Asia Life | Society

Taiwan’s Language Politics and Tigertail’s Trilingualism 

Tigertail combines Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English languages to portray the reality of Asian American immigrants and modern-day Taiwan.  

Layne Vandenberg
Taiwan’s Language Politics and Tigertail’s Trilingualism 
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Tigertail, the recently released Netflix original directed by Alan Yang, follows the story of Pin-Jui, a Taiwanese man who emigrates from Taiwan to the United States. The story is semi-autobiographical as Pin-Jui largely represents Yang’s own father, who emigrated from Taiwan. Yang, known for writing and producing for popular shows such as Parks and Recreation, is an expert in crafting stories that highlight the experience of minorities in the United States. In 2016, Yang and Aziz Ansari won an Emmy for “Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series” for Master of None and Yang called for better representation of Asian Americans in his acceptance speech.

While Tigertail focuses on immigration and specifically the largely overlooked Asian-American experience, the film also speaks to modern life in Taiwan and the role that language continues to play. Tigertail is the first of its kind in that it features Mandarin, English, and Taiwanese languages throughout the duration of the film in relatively equal amounts. As Yang stated, “Christine Ko and I were joking about it: we were like, ‘The trailer for this movie is the only trailer I could ever think of that starts in Taiwanese, continues in Mandarin, and ends in English.’” 

Despite the long history of language politics in Taiwan, these politics do not surface in the film as the characters routinely code switch between Taiwanese, English, and Mandarin. The subtitles in Tigertail are bracketed when characters speak in Taiwanese and simply white for Mandarin, making it easy for non-speakers to overlook which language is being spoken at any given time. But this distinction and choice by Yang is intricately part of Tigertail as a film and cannot be disregarded as simply an artistic or practical decision for the purposes of historical accuracy. Language in itself is a sign of sovereignty; an assertion of unity and collectivity impenetrable by those who do not share it.

Taiwanese, otherwise known as “Taiwanese Minnan” or “Taiwanese Hokkien,” is still widely spoken throughout Taiwan. Although now commonly referred to as the “Taiwanese” (台灣語) language, Minnan was brought to Taiwan by benshengren (本省人), or immigrants to Taiwan, beginning in the 1600s. Minnan joins Taiwan’s long history of importing various languages through immigration, including Hakka (spoken by 客家人) from mainland China.  

Even though Minnan remains a Taiwanese cultural staple, Mandarin has nonetheless dominated the official scene in Taiwan. In 1949, the Kuomintang party (KMT) fled mainland China and the encroaching Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong. When they arrived in Taiwan, the KMT instituted a blanket policy that Taiwanese was not to be used in schools or for other official capacities. In recent years, Taiwan has expanded its language laws to include minority languages, including more formal recognition of Minnan. These types of protections are necessary to preserve language and avoid what has happened to other indigenous Taiwanese languages, which — alongside other native Asian languages — have disappeared at alarming rates. Including Minnan in Tigertail further serves to bring specifically Taiwanese culture and custom into the Western public consciousness. 

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As the film so aptly demonstrates, conversations between generations of family members are marked by clear changes in language trends. Whereas young Pin-Jui only speaks Hokkien with his grandparents, young adult Pin-Jui speaks in Mandarin and his mother responds in Hokkien. We further see this evolution as elderly Pin-Jui speaks in English with his daughter, except for when he speaks Mandarin when they return to his childhood home in Taiwan. 

This language reality not only occurs among Taiwanese immigrants, but also within Taiwan itself. Many members of the younger generations in urban areas may not talk in Hokkien except for with their grandparents. The Taiwanese government’s blueprint to turn Taiwan into a Mandarin-English bilingual country has further dedicated resources to increase English-language instruction, ultimately resulting in a more globalized Taiwan but creating a language divide between generations.  

While Hokkien and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible, Taiwanese Mandarin, known as guoyu (國語), and mainland China’s putonghua (“common tongue”) are largely the same but with several key differences. First and foremost, the Chinese mainland uses simplified characters, while Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau rely on traditional characters. Simplified characters were first developed in the 1950s to facilitate literacy in mainland China and were subject to several rounds of simplification. While these pictographic characters may drastically change between simplified and traditional characters, they still represent the same word. For example, ting, meaning “to hear,” is represented by the simplified character 听 and the traditional character 聽. Tigertail’s opening credits feature text in both English and traditional characters, emphasizing this early connection to Taiwanese Mandarin. 

Although tones stay the same, guoyu and putonghua can also differ in accent and thus pronunciation. Taiwanese viewers have expressed frustration that Tzi Ma, who portrays an older version of Pin-Jui and is the film’s main subject, is not Taiwanese-born. As a result, his spoken Mandarin does not have a Taiwanese Mandarin accent. Although most viewers will disregard Ma’s shortcomings in this area, Yang’s casting questions whether the film sacrificed the authentic Taiwanese perspective to emphasize the story of immigration. 

Tigertail also appeals to the Taiwanese diaspora as mainland Chinese and Taiwanese authorities continue to fight for respective sovereignty of the region. Christine Ko plays Angela, Pin-Jui’s daughter and a second-generation immigrant. Ko found the film brought her closer to her Taiwanese identity and her family, a sentiment shared by others with Taiwanese descent. While perhaps not the immediate goal of the film, Pin-Jui and Angela’s return to Taiwan in the film emulates the same kind of “homecoming” prevalent in nationalistic Chinese entertainment that seeks to mobilize diasporic communities in support of their “homeland.” Tigertail may not be an active countermeasure to pro-China sentiments, but it undoubtedly humanizes a region and a people that are often disregarded in high-level political discussions of sovereignty.

Tigertail thus uses trilingualism to hit home several points, ranging from the obvious difficulties of immigration abroad to the difficulties of intergenerational communication in Taiwan. Although Tigertail tells the story of a boy who leaves Taiwan, the Taiwanese perspective is nonetheless interwoven into the film. Whether Tigertail’s Netflix audience will notice how and where the Taiwanese influences appear will remain constrained by Western society’s limited knowledge of Taiwan. Perhaps Tigertail can fuel interest in the island, its people, and its culture by pushing its audience beyond the typical political discourse, opening the door to further understanding about what it means to be Taiwanese.  

The author would like to thank Bo-jiun Jing for his assistance with this article.