Taiwanese place names and colonial Japan

There was this interesting item in the “Taiwan Quick Take” section of the Taipei Times.

A plan to change the name of Sanmin Township (三民) in Kaohsiung County has hit an obstacle as residents remain divided over what to name it. A Bunun-majority township, Sanmin was called Mayatsun during Japanese colonial rule and then Maya Township (瑪雅) after World War II. It was later renamed Sanmin after Sun Yat-sen’s (孫逸仙) “Three principles of the people.” Officials and some locals want to change the township’s name back to Maya. Although the name change is welcomed by many residents, some local elders suggest using another name, arguing that the name “Maya” was an incorrect name given by the Japanese. Officials will visit Japan to research the name before making a final decision.

This is an interesting colonialism related phenomenon in Taiwan, and I’m not sure whether it exists in other colonies or not. The most famous example is indisputably the city of Kaohsiung(高雄 in kanji/hanzi or “Gaoxiong” in correct Pinyin.) The currently used Chinese characters for the city’s name were given to it during the Japanese colonial period, when they were meant to be pronounced as “Takao,” based on the Japanese kun-yomi, as if it were a Japanese place name and not a Chinese one. The same name, pronounced as Takao and written as 高雄, is also used in Japan. The twist here, however, is that the name given to the city was in fact an attempt to approximate the historical name of the city, originally based on the region’s name in the language of the aborigines (“Takau,” meaning “bamboo forest”) who lived there long before ethnic Chinese settlers ever arrived from Hokkien across the Taiwan Straight. The Chinese had used various characters to approximate the name “Takau” over the years, such as “打狗” or “打鼓.” Similarly, the Japanese name 高雄 was meant to approximate the native name, except it only does so when read in Japanese, and not in any dialect of Chinese. After the Japanese left the city’s name remained as they had made it-part of their cultural legacy on the island-except the characters are now read as Chinese (Gaoxiong in Mandarin,) with the having somewhat ironically having maintained its original pronunciation all the way throughout colonial rule, only to lose it during the process of decolonization.

Another moderately well known example is the district of Xi’men in Taipei. Now known for its plethora of fashion stores, fast food and tattoo parlors (often referenced as Taiwan’s closest parallel to Harajuku,) Ximen’s name derives from being near the former location of the city’s west gate, from the hanzi 西門, literally meaning “west gate.” In Chinese speech, Ximen is often referred to as “Ximen-ding,” with “ding” being the Mandarin pronunciation of the character ” 町.” Students of Japanese will instantly recognize this character as one frequently used in Japan as a label for streets or neighborhoods in Japan, pronounced as either “chou” or “machi” depending on the context. If one looks at a map of Taipei from the period when it was ruled by Japan, one sees that 町 was a standard designation for parts of the city, in proper Japanese fashion. Since decolonization these names have all officially been changed, but Ximen-ding (and possibly others) still lingers as a colloquialism long after vanishing from the map.

A more unusual example that I personally discovered was a small village in the east coast province of Hualian, (花蓮) by the name of Morisaka. Although Japanese architecture dating to the colonial period is fairly common in Taiwan, this village is interesting in that it was constructed entirely in that period, and entirely in the Japanese style. Architecturally, there is little to no trace of Chinese or native influence, since there was apparently no village there before the Japanese built one. It was given the ordinary, almost generic, Japanese name of Morisaka (森坂 or possible 森阪- I forget which version of the second character was used.) Although people do live in the village, it is interestingly preserved in its historical demeanor as a sort of historical museum of the period (including some actual museums.) Although I believe the original name of the village 森阪, pronounced as Shenban in Mandarin, it appeared to me from the various signs that it was renamed as 摩里沙卡, which is a transliteration of the Japanese name into Chinese, read as mo li sha ka. Perhaps since the village had no pre-Japanese name, in either a Chinese or aboriginal language, it was decided that the pronunciation of “Morisaka” was the “true” name, which should be maintained. This is however highly unusual. The standard practice with Chinese character names in different languages has historically been to maintain the original orthography, and simply pronounce it in the language of the reader whenever possible, and I can think of no other cases in which a Chinese character place name was changed to maintain the pronunciation of one sinic orthography language in another. Unfortunately I am unsure which name is ordinarily used by the local residents, leaving the exact story of the village’s name incomplete and perhaps incorrect.

So there you have it. I think four examples, one from the Taipei Times and three from my own knowledge, is enough to at least begin to hint that there may be enough going on to use the word phenomenon. Do any readers have further similar examples, either in Taiwan or elsewhere?

