Thursday, August 20, 2009

Taiwan's Confusing Street Signs

One of the most confusing things for Nick and I when we first began driving around Taichung on our own scooters was trying to figure out Taiwan's street signs.

(this picture is from the China Post's article about this same issue)

This may seem like an obvious problem for a foreigner to have here in Taiwan - of course the signs are in Chinese - but actually that was not the source of our confusion. It was the romanization of the street signs, or the "English" street names that were confusing!

Allow me to explain:

As I have mentioned
before, pinyin is the the system of romanizing Chinese words so that they can be read by people unfamiliar with Chinese characters. There are many pinyin systems in existence. The most widely used system for most of the 20th century was the Wade-Giles system.

It is interesting to note that while the Wade-Giles system has been largely abandoned throughout the world, many of Taiwan's cities are still named according to the Wade-Giles spelling. This creates some peculiar problems with mispronunciation.

For example, Taiwan's capitol is officially spelled Taipei, and so most people around the world will pronounce it TaiPei, but it is actually pronounced with a "B" sound. Phonetically, a more accurate spelling is Taibei. But believe me, this only scratches the surface of Taiwan's romanization problems!

In the late 1950's China replaced the Wade-Giles system with the new (and in my opinion vastly improved and simplified) Hanyu pinyin system. Hanyu Pinyin is now the accepted and standard system used the entire world over... except here in Taiwan.

A third system, tongyong pinyin, was introduced in 1998 and adopted by the Taiwanese government as the official system in 2000. Just last year, when the "pro-China" (I use that term loosely) political party here in Taiwan (the KMT) regained the presidency this system was abandoned in favor of Hanyu Pinyin.

So... where does this leave us foreigners here in Taiwan? Well, in quite a ridiculous predicament I'm afraid!

Let me give you an example: In order to get from my house to my job, I drive for about 10 minutes on one road: 忠明路 Here is a look at the various street signs I drive past - note that these street signs are all for the same road: 忠明路

忠明 - Zhong Ming (Hanyu Pinyin)

忠明 - Chung Ming (Wade-Giles)
忠明 - Jung Ming (I'm actually not sure what system this one is!)

Basically, the entire country is a mish-mash of different romanization systems all used simultaneously and the only thing you can really count on is the Chinese characters. The maps of Taiwan are even more of a mess than the street signs! (Just assume that in any given geographical location the romanization on your map will not actually match that of the street sign you happen to be looking at!)

Here are a couple more examples:

So, why doesn't the Taiwanese government just standardize the signs and straighten this whole thing out?? Well it's not at straight forward as it may seem.

For one thing it's not exactly a pressing issue - ask any Taiwanese person about this problem and they're almost certainly oblivious to it... and do you blame them?!

If street signs in the US had some Chinese on them (or Spanish for that matter) to help out visitors or immigrants, 99% of Americans would have no idea if they were mislabeled... we only read the English!

Another stumbling block is that it has become a bit of a political battle - using Tongyong is seen as a symbol of Taiwan's independence from China, while using Hanyu is interpreted by some as a sign that Taiwan is moving closer towards the "One China" policy.

So, what is my suggestion?

Personally, I do believe that the Hanyu system is the easiest to understand for foreigners, but what it really boils down to is that a standard system - any standard system - would be helpful for us westerners visiting or living here in Taiwan.

But until that day - far far down the road - those of us who can't read Chinese will just have to just make an educated (or uneducated) guess and hope for the best!

Fortunately, studying Chinese has really helped me as I am able to recognize many of the characters used in street names here. Nick, on the other hand, has come to adopt his fathers precarious navigation techniques: if you head in the general direction and make enough turns - by process of elimination - you'll eventually reach your desired destination.

(NOTE: it is by this philosophy that it took us three tries and 6 hours to make it to Sun Moon Lake!)

final note: if you're intersested in this topic, you can check out the China Post article (here) or the Tongyong Pinyin Wikipedia page.


  1. I agree with your fundamental point, that the only thing that matters is one system is picked for labeling all streets. And if the system is primarily to help foreigners, than Hanyu Pinyin makes the most sense.

    At the same time, I will note that the spelling of Taibei is no more phonetically accurate than Taipei.

    ㄅ b p [p]
    ㄆ p p' [p']

    English speakers take a cue from their mother tongue and aspirate all syllable with initial p (that is, they pronounce words starting with a p as [p']), but speakers of other Western languages (like Spanish) have a much shorter or (like French) non-existent aspiration of these spellings.

    Wades Giles uses the p / p' distinction to avoid confusion over voicing (spelling b is voiced in many Western languages including English, but not Mandarin, and in addition other Chinese languages like Holo Taiwanese have a three way distinction between IPA [b] / [p] / [p'] ...).

    In other words, Hanyu Pinyin is generally more intuitive to a native English speaker, but not more phonetically accurate and not necessarily more intuitive to speakers of other European languages.

  2. Yes, you are 100% right. Spelling Taipei as Taibei not phonetically more accurate; it is more intuitive for the native English speaker.

    It is because of all of this confusion that I am actually a HUGE fan of native English speakers learning bopomofo when they learn to speak Chinese. It removes all of the problems that we encounter when we use a familiar letter (R for example) to represent a sound that is completely absent from the English language (ㄖ).

    With bopomofo (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) there is absolutely no previously held ideas about what sound those characters represent and therefore there can be no confusion.

    But, for spellings of cities and street names... no matter which system is chosen, inevitably, there will always be mispronunciations by those who are unfamiliar with the language.

    Based on my studies alone, I do believe that Hanyu Pinyin is the most intuitive system for native English speakers, but I cannot make any comments or assertions beyond that.

    Thanks for reading and Thanks for the comment!