Say It Loud: Language and Identity in Taiwan and Hong Kong

Activists are responding to economic and political pressure from China by emphasizing native languages

The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong show how far citizens in both countries are prepared to go to safeguard what they see as their distinctive way of life. Both sides fear the encroaching influence of China. The protesters in Taiwan — who occupied the Legislative Yuan in the spring — and Hong Kong are striving to protect their institutions, autonomy and freedoms. Protesters also want to show how their culture and society are different from those in China. Central to this differentiation is the use of language.

Language is a symbol of individual and collective identity. It is humanity’s main way of expressing beliefs and opinions. Language has often been invoked as a unifying symbol. The recent movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong are no exception to this rule. Holo (also known as tâi-gí and Taiwanese Hokkien) in Taiwan and Cantonese in Hong Kong, are the local languages of each place. These languages unite the people, using a language unique to each place as a symbol to differentiate themselves from China.

Mandarin is now regarded as the dominant “Chinese” language. This was not always the case. In early 19th century China, facing invasion from foreign powers, looked to Western traditions to learn how to make their country stronger. The leaders of that time latched onto the nation-state ideal. Central to which was the importance of a single unifying language. In the tradition of European nations such as France, England and Germany who united disparate populations under a single language, Mandarin became the national language of China. All other languages were relegated to the status of “dialect” and discouraged from being used.

This was the policy that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) took with them to Taiwan following their defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949. Until authoritarian rule ended in Taiwan in 1987, Mandarin was the only language used in schools, public places, courts, media and government. Arguably, this policy was successful as Mandarin is now the most widely spoken language, with proficiency in Taiwan’s local languages declining. Nevertheless, facing a rising China, local languages are now used to reconstruct a new national localised Taiwanese identity. This was most evident during the Sunflower Movement.

Unlike Taiwan, Hong Kong has not had Mandarin imposed for an extended period of time. Under British colonial rule, English language education had supremacy in the curriculum. Chinese only became an official language in 1974. Cantonese became the dominant language, with little interest in Mandarin until Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Following its return, and due to the changing political and economic relationship between Hong Kong and the Mainland, Mandarin has made inroads into Hong Kong. There are fears these changing relations may lead the Hong Kong government to follow the official policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): introduce a single unifying language for greater social and economic cohesion. A shift towards Mandarin would have deep consequences for Hong Kong’s own cultural distinctiveness. The concern of protecting Cantonese was on display during the Umbrella Revolution.

The names of the movements themselves show clear signs of the emerging identity in both places. In Hong Kong, the “Umbrella Movement” is often written using the Chinese characters 雨傘 (yusan). However, Cantonese has its own word for “umbrella” 遮打 (zheda) which is frequently used when writing about the protests. In Chinese, these two characters combined have no meaning. 遮 (pronounced zhe) means “to cover/to hide” and 打 (pronounced da) means “to hit/to fight/to beat.” When read by Mandarin speakers, zheda would make little sense. However, to Cantonese speakers this word has several layers of meaning. It not only means “umbrella” but on their own the characters are also significant. Like zhe suggests, umbrellas were intended to cover or shield protesters from tear gas fired by police. The protesters also intended to fight, da, for their political freedoms. Through using the Cantonese word for umbrella, Hong Kong protesters expressed their opposition to the Mandarin spoken on the Mainland, and by extension, the values of the CCP. It also encouraged more protesters to participate while encapsulating the unique identity of Hong Kong and the independence they are fighting to keep.

Likewise, the name of the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan also shows how Taiwan is differentiating itself from its traditional Mandarin-speaking roots. The traditional Chinese word for sunflower is xiangri kui 向日葵. However, protesters adopted the literal translation of the English word “sunflower” — taiyang hua (太陽 sun 花 flower) for the name of their movement. It is evidence of the use of English as a counterforce to Mandarin in Taiwan. Like the protesters in Hong Kong, the Sunflower Movement, using a name unique to Taiwan, distinguishes Taiwan from China and illustrates how protesters wish to protect their institutions and way of life in Taiwan.

The emergence of a new localized identity in Taiwan and Hong Kong is also seen in the popularity of songs sung in either Holo or Cantonese. Songs played a central role during the protests, sung to unite the protesters and encourage more people to participate.

