Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf
Leila Monaghan, Constanze Schmaling, Karen Nakamura, and Graham H. Turner, Editors
My route to studying sign language in Taiwan was roundabout. I began learning American Sign Language (ASL) in 1977. In the mid-1980s, I spent a year in Beijing, China, teaching English as a foreign language. As a graduate student in linguistics several years later, I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on the phonology and phonetics of signed language in use in Beijing. But by 1989, the People’s Republic of China was in political turmoil. The Tian An Men Square massacre made a return to China difficult. Searching for an alternative field site, I recalled the unique history of a school for the deaf in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.1 The Chiying School, founded by Chiang Ssu Nung, a deaf man originally from mainland China, had used the Chinese Sign Language (CSL) as a medium of instruction for many years while Taiwan’s other schools for the deaf used Taiwan Sign Language (TSL) (Yau 1977, 7; Chao, Chu and Liu 1988, 9–10; Smith 1989, 1–2). Circumstances seemed to have conspired to create a living archive of CSL in Taiwan.
Taiwan is an island that lies off the southeastern coast of mainland China. For the last 500 years, it has been populated by Chinese immigrants and by a long-standing local population. Taiwan was occupied by Japan from 1895 to 1945, returning to Chinese control after the Sino-Japanese War. Chinese Nationalist Party leaders and followers fled to Taiwan in 1949 when the Communists took over mainland China. Ever since, the island has been estranged from the mainland.
Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s third largest city and is situated on its southwestern coast. It is the industrial center of Taiwan and, throughout the 1990s, had supported one of Taiwan’s largest economies. In the Tsoying area of Kaohsiung is the Chiying Private Elementary School for the Deaf. Like many schools for the deaf, the Chiying School occupies a position of great importance in the history of the deaf community in Taiwan. To my delight, the Chiying School agreed that I could visit for nearly five months to gather Chinese Sign Language data. A dissertation grant from the American Council of Learned Societies financed the project.
During the course of gathering data for my work in linguistics at the Chiying School, I enjoyed sustained contact with deaf children who boarded there and with deaf staff members. In addition, I came into frequent contact with the deaf and hearing friends, acquaintances, and family members of these people. My observations from this time form the basis of this chapter. Though some of what follows is based on actions or conversations caught on videotape, most of it is based on the notes I took as I came to know, sometimes through formal interviews and sometimes through more casual conversation, the people who were part of the Chiying School in the early 1990s. The period of time that I spent at the Chiying School might be described as a temporary fusion of individuals from disparate worlds: deaf people who had long been deeply connected to the Chiying School, to Kaohsiung, and to Taiwan and a curious stranger who was neither Taiwanese nor deaf.