Written Hokkien

Hokkien, a Min Nan variety of Chinese spoken in Southeastern China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, does not have a unitary standardized writing system, in comparison with the well-developed written forms of Cantonese and Vernacular Chinese (Mandarin). In Taiwan, a standard for Written Hokkien has been developed by the Republic of China Ministry of Education including its Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan, but there are a wide variety of different methods of writing in Vernacular Hokkien. Nevertheless, vernacular works written in the Hokkien are still commonly seen in literature, film, performing arts and music.


Prior to the modern era, the main written language of China was Classical Chinese, which has grammar and vocabulary based on Old Chinese used in ancient times. Whilst the written form of Chinese mostly remained static, the spoken varieties of Chinese diverged from Old Chinese. In the early 20th century, reformers in China saw the need for language reform and championed the development of a writing system that allowed Chinese people to write the language the same way they speak, a system called written Vernacular Chinese. Because the various Mandarin Chinese dialects had the largest number of speakers amongst all varieties of Chinese, it was chosen as the basis for the vernacular standard.

However, there are various differences between the spoken Chinese varieties, such as Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, such as variations in vocabulary and grammatical particles, meaning that Vernacular Chinese is less suited for writing texts spoken in Hokkien. Various expressions in Hokkien, as with other Chinese varieties, do not have associated Chinese characters in Vernacular Chinese, meaning that some words originally could not be written. In the case of Cantonese, a vernacular system specifically for writing Cantonese was developed in Hong Kong, then a British colony. On the other hand, since Hokkien was never standardized, different people began to use various separate methods to solve the issue of Hokkien-specific words, where such words would eventually be written using either a Latin-based script, phonetically using bopomofo, or through the use of a Chinese character chosen phonetically with no relation to the original word via meaning.[1]

Varieties of Hokkien are spoken in Southern Fujian in mainland China, Taiwan, Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore, and other Chinese expatriate communities. Initially there was no effort by the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan, nor other governments, to create a standardized Hokkien vernacular. During the initial stages of Kuomintang rule in Taiwan, the official Kuomintang language policy was to promote the use of Mandarin Chinese in everyday speech, and to discourage the use of other dialects such as Hokkien and Hakka; this was done in an attempt to promote national linguistic unity, and to promulgate a Chinese identity over that of a Taiwanese one for political reasons.[1] Following the Taiwan localization movement, education and everyday usage of spoken and written Hokkien by local Taiwanese became more widely used. A Chinese character online dictionary for Hokkien was released in 2008 by the ROC Ministry of Education.[2] Nevertheless, within literature circles there is still ongoing debate over which writing system should be used to write Taiwanese Hokkien, and controversy exists between the various rival systems currently used to write Hokkien. Today usage of languages remains a politicized issue in Taiwan. In Singapore, in an effort to promote Mandarin as a lingua franca amongst ethnic Chinese through the Speak Mandarin Campaign, usage of other varieties such as Hokkien is discouraged.

Today, whilst Taiwanese Hokkien speakers speak in their variety of Hokkien, they would officially write in Vernacular Chinese for formal documents, and only use vernacular Hokkien writings during informal occasions, if at all. In Taiwan, vernacular Chinese is used for academic writings, newspaper articles and television news report headlines, whilst Hokkien writings are used in novels, songs lyrics, film subtitles, theatrical and opera scripts, and in informal communication.

Phonetic writing systems


A sample of Pe̍h-ōe-jī text.

Pe̍h-ōe-jī (Chinese: 白話字) is a Latin alphabet developed by Western missionaries working in Southeast Asia in the 19th century to write Hokkien. Pe̍h-ōe-jī allows Hokkien to be written phonetically in the Latin script, meaning that phrases specific to Hokkien can be written without having to deal with the issue of non-existent Chinese characters. Currently usage of Pe̍h-ōe-jī is restricted to some Taiwanese Christians, non-native learners of Hokkien, and native-speaker enthusiasts in Taiwan. POJ remains the Taiwanese script with "the richest inventory of written work, including dictionaries, textbooks, literature [...] and other publications in many areas".[3]

Pe̍h-ōe-jī can also be used along with Chinese characters in a mixed script called Hàn-lô, where words specific to Hokkien are written in Pe̍h-ōe-jī, and words with associated characters written in Han Characters.

Sample mixed orthography text:[4]

翻 tńg 工,我 koh hap i tī Hotel ê 餐廳食西式 ê chái 起,我講 beh tò 去稅厝 ê 所在,i beh 送我去,我 kā 拒絕,mā 無 beh hō͘ i 知我 ê 地址、電話番,講若有緣就會 koh 再相會。I 講人海茫茫,我若無 tī hit 間跳舞、唱歌,i beh 去 toh 位 chhōe--我?「就是 án-ni m̄-chiah 講是緣」,我嘴是 án-ni 應,心肝內知影 kap i 自細漢到這時 ê 牽連、綿纏無 hiah 簡單就煞。


Bopomofo is another script used in Taiwanese Hokkien writings. It is commonly used in Taiwanese literature to represent Hokkien-specific grammatical particles, along with Chinese characters, and can also be used to gloss Chinese characters with their Hokkien readings.

