Lin Yu Tee and the Media in Taiwan

Lin Yu Tee (林玉 体) is an official in the Examination Yuan. Previously, he has held many senior positions in Taiwan education. There are probably few people in who have had a greater influence on contemporary education than he has. Dr. Lin has spent almost his entire life studying education and then, himself, preparing teachers to teach. After graduating from Iowa State University, he returned to National Normal University where he taught for more than a decade and a half serving as Dean of Graduate Studies and Dean of Education (see his Chinese-language bio here).

While Dr. Lin is a well-known figure in the Chinese-speaking community in Taiwan, he is most well-known to English speakers because of a series of recent events concerning the content of professional qualifying examinations. In 2004, Dr. Lin was chair of an Examination Yuan committee that interpreted questions concerning ‘Chinese History and Geography’ as the history and geography of Taiwan. Prior to that, Dr. Lin was involved in the placing of questions on an exam with script that represented Taiwanese pronuciation.

On April 17, I interviewed Dr. Lin for an article I am writing for the Canadian Society in Taipei, The Maple Leaf Magazine. The focus of my interview was Dr. Lin’s role in a controversy surrounding the localization of examination content. As I mentioned above, in one Examination Yuan exam, Dr. Lin is reputed to be responsible for placing questions that need knowledge of some Taiwanese language, as well as the history and geography of Taiwan. One of the most striking elements that emerged from my interview with him was how unclear local English-language newspapers have been in their coverage of the issue. The difference between Dr. Lin’s description of the event and even the pro-Green Taipei Times/Liberty Times was night and day.

Let’s have a look at the English-language media. The pro-Green Taipei Times had this to say in an editorial (In an editorial, no less!).

The appearance of questions in the Hoklo language, more commonly known as Taiwanese, on the national exams for customs officials and police created a controversy, because non-Taiwanese-speaking test-takers could not completely understand those questions…While the move was obviously intended to be an innovation in breaking through a preference for Mandarin, it failed to take into consideration fairness and justice toward all non-Taiwanese-speaking groups. Tests should not be used as a way to evaluate ideological, cultural and linguistic orientation…Viewpoints about the history of this country must be from a fair and impartial angle…The Examination Yuan should never again practice ethnic and linguistic discrimination. This is the way to avoid needless ideological debates and identity confusion as a result of factional twisting of the fundamental spirit of the educational reforms and nativization campaign.

But what really happened? Were there questions placed on an exam that a non-Taiwanese speaker could not possibly answer? No, nothing of the sort happened. But to explain to you what did happen, I have to diverge into a subject that I feel less than completely competent discussing. So, if there are readers out there who feel I have misinterpreted the situation, please let me know.

Mandarin is the national language of both the PRC and the ROC. But just like in Taiwan, in the PRC, there many languages spoken locally. Nevertheless, the pronunciation of these languages can be rendered into Chinese characters. The words created by these characters can be pronounced by anyone who speaks and reads Mandarin, but the meaning may seem senseless. This would be analogous to speakers of one European language reading the script of another European language.

Examinations frequently contain songs, poems, and literature from all regions of China. As an example, Dr. Lin cited to me the poem commemorating the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival. According to the poem, Qu Yuan drowned in the Miluo River located in Hunan, China. In Chinese characters, Miluo is written 汨羅江 (or in simplified characters 汨罗江). Perhaps those of you out there whose Chinese is better than mine will take issue with this explanation, but it appears the first character in the name (汨 or mi) is not a standard part of the Chinese used in Taiwan (This is not to be confused with the character ‘gu’, which appears identical when typed, but is wider that ‘mi’). It appears that this character is a rendition of the Hunan pronunciation for the name of the river. Thus, you could say that any questions dealing with the Dragon Boat Festival using the name of the river would contain characters representing the Hunan language. Nevertheless, Taiwanese people can recognize the name of the river as the river in which Qu Yuan drowned, but only because they are taught about it in public school.

Dr. Lin explained to me that the Taiwanese language on his exams was of similar usage. Dr. Lin was not able to show me the specific exam that’s in question. This was not because it’s a secret of the Examination Yuan. In fact, he tried finding it. But because it was so long ago, he said that he couldn’t remember exactly which exam contained the questions. Because of this, I will try and illustrate the sort of question he described to me. Let me stress once again, this is not a real example and any problem with it I have to take sole responsibility for.

In Taiwanese, there is a very widely known folk song, 燒肉粽. This could be translated as ‘Hot Meat Dumplings’. The song itself is sung only in Taiwanese, but is so widely known that everyone in Taiwan would probably know the song, its name, and the lyrics regardless of whether or not they understood the meaning. This would be much like the many French-language songs I was forced to sing in Canadian public whose meaning I did not understand. I have tried to recreate a question with the intention that Dr. Lin described to me. I am not sure I’ve done a good job of this. In fact, my brother-in-law whose first language is Taiwanese, warned me that my question is a poor example. But here goes.

