Highlighted by the contrast with China President Xi Jinping’s censorship of Winnie the Pooh, democracies abound with nicknames for political leaders. As Taiwan gears up for another hard-fought election, from the scatological to the scandalous, Domino Theory takes a brief look at what people are really calling the three main candidates in the 2024 Taiwan presidential election online and in the media.
Mandarin is famously a rich language for homonyms, i.e. words that sound the same but have different meanings. For example, speaking aloud the word cai without any further context, one could just as easily be uttering the surname of Taiwan’s current president (蔡) or referring to a vegetable (菜).
It is only when speech is expanded or thoughts put down in text that the difference is revealed. Combining this feature with Asia’s freest internet, elections that have existential overtones for the country and highly engaged voters, the ensuing puns are by turns rude, irreverent, witty or imperious, sometimes all at once, when seen from one side or another. As befits an open society where diverse opinions can be heard, the current crop of election hopefuls has not been spared.
Unsurprisingly, among the host of names that candidates have accrued, animals and excrement feature commonly. The would-be president of the popular upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), is frequently transformed into an oyster (蚵) in online discourse because of the shellfish’s phonetic similarity to his family name, Ko (柯). His given name becomes “mosquito-bite” (蚊蜇) with minor modifications, too.
Alternatively, since Ko’s given name is constituted of two characters, the first is substituted by rhyme once in a while with fen (糞), which means “manure.” Thus, starting as Ko Wen-je, an appellation that emphasizes culture and wisdom, he ends as Ko Fen, which we could selectively translate in English terms as the rather unflattering Ko Dung. That said, the stinky putdown is more typically applied to the Kofen (柯粉), or fans of Ko, who then become something that might emerge from his back end (柯糞).
The magic of Mandarin similarly takes Ko’s new partner-in-arms, Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), the former director general of the National Police Agency, current mayor of New Taipei City and presidential candidate for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and transforms him into a monkey, again by switching the symbol for his family name, Hou (侯), with that for the primate, also hou (猴). While monkeys are to be admired for their many qualities, sound governance is not typically thought to be one of them.
Presidential front-runner and heir to the leadership of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Lai Ching-te (賴清德), might not shapeshift into fauna quite so seamlessly, but that does not mean he gets off lightly. His surname, Lai (賴), has a variety of meanings that leave him wide open to satire, including to “depend on” and to “renege.”
However, most commonly, it is suffixed with another character, pi (皮), to make Laipi (賴皮), i.e. sly rascal or scoundrel. Fired-up netizens may then derogatorily add mammals to the mix, deriding the possible next inhabitant of their country’s Presidential Office Building as a “rascal dog” or “scoundrel pig.” Seeing that Lai is pronounced almost identically to the English “lie,” many just go straight for the jugular, calling him “liar” (sometimes written as 賴兒), which gains in directness what it loses in originality.
Some nicknames evolve with time. Ko, for instance, has long been known as Ko-P (柯P), whereby P stands for the English word “professor”, a reference to his previous career at National Taiwan University’s College of Medicine. However, for the current election race, the more optimistic among Kofen now prefer the letter to signify “president.”
Not to be outdone, Ko haters (Kohei or 柯黑), are appropriating the P and transliterating it into Mandarin with the character “屁,” which is said in the same way, albeit with far greater emphasis. 屁 literally means “fart,” but, in everyday use, it can be used to dismiss nonsense, not unlike how an English person might retort, “bullshit,” after hearing somebody else talking bunk. And, of course, combinations can be made with previously listed pejoratives to conjure interesting conceptions, like “oyster fart” (蚵屁).
Progression is a feature with perhaps the most cutting set of Ko’s names as well: Italy (義大利), watermelon (西瓜) and betelnut (檳榔). While both of the latter two are green on the outside and red on the inside, the Italian flag is arguably the more illustrative insult as it transitions from through the same colors with white in the middle. Hence, it describes Ko’s trajectory as a politician: starting close to the DPP (the greens), developing with his own party (the whites) and culminating, in the opinions of many, under heavy influence from the Chinese Communist Party (the reds). Ko has affably referenced these jibes in public, turning them back on his opponents, but they still leave a mark.
Yet no candidate is without weak spots concerning perceived interests abroad. Hou You-ih’s self-proclamation as a Shanghai Son-in-Law (上海女婿) over a decade ago may reassure the KMT’s cross-straits business supporters and one-China core that their man is on the right track. However, his connections to an increasingly totalitarian neighbor remind other voters exactly why they want to retain the right to call him a monkey.
On the other side of the political divide, as many people come to doubt the U.S.’s intentions towards Taiwan, being referred to as American Granddad (美國阿公) due to the birth of his grandchild stateside is not running in Lai’s favor, especially since it suggests that, unlike the majority of people, his family is safe should his policies genuinely result in Beijing declaring war. To assuage concerns, the grandson in question has apparently now returned to Taiwan.
Lai shows elsewhere how slippery names can be in politics, too. Christened God (賴神) after his otherworldly prediction of a typhoon’s path caused him to call a disaster holiday and save lives as mayor of the city of Tainan in 2012, he was knocked out of the pantheon and dubbed Half-Day Lai (賴半天) four years later, when his failure to tell workers to stay home in the morning resulted in chaos as Typhoon Meranti bruised the city. Both monikers persist in online discourse to this day.
Then there is Merits and Virtue Lai (賴功德), which ought to be a title coveted by any politician, especially since it has stuck. Except that, in his own words, it was bestowed after he used the “merits and virtue” phrase, a religion-laden term, to praise care workers’ commitment during the launch of a hotline in 2017. This was interpreted by sarcastic local media as an unwillingness to reward such workers in more concrete ways, like with salary, quite a sore point in a country where overtime is endemic yet rates of pay lag behind the rest of the developed world.
Likewise, for every voter inspired to dye themselves green by Lai’s other name, the Golden Child of Taiwan Independence (台獨金孫), there will be jitters rising in two others, who might like to formally separate with China in their heart of hearts but ultimately prefer a status quo solution over fighting the People’s Liberation Army on the matter. Golden Child is not the best look for a party that does not want to lose its working-class roots either, a danger that Lai looks to head off in responses to the media.
All in all, from a brief and very unscientific peruse of Taiwan’s popular internet messaging board PTT (批踢踢實業坊), of the three established candidates, Ko seemed to attract the highest frequency and volume of nicknames, both positive and negative, while Hou often fades from view. In itself, the passion either way demonstrates Ko’s strength as a contender, which is testament to his insight in realizing that widespread disaffection with the KMT does not always equate to support for the DPP. It is also, perhaps, a reflection of the younger, more online demographic that supports him, his use of social media as a major channel for his shot at the presidency and his general newsworthiness, which contrasts even to Lai, who has been stable but relatively quiet during the race so far.
Nevertheless, this should not be read as a replay of 2014, when Ko-P topped the political nickname charts and the professor swept to Taipei’s mayorship in person. Taiwan’s perception of Ko has moved on from those days, and its political atmosphere is not like the U.S. of 2016, when Trump rode any and all publicity to the White House.
Here, a rascal dog and an avowed son of Shanghai stand in the oyster’s way.