Monday, May 28, 2018

Book review: Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan


When talking about Taiwanese history, it's quite common to come across a belief that modern Taiwanese beliefs have their roots in the 1970s, and did not really exist before that. From "there was no real sense of Taiwanese identity or a Taiwanese identity movement before the 1970s/the Kaohsiung Incident" to "there is no history of feminism in Taiwan before the 1970s/before the end of the Chiang Kai-shek era" and more, it surprises me how many people truly think this is the case.

Of course, when it comes to Taiwanese identity, this is manifestly false. There are records of autonomous rule movements as early as the late 1800s, and several sources reference similar autonomous movements in the Japanese colonial era. When it comes to women's movements, the same applies. While several feminist pioneers did bring ideas of gender equality to the mainstream in the 1970s, the first stirrings of modern autonomous (that is, not connected to, supported or funded by the government) women's movements in Taiwan have their roots in the Japanese era, although there's no evidence to suggest that the 1970s feminists were directly influenced by them.

It seems to me that misrepresenting both of these movements as originating in the 1970s rather than several decades earlier is an intellectual sleight-of-hand meant to create the idea that both are new, "Western" notions that have no natural roots in Taiwanese culture or history (therefore creating a platform from which to criticize modern Taiwanese identity and feminism). In both cases, such notions are disingenuous.

This is just one of the many things I learned from Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, a slim volume (for an academic book) by Doris Chang. And, for an academic title, it reads surprisingly smoothly.

As an individualist feminist, I appreciated being challenged on the different notions of what feminism could be. I am not a relational feminist - I don't believe my equal place in society comes from the fulfilling of my different but complementary duties vis-a-vis a family or collective society - but as Chang makes clear, this is indeed a form of feminism, and one of two strands that continues to exist in Taiwan (and, arguably, the one that can strike the best compromise with traditional notions of role, duty and family in Taiwan). Chang further clarifies, however, that this is not the only strand of feminist thought present in Taiwan, as many would believe: radical feminism, woman-identified, X-centric and individual feminism also exist.

If I took one thing from this book, it's a reminder that Taiwanese society is not so simply categorized as traditional/collective/Confucian/whatever adjective you want to describe your idea about ~*~The Mystic East~*~. It's far more complex than that, and there is a place in public discourse for ideas that don't fit neatly into this narrative.

Chang makes other important points as well: for example, until fairly recently, the story of women's movements in Taiwan was once controlled by a China-centered narrative which began not in Taiwan, but with the founding of the Republic of China in, well, China. Taiwan only enters this narrative after 1945 (you can guess why), with women's history under Japanese rule being erased: non-existent, foreign or irrelevant to the story that the Sinicizers want to push.

Hmm, that sounds similar to Taiwanese national history as a whole, doesn't it? Not so different from teaching schoolchildren that their country was founded in 1911 (nevermind that that happened in China, and nothing important happened in Taiwan on that day) and then erasing Japanese era history in Taiwan to cover the Republic of China's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 instead, no?

Chang also provides short histories of notable women in the early and mid-twentieth century, and devotes entire chapters to scions of the movement such as Annette Lu and Lee Yuan-chen, showing that the only reason we believe history to be full of notable male characters but few notable women is because we've constructed it that way, not because it always happened that way.

She also discusses the ways in which autonomous women's movements differed from government-affiliated ones. You won't be surprised to learn that the Japanese and ROC-affiliated women's movements promoted not feminism, but the fulfillment of traditional gender roles (shocking, I know.) She covers Soong Mei-ling's use of women's organizations mid-century to work toward national goals with very little concern for the actual issues facing middle-class and poor Taiwanese women.

I was interested to learn about the origin of those "Model Mother Awards" as well (you won't be shocked to learn they began in the worst years of the ROC dictatorship, because doling them out supported national goals), and her touching on the ways in which women's labor helped catalyze the Taiwan Miracle, although I think she could have made that point more forcefully than she did.

And, of course, she covers the ins and outs of elitism in women's movements, the relationship of women's movements to democracy/pro-Taiwan movements, Awakening and the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation, the cooperation and rift between liberal feminists and lesbians, domestic abuse hotlines and more, finishing up with the ways in which the pioneers of the 1970s were able to really flourish (as well as separate into different groups) with the lifting of Martial Law, and the bevy of women's rights laws that were passed between the mid-1980s and the end of the 20th century.

I have one abiding criticism of Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, which is that it follows a bluer narrative than you would expect. That is not to say it doesn't criticize the KMT, the Republic of China or its leaders (it absolutely does, often viciously and entirely rightly), but that it includes certain problematic historical constructions that if anything are surprising. Here is just a taste (underlined emphasis points are mine):

In 1987, the Kuomintang lifted martial law and ushered in Taiwan's democratization. 

(No, the Kuomintang was forced by the Taiwanese to do that.)

The Dutch colonized the island....the government of the Qing dynasty incorporated Taiwan into the Chinese Empire.

You already know how I feel about this.)

With the defeat of Japan in World War II, the Allies transferred the governance of Taiwan to the Kuomintang government.

(Nope. And the KMT knew this - scroll down).

The Taiwanese duality of both sameness and with difference from mainland China has contributed to the Taiwanese people's unresolved national identity since the 1940s. 

(While identity has absolutely been a core question in Taiwan, the origin of ambiguity in Taiwan's national identity comes from colonial regimes from China - first the Qing, now the ROC - who insist on promoting a Chinese-centered national identity. If they had not pushed that point from their foreign perspectives so forcefully, Taiwanese national identity would not be in question. In fact, these days the question is mostly resolved, but the book was published in 2009 so I can forgive this.)

There are a few more examples, including many jarring uses of that horrible word "mainland", implying a territorial connection that simply isn't there - the current PRC government of China has never ruled Taiwan - but you get the point.

In any case, it was a worthwhile book if you can look beyond the odd blueness of the language used - as engaging as an academic text can be (though a bit heavy on the 'thesis statements' as though someone is grading it), full of lots of knowledge drops. Despite one or two confusing narrations of timeline (I'm still not sure when and why the New Life movement moved away from May Fourth Movement ideals and toward more traditional precepts, and the section on that did not clarify), I learned a lot and am happy I read it.

If you are not already knowledgeable about women's history in Taiwan, I recommend you do, too.

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