The official “English” name of my university is National Dong Hwa University 國立東華大學. I put English in quotes because, as you can see, the name is a mix of translation and romanization. This is different from some other universities, such as Taiwan Normal University 國立台灣師範大學, where the whole name is translated, but similar to schools like National Chengchi University 國立政治大學 in Taipei.
What has confused me for the longest time is that I had no idea what romanization system was being used to come up with the spelling “Hwa.” It is certainly not one of the four main systems used in Taiwan.
The handy romanization chart I picked up at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Passport Name Romanization Comparision Chart 護照外文姓名拼音對照錶, lists four systems: Zhuyin Fuhao 注音符號 (not a Romanization system, but provided on the chart as a reference, since this is the system most Taiwanese are familiar with), Tongyong Pinyin 通用拼音 (favored by the current government), Mandarin Phonetic Symbols II (MPS II) 國語注音符號第二式 (introduced by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education in 1986), and what is listed as Wade-Giles (WG), but is really Postal System Pinyin 郵政式拼音 (a modified version of WG that lacks the all-important diacritics). In all three of those romanization systems the character 華 is spelled “hua.” This spelling is the same as in Hanyu Pinyin 漢語拼音 (the system used everywhere outside of Taiwan and in some of Taiwan’s cities, such as Taipei, where KMT politicians have defied the central government).
Thankfully, Pinyin.info has a handy chart listing just about every known romanization system, and a search for “hwa” results in two possibilities: it could either be Yale (historically used to teach Chinese as a second language), or it could be Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字 (also called Transliteration Symbols 譯音符號). Checking the spelling for 東, which is “dung” in Yale, confirms that the system used by my university must be Gwoyeu Romatzyh. This also makes sense since Gwoyeu Romatzyh has had official status in Taiwan, existing alongside other systems from 1928 (when it was adopted by the Republican government while still on the mainland) till it was replaced by MPS II in 1986.
One unique feature of Gwoyeu Romatzyh is that tones are rendered in the spelling of words, rather than as diacritics. The spelling of Dong Hwa university indicates that “Dong” is first tone and “Hwa” is second tone. There is something elegant about this system, despite the fact that it has never been widely used. The system is still popular among many Taiwanese academics. I know of at least three highly erudite people in Taiwan who spell their own name using Gwoyeu Romatzyh. I suspect it has some of the appeal of Tongyong Pinyin, in that it is both modern and yet unique. In some ways, it would be the ideal phonetic system for Taiwan since it is much easier to make a case for its superiority over Hanyu Pinyin due to the way tones are encoded in the spelling. However that same feature also makes it a difficult system to learn and probably accounts for its lack of popularity.
I suspect that people prefer not having the tones encoded in the spelling for a reason. While it does help with reading, recalling the tone of each word when writing can prove difficult. Even for words I know how to pronounce correctly when speaking, I’d be hard pressed to tell you want the correct tone is without saying it to myself a few times.
Well, now I can rest easy at night knowing the answer to the strange spelling of my university’s name, and you can rest easy knowing that problems like this never keep you up at night.
BTW: In case you were wondering, National Chengchi University uses Postal System Pinyin, which is fairly common for older universities. It is interesting that Dong Hwa, which is only about twelve years old, should have picked a system that was already outdated at the time.