In Taiwan, Mandarin is now accepted as a lingua franca. The majority of the discourse during the protest was in Mandarin. Nevertheless, singing in Holo evokes strong emotional reactions as it links the song and protest to a language long associated with Taiwan. Take for instance the unofficial anthem of the protest “Island Sunrise” by the popular band Fire Ex, which was sung in Holo. In the music video, (created by students from the Taipei National University of the Arts) the accompanying subtitles are in Chinese characters. The subtitles borrow Chinese characters whose phonetic sound is an approximate match to the semantically dissimilar Holo words in the lyrics. The borrowing of these Chinese characters indicates how local languages have been used to differentiate Taiwan from China. The characters are “domesticated” or “nationalized” by being made to convey the sounds and hence the meaning of Holo words. For instance, the word for “sorry” written as 对不起pronounced duibuqi in Mandarin Hanyu pinyin is instead written as 歹勢 pronounced daishi in Mandarin. The meaning of the first character 歹, meaning something “bad/evil” and the second 勢, meaning “power/force.” But when together, the two characters sound much closer to the Holo phonetic sound of “sorry” pronounced pháiⁿ-sè. Taiwanese people would not view it as written Chinese. Instead, Chinese characters have merely been used to express Taiwanese sounds.

Similarly the Umbrella Movement protesters are well aware of the encroaching cultural influence of the CCP and used song to encourage greater participation. The dominance of Cantonese during the protests is a clear sign that protesters value their unique Hong Kong identity and view Cantonese as integral to this identity. Through using Cantonese, the protesters show how they identify first as a “Hong Konger” and not as “Chinese.” One of the most widely sung songs of Hong Kong protesters has been “Under a Vast Sky” by 1980s rock band Beyond. Sung in Cantonese, the song stands for freedom, dreams and hope. These emotive themes, along with the tragic death of lead singer Wong Ka Kui in 1993 during a performance in Japan, make this a favorite with protestors in Hong Kong. Contemporary songwriters have also penned songs to contribute to the protest and condemn the actions of police and government.

The reason, of course, that songs sung in Cantonese and Holo are popular is that local languages have become a mechanism for Taiwanese and Hong Kong people to reclaim their identity. In Taiwan, even if many Taiwanese cannot speak the language fluently, they have become an avenue for Taiwanese people to express their identity and demonstrate that their heritage and history are linked to the island Taiwan. In Hong Kong, singing in Cantonese is a way to differentiate themselves from the Mainland. In both places, one of the most popular songs was the local version of the song “Do you Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables. It was originally sung in English. Its setting was in Paris. Taiwanese and Hong Kong people gained ownership over the song by translating it into Holo and Cantonese, making it relevant in the local context. Its popularity shows how European culture and a European language (English) are used as counterpoints to Mandarin and Chinese culture. The theme of the oppressed rising up evokes the idea that members of the Taiwanese and Hong Kong populations are rising up against what they see as unjust regimes.

Increasing economic ties between Hong Kong, Taiwan and China have led to an increase of Mandarin in both places. Despite this influx of Mandarin, both protests showed that Cantonese in Hong Kong and Holo in Taiwan are still linked to a strong local identity. The protests showed that closer ties to Beijing is about much more than pure economics. At stake is the culture and identity that makes Hong Kong and Taiwan the unique and flourishing places they have become.


Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is an Honours student at The Australian National University, researching language politics and identity in Taiwan.

9 Responses to “Say It Loud: Language and Identity in Taiwan and Hong Kong”

November 19, 2014 at 3:23 am, Jacob said:

Very interesting read, thank you!
About the “Sunflower Movement”: I’ve never heard the sunflower being referred to as 向日葵 in Taiwan. Also, there was an incident with the highly famous local Taichung pastry 太陽餅, which further added to the movements popular name. There is an additional layer of meaning to it, as floral metaphors have been used in student-related movements before, as in the 野百合花學運 and 野草莓學運 movements. However, it is not as obvious to me that “Sunflower Movement” is the protesters’ preferred way of addressing to their movement (albeit perhaps in English) – where did you get that information? My politically active friends within the movement’s wider circles prefer using the term Movement of 18 March 三一八學運. How would that fit into your narrative?


March 05, 2015 at 5:46 am, Ami Wang said:

It’s good that both Taiwan and Hong Kong are using language as a way to counter China’s want for control. I’m pathetic at speaking or understanding Taiwanese, or Holo, but personally I find it a more powerful language than Mandarin.


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