ENDANGERED TRIBAL LANGUAGES AND OLD CHINESE CHARACTERS IN TAIWAN

ENDANGERED LANGUAGES OF TAIWAN

According to the Library of Congress, aboriginal peoples once spoke 24 Austronesian languages, but seven of these languages are extinct, with only a few elderly people knowing a few words. Ralph Jennings of the Voice of America wrote: “Of Taiwan’s 42 indigenous languages, nine are considered endangered. One of them is used by just 10 people. Almost all aborigines but the oldest speak Mandarin, Taiwan’s official language. One language in danger is that spoken by the Sakizaya aborigine tribe, which has some 659 members. [Source: Library of Congress, Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, August 20, 2012 /*\]

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “In Taiwan today all the country’s Aboriginal languages are facing grave threats to their future survival. Many of the spoken forms of the 14 recognized indigenous groups — whose languages and dialects gave birth to the collection of Austronesian languages that are now spoken worldwide by about 300 million people — are at a point of almost total collapse. [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~\]

“When the UN’s global cultural arm UNESCO undertook an evaluation of 24 Taiwanese Aboriginal languages in 2009, it found that nine of them were already extinct. Particularly hard hit are those communities located on the nation’s west coast, including Siraya and Babuza. A further six languages — including Kavalan which is spoken in and around Hualien County and Thao which heralds from Nantou County — are critically endangered. In some cases only dozens of speakers remain. Even Amis, Puyuma and Paiwan — numerically some of the stronger Aboriginal languages — are struggling and are now listed by the UN body as vulnerable.” \~\

Among the languages from the Taiwan-Philippines that are an the verge of extinction are: 1) Arta (with 6 speakers); Bubuza (with 5 speakers); and Pazeh (with 1 speaker). Extremely endangered language: Siraiya, Hoanya, Saaroa, Papora, Taokas, Kulun, Ketangalan, Basay. Severely endangered language: Kavalan, Pazeh, Thao, Nataoran, Kanakanabu, Babuza. Endangered language: Tayal, Taroka, Amis, Bunun, tsou, Pyuma, Rukai, Paiwan.

Southern Taiwan is home to 300 ethnic Saaroa, only six of whom are native speakers. The Saaroa and neighboring Kanakabu (who have eight native speakers left) assimilated into the Bunun, a larger minority group. Many of Taiwan's indigenous languages have similarities with the Austronesian languages of Polynesia and Micronesia. [Source: Asia Society]

Kolas Yotaka, news director with Taiwan Indigenous TV, told Voice of America the use of native languages has disappeared as potential speakers are required to use Chinese in public schools and leave tribal areas in eastern Taiwan for work in the more urbanized west. She says the west is dominated by non-aborigines but that to survive and make money, aborigines must move there. Once they move to the west, she adds, those migrants are forced to speak Mandarin Chinese or the Taiwanese dialect to communicate. /*\

Taiwan Struggles to Save Indigenous Languages

Ralph Jennings of the Voice of America wrote:“Taiwan’s government sounded a cultural emergency. The native language of a village of aboriginal Rukai people is in danger of dying out. So the cabinet has begun collecting records that could save that dialect and eight others from being overtaken by the dominant Mandarin Chinese. The government says most indigenous people have little incentive to use or remember their native tongues as they marry ethnic Chinese or work away from tribal homelands. It fears that the most endangered languages will die out within 20 years. [Source: Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, August 20, 2012 /*\]

“Since 2008, Taiwan’s government has tried to save these languages, but this year they are focusing on the ones most threatened with disappearance. That mission has broad support from the island’s ethnic Chinese majority, because many people look to indigenous culture as a way to distinguish Taiwan from its political rival China. Taiwan is studying New Zealand’s effective effort to save native Maori languages through one-on-one tutoring and allowing tribal autonomy over elements of the education system. The government has also contacted Canada, home to Inuit tribes near the Arctic Circle, and the tiny Pacific Island nation of Palau. /*\

