Written by Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus.

The current protests in Taiwan point to the emergence of a unified and more clearly articulated definition of what it means to be ‘Taiwanese’.  In what has been a movement characterised by symbols, (from its name the Sunflower movement, to the ubiquity of black Facebook profile pictures on Taiwanese people Facebook pages), the languages of this movement are another symbol which points to the emergence of a new identity.

Language is an important symbol of individual thoughts and feelings and has often influenced the development of community and social culture as well as nation building and political mobilisation. Taiwan’s own history is a perfect case study of this phenomenon. Over the last five centuries, Taiwan has developed a complex language ecology encompassing the Taiwanese Aboriginal languages, Tâi-gí (a Southern Min variety arising from Hokkien immigration to Taiwan, commonly referred to as taiyu or Taiwanese), and most recently  Mandarin. More recently, from the Japanese colonial rule, to the arrival of the Kuomintang (KMT) to the Taiwanisation movement in the period to and following democratisation, languages have been used as a political tool to achieve various political objectives, and language has also been used as a marker of identity. Under the KMT martial rule period, those speaking variations of Southern Min were classified as being authentically Taiwanese (benshengren), whilst those who could only speak Mandarin were not considered to be Taiwanese, but rather Chinese (waishengren). Through suppression of local languages, this further reinforced the division within society whilst leading to a decline in usage of these local languages and further confusing the notion of what it means to be Taiwanese. Given the centrality of language as a mechanism of identity it is no wonder that after over 100 years of being told what to speak, Taiwanese identity had no clear direction.

The language of the protest has largely been conducted in Mandarin (also known as guoyu, the national language Mandarin, with some phonetic and lexical differences from the Mandarin spoken in the PRC), from the official speeches of the student leaders to discourses by political leaders (including bensheng politicians and members of the opposition DPP). The high use of Mandarin amongst all actors involved in the protest as well the prevalence of Mandarin in the younger generation indicates that speaking Mandarin is no longer associated with being a waishengren and merely confirms that Mandarin has now been accepted by the Taiwanese and has become a language of Taiwan. This has confirmed the trend of the increasing usage of Mandarin in Taiwan, into domains which were previously dominated by local languages, such as the home and family. This is further borne out by statistics indicating that only 20% of today’s young people have a passive understanding of Tâi-gí.

However, if one were only to watch the protest songs appearing online during the most recent protests (as well as those of the protests last year), one would think that Taiwanese was the only language of Taiwan. Protest songs have, for the most part, been sung in Taiwanese. Does this mean song writers are living in a parallel universe, or make up the 20% of Taiwanese youth with an understanding of Taiwanese?

A likely explanation is that Taiwanese language is a mechanism for Taiwanese to reclaim their identity. While, not necessarily having a proficiency in it, Taiwanese language has become a symbol for all Taiwanese, regardless of their background, to express their identity and demonstrate that their heritage is linked to Taiwan. While language is undoubtedly a major component illustrating a separate ethnic identity, in Taiwan’s case, Taiwanese identity is related more to the symbol of a separate language than its use by all people. The protest songs of this latest movement in Taiwan, use Tâi-gí as a symbol of their Taiwanese identity, but speaking Tâi-gí is not essential to group membership.

A popular video on YouTube,  ‘Island Sunrise’ (島嶼天光) sung by students from The National Taipei University of Arts  has lyrics saying that the dawn’s rays will soon ‘shine upon everyone on the island’ while before long it will be ‘time to come home,’ home referring to, of course, Taiwan. The song is sung in Tâi-gí with accompanying Chinese subtitles. This shows the emergence of an identity which is not linked to ethnicity or linguistic factors, but instead unifies all those who live on the island Taiwan and who share the notion that their identity and interests are linked to a separate territory. The name itself ‘Island Sunrise’ illustrates how this new identity is moving away from previous identity constructions which were shaped around dividing characteristics and are now based instead on the island, an inclusive concept which all people who identify with the island are able to share. The use of characters is also indicative of the emergent identity, as they do not uniquely translate the meaning of the Taiwanese lyrics, but also indicate the phonetic sounds of the Taiwanese lyrics. For instance, the word for ‘we’ traditionally written as 我們, pronounced women in Mandarin, is instead written as 阮們, pronounced ruan in Mandarin, a character meaning a traditional Chinese instrument, but much more closer to the Taiwanese phonetic sound of ‘we.’ Whilst using Chinese characters to express Taiwanese sounds, Taiwanese people upon seeing this would not view this as written Chinese, but merely borrowing Chinese characters to express the Taiwanese language.

These lyrics are accompanied by images of the protest which resonate on a sentimental level as they represent the non-politicised aspects of the protest and draws viewers into the shared experiences of the protest. These range from the students working together to collect garbage, doctors donating their time and resources, rail workers giving out lunchbox meals, all interspersed with images of the various faces of those taking part in the protest from primary school students to seniors. This video serves to show the humane side of the protest, whilst cultivating a sense of national sentiment. The fact it is sung in Tâi-gí only heightens this feeling as it suggests that the Taiwanese language is something that belongs to everyone who identifies with the island Taiwan and who want what is best for the island.

Through promoting these songs in video format on the internet and promoted via social media, anyone who identifies as Taiwanese is able to watch and learn the songs and in so doing are able to express their identification with the movement and their acceptance of the new identity which is emerging. Song as an identity marker is not new in Taiwan (take for example the campus folk movement of the 1970s and 1980s), and this new movement is further building upon this tradition assisting in cultivating an inclusive and long-lasting Taiwanese identity. Regardless of the outcome of the current protests, the proliferation of protest songs throughout this movement indicate that the Taiwanese people, in particular its youth, are starting to reclaim their identity. Language has been a major instrument of this reclamation as young people use the symbolic value of local languages to express their sense of what it means to be Taiwanese.

Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is an Honours student at The Australian National University, researching language politics and identity in Taiwan.