What's in a name? | South China Morning Post
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  • Mar 29, 2015
  • Updated: 7:29pm

What's in a name?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2007, 12:00am

Taiwan's politicians are sliding down the slipperiest of slopes with their tit-for-tat renaming game. There is no better way to further divide the already fractious island than to mess with place names, the reservoirs of every society's identity. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's ideologically flawed eagerness to rewrite history by obliterating references to the late Kuomintang leader, Chiang Kai-shek, is being countered with equally unsound moves by opponents. Last weekend, Mr Chen ordered that the landmark National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei be renamed the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. On Tuesday, that move was parried by city mayor Hau Lung-bin, of the KMT, who officially designating the plaza in front of the presidential office Anti-Corruption and Democracy Square.

Politics are behind the moves. When the independence-minded Mr Chen took office in 2000, after his Democratic Progressive Party ended 51 years of nationalist KMT rule, erasing Chiang's legacy became a priority. Statues have since been toppled, but with national elections less than a year away, and a knife-edge race again likely, the impetus has been stepped up: the international airport was stripped of the one-time general's name last year, and his likeness removed from military bases.

The KMT, not being in national office, has been powerless to counter the order. In Taipei, though, where it controls the government, matters are different. To shame Mr Chen - tainted by a corruption scandal last year in which his wife and son-in-law have been indicted for graft - Mr Hau has used some name-play of his own in the square where anti-Chen opposition rallies have been staged.

Both decisions make a mockery of the word 'democracy'. Names are a society's most important marker, revealing its history, influences, culture and thinking. The process of changing them cannot be an arbitrary one; rather, it should involve as many stakeholders in a community as possible to ensure a sense of inclusiveness and belonging.

The problem is that names are also deeply political by nature, giving the power of ownership to whoever makes the choice. North Vietnam's capture of the rival South's capital, Saigon, in 1975 therefore inevitably led to the city being renamed after the victors' revolutionary hero, Ho Chi Minh; British imperial names for cities in India such as Bangalore, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras have become history by being renamed Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, respectively; and the African National Congress' dominance of politics in post-apartheid South Africa has resulted in colonial references being replaced by party-friendly ones.

Times also change, hence the slew of name changes worldwide obliterating racially, culturally and religiously insensitive references. There are still anomalies, though: among them, Brassiere Hills in the US state of Alaska, Molly's Nipple in the state of Utah and the E.S. 'Nigger' Brown stand at the sports ground in my home town, Toowoomba, in Australia.

'Nigger' is obviously now a politically incorrect term, but it was not so sensitive 50 years ago when the stand was named to honour the city's first international rugby league player, a white Australian with fair skin and blue eyes whose adopted nickname was a stab at his appearance. Indigenous activists have successfully lobbied the United Nations to have the name deemed offensive and, although the stand has been declared unsafe and will be demolished later this year, football officials are adamant that the word will live on in a plaque on a statue in the ground. (Paradoxically, Toowoomba is an Aboriginal word and, when founded in 1860, bucked the colonial trend of using British names.)

The name-calling is causing friction in Toowoomba, just as it is in Taiwan. While race rather than politics is at the core, the lesson is the same: in the absence of a process in which all in the community have a say, and their views are judiciously weighed and considered, only animosity, hatred and an escalation of the feud will result.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor


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