“Faustina Rehuher-Marugg, Palau’s cultural affairs minister, says her population of 21,000 saved its native tongue by putting it in writing for students. Almost everyone in the former U.S. protectorate also speaks fluent English. On a visit to Taipei this month, the minister advised Taiwan to keep records. “I think they need to put their dictionary and grammar together and publish it as part of the curriculum because that’s how you actually get it written down," she said. "Because it’s part of the school, it has been taught from grade one.” /*\

“Taiwan may eventually transcribe its native languages, though the lack of native writing systems would make the job difficult. The government will spend about $220,000 this year on aboriginal language preservation. Part of that package goes to collecting whatever information is available in tribal villages and recording elders who speak the endangered languages. There are plans for informal language study programs and the use of exams to certify native speakers of aboriginal languages. To save the Rukai village language marked as urgent in July, the government must first survey the hamlet in southern Taiwan to find out exactly how many people still speak it. /*\

Importance of Saving Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages

Ralph Jennings of the Voice of America wrote: “Yang-Chao Jui-chun, endangered language project director with the government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, says any losses would weaken the culture of Taiwan and the Asia Pacific. He says that is because local languages convey information about flora and fauna that would be lost along with the words themselves. [Source: Ralph Jennings, Voice of America, August 20, 2012 /*\]

“He says that if no one can speak an aborigine language in 50 to 100 years, there would be no way to express cultural meaning and values, affecting Taiwanese people’s ability to respect other ethnic groups and live with one another. Cultural resources such as stories and knowledge would disappear along with the languages. For example, he says, the Rukai and Paiwan tribes have unique knowledge of certain snake species. /*\

Anthropologists also consider Taiwan’s aborigines key to understanding ethnically linked peoples across the South Pacific and Indian oceans from Easter Island to Madagascar. Taiwan’s tribes first reached the island from the Asian mainland. They used boats to fan southward about 3,500 years ago. Taiwan’s government says its aborigines remain ideal for study because they were largely left alone by Western missionaries. Taiwan’s cabinet today recognizes 14 tribes. Their numbers range from several hundred, to the Amis group at nearly 190,000. Their total population is about half a million and growing overall.

Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages and the Identity of Taiwan’s Aboriginal People

“There is an idea of a person’s identity and ethnicity in their language,” Truku-speaking Apay Yuki, who is a member of the Taroko tribe, told the Taipei Times. “If you don’t speak it then you don’t know who you are … Language contributes to a person’s identity.” Yuki, an assistant professor with the Department of Indigenous Languages at National Dong Hwa University , recently returned to her native homeland to carry out research into the health of her mother tongue. The findings, she says, are distressing. “You could see that the younger group are showing serious and ongoing language attrition and the local language is being seriously damaged. When people who speak Taroko fluently, generally those aged above 50, are gone then the language is gone,” she says. [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~\]

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “ Yuki says that the loss of Aboriginal lands combined with years of repression — both at the hands of acquisitive Han Chinese settlers, colonial Japanese forces and the punitive period of Chiang Kai-shek’s Martial Law era — enacted a terrible toll on indigenous people as a result of which “social structures were changed.” However, she argues, while the oppression continues to haunt Aboriginal peoples, today’s linguistic threats are different. Waves of migration to cities away from traditional Aboriginal language strongholds as younger people search out work, coupled with a loss of value attached to local tongues, are dealing a double blow to already weakened languages. \~\

“Yuki adds that government policy has consistently failed to make the teaching of Aboriginal languages a priority. A 50-minute Aboriginal language class a week, often taught by a non-native speaker, is ineffective, argues Yuki, who also questions how resources are being used. “There is [government] funding, but I’m not sure how effective it is. The money is a waste … The first thing to do is to really dig out the root problem about why people are not re-learning their languages.” \~\

Efforts to Save the Yami Language in Taiwan

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “The beautifully-named Orchid Island belies a sad truth. Like the fragrant tropical flower that lent this tiny outcrop of land its name, the local language — Yami — is facing extinction. Surrounded by the entirety of the vast Pacific Ocean the increasingly weather-battered island, and its Yami speakers, are now struggling to fend off global forces which could swallow them up whole. Liao Hui-ling, 37, one of Orchid Island’s only nurses and a member of the indigenous Tao people (known also as the Yami, , is sensitive about the loss of her mother tongue. “Without my language it’s like I don’t have water, and I’m thirsty,” Liao says. [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~\]