Sample text: 我像離水ㄟ魚 ("I am like the fish that has left the water", with [ei] being used as a replacement for ê [e].)

Taiwanese kana

During the period of Taiwan under Japanese rule, a Kana-based system was introduced to gloss Hokkien writing in Chinese characters, as well writing as other languages of Taiwan.

Chinese characters

Hàn-jī in (top) Hàn-jī and (bottom) Pe̍h-ōe-jī

Writing Hokkien using Chinese characters (Hokkien: 漢字 Hàn-jī or 唐人字 Tn̂g-lâng-jī, Taiwanese pronunciation: [han˥˩d͡ʑi˧, tŋ̍˧˩laŋ˧˩d͡ʑi˧]) is a common method of writing in Taiwanese literature. However, there are various problems relating to the use of Chinese characters to write vernacular Hokkien, and in many cases Chinese characters are used alongside other scripts, such as bopomofo or POJ. The problem with using only Chinese characters to write Min Nan is that there are many morphemes (estimated to be around 15 percent of running text)[5] which are not definitively associated with a particular character. Various strategies have been developed to deal with the issue, including researching and reviving the etymologically correct Chinese character from ancient Chinese texts and classical Chinese, creating new characters, allocating Chinese characters used in written Mandarin with similar meanings, but dissimilar etymology, to represent the missing characters, or using romanization for the "missing 15%".[5]

In many cases, when writing Hokkien using Chinese characters phonetically, the use of characters is entirely unrelated to the original meaning of the phrase. While most Hokkien morphemes have standard designated characters, they are not always etymologically correct or phono-semantic. Similar-sounding, similar-meaning or rare characters are commonly borrowed or substituted to represent a particular morpheme. In addition, there may be many different ways to write a specific Hokkien phrase using Chinese characters. Wanhua District in Taipei is commonly written as 萬華 in Chinese (literally "ten thousand flowers"); however, the original meaning of the location name, pronounced Báng-kah in Taiwanese Hokkien (old character form 艋舺), is a rendering of a non-Chinese indigenous name for "boat".[1] Along with location names, common words also have orthography problems due to non-standardization; chhit-thô or thit-thô (lit. "play (around)") is commonly written as 𨑨迌; however, neither characters have anything to do with the act of "playing" (the characters mean "near" and "cunning, deceitful"). Within Robert Cheng's publication of a Han character edition of the Taiwanese Hokkien novella Khó-ài ê Sîu-jîn (lit. "Beloved Enemy") by Lai Jinsheng, the word lô͘-môa, meaning "gangster" and cognate with Vernacular Chinese liúmáng (流氓), is transcribed as 鱸鰻; these two phonetically-used characters literally translate to "perch-eel".

Additional examples include the word for "beautiful" (; is the literary form), which has the vernacular morpheme suí represented by characters such as (an obsolete character), (a vernacular reading of this character) and even (transliteration of the sound suí, but meaning water), and "tall" (; ko is the literary form), whose morpheme kôan is . Common grammatical particles are not exempt; the negation particle (not) is variously represented by 毋, 呣 or 唔, among others. In other cases, characters are invented to represent a particular morpheme (a common example is the non-standard character 𪜶 in, which represents the personal pronoun "they"). In addition, some characters have multiple and unrelated pronunciations, adapted to represent Hokkien words. For example, the Hokkien word bah ("meat") has been reduced to writing via , which has etymologically unrelated colloquial and literary readings (he̍k and jio̍k, respectively).[6][7] In other cases, a character is borrowed to represent a morpheme with the same meaning, but a different pronunciation; the morpheme ("low", as in kē-thn̂g 低糖 'low sugar') has been assigned the character , whose phonetic reading is te, by the Republic of China's Ministry of Education. Another case is the word 'to eat,' chia̍h, which is often transcribed in Taiwanese newspapers and media as (a Mandarin transliteration, xiā, to approximate the Hokkien term), even though its recommended character in dictionaries is .[8]

Victor H. Mair makes an estimate that if "pure, unadulterated spoken vernacular Taiwanese" were written exclusively in Chinese characters, with minimal use of Mandarin phrases, over 25% of morphemes would have no character, about 25% would have arbitrarily selected (yet more or less conventionally accepted) characters that are homophones or near-homophones, 10% would be written using characters exclusive to Hokkien, and 40% would be written with characters that have the correct sound and meaning. However, in more colloquial styles of Taiwanese Hokkien, the proportion of morphemes written with conventionally accepted characters would drop even lower than 40%.[1]

Moreover, unlike Cantonese, Hokkien does not have a universally accepted standardized character set. Thus, there is some variation in the characters used to express certain words and characters and they can be ambiguous in meaning. In 2007, Taiwan's Ministry of Education formulated and released a standard character set known as the Taiwanese Southern Min Recommended Characters to overcome these difficulties.[9] These standard Chinese characters for writing Taiwanese Hokkien are now taught in schools in Taiwan.

