Taiwan’s Political Lexicon.

If you follow Language Log at all, you’ll be aware of the endless ingenuity of the citizens of the PRC in getting around censorship by means of puns, allusions, etc.; this story by Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) of Taiwan News shows that the citizens of Taiwan are equally creative, even in the absence of such censorship:

One of the fun aspects of following Taiwanese politics is the unique and colorful vocabulary. Some of it is practical, some profound, and others downright funny. Much of it is distinct to Taiwan. All of it reflects the passionate interest in Taiwanese elections. […] When more than one person is vying to be the party’s candidate, they may “knead tang yuan,” (搓圓仔湯/搓湯圓/挲圓仔湯/煮圓仔湯) or try offer up something to get a candidate to drop out. […] Sometimes politicians look to a “barrel hoop,” (桶箍) which is a neutral or mutually respected person working to bring candidates together as a team. […] Sometimes a barrel hoop will negotiate with another party to get one party’s candidate to not run to avoid splitting the ticket against the opposition, and “politely yield” (禮讓). […]

It is fairly common in Taiwan for politicians to express public disinterest in running for a post, sometimes for genuine reasons but often it is a song and dance show. If a politician already holds a post it would look bad to step down to run for something else, or if a friend or ally is vying for the same position and it would look like betrayal, or even just to look humble, if the party wants the candidate to run they will “make three humble visits to the thatched cottage” (三顧茅廬). […] Once the candidates are chosen, it is time to use my favorite terms, “hen” (母雞) and “chicks” (小雞). The hen is a candidate at the top of the ticket and chicks are the downstream ones, for example, a presidential candidate is a hen, and legislative candidates are chicks, or a mayoral candidate and city council candidates. […] What the hen is providing the chicks is a “watermelon nestle to the big side (西瓜偎大邊), which means to ride on the hen’s coattails.

Great stuff, and there’s much more of it at the link. (See this 2002 post for an illustration of how proverbs and “four-character expressions” can be used to make conversation livelier and less intelligible.)


  1. In case anyone didn’t know, in this year of elections, Taiwan was first off the block a couple of weeks ago with a Presidential and Legislative Yuan ballot. The ‘frozen garlic’ was intense.

    Puns on the names of the candidates are common. Four years ago it was ‘English cabbage’ vs. ‘Chinese vegetable’ — with a snide suggestion one candidate would be a stooge for PRC. This time the Pres. and VP candidates for DPP put together a clever play on their conjoined names ‘made in Taiwan/ virtue’.

    AFAICT the needed puns are what I’d call excruciating. And also need mangling together Mandarin with Taiwanese pronunciations.

    The democracy is so enthusiastic and yet respectful — it’s a joy to watch.

  2. Yes it is, even from afar — especially for one who was there during the bad old days of brutal KMT one-party rule, when people could talk about certain things only in whispers. Long live free Taiwan!

  3. the bad old days of brutal KMT one-party rule

    You’d a thunk they’re long gone. But … would you vote for a politician who divorced his wife in the midst of his corruption trial purely to evade the nepotism rules, so she could run for the mayoralty (“Magistrate”) he was forced to stand down from?

    (Sorry to impose on our host’s hospitality with a not-remotely-linguistical story, but there’s something I need to get off my chest. I’m still feeling defiled by the whole experience.)

    Apparently the ‘bad old’ KMT is still alive and kicking across the mountains in those picturesque fishing ports on the East Coast. The ones producing specialist comestibles, which can only be obtained (apparently) by driving many extra kms into twisty valleys to secret villages. The ones usually described as ‘tight-knit’ — which it turns out is a euphemism.

    On New Year’s Eve I happened to be in Hualien. So we went to the municipal fireworks show. Now in NZ, such events are introduced by the Mayor early in the evening. That’s a (usually) Party political elected position. So for strict political neutrality — even nowhere near an election — a wide spectrum of local pollies troops on to the stage to make speeches. Even the representatives from parties that have never stood a chance of getting elected. “Early in the evening” so’s to get it over with before the festivities begin.

    In Hualien not so much: the “Magistrate” and her husband **and no other representatives** — even less than two weeks before the election — came up on stage at 15 mins before midnight. They proceeded to thank/praise the municipality, coming within a hair’s breadth of mentioning the KMT. Then both led the huzzahing at the stroke.

    I of course had no idea who these two were, but felt a sense of sleaze immediately the ‘Legislator’ started speaking. (I didn’t understand a word, but we have an almost identical sleazebag in NZ, who keeps getting re-elected for no reason I can understand. I hasten to add that despite multiple scandals and (civil) court cases, he’s not been actually imprisoned. He’s never done anything other than polish his own ego IMO.)

    _If_ there’s a linguistic point here: do dodgy politicians have a something in their speechifying that makes them cross-culturally identifiable?

  4. While that’s sad and repellent, it’s the kind of local corruption enabled by and enabling rule by a few assholes that’s pretty much universal (Gogol was writing about it in the 1830s, and there are probably relevant clay tablets from millennia ago); it’s not remotely the same thing as an entire country where people are afraid to speak their minds.

  5. Seong of Baekje says

    You’d a thunk they’re long gone. But … would you vote for a politician who divorced his wife in the midst of his corruption trial purely to evade the nepotism rules, so she could run for the mayoralty (“Magistrate”) he was forced to stand down from?

    The link doesn’t work.

  6. @Seong apologies. Try again. There’s also.

Speak Your Mind