21 thoughts on “Taiwanese place names and colonial Japan”

  1. No examples, never having been to Taiwan, but regarding the 坂 阪 thing, while I do not know for certain, I would be surprised if it were the latter: as far as I know, for placenames, the only one that is like that is 大阪, which was changed from the Edo-period 大坂 just to make it a little more unique, befitting its position as one of the biggest cities (and for a time in the early 20th C, the biggest) in Japan. If anyone does know of any other 阪 placenames I would be interesting to hear.

  2. I believe that the Taipei suburb Sanchong 三重 (Mie) is such a place. Another suburb, Banqiao 板橋 (Itabashi?), might be one too but somebody once told me the name came from an actual wooden bridge that was there at one time. According to Taipei Panorama magazine, there is a village named Wangxiang 望鄉 that is said to have been named after a Japanese officer’s hometown.
    “the village 森阪, pronounced as Shenban in Mandarin”
    That should be “Senban”–your Taiwan Guoyu is showing 😉

  3. Well, Wikipedia says about Banqiao
    “The city’s old name was 枋橋 (py: fang1-qiao2), pronounced Pangkiøo in Taiwanese, and means “bridge made of wooden planks”. The name’s origin goes back to the Qing Dynasty during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735 – 1796 AD). A wooden bridge was built for pedestrians to cross a brook located in the west of today’s Banciao. Eventually, this place acquired the name Pangkiøo (枋橋). In 1920, the Japanese government changed the name to 板橋, which has remained unchanged to this day.”

    So basically they changed the Chinese name to a Japanese style one that had basically the same meaning and a similar Chinese pronunciation.

    I wouldn’t say MANY Taiwanese, Mark. Maybe a few of the very elderly like the women in that video, but still, the Taiwanese are generally very positive towards Japan and Japanese, particularly when compared with China.

    Neat video though- I met quite a few elderly Taiwanese who speak good Japanese (not to mention Taiwanese in my range who have learned it decently as an elective in school), even including a couple of former comfort women who are still fluent in Japanese and still enjoy many aspects of Japanese culture.

    Check out this youtube video, collecting Japanese language TV commercials aired in Taiwan.

  4. I hate to get involved in such issues, but I think it’s pretty extreme to say that Gaoxiong is the “correct” pinyin.

  5. I could have been more specifically correct by saying “Hanyu Pinyin,” but I don’t think that my phrasing was “pretty extreme.” Other forms of Pinyin have historically existed, but even in Taiwan, where alternate forms of Pinyin are technically still in use, they are not actually taught to anyone, and in my experience no textbooks or dictionaries use them except as a historical reference.

  6. “That should be “Senban”—your Taiwan Guoyu is showing ;)”
    Yeah, it totally is. My Chinese tutor (who is from Taiwan) sometimes gets really confused when I mangle my pronunciations into an odd mixture of proper Mandarin, Taiwan Guoyu, guesses based on Japanese, and even a very rare one based on some 台語 pronunciation that somehow got into my head. I really need to spend some time in China and learn how to talk in a way such that someone who ONLY knows standard Mandarin can actually understand.

  7. The 2ch thread has some good stuff in it:

    1  旧清朝時代からの地名→日統治時代の読みに→現代中国音に。
    2 日統治時代に造成の土地地名→そのまま現代中国音として読む。
    3 現地語音→日統治時代の読みで漢字を充てる→現代中国音になる。


  8. There’s also this amusing error-
    “打狗(ダーガオ:狗を叩くの意味)→高雄(日本人がこの漢字を当てる)→高雄(カオシュン:中国語読み) ”

    Err, no. Takao was actually not named for the act of dog-beating…

  9. Another person says that a place called 三貂角 (Sam-tiau-kok in Taiwanese) in NE Taiwan was actually named Santiago by the Spanish.

  10. I still don’t think correct was a good choice of words, it’s a very political statement. If someone spelled their name Hsin-yi and you told them “hey, the correct way to spell your name is Xin-yi” i don’t think it would go over very well. I don’t even have any Taiwan-related political orientation, I just think that since, as you said, Taiwan doesn’t have a commonly taught and used pinyin, there really isn’t a “correct” one.

  11. You have a fair point, but I do think that personal names are an entirely different matter from more official uses. I mean, in the US we’re used to people spelling their name any silly way they want, but you don’t have the same freedom to spell, say, “Connecticut” however you want. But as for Pinyin, Taiwan doesn’t even teach it to locals, which is why I find the entire politicization of it irritating and counterproductive. Unlike in China, where Hanyu Pinyin is used in schools and dictionaries as the official pronunciation key, the Romanization in Taiwan is theoretically there for the sole benefit of foreigners, and not having using the world standard is just dumb.

