“Tòng-soán! Tòng-soán! Tòng-soán!” Or as this cry–heard at campaign rallies every election season in Taiwan–might be rendered in English: “Frozen garlic! Frozen garlic! Frozen garlic!”
Taiwanese and Mandarin share the same underlying character system but have significantly different spoken forms, so puns are a way of life in bilingual Taiwan. And with four tones to Taiwanese’s seven–not to mention carrying the geo-political weight of Taiwan’s history with the mainland–Mandarin serves as a foundation for Taiwanese wordplay. For example, “thank you very much” (感謝) in Mandarin is pronounced “gǎnxiè” but in Taiwanese–using the same characters to mean the same thing–you would say “kám-siā.” Since these Taiwanese sounds just happen to be the Mandarin pronunciation for “dry shrimp,” Taiwanese text messages will sometimes substitute the characters for “dry shrimp” (乾蝦) to say “thank you very much.”
Everyone understands, but this kind of wordplay often doesn’t have any deeper meaning; it’s just everyday absurdism. Sometimes puns are merely puns because they sound funny, without any deeper meaning, or a linguistic non-sequitur itself is the source of humor.
Frozen garlic, on the other hand, means something. The phrase is a riff on “to be elected,” which both languages would write as 當選; you’d say “dāngxuǎn” in Mandarin, however, while “to be elected” would be “tòng-soán” in in Taiwanese. Since “tòng-soán” is the Mandarin pronunciation for “frozen garlic” (凍蒜), to be elected in Mandarin is to be frozen garlic in Taiwanese. And so, at campaign rallies for Tsai Ing-Wen during her successful 2016 presidential run, the crowds would alternate chants of “Tsai Ing-Wen!” with “Frozen garlic,” sometimes back and forth (“Tsai Ing-Wen! Tòng-soán! Tsai Ing-Wen! Tòng-soán!”), and sometimes three and then three, as in “Tsai Ing-Wen! Tsai Ing-Wen! Tsai Ing-Wen! Tòng-soán! Tòng-soán! Tòng-soán!”
I’ve been told that this practice of using the characters for “frozen garlic” began because of anger at vegetable price increases in 1997, including garlic. That explanation seems plausible enough: vegetable prices always rise after a typhoon and just as reliably turn into public anger at the government. But this just-so story could also have been invented to explain the phrase’s ubiquity in electoral campaigning, after the fact; sometimes explaining what a phrase really means is the worst way to understand what it’s doing.
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The Taiwanese language–also known as Hokkien or Hoklo–is sometimes described as a “dialect” of Chinese, but in the Chinese context, Mandarin and Taiwan are both Sinitic “dialects,” both more and less distinct from each other than separate languages. They are complex enough to be described as distinct languages in their own right, but since they share the same written script, a Taiwanese speaker and a Mandarin speaker–who might struggle to speak to each other if they have no common dialect–would probably be able to text each other and understand the conversation.
That is, unless they started texting about fried chicken, dry shrimp, and politics. Discussions of language are inextricable from the larger conflict over Taiwanese identity, and from the question of whether Taiwan is part of China or not: Taiwanese is widely spoken in Taiwan, but not by the waishengren mainlanders and their descendents who first fled to Taiwan in 1945 when the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. During the decades of Kuomintang martial law that followed, the Mandarin-speaking waishengren elite ruled over the Taiwanese-speaking benshengren majority–who came to Taiwan centuries before the Kuomintang–along with other inhabitants of the island, some of whom have been indigenous to Taiwan for thousands of years. To stamp out expressions of independent Taiwanese cultural identity, the Kuomintang enforced strict language restrictions, including putting in place fines for speaking Taiwanese in public. The KMT instead attempted to impose the usage of Mandarin, leading to a sharp linguistic divide between those born before and after the KMT came, with those born after the KMT came usually having far less than fluent mastery of Taiwanese, Hakka, or indigenous languages. By the time of the third generation since the KMT came over, one has a generation sometimes almost entirely unable to communicate with its grandparents.