“Liao Hui-ling is just one of three names the married mother of two uses in daily life. To her parents she remains Sinan Matopush, her Aboriginal name. At work she uses her Chinese name and when dealing with the dozens of curious English-speaking tourists she hosts every year on the island, she uses the moniker Teresa. It is a multilingual existence that Liao leads — like many of her compatriots — but it comes at a cost. “I can speak my own language, but I can’t speak it well. My English is better than my Yami,” concedes Liao. \~\

“However, it is the influence of Mandarin Chinese that poses the greatest threat to her endangered mother tongue, Liao says. “When kids go to school they learn Chinese. When they study books it’s in Chinese. When they deal with the government it’s in Chinese. How can my language continue to the next generation like this?” she says. \~\

“Orchid Island’s lush, green mountainsides are the last vestige of Taiwan proper before the enormous ocean opens up to its east, an isolated outpost of human habitation that has provided the basis for life, and language, for thousands of years.Liao Hui-ling is wistful as she reflects on the potential loss of such ancient history within a few short generations. “Every tribe has a language and it’s a way to connect older and younger generations — language is key to that connection. How can we continue our ceremonies, if we don’t speak our language? Without your language you don’t have your own soul, your identity,” Liao says. “But, right now, our language doesn’t seem that important.” \~\

Re-Learning Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “Yuki argues that a “bottom up” approach would improve the re-learning of local languages and says the benefits of speaking the language of your elders is immensely rewarding. “We are now trying to convey to parents how important it is to speak our languages and what cognitive benefits it brings. Personally, after re-learning my language, I feel — as a family — we are closer, I feel a sense of belonging. I’m proud of being Taroko, it’s an affirmation.” [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~\]

“The person charged with shaping and implementing government policy on Aboriginal languages is Ciou Wun-long, an official at the Council of Indigenous Peoples. The 40-year-old Bunun tribe member, who has headed the department’s Language Section for five years, says reviving Taiwan’s 42 Aboriginal languages and dialects is a “formidable” task. Ciou cites the 60-year-long ban on local languages, and today’s multi-racial society where there are “limited places where indigenous languages can be spoken,” as key factors explaining the demise of Aboriginal languages. \~\

“However, he maintains “there is still hope,” and cites the council’s 2001 Aboriginal Language Skill Certification Examination as a bureaucratic achievement designed to arrest the slide toward extinction. “In addition to the language proficiency test, Aboriginal dialects have also been included into the school curriculum … [which] has also helped relevant teaching materials come into being, and has helped to cultivate teachers of Aboriginal languages,” Ciou says. Furthermore, Ciou argues, the council’s drive to establish written systems for indigenous languages has boosted conservation efforts, with 13 dictionaries completed thus far. \~\

“However, Ciou concedes that with the number of programs the council is endeavoring to push ahead, government resources are insufficient. “The government only allocates an annual budget of between NT$110 million and NT$120 million into language revitalization, an amount that is inadequate to fund the works the council has been doing,” Ciou said. By contrast, the government spent over NT$215 million on a two-night rock musical to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. \~\

“While there may be a growing recognition of the value of local languages at certain levels in government, some argue that there are familiar patterns at work. Daniel Kaufman, a linguist and a director of the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance explained in a recent email interview that “endangered languages are found throughout the globe, but it is most often disenfranchised ethnic minorities who are most affected”. Kaufman, an expert in Austronesian languages, says that the loss of Taiwanese Aboriginal languages is like losing branches from the Austronesian family tree as all of the connected languages spoken outside Taiwan can be traced back to a single ancestor language that left the island around 4,000 years ago. \~\

Keeping Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages Alive in the Cities

