Focus: Women and Nationalism
Zijie Yang's Response to eRenlai May Focus on 'Women and Nationalism' in which he discusses how there is differing standards in Taiwanese society's conception of Western people and people from South East Asia:
As more foreign workers and students come to Taiwan, the role of women in nationalist narratives has undergone a shift towards conservatism, so this month we want to look at how ordinary women embrace or subvert the roles provided for them in the nationalist narratives and how these imposed roles affect the way women are imagined by men, women and the mainstream media. We first hear from a woman working in a sport to which Taiwanese attach a lot of their national pride, Liu Bojun talks about her experiences as a female baseball umpire; Witek and Zijie look behind the stereotype of the betelnut industry's betelnut girls, an image perpetuated by domestic and foreign press as a lewd representation of the "local", and see instead a devout Catholic aboriginal woman running a small family business; then Wafa Ghermani looks at the shifting modes of how Taiwanese women are represented in Taiwan's national film industry as more passive in the 2000s and 2010s in contrast to the stronger female role-models of the 1980s and 1990s; Conor has translated a short story from renowned short story writer and cultural critic, Lolita Hu, which gives us an unfamiliar perspective on the familiar scene of Western guys and Chinese girls meeting in a Beijing Night Club; the nationalist undertones that lie behind the term Xicanmei (referring to Asian girls who date Western guys) are explored in a conversation with several Taiwanese girls and a Western man, highlighting the term's function in undermining female identity; the lead singer of Taiwanese band 'The White Eyes' describes her experience as an unconventional female role model, and the fight against being side-lined as more woman than musician; Finally, Daniel has written two articles, one concerning the recent candicacy of Tsai Ing-wen for president, and the second about his perceptions of a gender imbalance in Taiwan and the reasons for this.
In the Zhonghe district of New Taipei City, just before the Xiu Lang Bridge on the road to Xindian, at 21 Jingping Road is the Amis Betelnut Stall, run by Mrs Yang and her family - three Amis aboriginal women. Mrs Yang's daughter, who studies at the English Department of Soo Chow University, takes the morning shift from 5am until 10am; afterwards Mrs Yang's niece works from 10am until 10pm, and then Mrs Yang works from 10pm until 1 in the morning, when they close.
"We were able to bring up two children thanks to this shop." Mrs Yang tells us. Unlike the infamous "betelnut girls" who dress up provocatively and that are so often reported in domestic and foreign media, the betelnut stalls around here are all small family businesses. Although Yang's betelnut stall is run exclusively by women, it's aura is not one of lewd eroticism. There are two kinds of betelnut stall, one is the kind with neon lights, for which "betelnut girls" are the main attraction, the other kind is the more simple traditional betelnut stalls. Mrs Yang continued, "Here you don't need betelnut girls, in reality there are so many betelnut stores here that even if you do hire a Betelnut girl it's not much use, what sells here is the unique flavour."
Mrs Yang is a devout Catholic, in the display window of the stall you can even see pictures of Jesus. She told us that at Easter she came to mass at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in the Tien Educational Centre. When we arrived, the girl minding the shop took out some chairs and asked us to sit, as this is a gathering place for the aboriginal community of the city, whenever they get off work they normally come for a drink and a chat.
"My finger wrapped betelnut until I developed a work-related strain in it." Mrs Yang says as she points at her finger. Her niece wraps all the betelnuts now, because of repetitive strain of wrapping, so her finger has swollen. Every day the stall wraps 2000 betelnuts, this kind of work isn't as easy as it looks. To keep customers they have to open every day, "If we don't open, customers will go elsewhere and get used to going there, so we'll lose all our business.
