Linguistic challenges when writing about “China”

The Financial Times last month published The dark side of China’s national renewal (subscriptions required), addressing the idea that all Chinese people should help China achieve the “China Dream”:

To an English-speaking ear, rejuvenation has positive connotations and all nations have the right to rejuvenate themselves through peaceful efforts.

But the official translation of this crucial slogan is deeply misleading. In Chinese it is “Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing” and the important part of the phrase is “Zhonghua minzu” — the “Chinese nation” according to party propaganda. A more accurate, although not perfect, translation would be the “Chinese race”.

Zhonghua minzu 中華民族 is a phrase that doesn’t translate well in English. As discussed by Arif Dirlik in Born in Translation: “China” in the Making of “Zhongguo”, the words China and Chinese are inherently invited by the West.

As Lydia Liu has observed, “the English terms ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ do not translate the indigenous terms hua [華], xia [夏], han [漢], or even zhongguo [中國] now or at any given point in history.”

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Chinese, Taiwanese, or Chinese Taiwanese?

There are many factors that play into how Chinese and American people see their identities. Chinese people pride themselves on being a civilization with 5,000 years of history, and hence everyone who is born into a Chinese family, no matter the geographic location, is obliged to always identify him or herself as Chinese. Otherwise it’s a dishonor to the family and what have you.

On the other hand, other than the Native Americans, the U.S. is a country of immigrants, who left their home countries in hope of finding a better life in the states. They may retain the cultural heritage of their country of origin, but they and their descendants primarily identify themselves as Americans (e.g. Asian American, African American, European American, etc.). Continue reading “Chinese, Taiwanese, or Chinese Taiwanese?”

Taiwanese culture?

If you are able to read Chinese, the comment section of the Facebook picture above provides a selection of fairly common (and ongoing) arguments used for and against Taiwan-independence and a Taiwanese identity. Essentially the comic argues that Taiwanese culture is not synonymous to Chinese culture, even though past and current policies have long given preference to Chinese culture while suppressing cultures of other subgroups that make up of Taiwan’s population.

Somewhat related, The Upper Han by The Economist provides an interesting read on how Han people in China view ethnicity, nationality, and the Chinese identity. This attitude helps explain the attachment many in Taiwan still have towards “China” and their disdain towards de-sinicization and a separate Taiwanese identity and culture.

Do Taiwanese people feel Chinese?

This question, along with “are Taiwanese people Chinese?”, is easy to ask, but takes a while to answer. Taiwan is an country of mostly immigrants. The original inhabitants of Formosa island today only accounts for less than 3% of the population. Similar to the United States, where while everyone is an American, most people can trace their ancestry to somewhere else. Here we use the word Taiwanese as a term for the nationality, i.e. people born and live in Taiwan and/or Taiwanese citizens. Much like trying to explain Taiwan’s political status, answering the question requires one to understand Taiwan’s history of immigration and population composition.

Major socio-cultural groups of Taiwan, as % of the total population (~23.5 million).

Continue reading “Do Taiwanese people feel Chinese?”

A Mainlander’s view of Taiwan: How Taiwanese people do it

Originally titled 在台湾找中国味儿, this article was published in the Guangdong New Weekly Magazine 廣東新周刊雜誌社. Somewhere along the path of being circulated in Chinese language forums, a new version of it somehow appeared, and below is the said new version. After surfing the forum for a little bit, we have come to the conclusion that this article can only represent the author’s and those like-minded’s point of view, but not every other Mainlanders’. Read original version in Chinese.

How Taiwanese people do it 台灣人這麼說這麼做

By Xiao Feng / Guangzhou.New Weekly writer

On the journey of finding China in Taiwan, you experience this gentle and subtle warmth, which seems to be lost ages ago, but still expected. We seem to already know them, yet they are so unfamiliar to us.

Many Mainland tourists often experience some sort of psychological letdown when they first arrive in Taiwan. How is it that Taiwan doesn’t even have an impressive airport? You cannot understand Taiwan by its cover. Taiwan has to be experienced slowly, in detail, like you would with a woman. Continue reading “A Mainlander’s view of Taiwan: How Taiwanese people do it”


Read English translation.



不少陸客初看台灣會有些心理落差。台灣怎麼連個氣派的機場都沒有?台灣不是用看的,台灣是要細細品味的。就像一個女人。 Continue reading “台灣人這麼說這麼做”