Sam Sky Wild wrote in the Taipei Times, “Kaufman meanwhile says that his agency is increasingly working in cities. “We find that, contrary to expectations, some of the best and brightest speakers of threatened languages are now living in the diaspora. This does not mean that working with diaspora communities can replace working with communities ‘in-situ.’ On the contrary, we find that working with diaspora communities is often a bridge to the home communities. But in an era of increasingly unstable funding, it is imperative that we work with as many communities as possible … if we are to have any impact at all on stemming the tide of language death.” [Source: Sam Sky Wild, Taipei Times, October 31, 2012 \~\]

“This model is one that finds a local manifestation through the Bethel Center in New Taipei City. Established over a decade ago by the non-profit Zhi-Shan Foundation, the center takes care of over 100 Aboriginal children and teaches Aboriginal languages to pupils while also respecting Aboriginal culture. It is an example that has been cited by the Control Yuan and lawmakers as evidence that locally-run facilities targeting Aboriginal people can produce results. \~\

“Given the gravity of the situation faced by many languages worldwide, Web titan Google recently helped to set up The Endangered Languages Project. The online resource is a drive to “record, access and share samples of and research on endangered languages, as well as to share advice and best practices for those working to document or strengthen languages under threat.” \~\

Native Languages Suffer as Taiwanese are Forced to Learn Mandarin

The emphasis on learning Mandarin has meant that many of Taiwan's 23 million people have limited ability to speak the dialects native to the island for centuries. Peter Harmsen of AFP wrote: “When Taiwanese scholar Shih Cheng-feng was a boy, he was forced to speak a language that was not his own, and four decades later he still feels handicapped by his education. He grew up under a nationalist regime that had fled China and now wanted him and everyone else to speak the dominant dialect of the mainland, with the right Beijing accent. This included a difficult sound not common on the island that involves rolling up the tongue, and students who lapsed into their native Taiwanese were humiliated with a tag saying "I'm no good. I speak dialect". "Sometimes people have only developed their Taiwanese to elementary-school level," said Shih, now a 52-year-old political scientist at National Dong Hwa University in east Taiwan's Hualien city. "They don't know the academic terms, even if they want to use them... We lost values, traditional wisdom, everything." [Source: Peter Harmsen, AFP, July 29, 2010 <*>]

“Millions of Taiwanese have the same experience as Shih, meaning that the island today is left with a complex linguistic legacy that determines its fate in numerous ways. "The justification for imposing Mandarin was to unify people with the same language, but there was a hidden agenda," said Shih. "If you want to crush people, you should deprive them of their history, their culture, their language." <*>

“The Chinese Nationalists took over Taiwan from a defeated Japan in 1945, immediately striving to revive a Chinese consciousness among locals who had been under Japanese colonial rule for 50 years. Although there might have been an economic rationale for teaching Mandarin in Taiwan, the main aim was political, said Jennifer Wei, a scholar at Taipei's Soochow University. "The high-handed language policy in the 1950s and 1960s was not all for economic development but had to do with the all encompassing efforts to keep a tight control of the people," she said. "If the Nationalists only had the economic development in mind, then they shouldn't ban the use of Japanese." <*>

“Bruce Jacobs, a Taiwan expert at Australia's Monash University, remembers visiting a local dissident's house with a friend around 1980, trying to speak to the dissident's daughter in the Fujianese dialect. "My friend said she can't speak it. At that time very educated parents would speak Mandarin at home. She was 11 at the time," he said. "Just like the British in India and the French in Algeria, the Nationalists pushed the colonial language." <*>

Written Chinese in Taiwan

When the Chinese Communists won the Chinese Civil War and founded the People's Republic of China in 1949, they introduced simplified Chinese characters beginning in 1956 to make it easier for farmers and workers to learn to read and write. But the Chinese Nationalist Government, which lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan to set up its government-in-exile, preserved the complex characters in the name of preserving the Chinese culture, and today Taiwan is the only country in the world where the complex characters are still being used. The complex characters are also used by Chinese-language newspapers in the former British and Portugese colonies Hong Kong and Macau, which are now China's special administrative zones. [Source: etaiwannews.com, December 19, 2008]