Text by Zijie Yang, translated by Conor Stuart, photos by Witold Chudy
The controversial lead singer of 'White Eyes' (from the Chinese meaning someone who doesn't respect the other people's face), Gao Xiao-Gao talked to eRenlai about her experiences touring in Texas, U.S. as well as discussing her resistance to the certain monikers pressed on her by the Taiwanese media, like 'girl group', as well as the demand by audiences for her to stick to the 'screaming banshee' style which she started out with:
Photo courtesy of The White Eyes
The White Eyes are performing at Zhizou Cafe in Taipei on Saturday May 12. More info soon.
A song "Dead Boy" by The White Eyes
Standing on the top of the Temple of Baseball
Liu Baijun, 33 years old, a baseball umpire (7 years of experience).
I am not the first female umpire in Taiwan, I am however the first and only woman to be an umpire-in-chief in a national game. I am a born fan of this sport; you could say that I grew up on a baseball field. I also considered joining a junior baseball team, but because I could communicate with ghosts when I was young, people would come to me for fortune-telling. At that time I was predominantly occupied with these sorts of things, you can say I was working in a “religion services industry”.
After missing the opportunity to join a junior team, also because I entered a regular education system, I never joined any baseball team. Nevertheless, my affection for baseball continued and I often played it with friends or went to the games. Especially when I was in university, I participated in different activities such as organizing baseball recreation camps, taking kids to play baseball, taking an interest in little league activities, etc. After university I started working as an interpreter for a foreign baseball team.
In my life as a baseball fan, there were several judgement calls that I couldn’t bear to see and I wished I was the umpire myself, so that there wouldn’t be any of those unreasonable calls. I also loved baseball so much that I would think of any possible way to get to stay on the field. As far as I was concerned, other than becoming a baseball coach or a player, umpire is the position that would allow me to be closest to the field.
Challenging the Gender Barrier
In order to obtain a basic C-level baseball umpire certification I participated in umpire camp. Following that, I still had to be involved as an intern in ten games before I finally got my license. After I signed up, someone would come every hour to “encourage” me: ‘women are really not suited to be umpires’, ‘after you pass the test, just go to be a note taker’. Someone even told me not to participate in the test at all, as even after passing it, it would be absolutely unlikely that anyone would hire a female umpire, there would be no one to take me as an apprentice.
In 2005 I smoothly obtained a certification. Hong Suming, at the time the Head of Taipei Baseball Umpire Committee, assigned me to a fixed position as a base umpire at a B-League baseball team for a period of time. As soon as I started, a senior warned me in a very clear manner that no one will take a chair on which I have sat before and that I absolutely cannot touch their stuff. Normally after serving as a base umpire, we could practice being a chief umpire. My colleagues in the same stage of training as me could work as chief umpire only after 10 games or so as base umpires. I, however, had to work as a base umpire for more than a hundred games, which is over a year, before I finally got a chance to work the plate, and still I was actively helped by Hong Suming.
Now I have met the training standards of American umpire schools and I am an international umpire. However, even very recently, while serving as an interpreter to umpire-in-chief in some game, when I helped to rub wax off the ball before the match, I heard someone shouting at me: “Woman, don’t touch the balls!”
Edited and Translated by Witold Chudy
Peripheral female characters
In recent success, such as Monga (Doze Niu, 2010) or Winds of September (Tom Shu-yu Lin, 2008), being narratives about male friendship, female parts are naturally reduced to vague shadows amongst a male dominated cast. They are objects of desire and competition, a way of asserting manhood but do not exist in and for themselves. They have a part as a peripheral narrative device. In Winds of September, the female classmates are seen from afar, outside the boys-circle. The male group is disturbed when one of them decides to be with a girl. Yen is the only one who has a girl–friend but their relationship is portrayed as not very successful. The film plays between the warm complicity between the guys (swimming together, going out on motorbike rides) and the disruption of female characters to this complicity. Thus, Winds of September and Monga articulate their narration around troubles caused by girls – those they steal from one another in particular. In Monga, the role of the young prostitute is concretely peripheral, as she is reduced to the space of the room which she occupies and seems to be meant only to introduce a hint of heterosexuality in a film haunted by a blatant homoeroticism. But the moments Mosquito shares with her in her confined space are also the only moments when Mosquito can escape the violence of the group. In these cases, female characters only exist as outcasts, as symbols of innocence and danger. This projection turns female characters into ghostly presences with no real substance.