The character for the third person plural (they) in some Hokkien dialects, 𪜶 (in), is present within the Unicode Standard (U+2A736 𪜶); however only a very limited number of fonts currently support its display.

When writing Hokkien in Chinese characters, some writers create 'new' characters when they consider it impossible to use existing ones; this corresponds to similar practices in character usage in Cantonese, Vietnamese chữ nôm, Korean hanja and Japanese kanji. These are usually not encoded in Unicode (or the corresponding ISO/IEC 10646: Universal Character Set), thus creating problems in computer processing.

The earliest Hokkien vernacular literature written in hàn-jī is Tân Saⁿ and Gō͘-niû in the Ming dynasty, and koa-á-chheh is also an important kind of hàn-jī vernacular literature in the history of the Hokkien language.


The following table lists a few examples displaying differences in vocabulary between Vernacular Chinese based on Mandarin, and Taiwanese Hokkien written in Chinese characters:

English Vernacular Chinese Written Hokkien
Have you eaten enough yet? 你吃飽了沒有 你食飽未
I will leave now. 我會現在走了 我會現在來走
Where? 哪裡 佗位,叨位
What? 什麼 啥物,啥咪
(I) don't understand 聽不懂 聽無
Thank you 謝謝 多謝 or 感謝
different 不一樣 無同款

In addition, Hokkien literature can consist of phrases that are vernacular to Hokkien, as well as literary terms originating from Classical Chinese. The following list of Taiwanese Hokkien words is adapted from a list by scholar Ong Iok-tek, contrasting vernacular terms with relevant literary terms;[10] the English translations have been added by Mair.[1]

English Vernacular phrase Literary equivalent
beautiful súi 媠 美 bí
wild, crazy siáu 痟 狂 kông
stand khiā 徛 豎 sū
go against koāi 乖 koai
window thang 窗 窗 chhong
man cha-po͘ 查埔 男人 lâm-jîn

Literary and colloquial character readings

Hokkien separates reading pronunciations (讀音) from spoken pronunciations (語音) and explications (解說) of Chinese characters (see Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters). The following examples in Pe̍h-oē-jī show differences in readings in Taiwanese Hokkien:[1][2]

Chinese character Reading pronunciations Spoken pronunciations / explications English
pe̍k pe̍h white
biān bīn face
su chu book
seng seⁿ / siⁿ student
put not
hóan tńg return
ha̍k o̍h to study
jîn / lîn lâng person
siàu chió few
chóan tńg to turn


Civil service examination controversy

In 2003, there was a controversy in Taiwan when parts of the civil service examination for judges were written in characters used only in Hokkien.[11] After strong objections, these questions were not used in scoring. As with the official-language controversy, objections to the use of Taiwanese Hokkien came not only from Mainlander groups, but also Hoklo, Hakka and aborigines. The Control Yuan later created a rule that only allowed Standard Mandarin characters on civil service exams. According to public opinion surveys as of 2008, more people support making English the second official language than do for Taiwanese.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Mair, V. H. (2003). "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language".
  2. ^ a b 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan]. Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2011.
  3. ^ Chiung, Wi-vun Taiffalo (2005). Language, Identity and Decolonization. Tainan: National Cheng Kung University. ISBN 957-8845-85-5. p. 272.
  4. ^ Sidaia, Babuja A. (1998) (in Hàn-lô Taiwanese). A-Chhûn. Taipei: Taili. ISBN 957-98861-6-4. pp. 264.
  5. ^ a b Lin, Alvin (1999). "Writing Taiwanese: The Development of Modern Written Taiwanese" (PDF). Sino-Platonic Papers (89). OCLC 41879041. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2011-07-04.
  6. ^ 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan] (in Chinese). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2013. #2607.
  7. ^ Klöter, Henning (2005). Written Taiwanese. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 21. ISBN 978-3-447-05093-7.
  8. ^ Hsieh, Shelley Ching-yu (October 2005). "Taiwanese Loanwords in Mandarin Chinese: Language Interaction in Taiwan" (PDF). Taiwan Papers. Southern Taiwan University of Technology. 5. Retrieved 2011-07-01.
  9. ^ 參、臺灣閩南語 (PDF). National Languages Committee (in Chinese). ROC Ministry of Education. Retrieved 2 July 2011.
  10. ^ Ong, Iok-tek (1993). 臺灣話講座 [Lectures on Taiwanese]. Independence Evening Post (in Chinese). ISBN 9789575962456.
  11. ^ Ko Shu-ling (20 Sep 2004). "Control Yuan sets rules for future examinations". Taipei Times. p. 2.
  12. ^ Gijsen, Johan; Liu Yu-Chang (2008). "Chapter 8: The Quest for a New Civic and Linguistic Identity: Mandarin and English Encroachment upon the Taiwanese Language". In Abdullah, Faiz Sathi; Abdullah, Mardziah Hayati; Hoon, Tan Bee (eds.). Critical Perspectives on Language and Discourse in the New World Order. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars. p. 156. ISBN 9781847183408.

See also

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