of China.” Beep City.
‐Taiwan’s entertainers, says Yen, are “the most pragmatic people” in the country. They want access to the Chinese market: Chinese fans. So they don’t want to upset the CCP.
Say a local singer is asked to take part in a Taiwanese national celebration. The singer might well say, “Gee, sorry, would love to, but I happen to be booked in Malaysia.”
The most popular singer in Taiwan, says Yen, sang the national anthem in Taipei — and was blacklisted by the PRC for two years.
Taiwan has 23 million people, which is a fine, tidy fan base. But compared with China’s billion-plus?
‐The owner of a Taiwanese TV station (I believe) wanted to expand into China. One of his most popular talk-show hosts was strongly critical of the PRC, and in favor of independence for Taiwan. The owner fired him, in a show of “goodwill” to the Chinese.
What do you think of this? The free-market part of you might think, “Well, that’s logical: He’s maximizing his profits.” The rest of you might think: “Shameful.”
‐Yen gives me an interesting analogy: Taiwan is a little like Great Britain, when it was surpassed by the United States in the early 20th century (or whenever you’d care to date it). The U.S. was a much bigger country; it simply eclipsed Britain in power. But the British regarded themselves as more refined.
Now, with the rise of China, Taiwan is seeing itself eclipsed.
But not long ago, Yen continues, Taiwan was like the U.S., and China like Britain. Taiwan wanted a separate identity from China, while desiring good and peaceful relations with the motherland.
‐And how about this? Yen says that Taiwan is like Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not Jimmy Carter’s home state). Georgia is next to its adversary, and its help is far, far away.
He jokes about trading places with Cuba: Taiwan should be where Cuba is, cozy to the United States. “We have similar weather, and both countries love baseball.”
‐There was a time, Yen explains, when Taiwanese emigrated in significant numbers, streaming to the United States, Canada, Australia. (“Anglospheric” countries, interestingly enough.) But there is much less emigration now. Yen thinks that the Taiwanese may not even be filling their American quota.
What accounts for that? Well, says Yen, there may be less fear of a military confrontation with China.
I can’t help thinking of what the Israeli politician Efraim Sneh once told me: If the Iranians acquire a bomb, they don’t really have to use it in order to wreck Israel. People will stop coming to Israel; and they’ll leave.
‐Actually, the comparisons between Taiwan and Israel are many. There are American scholars and analysts who say, in so many words, “Let’s throw Taiwan to the wolves, because our relationship with the PRC is so much more important. Why should this one little island disrupt relations with a coming superpower? The tail must not wag the dog, you know.”
And there are many who would love to throw Israel to the wolves, or at least would do so, without losing much sleep. What’s a “shitty little country,” as a French ambassador once put it, in comparison with the vast Middle East? That tiny country just brings on headache after headache.
Israel and Taiwan are both democracies — small and vulnerable democracies — in a world not necessarily hospitable to democracy. Both countries are potential Czechoslovakias: places to be fed to the tiger, in the hope that the tiger will get full.
I could go on, and will, tomorrow, in Part V. Thanks so much for joining me on this journey, Impromptus-ites.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.