Matsu Language: A Language Too Unique To Forget

Written by Kai-Yang Huang

Image credit: 馬祖-北竿-芹壁村 by Ching Chun Chiu/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In 2019, President Tsai Ing-wen signed the National Language Development Act and announced its implementation. For a long time, pragmatism has had a significant impact on Taiwan. People believe that by promoting the use of English to become a “bilingual country,” Taiwan will be able to keep up with the rest of the world. Little do they know that what distinguishes Taiwan in the international community is the very distinctiveness of Taiwanese cultures. As a result, the primary principle of promoting natural language as a national language is to re-inherit a local worldview that has been around for a long time. This will strengthen the worldwide competitiveness of Taiwanese college students. 

It can be said that the closer you get to a local culture, the more international you become. For example, Abao, an indigenous singer who won a Golden Melody Award, once noted that the songs she wrote in her native tongue might resonate differently. Indeed, these songs were always highly successful when she was invited to perform overseas. In other words, the value of language extends beyond mere functionality to include the phonology, words, and the ideas that underpin them. A language represents a worldview and a philosophical system. To conserve a living language is to preserve the culture that it represents.

Is the Matsu Language Worth Preserving?

In the early days, Matsu was previously classified as being in the Northern Min region of Fujian province by 1930’s linguistic geography studies. This classification denoted other spatial phenomena regardless of ethnic groupings, war zones, or cultures. As a result, the language spoken by the Matsu people was known as the Northern Min dialect instead of the Southern Min dialect, which is widely spoken in other regions of Taiwan. However, in subsequent research released in 1963 by Chinese scholars, it was shown that the Northern Min dialect was recategorised into two groups. Moreover, it also demonstrated that the Matsu language had stretched as far as Eastern Min or Mindong, with Fuzhou as the centre of expansion. 

The dialect of Mindong in Matsu is close to that of Fuzhou in Fujian. Nevertheless, the Matsu language has a distinct lexicon from the Fuzhou dialect. For example, taking a bath is commonly referred to as “sě-loung” in Fuzhou’s downtown area. Furthermore, the term “loung” indicates a hot spring. Further still, the Matsu people say “sě-ling” or “kǎng-ning.” Both “ling” and “ning” refer to the body. This means “washing one’s body” or “sponging oneself.” This usage of language reflects the cultural divide between urban and rural areas. Coupled with the social estrangement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, the Matsu language also incorporates many military terms. Of course, the gap with the Fuzhou dialect is growing, and the language that the Matsu people use has its own characteristics.

Language is a component of one’s subjective identity. There are also elderly people in Matsu who say that their language is “Changle dialect” since Changle is where most Matsu people migrated from. However, whether the language is Changle, Matsu, Mindong or Fuzhou, the more essential question is whether it is worth preserving. Promoting the Matsu language is no longer a question of whether the locals use it; rather, it is about facing the challenge of preserving one’s own culture. 

The Matsu language is a vital medium for summoning and passing memories. For example, the five-series musical “Matsu Mood Chronicles,” presented in Matsu for eight years in a row, has attracted a number nearly equal to the islands’ total population. Furthermore, the Matsu language poetic lines performed by local actors always moved the villagers to tears. Even when foreigners visit Matsu, they do not want to miss the cultures conveyed by the language. These examples demonstrate the need to continue passing on these memories and the language to the following generation. 

The Localised Worldview that the Matsu Language Provides

The appearance of the Matsu language in Taiwan has a long history. According to unofficial statistics, Taiwan has at least 80,000 Matsu-speaking individuals, including Matsu people, new immigrants, and mainlanders who transferred from Fuzhou in the Japanese colonial era and after the Nationalist government retreat.

In fact, before the present Matsu immigrants moved to Taiwan, people from Fuzhou who were close to the Matsu people had already immigrated to Taiwan from the Qing Dynasty to the period of Japanese rule. “Fuzhou three knives” is a popular saying in Southern Min dialect when they mention Fuzhou people. The three knives reflect the vocational categories of Fuzhou migrants who moved to Taiwan: kitchen knives, tailor knives and razors. As a result, almost every city has “Fuzhou fish ball” restaurants hiding in the streets and alleyways. Some people reinvented the “dry noodles” from Fuzhou, which later became Taiwan’s distinct “Fuzhou fool’s dry noodles” culture. 

Remarkably, the finest Matsu speakers in Taiwan are usually those who immigrated to Taiwan after 1992, when the Taiwan government allowed cross-strait visits to relatives and even immigrations. They are consistent winners in native language competitions. Although they do not originate from Matsu, the Matsu people regard them as part of the Matsu community.

Not only do the Matsu people believe that the Fuzhou immigrants who arrived in Taiwan after 1992 to be part of them, but some may also consider the Fuzhou mainlanders who settled in Taiwan before 1992 to be part of their community. Such a view may have influenced our understanding of the Matsu community and the language that the community members use. Especially now that the new curriculum has introduced the national language into the school system and Matsu language instructors are few. The second and third generations of Fuzhou mainlanders trained as native language teachers in the school system to address this issue. Since these teachers also teach cultures and histories of their genealogies, teaching the Matsu language gives a unique perspective on Taiwan’s contemporaneous migrations from the Qing Dynasty to the period after the 1992 cross-strait opening of relative immigration. Once again, the Matsu language is localised in a Taiwanese context. 

If the number of indigenous peoples in Taiwan is used to compare, the Matsu-speaking population in Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu, is most likely the fourth largest group among the indigenous peoples. However, according to a Taichung University of Education poll, less than 30% of Matsu households currently speak in their mother tongue. Some elders believe that this is a dying language. Others have been traumatised since they were discriminated against as foreigners or mainlanders because of their unique “an” (ㄢ) and “ang” (ㄤ) accents when they travelled to Taiwan to study or work. Furthermore, in the Matsu people’s collective memories, the ban on speaking in dialects was painful and hastened the crisis of language extinction. As a result, children have few opportunities to learn their mother tongue. Matsu people are already on the verge of being unable to learn their mother tongue at home due to this type of inheritance circumstance.

In actuality, learning the Matsu language is not difficult. The pronunciation of the Matsu language has previously been described in a classic rhyming book called “Qilin Eight Sounds” (戚林八音). Therefore, the Matsu language may be learnt more easily when combined with the modern Romanisation system. The Matsu language should be preserved by the government legislation so that this language, which is composed of diverse cultures and histories, will have the opportunity to develop. On the other hand, people can learn their mother tongue by combining the strength of the community and sharing time with their elders to talk about the cuisine cultures and learn traditional skills.

Many young people in Matsu are currently committed to promoting their native language through YouTube and local educational initiatives. For example, in the past three years, the Matsu Youth Development Association has organised a “Phàng-oung Club” so that everyone can “Phàng-oung,” which means converse in the Matsu language. We hope that the younger generation can discover their native language, attempt to interact with one another through this language, and learn about the dishes that the elders ate when they were young, as well as the wartime era in which they grew up. Only when young people understand the histories and cherish their own cultures will a place be able to confront the future with more vitality, value, and foundation. 

Kai-Yang Huang is a director at the Matsu Youth Development Association. He has a master’s degree from the National Taiwan University Department of Geography, where he researched cultural practices on the Matsu Islands.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Matsu Today.

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