In 2008, Taiwan said it planned to apply for UNESCO world heritage status for the complex Chinese characters that China stopped using after 1949 but Taiwan continues to use today. Taiwan Premier Liu Chao-Shiuan said that if one knows the complex characters, it is easier for one to read ancient Chinese characters used 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. "So complex Chinese characters are like a living fossil," he was quoted as saying. [Ibid]

The BBC reported: “Many Chinese also prefer to use traditional characters to print their names on business cards. Not only do the characters look better - they are like pictures that provide clues to the philosophy and evolution of Chinese words. For example, "armed forces" is made up of the words "stop" and "fighting" - as militaries were seen as tools to stop wars. There is even growing resistance against simplification among Chinese linguists tasked with simplifying more characters, said Constance Lin, a Mandarin teacher at NTNU.[Source: Cindy S, BBC News, May 21, 2011 >>>]

"They spend a lot of money and time trying to simplify more characters each year, but the scholars want to stop the simplification; they are urging the government to slowly return to standard characters," said Lin."You won't see this reported by China's media, but that's what the scholars are telling us." Mainland students are beginning to come to Taiwan to learn traditional Chinese. And other than Singapore and Malaysia, traditional Chinese is more commonly used in overseas Chinese communities.

At the same time, however, simplified characters are increasingly appearing in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese use them when handwriting. Even the first character for the word Taiwan is often written in the easier-to-write way. To cater to the more than 1.5 million Chinese tourists now visiting Taiwan each year, many Taiwanese hotels, shops and even government agencies put out brochures, signs and menus in simplified Chinese.

Technology, Politics and the Continued Use of Complex Chinese Characters in Taiwan

The use of more simplified characters in Taiwan has been made primarily to prevent confusion as Taiwan has become increasingly globalized and tied economically to China. The use of the Internet and typing names into search engines have also been also factors. But Taiwan has been reluctant to make the changes for political reasons. Many Taiwanese believe to do so is a capitulation to Chinese dominance.

The BBC reported: “Ultimately, technology and need may be the decisive factors in the simplified versus traditional debate. Students in China and Taiwan are increasingly typing rather than handwriting. Even students at the best universities sometimes can't remember how to write certain characters. At a Taipei primary school, a teacher recently gave a lesson on how Chinese words originated from drawings of what they represented. But despite the students' excitement at guessing what the words were based on their pictures, at the end of the lesson, several students bemoaned the difficulties of writing Chinese. "I don't really like to write Chinese characters; it's very tiring," said eight-year-old Lee Mi. In a few years, she will be handing in her homework typed. [Source: Cindy S, BBC News, May 21, 2011 >>>]

“But technology may also help spread the use of traditional Chinese characters, said Tsao Feng-fu, a distinguished linguistics professor. "Complex characters will still retain their usage and advantage because in the future we'll need to write less, so simplified characters will not be as important," Tsao said. A lot of material will be in digital form and traditional Chinese can be typed as easily as simplified Chinese. That means mainland Chinese people can read traditional characters and still handwrite using simplified characters, Tsao said. >>>

“In 2010, President Ma advocated that China and Taiwan reach an agreement on the teaching of traditional and simplified characters in schools. Although that sparked accusations from the opposition and Ma's own party that he was trying to spread simplified characters in Taiwan, he said he was actually hoping to influence Chinese people to learn traditional characters so that traditional Chinese will flourish again in China.

Taiwan Scrubs Simplified Chinese Script

In 2011, AFP reported: “Taiwan, which sees itself as a guardian of traditional Chinese culture, has started cleansing government websites of the type of simplified script used in mainland China, officials said. The Tourism Bureau, the main agency in charge of thousands of Chinese visitors arriving every day, was the first to remove simple characters, leaving only the more complex traditional version that is standard on the island. The order to do so came directly from President Ma Ying-jeou, said his spokesman Fan Chiang Tai-chi, adding that a majority of government websites were expected to follow suit. "In order to maintain Taiwan's role as a protector of Chinese culture, President Ma feels that all government documents and websites should focus on the standard Chinese character version," Fan Chiang said. [Source: AFP, June 16, 2011 */*]

