1. Introduction
  2. The Status Quo: Characters and Taiwanese writing
    1. The Roots of Writing in Taiwanese: Wenyan, baihua and academic Taiwanese
    2. The Missing 15 Percent: Developing a written vernacular
    3. One Attempt at Finding the Missing 15 Percent: Yang Qingchu's Mandarin-Taiwanese Dictionary
  3. Writing Romanized Taiwanese
    1. The Roots of Romanized Taiwanese: Church Romanization
    2. Church Romanization Today: The Taigu listserver
    3. An Indigenous System: Liim Keahioong and Modem Literal Taiwanese
  4. Linguistic and Social Considerations
    1. Some Linguistic Classifications
    2. Dealing with Homonyms: Morphophonemic spelling
    3. Tones in Taiwanese: Surface vs. Lexical tones
    4. Representing Dialects: Picking a standard written form or representing all dialects
    5. Summary of Linguistic Concerns: Deciding the degree of coding
    6. Writing, Reading, Printing, Computing, Indexing and other Practical Concerns
    7. Social Concerns: Tradition and Political Meaning
    8. Conclusion: Future Orthography Policy on Taiwan


The basis for this essay arose out of a single question: how does one write Taiwanese, a dialect of Minnanhua (one of the 8-10 main branches of Sinitic) spoken by nearly eight-five percent of the population in the Republic of China on Taiwan? The historical dominance of Classical Chinese (wenyan) and Vernacular Chinese (baihua) styles of writing has meant that vernacular writing in non-Mandarin topolects of Chinese has remained largely undeveloped. As a result, individuals wishing to write in their local topolect are faced with the task of adapting or creating new conventions that will fit the peculiar sounds and idioms of their spoken language.

The political liberalization on Taiwan in the last decade has made the issue of topolect writing particularly timely. After having been suppressed under the mainlander Guomindang party's Mandarin language policy from the 1950s to the 1980s, Taiwanese has begun to be widely used again in public settings.3 The predominantly Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party has pushed for the teaching of Taiwanese in addition to Mandarin in schools. Furthermore, Taiwanese has become the language of grassroots politics, popular culture (in the form of soap operas, talk shows, and music ), and even some serious literature and poetry This renewed interest in Taiwanese has been called by some the Taiwanese Language Movement, one important aspect of which is the development of a standardized, efficient and popularized form of written Taiwanese.

By writing this essay, I hope to show that how one chooses to write Taiwanese depends on both linguistic and social-political considerations. The essay begins with an examination of the roots of writing in Taiwanese: the traditional Chinese writing system of logographic characters. After discussing how character writing in Taiwanese is deficient and how some scholars have attempted to remedy this situation, the essay explores the alternative to character writing: writing in a phonetic system. Because of the long-standing presence of the Presbyterian Church on Taiwan, Taiwanese, more than other topolects of Chinese, already has a fairly entrenched system of romanization used by a small but solid group of native-speakers (as opposed to those using romanization in order to learn Taiwanese as a second language). In recent years, the Modern Literal Taiwanese romanization system developed by Liim Keahioong has also begun to gain in popularity. I examine the history of both of these romanization systems, the linguistic and practical challenges each face if they are to become more widely used, and the political implications of writing romanized Taiwanese.