In this way, language became a fault line for a very old division. While the mainland’s cultural influence has always been felt in Taiwan, Taiwan’s history runs in parallel to the rest of China; after being annexed by the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, it was ceded to Japan in 1895, after which followed a fifty-year Japanese colonial period that preceded becoming the Kuomintang’s last stand. But even the Qing did not fully control all of Taiwan, who seem to have largely regarded Taiwan as a peripheral territory. It’s not surprising, then, that the inhabitants of the island have long thought of themselves as Taiwanese, rather than simply Chinese. And since language is a vehicle for thought, so too with this particular political thought: Mandarin became the vernacular lingua franca of modern China because of the political centrality of northern China in modern history. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s benshengren settlers came from Fujian in southern China, and Taiwanese is a close linguistic relative of southern Chinese dialects, seen sometimes as a variant of southern Min Chinese, also known as Fujianese.
This is not to say the Kuomintang were separatist, far from it; explicitly a Chinese nationalist party–and Kuomintang (國民黨) can be translated as “Chinese Nationalist Party”–the Kuomintang martial law period treated expressions of independent Taiwanese identity as a threat to its own legitimacy. Even isolated on Taiwan after losing the war with the CCP, the Kuomintang still claimed to be the rightful rulers of China, and since the Kuomintang’s rule over Taiwan was justified on the basis of Taiwan being part of China–and on the Kuomintang being the rightful rulers of China–a distinct Taiwanese identity was politically dissident. As Mandarin was framed as the official language of China, for Taiwan to be assimilated into a homogeneous notion of China, Taiwanese languages had to be stamped out. Ironically, however, when the KMT themselves came over from China, many members of the KMT themselves did not speak very good Mandarin, since they hailed from provinces that did not speak Mandarin; Chiang Kai-Shek himself had a thick accent in Mandarin and had to speak on television with subtitles to be understood. In this way, KMT linguistic policy wiped out the diversity of Chinese dialects that they themselves had brought to Taiwan.
Things began to change in the 1990’s, with the Taiwanese democracy movement and concurrent Taiwanese identity and pro-localization trends, which culminated in the Kuomintang relinquishing power and the first multiparty elections taking place in Taiwan in 1997. Even the nationalist Kuomintang made compromises to Taiwanese identity: the Kuomintang continues to seek the unification of Taiwan and China, but even they chant “tòng-soán” at political rallies, an implicit compromise to Taiwanese identity that would have been unthinkable in the past, but today occurs regularly. Today, many third-generation waishengren exclusively identify with Taiwan and not with China, regardless of their parents’ beliefs. For those who grew up in Taiwan–with no experience of life in China–ethnic divisions are no longer as clear cut as they once were, especially as intermarriage between benshengren, waishengren, Hakka, and indigenous has lost its taboo.
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Today, tòng-soán evokes the mixedness of Taiwan’s history and the contemporary pluralism of its culture; as the term has found its way into political rallies, it evokes a key difference between the Taiwan political culture and China’s, where free and democratic elections do not take place.
It distinguishes Taiwan from a China whose northern Chinese culture dominates from Beijing, systematizing racism against ethnic minorities in China. Ethnic and cultural issues are far from settled by Taiwan–particularly with regards to indigenous Taiwanese people–but the key feature of the contemporary Taiwan’s political culture is its pluralism. Only parties with a high degree of pluralism can be successful in elections: the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang chants “frozen garlic” at political rallies, backers of independence point to Taiwan’s pluralism as distinguishing it from China and making re-unification impossible.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which was swept to victory on the tide of what has come to be called the Sunflower Movement, touted in the media as the first Taiwanese social movement in history to advance beyond waishengren and benshengren identity politics towards a multi-ethnic and inclusive view of an independent Taiwanese identity. Many attribute the Kuomintang’s loss to the party’s failure to localize, continuing to advocate reunification with China, even as Taiwanese increasingly drift away from the mainland. Moreover, while the Kuomintang is no longer as homogeneously waishengren as it once was, benshengren still can’t advance to leadership positions in the party, and the leadership keeps the benshengren faction of the party, as we saw during the September Political Struggle.
Chanting tòng-soán at political rallies is not enough; without genuine reform and localization, frozen garlic is just a token gesture. The Kuomintang lost because one can no longer rely on a small minority as one’s sole political base in Taiwan; as Taiwanese society moves past the polarization between waishengren and benshengren, one needs to cast the widest net possible in order attract the largest base. Frozen garlic is more than a phrase to be be performed at rallies; it’s a politics which has to be meant in earnest.
Tour of Babel is a regular Popula column, in which we translate the world’s words that can’t be translated, the phrase and expressions that don’t travel (but that also, it turns out, do).