Unification of Taiwan’s romanization standard

The China Post news staff

A fortnight ago, the Ministry of Education declared that beginning Jan. 1st, 2009, Hanyu Pinyin will be used in Taiwan as the official romanization standard for Mandarin Chinese. The decision allows people to choose how they spell their own names and no legal documents need changing.

This edict is effectively a death knell to Tongyong Pinyin, the system put in place under the previous administration in 2002. The Republic of China will now officially use the internationally accepted “Hanyu” standard developed in the People’s Republic of China. Tongyong Pinyu could be considered a noble experiment. Introduced in Taiwan by Yu Bor-chuan in 1998, Tongyong’s stated goal was to create a unified romanization system that could be applied to both Mandarin and Hokklo or Taiwanese. Although praised by some, critics pointed out errors and flaws. But regardless of which side in the battle between Hanyu Pinyin and Tongyong Pinyin is right, the simple fact remains that the internationally accepted standard is Hanyu Pinyin. Unfortunately for Taiwan, the original reason to adopt Tonyyong Pinyin was more political than patriotic. Early recommendations from the Department of Education in favor of using Hanyu Pinyin were rejected and in the end, the matter was settled by an non-binding administrative order.

Hanyu Pinyin’s history dates back to the early 1950s when a Chinese banker working in New York heeded his nation’s call to return home and help rebuild China after devastating wars. The newly-returned Zhou Youngguang was eventually assigned by the Chinese government to develop a better system for a standard romanization.

By 1958, Zhou’s romanization system, based largely on older systems, was the official one for China. By 1979, the International Organization for Standardization was on board and in 1986, the United Nations also adopted Hanyu Pinyin. The list of official organizations that use Hanyu Pinyin is long and includes the Government of Singapore, the United States Library of Congress and many more. Suffice it to say, Hanyu is now unstoppable. The Mainland system may have flaws — and indeed, flaws seem inevitable in any romanization system — but it’s a logical, easy-to-learn, well-established system that is already in place around the world.

As China gains in stature, Chinese names, brand names and words are becoming ever more visible. Many Westerners are just recently beginning to be exposed to the Chinese language. It seems fair that Taiwan use a system foreign visitors are becoming more familiar with.

The Ministry of Education’s decision to adopt Hanyu Pinyin does not mean that Taiwan will finally have one standard romanization next year. Local governments are free to choose which ever system they like.

It is unlikely that Kaohsiung City, for example, will make the switch. Even Taipei County, which has had a Kuomintang administration under Chou Hsi-wei since 2005, has yet to complete the changeover, with many place names sporting both systems. It’s unfortunate this issue has dragged on as long as it has.

In some places in Taiwan, a single street can offer two or even three different romanized spellings. Such a lack of coherence can only be frustrating for visitors.

It’s time to unify the romanization spellings of Mandarin in Taiwan. Coming into line with international standards can only accentuate Taiwan’s competitiveness. Hopefully, the cities and counties of Taiwan will decide to follow the Ministry of Education’s lead in promoting the international standard.