    Of course, Kaohsiung is currently the official name of the city in English, which while it may be the correct way to write it using one of the various archaic forms of Pinyin, isn’t actually going to help anyone today pronounce the name correctly-which is what I meant by “correct pinyin.”

    An equivalent would be something like the use of the continued use of the archaic and retarded English Imperial system of measurements over here in the USA. You know what? The rest of the world has a standard, which is not just different but qualitatively better, and I think it’s past high time that we got on board with that. As the Atom and his Package song goes:

    The English system of measurement must relate to history. We can use units of 10 and convert with ease like all the other countries.

    I put the terrible and inconsistent pinyin used in Taiwan in the same category, and likewise hope they get on board with the qualitatively superior world standard.

  12. C’mon now, nothing wrong with good old Wade-Giles when it’s used properly. It may not be used in Chinese language classes but it is still widely used in academia, and I think neither “Kaohsiung” and “Gaoxiong” tells the layperson much about how to pronounce the name of that city. (And people who can pronounce Chinese properly should be able to figure it out either way.)
    “Tongyong pinyin” on the other hand is a joke.

  13. “…still widely used in academia.” I think this is largely just Western (American?) inertia, in a similar way to the previous Emperor of Japan still being “Hirohito” yet his father and grandfather are Taisho and Meiji, rather than Yoshihito and Mutsuhito. We’re so used to seeing, say, Chiang Kai-shek that the pinyin Jiang Jie shi. However we do use as a matter of course such pinyin names as Mao Zedong rather than WG Mao Tse-tung, or Beijing over the alternatives (not that Peking is WG; the rarely-encountered Peiching is). I also suspect the relative impact of Taiwanese Chinese over Chinese Chinese in post-1949 Sinology (simply by being more accessible, and I include the Chinese Diaspora in that as well) has a large part to play. Whenever I need to use Chinese names in English-language work (not that often, true), I try to use pinyin, say Qing for Ch’ing dynasty, even though for example the KMT looks a bit ‘odd’ as Guomindang.

    I do think pinyin is more accurate on the whole than WG in representing the sounds (eg Tang is indeed Tang in pinyin, whereas I understand that in WG a T without an apostrophe is more like D [hence T’ang Dynasty and Mao Tse-tung with a T rather than Mao Zedong with a D]), and the lack of (seemingly) random apostrophes certainly looks cleaner and simpler.

  14. Ahem. “We’re so used to seeing, say, Chiang Kai-shek that the pinyin Jiang Jie shi.” looks odd.

    Dang, I wish we could edit our comments….

  15. Jade: For people to edit their own comments I’d have to allow everyone to create a guest account. It’s not difficult, but maybe more trouble than it’s worth.

    I don’t think the use of Wade Giles in academia is either a point in its favor, or itself defensible. While I do think it’s acceptable to not use Hanyu Pinyin for Taiwanese names, because they do have an official spelling, which is often not Hanyu Pinyin (and for that matter, often not Wade Giles, or any internally consistent romanization system of any kind,) the use of Wade Giles in academia just smacks of sloppiness or misplaced nostalgia to me.

    It may be reasonable to make exceptions for extremely well known names, such as Chiang Kai Shek, I think they should still have a note giving the actual pronunciation. In his case, a: the common spelling of his name is based on Cantonese, even though he ruled a country where he made Mandarin the sole official language, and b: it’s not even proper Cantonese Pinyin.

    The following chart copied from his Wikipedia entry:

    Known in English as: Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石)
    Pinyin: Jiǎng Jièshí
    Wade-Giles: Chiang Chieh-shih
    Cantonese: Jéung Gaaisek
    Minnan: Chiúⁿ Kài-se̍k
    Known in Taiwan as: 蔣中正
    Hanyu Pinyin: Jiǎng Zhōngzhèng
    Wade-Giles: Chiang Chung-cheng
    Minnan: ChiúⁿTiong-chèng
    Cantonese: Jéung Jūngjing

  16. I believe that with the growth of China as a regional power we will see an increase in pinyin orthography however, even with names like Chiang – after all, we changed Mao, probably single most famous name in Chinese history (certainly to western non-specialists). Although that would be made easier by the fact that the ‘Mao’ part stayed the same. But Peking went to Beijing, and I think we will see a complete change in the reasonably near future. I don’t really like the idea of “exceptions”, as all that really means is conservatism and an inability to adapt – like the Hirohito-Showa thing. It locks us into a set period POV.

Comments are closed.