Friday, May 11, 2018

The Real Taiwan Miracle

Look to the heavens, girl. You own half the sky or more.

I'll try to keep this short (for me) and sweet.

In my last post, I wrote about how hewing to outdated notions of women in Taiwan - "this is how it works in Asia", that sort of thing - leads to overgeneralizing about how gender roles really play out here.

In the days since, I've been mulling over the historical contexts behind the evolution of gender roles in East Asia. And I realized that what Taiwan has pulled off vis-a-vis women is nothing short of a miracle, if you look at it in a certain light. Asia is not a bastion of women's equality, but of all countries of Asia, I still contend that despite its problems, Taiwan is the best place on the continent to be a woman. How is it that Taiwan managed this, given its history?

For most of the 19th century, Taiwan was an underdeveloped and mostly ignored backwater, a far-flung defensive outpost. It would not be remiss to call it a colony of the Qing. Whatever liberal or revolutionary ideas might have been discussed among intellectuals - and I'm not sure much was before 1895 though I'd surmise that liberal ideas were not unheard-of - they didn't seem to have made it to Taiwan in any meaningful sense. (If I'm wrong about this, please correct me.)

As I noted in my previous post, the ideas that drove the feminist discourse of autonomous women's groups in Taiwan during the brief period when freedom of expression was tolerated under the Japanese came mostly from elite Taiwanese women studying in China and Japan. Therefore, feminist discourse clearly existed there.

However, Japan attempted to keep Taiwan under-educated: universities here preferred to admit Japanese students, and for much of the Japanese era, most Taiwanese never moved beyond a junior high school education, if not less. Some Taiwanese intellectuals did break this mold, but Japan remained a scholarly epicenter.

(That said, Japan did make an effort to establish schools teaching literacy and numeracy to Taiwanese, so despite the relatively low level of education in Taiwan as compared to Japan, it was still one of the more literate parts of Asia. Yet, to quote Jonathan Manthorpe in Forbidden Nation, the Japanese certainly did not want Taiwanese to "cultivate ideas of their own". This is what I mean by 'under-educated'.)

At the end of World War II, Japan would leave Taiwan and go on to rebuild a developed economy as well as a new era of liberal democracy following Western models. In China, this would be a time when Communism's emphasis on equality - including gender equality - would usher in a (temporarily) more egalitarian society for women.

What was happening in Taiwan? Brutal dictatorship. Autonomous women's groups, like all other social activist groups, were not allowed to form. Government-affiliated women's groups espoused traditional gender roles (though not necessarily condemning women working outside the home, these groups viewed women's income as secondary to her family duties and her husband's role as provider), headed by sexist-in-chief, Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan had neither the Communist egalitarian ideals nor the boost of liberal democracy to guide it toward greater gender equality.

Taiwan did develop - thanks to the hard work of its small-and-medium-size business owners (not KMT prescience, as some would have you believe). Of course, much of that work was done by women, who worked in 'home factories', did other jobs or helped run the family business. However, these women have gone mostly unthanked for their role in Taiwan's economic miracle.

So, of these three countries - China, Japan and Taiwan - you would expect that China and Japan would be years ahead of Taiwan when it comes to women in society. Taiwan just didn't have the same indicators.

And yet, what do we have today? Various strains of feminism exist in China and Japan, but neither can compare to the relatively better status of women in Taiwan. Taiwan is not perfect; it's rife with problems pertaining to gender and society, just like any other country. However, it doesn't have to contend with problems as bad as this (though the gender ratio in Taiwan still raises questionsthisthisthisthisthis, or this (for that last one, while it would not shock me to learn that 'maternity harassment' happens occasionally in Taiwan, I have not heard of it being the norm.) Nobody is talking about how Tsainomics or Manomics "failed women", how Taiwan is "the worst of all developed countries for women", or recruitment ads for tech companies where female employees pole dance to entice men to apply. When talking about marital statistics, the issue isn't a gender ratio imbalance so much as women choosing not to marry.

That's the real Taiwan miracle - ignored, underdeveloped, at times barred from seeking higher education, brutally oppressed, sexist "traditional Chinese" thought piggybacking on KMT campaigns to Sinicize (and subjugate) the island, diplomatically isolated, seen as a backwater for much of its history (though not now). And yet, Taiwan has managed to do better by women than either China or Japan, which had much better odds.

I might explore some reasons for this in a future post, but for now, I just want y'all to ruminate on that.


Agnieszka Tracz said...

Very interesting concept!

TCasanova said...

This is something that has been in dire need of scholarly research. Thanks for writing up on this.