“In a controversial language reform, communist China simplified thousands of characters from the 1950s onwards to promote literacy. Some characters became completely unrecognisable, while others saw only slight change or remained the same. As more and more Chinese tourists enter Taiwan, simplified characters have become common on street signs, at tourism spots, in shops and restaurants, and concerns have emerged that they may gradually come to dominate. The drive against mainland script will not affect private businesses but enterprises such as Taipei 101, the capital's landmark skyscraper, are keeping the use of simplified characters to a minimum anyway. "Except for floor guides and board signs, few simplified Chinese characters can be seen here," said Michael Liu, a Taipei 101 spokesman. "We decided not to introduce too many simplified Chinese characters in order to give our visitors the chance to experience the building in its original state." */*

Mo Yan-chih wrote in the Taipei Times, “President Ma Ying-jeou told the Tourism Bureau to remove the simplified Chinese version from its Web site, saying all government agencies should use traditional Chinese characters in official documents and on the Internet. The president’s instructions came in the wake of a dispute over the use of simplified characters to cater to an expected influx of Chinese free independent travelers (FITs). The Tourism Bureau had provided simplified Chinese among other languages on its Web site. The simplified Chinese version was removed. “To maintain our role as the pioneer in Chinese culture, all government bodies should use traditional Chinese in official documents and on their Web sites, so that people around the world can learn about the beauty of traditional characters,” Presidential Office spokesman Fan Chiang Tai-chi quoted Ma as saying.” [Source: Mo Yan-chih, Taipei Times, June 16, 2011 |::|]

Earlier, “the Executive Yuan urged retailers and other businesses to refrain from replacing traditional characters with simplified characters in product descriptions or on menus to cater to FITs. Fan Chiang yesterday repeated the Executive Yuan’s call for businesses to stick to traditional characters, saying Taiwan has opened its doors to Chinese tourists for three years and most have no trouble reading traditional characters. “Chinese tourists come to Taiwan to experience the different culture and traditions here, and we should not take this experience away from them,” Fan Chiang said. |::|

Romanization of Written Chinese in Taiwan

For most of its history, Taiwan has used a different system than mainland China for turning Chinese names and places into names and places in the Roman alphabet. The mainland Chinese have used the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet System (Pinyin) while Taiwan has used the Wade-Giles, which was used on the mainland in the early 20th century. "Beijing," “Mao Zedong, ““Deng Xiaoping” and “Jiang Zemin” are all Pinyin names The Wade-Giles spelling for these names are "Peking," “Mao Tse Tiug,” “Teng Hsiao-pong” and “Chiang tse-min.” [Source: etaiwannews.com, December 19, 2008]

The Wade-Giles system of romanization of Mandarin Chinese words has prevailed in Taiwan even though in 1984 the Ministry of Education adopted a modified system of Mandarin romanization called Gwoyeu Romatzyh (National Phonetic Symbols), which was devised by the Republic of China government in 1928. In 2002 the government officially adopted the Tongyong (universal) Pinyin (combined sound) system—similar to Hanyu (Han language) Pinyin used in mainland China—as recommended in 1996 by the Educational Reform Council. [Source: Library of Congress, 2005]

Even so Romanized spelling remains a problem. The Wade-Giles system lives on Taiwan even though Taiwan adopted the Pinyin system in the early 2000s. There are different spelling for street names. For example, one of the main streets in Taipei is known both at “Jenai Road” and “Renai Road.” The changes have limits. Taipei will remain Taipei rather than Pinyin Taibei. Residents have not changed the romanized spellings of the their names on their passports.

In 2008, Taiwan said it planned to apply for UNESCO world heritage status for the complex Chinese characters that China stopped using after 1949 but Taiwan continues to use today. Taiwan Premier Liu Chao-Shiuan said that if one knows the complex characters, it is easier for one to read ancient Chinese characters used 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. "So complex Chinese characters are like a living fossil," he was quoted as saying.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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