The only recent film that plays with this peripheral aspect is You’re the Apple of My Eye, indeed by adopting the narrator's point of view, the film endorses the young hero's gaze on his classmate. She, herself is deprived of an existence outside the hero's gaze but she is both peripheral and central to the narration. This narrative stance allows the main character to create an ideal female who still escapes his understanding. The film establishes a distance and a game between the external image of the heroine, and the life of the hero. Whilst the heroine is seen as a smooth surface without any real desire or lust, the male character is shown with an overactive body. The heroine is seen, described, talked about but does not have a direct active role in the narration. Still the female character remains someone alive, in opposition to many ghostly characters
Dissolution of the stereotype
If, male centred narration projects a passive image of women, female oriented narrative tends to do exactly the same thing. Indeed, the beauty ideal of skinniness and whiteness as promoted in advertisements and films leads to a dilution of female characters into pure ethereal images. The most striking example is the transformation of Kui Lun-Mei who starred first as a strong tom-boy character in Blue Gate Crossing and who is now mostly cast to perform skinny, white and nearly boneless characters. In Taipei Exchange, she represents an immature heroine, with childish expressions, ideals and relationships. Flesh seems to be completely absent in her relationship with the pilot. The choice of actresses is very important in this trend, most of them are extremely skinny, with long hair and a very white skin, which make them look more like ghosts than human beings. Moreover, their characters are also very soft and shy most of the time. The heroine of Honey Pupu is more defined by her voice than her body and in One Day, the relationship between the two main characters is lit in a slight overexposure which makes it seem a little unreal. The exception of Nikky Hsie's part as a demonic, destructive prostitute in Honey Pupu is only a characterisation of her virtual persona. She represents flesh and sexiness in her attire and attitude but is the evil character of the group. Feminine desire seems to be banned and condemned and her character only gains positivity when she is discovered to be pregnant. The choice of being less commercial entails primarily avoiding this physcial stereotype. In Seven Days in Heaven the female character is somehow comic in a tragic situation, her indifference to the burial process seems to emphasize theemptiness of her life.
Becoming the Body: Blow Fish and Yang Yang
In Blow Fish, the director and the screenwriter/actress distort the classical representation of heroines in films. The film starts with a training session in a department store, the heroine is just another white, nameless, transparent puppet in the great commercial mechanism. But when she escapes to the countryside and invites herself to stay at the coach's house, she loses her inconsistency and gains a body. Even if she remains silent, she imposes her will on the coach. The white skinny body and the silent attitude are turned into a demanding and active body that creates a strange effect. It could be argued that the film is more like a fantasy story and not realistic at all.
So in a more realistic representation, Yang Yang is more like a bildungsroman following the emancipation of an athlete. As in Miao Miao in which Sandra Pinna/ Zhang Rong Rong's vitality is contrasted with effeminacy, in Yang Yang, she is pure movement, a desiring body and an energy that becomes a real presence. The film follows her closely, capturing a body and a personality in transition. In the film Yang Yang is central and is the one making her own decisions about her life and her sexuality. The choice of the director to choose a sport professional also adds to this idea of a more active role. The last long shot of the film following Yang Yang as she runs – a clear reference to Truffaut – also conveys the resilient strength of the heroine being something other than just an image – she becomes an actress.
In some few exceptions, women characters are adults and as a consequence this changes the perception of them. The same happens in Seven Days in Heaven in which young characters are secondary and older characters more important. Still in this film the character of the daughter is a quite hard to grasp. Focusing on adults, the film avoids the stereotypes on youngsters and female characters stands out with their strong personality and comical qualities. They also represent – the daughter, the funeral specialist, the absent daughter and the nurse – examples of independent and successful women
Except for these few examples, Taiwan cinema in recent years has not been a female character role provider except for perpetuating an ideal of softness that reminds us of the ideal character depicted in 1970s films.
