November 28, 2012

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From Dalu to Neidi - Taiwan's battle over semantics

Few days ago Taiwan hosted one of the biggest film awards in the Chinese speaking world, namely the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards 台北金馬影展. Movies from the Chinese mainland did extremely well this year, which shows how strong China (sans Hong Kong) has become in the movie industry in recent years. In fact, many Taiwanese actors, who rose to fame in the very popular genre of Taiwanese drama, are now heavily focused on that market and play in local productions. Cooperations in movies and dramas between Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China are very common in recent years, many Taiwanese stars are making big money on the other side of the strait, because the market is huge (Taiwan has a population of 23 million, China over 1.3 billion). If there weren't political tensions between these three, one would've thought that everything's kumbaya. But it's not. Those Taiwanese artists, who support Taiwan's independent path, can't express that openly, if they want to make money on the other side. If they do, they will be banned from entering the country and their further career will be restricted to Taiwan, Hong Kong and some other countries with Chinese speaking population such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia etc. One of the often cited examples for that issue is the popular Taiwanese singer A-Mei, who was banned to enter China after she sung the ROC national anthem at the inauguration of president Chen Sui-bian in 2000. Her ban has been lifted in 2007 and I don't think her career has really been affected by that, she's still very popular and doing pretty well, also in China. But times have changed since the year 2000, China's market for Taiwan's artists has become much more important in recent years, the focus is on cross strait cooperation, rather than on single markets.

If you have many Taiwanese Facebook friends, you would've noticed a certain phenomenon during the awards. Many netizens were upset over Taiwanese actors and actresses using the word 內地 (pronounced nèidì) when thanking their fans in the Chinese mainland. Neidi means "inland" and is commonly used in Hong Kong and Macau SAR, which are of course officially part of China. The term is also a relict from Japanese colonial times, Taiwanese referred to 內地 (pronounced "neichi") when talking about the so called Japanese inner lands. Therefore it's no wonder, that Taiwanese are sensitive about the use of this term. See some examples here:

One annoyed commentator says: 可以不要聽到內地這詞嗎?
Rough translation: Can you please not use the "neidi" phrase?

In Taiwan 大陸 (pronounced dàlù), meaning "continent" or "mainland", is commonly used when referring to China (specifically mainland China) and it's seen as much more neutral, because North America can be dalu as well. Bottom line: 大陸 doesn't include the notion, that Taiwan is part of China, while 內地 does. Interestingly, 大陸 had a similar connotation in the past, but the meaning has shifted. In China however, 內地 is preferred over 大陸, which would be taken as "offensive" to Chinese, because they (are made to) believe that Taiwan is part of China. Many Taiwanese artists choose to appease their fans in China knowing that they will be angering a lot of their Taiwanese supporters, who were actually their first fans. It's no secret, that some of them feel betrayed and hurt by such behavior, but the truth is, many stars depend on their agents and represent certain brands through very lucrative advertisement deals and therefore often have no choice but to follow the safe way and be politically correct according to China's standards. It's an open secret, that some of them would be saying one thing to the Chinese audience, while still voting for a pro-independence party at the elections in Taiwan. They have a fine line to walk, but that's a common practice for most things in the culture they grew up, so I don't think it's that hard for them.

Taiwan is losing the battle over semantics, national flags and passport images. That their president is called a "bumbler" by the international press doesn't make them feel too good either. This might be nitpicking for many people in the free world, but for a lot of Taiwanese this is a streak of small humiliations adding up to a permanent frustration. I hope my post helped you to get a better understanding of these matters. You can find a very thorough explanation of this issue here (in Chinese).


  1. i thought the only "semantics" they argue about is about "bumbler"? ;-)

  2. @halden2714: Hahaha.. good one! I think Taiwanese netizens have already settled this issue, they came to the unanimous conclusion, that the meaning is 笨蛋 :D

  3. Taiwan feels this more acutely than other places, of course, but Germans who do business in China will usually keep silent about their view of the Chinese political system - or they lavish praise on it. To think that making money in or from China can be unpolitical is illusionary.

    Btw, I seem to have heard that someone at the Economist called the translation "dimwit" (from bumbler) "irresponsible". If so, the Economist should have added a footnote to its article - something like "we meant sad sack, not goofball. Or whatever.

  4. Re the first para of my 9:19 pm comment: I'm not talking about biz peoples' talk in China, but about their talk at home. Self-censorship in action. Of course, this doesn't refer to all of them.

  5. @Justrecently: I wonder, if the Economist really thought that the "bumbler article" will make such waves. At the end most Taiwanese take it as a non-issue. Lots of stuff here is blown up by the media, it runs on TV and online nonstop for few days and then it disappears so quickly, because a new scandal pops up.

  6. Regarding Taiwanese frustrations, I would have a lot more sympathy if they hadn't re-elected President Ma. The biggest issue affecting Taiwan is their sovereignty. They voted for a guy who wants to end it. Why should they complain?

    It would be like Americans who, seeing that the biggest issue facing us is our debt, decide to re-elect a big spender and them complain when our kids don't get to live in a prosperous country like we did.

  7. @Readin: 48% of the voters have not voted for him, they have the right to be frustrated. It's a 6 million people, more than the population of Singapore.


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