Digging into the everyday language of Taiwanese society.
Politically, the relationship between China and Taiwan is one of the most contested in the twenty-first century. The Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945) lasted for five decades, which had separated the island from the rest of China for too long for it to be still considered by its inhabitants as an indistinguishable part of China. Four years after WWII, civil war erupted, with Mao Zedong coming out as victor and establishing a communist state in China. Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the opposing side, fled to Taiwan to create a separate state. The political position of Taiwan—A state? A province? A jurisdiction? —is still unresolved, half a century later. While all this is textbook history, the Taiwanese journey to cultural identity has been even more complex, according to a certain linguistic angle.
Taike, taken most denotatively, is composed of two morphemes: tai (台), the abbreviation for “Taiwan,” and ke (客) meaning “guest.” The first signs of the term were observed in the 1960s, used by mainlander Chinese gangsters to look down on Taiwanese gangsters. From its inception, taike was rife with mockery, expressing the subject (mainlanders) disapproval of the tastes and behaviors of the object (the Taiwanese.) It wasn’t until the early-2000s that the term was popularized beyond the gangster culture, coinciding with the spread of the Internet and potentially as a result of it. By this point, in the online space, taike wasn’t necessarily used in a derogative context, but also as outwardly harmless jokes among fellow Taiwanese people.
The term entered mainstream culture in 2004 and 2005, when Taiwanese TV talk shows discussed topics around taike—painting it as funny on one hand, and on the other, depicting taike’s admirable boldness to be authentic to the self. The “Taike Rock’n’Roll Concert” in 2005 invited high-profile singers in an effort to reclaim Taiwanese identity against the force of the Chinese “mainstream,” igniting popular anguish over appropriate usage of the term. At the height of the controversy, Guan-Ru Chen (2006) called out the term’s implicit hierarchy between mainland China and Taiwan. He claimed that the word taike can only be pronounced in a Mandarin Chinese accent, even if the speech was otherwise in Taiwanese (or Taiwanese-accented Mandarin.) Because taike is inherently tied to Chineseness, the term’s connotative power will be limited to the original: that is, the assumption of Taiwan’s lowly status from the perspective of the Chinese.
More recently, the term taike has somewhat lost its political outrageousness, adopted by Taiwanese society often in the form of its adjective, tai (literally the abbreviation of “Taiwanese.”) Used in contexts such as “that’s so tai,” the term is used to describe anything that’s distasteful or inappropriate, regardless of how Taiwanese whatever they’re referring to is. Observing the neutralized state of the term now, Chen would be disgusted by their seemingly internalized self-discrimination.
Interestingly, however, taike’s current associations can be traced through its antonyms. Hsi-Yao Su (2011) offers two related terms, bentu and qizhi, together with taike, to explore how such language sheds light on what Taiwanese people actually perceive themselves to be. In 2008-2010, Su surveyed over three hundred Taiwanese individuals to evaluate their perceptions of each word.
Firstly, bentu is a word similar to taike in denotation, meaning localness, but carries very different meanings. There was a sharp difference in the way many considered bentu to be a compliment for a person and tai to be an insult. It seems that while bentu is associated with authenticity and loyalty to one’s Taiwanese identity, tai “ to Taiwanese young adults who are local but try to be ‘above themselves.’” Su concludes a taike to be one who “wears fake designer products, speaks Taiwanese-accented Mandarin, and sometimes code-switches to English terms (albeit with a Taiwanese accent.)” The taike falls through the cracks of two acceptable societies, neither a wise Taiwanese nor a modern, multi-lingual cosmopolitan.
Cosmopolitanism is in fact further discussed in Su’s second point of comparison: qizhi. The rough denotation of qizhi is merely “a (refined) disposition,” however, it is often taken as a cultural antonym for taike. While taike is, as we have seen, associated with “trying too hard” to be cosmopolitan, qizhi represents the true form of cosmopolitanism. When asked for specific public figures who best embodied qizhi, survey responses blatantly revealed qizhi to be closely tied with those who were brought up under Western education. It is curious to note that qizhi is limited to the dispositions of women and is posited as specifically ideal femininity.
While the term taike has persisted over the decades, its meaning has clearly shifted from a pejoratively anti-Chinese position to an anti-cosmopolitan and anti-Western one. The mainland China-Taiwan hierarchy that the original coiners of taike intended had been thwarted to fit global market demands. Now, no Taiwanese person calls another “tai” to mean that they aren’t acting properly Chinese, but rather that they aren’t properly refined, or Western enough.
Acknowledging such troubling implications, however, I wouldn’t be so quick to wish the concept of taike into obsolescence. A single word sheds light on some of Taiwan’s defining modern struggles—those of identity in a world that is at best indifferent, and at worst actively in opposition to its establishment. The fascinating discourse around taike, circulating in pop culture and online communities as we speak, serves as a crucial space for the people of Taiwan to explore their cultural insecurity. If left alone, a single word can morph from a mere insult into something self-inhabited and alive.