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Romanization and
Language Planning in Taiwan

Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung

3.    Romanization prior to 1945

Romanization in Taiwan prior to 1945 can be divided into two eras. The first era of romanization is Sinkang writing, which was mainly devised for the indigenous languages, and occurred in the first half of the seventeenth century during the Dutch occupation of Taiwan, and ended up in the early nineteenth century. The second romanization is Peh-oe-ji writing. It was devised for Holo and Hakka Taiwanese languages, and it has existed in Taiwan since the second half of nineteenth century.


 3.1.  Sinkang Romanization (1624-early nineteenth century)

Sinkang writing was the first romanization and the first writing system in the history of Taiwan. It was devised by Dutch missionaries and employed mainly to the writing of Siraya, an indigenous language in southwest plain of Taiwan. Sinkang romanization[1] was not well documented until the discovery of so-called “Sinkang Bunsu新港文書” or “Sinkang manuscripts” in the nineteenth century.

Conversion to Christianity as well as exploiting resources were important purposes for the Dutch during their occupation of Taiwan. As Campbell described it, “during that period they [i.e., Dutch] not only carried on a profitable trade, but made successful efforts in educating and Christianising the natives; one missionary alone having established a number of schools and received over five thousand adults into the membership of the Reformed Church” (Campbell 1903:vii). The natives around Sinkang[2] were first taught Christianity through the learning of the romanization of Sinkang dialect. There were some textbooks and testaments written in romanized Sinkang, such as the “The Gospel of St. Matthew in Formosan Sinkang Dialect and Dutch (Het Heylige Euangelium Matthei en Jonannis Ofte Hagnau Ka D'llig Matiktik, Ka na Sasoulat ti Mattheus, ti Johannes appa. Overgefet inde Formosaansche tale, voor de Inwoonders van Soulang, Mattau, Sinckan, Bacloan, Tavokan, en Tevorang.),” which was translated and published by Daniel Gravius in 1661 (Campbell 1996; Lai 1990: 121-123).

After Koxinga drove the Dutch out from Taiwan, the roman scripts were still used by those plain tribes for some period. There were several manuscripts found after those native languages disappeared. Those manuscripts were written either in language(s) of native aborigines or they were bilingual texts with romanization and Han characters. Most of the manuscripts were either sale contracts, mortgage bonds, or leases (Naojiro Murakami 1933:IV). Because most of those manuscripts were found in Sinkang areas and were written in Sinkang language, they were named Sinkang Manuscripts by scholars, or Hoan-a-khe (番仔契 the contract of barbarians) by the public (Lai 1990: 125-127).

There are 141 examples of Sinkang Manuscripts discovered to date, the earliest manuscript dated 1683, and the most recent one dated 1813. In other words, those indigenous people continued to use the romanization for over a century-and-a-half after the Dutch had left Taiwan (Naojiro Murakami 1933:XV).


 3.2.  Peh-oe-ji Romanization (1865-present)

If Sinkang writing represents the first foreign missionary activities in Taiwan, then the development of Peh-oe-ji[3] (白話字) reveals the comeback of missionary influences after the Dutch withdrawal from Taiwan.

More and more missionaries came to preach in China in the seventeenth century, even though there were several restrictions on foreign missionaries under the Qing Dynasty. The restrictions on foreign missionaries were continued until the Treaty of Tientsin was signed between Qing Dynasty and foreign countries in 1860. Taiwan, at that time, was under the control of Qing Dynasty, therefore, foreign missionaries were allowed after that treaty. Consequently, the first mission after the Dutch, settled in Taioan-hu[4] by missionary James L. Maxwell and his assistants in 1865 (Hsu 1995:6-8; Lai 1990:277-280).

Before missionaries arrived in Taiwan, there were already several missionary activities in southeast China. They had started developing romanization of some languages such as Southern Min and Hakka. For instance, the first textbook for learning the romanization of the Amoy[5] dialect, “Tngoe Hoan Ji Chho Hak (Amoy Spelling Book) was published by John Van Nest Talmage in 1852 in Amoy. That romanization scheme was called Poe-oe-ji in Taiwan. It means the script of vernacular speech in contrast to the complicated Han characters of wenyen.

Peh-oe-ji was originally devised and promoted by missionaries for religious purposes. Consequently, most of its applications and publications are related to church activities. Those applications and publications of Peh-oe-ji since the nineteenth century can be summarized into the following six categories:  [see photos]

(1)   Peh-oe-ji textbooks

(2)   Peh-oe-ji dictionaries

(3)   Translation of the Bible, catechisms, and religious tracts

(4)   Peh-oe-ji newspaper

(5)   Other publications, such as physiology, math, and novels.

(6)   Private note-taking or writing letters, etc.


Missionaries’ linguistic efforts on the romanization are reflected in various romanized dictionaries. Medhurst’s A Dictionary of the Hok-keen Dialect of the Chinese Language published in 1837 is considered the first existing romanized dictionary of Southern Min compiled by western missionary (Ang, 1996:197-259). Douglas’ Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy of 1873 is regarded as the remarkable dictionary of influence on the orthography of Peh-oe-ji (Ang, 1993b:1-9). After Douglas’ dictionary, most romanized dictionaries and publications followed his orthography without or with just minor changes. Generally speaking, missionaries’ linguistic efforts on Southern Min and Peh-oe-ji have reached a remarkable achievement since Douglas’s dictionary (Ang, 1993:5). William Campbell’s dictionary E-mng-im Sin Ji-tian (A Dictionary of the Amoy Vernacular Spoken throughout the Prefectures of Chin-chiu, Chiang-chiu and Formosa 1913), which was the first Peh-oe-ji dictionary published in Taiwan, is the most widespread romanized dictionary in Taiwan. This dictionary has been published in fourteen editions by 1987 (Ang, 1996; Lai, 1990).

