Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Taiwan, the Jews and the monkeys

JTA is reporting that
a human rights group in Taiwan is calling on Chinese journalists and academics around the world to stop the “discriminatory” way that the characters for “Jewish people” are written in Mandarin.
“There are many Chinese characters for ‘you-tai,’ or Jew, but the combination that is currently being used refers to an animal of the monkey species and has the connotation of parsimoniousness,” Chien Hsi-chieh, the director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan, said recently... Chien said the biased Chinese characters were devised by Christian missionaries in China around 1830, when they were translating the Hebrew and Christian Bibles into Chinese and needed a term for “Jews”... Following the news conference, held in Taiwan’s Parliament, a local English-language newspaper quoted Zhou Xun, a Chinese professor at the University of London, as saying that it’s not easy to define Jews as a people using a combination of two or three Chinese characters.
“In fact, the current way of writing ‘you-tai’ to mean ‘Jews’ indicates the imagined physical difference between the Chinese and the Jews, which is rooted in the tradition of picturing all alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality,” Zhou said.
Of-course, this is interesting in and of itself, but there also seems to be a whole political context here it would be interesting to hear more about. This becomes clear looking at the original reports in the Taiwanese press and especially the Peacetime Foundation's rather detailed own press release, where you can see the Peacetime Foundation is in a fight over this with the vice president, who has said that "this issue is not important, this issue has no need to be dealt with as a priority." Nasty recriminations are busy flying back and forth.
Basically, I'd really like to know more about why a Taiwanese peace organisation -- whose website, incidentally, includes several pro-Palestinian analysis pieces -- would choose to pick a fight with the government over the spelling of the word 'Jew.' They may be geniunely interested, but considering that Jews are not exactly a great presence in Taiwan, the word can't come up that often and that the country probably has more pressing issues on its agenda, it's still a surprising issue to go to such lengths for (see their press release for detail). Would we, for example, go to similar lengths to get the word for 'Taiwanese' changed, had it been offensive in Hebrew? I don't think so.
Their press release -- which I can only assume sounded less hyperbolic in the original -- does clear things up somewhat:
We originally thought that this movement would succeed, and win praise for Taiwan from the international community for our attention to human rights and peace, and at the same time would be an effective way to educate the people. What we did not expect was for the Human Rights Consulting Committee's chairwoman, Vice President Annette Lu, to cause our successful reform to become a defeat when victory was within our grasp...
Let's be clear -- pitching something to the international community does not mean they are not genuinely concerned -- I get the feeling from something else on their website that local attitudes towards other ethnicities is one of their issues. However, it is still interesting that even in that distant corner of the world, they think that focusing on the word 'Jew' is a way to get international attention and praise.

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