當賣肉粽的人唱著「燒肉粽」這首歌時,他是什麼樣的心情?(How would a meat dumpling seller feel when he is singing this?)

A. 不快樂 (Unhappy)

B. 快樂 (Happy)

C.以上皆是 (All of the above)

The answer is (A).

Is this really, as the Taipei Times editorial described an “appearance of questions in the Hoklo language”? Sort of. Is this a question that “non-Taiwanese-speaking test-takers could not completely understand”? Not at all. If my version of the question-type is correct, understanding of the Taiwanese-language words of the song is not that important to answering the question. As the president of the Examination Yuan Yao Chia-wen ( 姚嘉文 ) himself stated, “…most students did well in the Chinese exam, and there is no evidence that anyone suffered from being unable to answer the Hokkien langauge questions.” This point was reiterated to me by Dr. Lin who said that he had contacted the individual in-charge of scoring the examinations and found there was no real problem with the items in question.

While some concern about the event was raised by PFP legislator Chin Huei-chu (秦慧珠), the real problem with the exam question came from within the DPP in the form of Chairwoman of the Council for Hakka Affairs Chairwoman Yeh Chu-lan (葉菊蘭). Yeh Chu-lan is an extremely influential member of the DPP because she is seen as the government’s representative of a minority whose vote they are struggling furiously to attract. So much so is her position valued that she was made the first female vice-premier in 2004.

I can understand that there are political issues at stake here for the DPP and their Hakka representatives in their government. But none of this excuses the misleading editorial. There is no reason to believe the questions were unfair. There is even no reason to believe they violated the norms of exam writing already practiced in the Examination Yuan. While I can understand a pro-government newspaper sticking to the position of government even though it’s wrong, it does clearly tell us that they’re not going to be printing reliable news about education.

Great job Scott. Like so many things that come out of organizations, they have no real political motivation at all, but get picked up by others and twisted around.

I look forward to reading the whole article.

This raises an important question about testing: to what extent should tests presume a shared cultural background? Lets say, for the sake of argument, that we are talking about a Canadian test and the song in question is a popular song that most Canadians would know from their childhood. Would you consider such a question appropriate? I’m not sure I would. In fact, I would go out of my way to make sure that such questions did not appear on any test because of numerous studies which show that such questions unfairly affect the test results of minorities and those from under-priviledged backgrounds.

Your comment raises many points.

The first of these is that the questions I addressed in this post were contained on professional qualifying exams. These exams are analogous to a bar exam of a medical licensing exam. No one would argue that there is NOT professional knowledge practitioners need to master before beginning their job. The presence of such questions on Examination Yuan exams illustrates that knowledge of arcane Chinese characters is defined by the government regulatory body as relevant professional knowledge. And that is the point that Dr. Lin was responding to. In fact, Dr. Lin expressed the opinion that an Examination Yuan system of controlling professional entrance is inferior to one controlled by professional associations.

The second point is somewhat different. The purpose of standard exams in the Taiwan context is to demonstrate mastery of public curriculum. This was the case with JCEE and continues to be the case with Scholastic Attainment Test for College-Bound Seniors (學科能力測驗) and the College Testing of Proficiency for Selected Subjects of College-bound Seniors (指定項目甄試).This is fundamentally different from standardized testing in the USA which in many ways still aims to demonstrate what Charles Spearman called ‘g’.

I hope to write more in the future about a comparison of these systems.

There is some reason to contest the pronunciation of 汩 being “Hunan dialect.” I am thinking of the 漢Han dynasty 金日(石+單, one character, can’t find it) in which 日 was pronounced Mi; he was from northern China, not Hunan. This is a complex problem concerning etymology and phonology, and you really wouldn’t be very interested in the details, but calling that dialect is really iffy. Seems to me he’s pulling a fast one…

Yao and Lin could have done more. It’s been so many years, what have they done on the issue of reforming the national examinations--civil service, professionals and technologists certification? Do we really need that kind of bar exam? Do we really have to pass the profession exams to become a civil engineer? Have they done any reviews on those systems? almost nothing.

Being a Taiwanese nationalist, he is exactly like those Chinese nationalists he opposes, conservative right wing. Though he thinks he is different. He just can’t tell the difference between left and right.

A progressive scholar wouldn’t care too much on the issue of Chinese/ Taiwanese history. What matters is whose history. There is no discussion on people’s history, Taiwanese people, Chinese people and so on.

It is hardly fair to blame Dr. Lin and Dr. Yao about reform issues in the EY. They are not the only members. Members are appointed in agreement with the opposition, and that is even more true than ever. Many EY members who represent the KMT are extremely conservative about the institution. In fact, I have spoken extensively with Dr. Lin about his personal opinions on exam reform and he is a strong advocate of, for example, bar exam reform, and I can say that he has no reluctance at all to implement radical change. The major issue with bar exam reform appears to have little to do with the EY and much more to do with the Bar Association’s reluctance to accept exam writing responsibilitiesand with issues related to law schools.


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