The first New Testament in romanized Amoy, “Lan e Kiu-chu Ia-so. Ki-tok e Sin-iok was published in 1873, and the first Old Testament “Ku-iok e Seng Keng” in 1884. The wide use of Poe-oe-ji in Taiwan was promoted by the missionary Reverend Thomas Barclay while he published monthly newspaper Tai-oan-hu-sian Kau-hoe-po[7] (Taiwan Prefectural City Church News) in July 1885. In addition to publications related to Christianity, there were some other publications written in Peh-oe-ji, such as “Pit Soan e Chho. Hak” (Fundamental Mathematics) by Ui-lim Ge in 1897, “Lai Goa Kho Khan-ho.-hak” (The Principles and Practice of Nursing) by G. Gushue-Taylor in 1917, the novel “Chhut Si-Soan”(Line between Life and Death) by Khe-phoan Ten in 1926, and the collection of commentaries “Chap-hang Koan-kian” (Opinions on Ten Issues) by Poe-hoe Chhoa in 1925.

Usually, the religious believers apply Peh-oe-ji writing to their daily life after they acquire the skill of romanization. For example, they may use Peh-oe-ji as a skill of note taking or writing letters to their daughters or sons or friends in addition to reading the Bible. Peh-oe-ji was widely used among the church[8] people in Taiwan prior to 1970s.[9]Among its users, women were the majority. Most of those women did not command any literacy except Peh-oe-ji. Today, there are still a few among the elder generations especially women who read only Peh-oe-ji.

Although Peh-oe-ji was originally devised for religious purposes, it is no longer limited to religious applications after the contemporary Taibun[10] movement was raised in the 1980s. Peh-oe-ji has been adopted by many Taibun promoters as one of the romanized writing systems to write Taiwanese. For example, famous Taibun periodicals such as Tai-bun Thong-sin (台文通訊) and Taibun Bong-Po (台文罔報) adopt Peh-oe-ji as the romanization for writing Taiwanese. In addition, there were recently a series of novels translated from world literatures into Peh-oe-ji in a planned way by the members of 5% Tai-ek Ke-oe[11] (5% Project of Translation in Taiwanese) since 1996.

In short, the Peh-oe-ji was the ground of romanization of modern Taiwanese colloquial writing. Even though there were several different schemes of romanization for writing Taiwanese, many of them were derived from Peh-oe-ji.[12] Peh-oe-ji and its derivatives are the most widely used romanization even nowadays.


[1] Although romanized writing in indigenous language had been mentioned in earlier historical  materials such as “Chulo Koanchi諸羅縣志” Topographical and Historical Description of Chulo 1717, and “E-tamsui-sia Kiagi下淡水社寄語” A Glossary of the Lower Tamsui Dialect 1763, romanization in Sinkang was not well known until the discovery of Sinkang manuscripts.

[2] Sinkang (新港), originally spelled in Sinkan, was the place opposite to the Tayouan where the Dutch had settled in 1624. The present location is Sin-chhi of Tainan county (新市, 台南縣).

[3] For details about Peh-oe-ji, see Chiung 2000b and Cheng 1977.

[4] Present Tailam city (台南).

[5] Amoy was a dialect of Southern Min, and was regarded as mixed Chiang-chiu and Choan-chiu dialects. The Amoy dialect was usually chosen by missionaries as a standard for Southern Min.

[7] 《台灣府城教會報》Taiwan Prefectural City Church News has changed its title several times, and the recent title (1988) is Taioan Kau-hoe Kong-po (台灣教會公報 Taiwan Church News). It was published in Peh-oe-ji until 1970, and thereafter it switched to Mandarin Chinese (Lai 1990: 17-19).

[8] Especially the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (台灣基督長老教會).

[9] Taioan Kau-hoe Kong-po (Taiwan Church News), which was originally published in Peh-oe-ji, switched to Mandarin Chinese in 1970. I use this year as an indicator to the change of Peh-oe-ji circulation.

[10] 台文. Taibun literally means Taiwanese literature or Taiwanese writing. It refers to the orthography issue in the Taiwanese language movement since 1980s. For details of the modern movement of written Taiwanese, see Chiung (1999:33-49).

[11] 5%台譯計劃. In November of 1995, some Taiwanese youths who were concerned about the writing of Taiwanese decided to deal with the Taiwanese modernization and loanwords through translation from foreign language into Taiwanese. The organization 5% Project of Translation in Taiwanese was then established on February 24, 1996. It's members have to contribute 5% of their income every month to the 5% fund. The first volume includes 7 books. They are Lear Ong, Kui-a Be-chhia, Mi-hun-chhiun e Kui-a, Hoa-hak-phin e Hian-ki, Thin-kng Cheng e Loan-ai Ko.-su, Pu-ho.-lang e Lek-su, and Opera Lai e Mo.-sin-a, published by Tai-leh (台笠) press in November 1996.

[12] For more information about different romanized schemes, see Iun 1999.