As a teacher in Taipei, I am often shocked by how many boys there are in my classes, particularly when compared with the number of girls. The first few times I thought it was coincidence, but after teaching in many different schools, I came to realise there was a bit of a pattern. Roughly two thirds of the students overall were boys.
On realizing this I wondered whether this could simply be explained by the fact that parents try to give their boys a better education than their girls, but that didn’t seem to be the case since, when I asked the boys, they said that their sisters all went to cram schools too.
I stumbled upon the more likely reason for the skewed numbers purely by accident. Upon taking a new class, I asked the students about their families. I found that almost all the girls had younger brothers, but not older brothers. When it came to boys, they often had an older sister, although it wasn’t as common as the girls having a younger brother. From then on, I made a point to ask the girls, and was very surprised to see that, if a girl said she had siblings, I could guess that it was a younger brother and be right almost every time.
It is no secret that in traditional Chinese culture, boys are preferred to girls. There are various reasons for this. Traditionally, boys were more useful for doing manual labour and therefore could be put to practical use more often. The other main reasons are spiritual and cultural in origin. The Chinese believe that only sons are capable of making small offerings to their deceased ancestors during festivals such as Tomb Sweeping Day, and therefore the parents in a family without male children would be uncared for in the afterlife, since they would be unable to receive offerings.
The cultural reason for the preference of boys is much more complicated to analyse from a foreign perspective than the two reasons above. It has to do with the concept of what we could call “outside versus inside” in Chinese culture. To simplify massively, the Chinese have traditionally seen anybody inside their family unit as insiders, people to be cared for. Those outside the unit are outsiders, and while they might still be befriended and relied upon, they never quite qualify as family. The issues derived from this thought are twofold. First, when a girl marries, she becomes a part of the other family, and becomes an “outsider”. She becomes part of the husband’s family group. Thus, a female daughter is often seen as a temporary member of the family, whereas a son will always be a part of it. The second problem is that girls don’t carry on the family surname, which is passed on through males. Therefore, the only way to guarantee one’s lineage, which is of utmost importance to the Chinese family, is to have a son. Interestingly enough, it is believed that prior to the Shang dynasty, Chinese passed on their surnames in a matrilineal fashion, through the female line of the family instead of the male. The fact that the character for surname, 姓, includes the radical 女 , meaning woman, further supports this. Why, then, is the modern concept of surname so intrinsically linked with boys？
So, how exactly is this related to my introduction about the demographics of school classes? It’s quite simple really. The reason for almost all the girls having a younger brother is that, if the families don’t get a son the first time around, they will try again, whereas if they do have a son, the majority will stop having children, due to the expensive costs of raising a child (made even more expensive in Taiwan because of certain traditions regarding the mother after giving birth).
This leads us into the main point of this article. What to do, say, when you have a daughter first, and then conceive another daughter? This poses quite a dilemma for most families. Going for a third child could be a possibility, but the economic cost would be a severe burden and there is still no guarantee that it would be a boy. Traditionally, there was no way of knowing the gender of the baby before birth, so the ancient Chinese used several methods that they believed would influence the gender. An offering of flowers to the goddess Mazu was believed to change the gender of a baby from a girl to a boy. Similarly, removing the nails on a deceased relative’s coffin (previously loosened or unscrewed) with one’s teeth, a predominantly Hakka tradition, was believed to encourage masculine births, because the pronunciation for "lick nail" sounds similar to "add son" in both Hakka and Mandarin Chinese. Finally, it was also believed to be possible to influence the sex of the baby by eating certain foods the week before it was due, which varied depending on what sex was desired. These traditions are all still put into practice today.
Unfortunately, nowadays, couples faced with the problem of not conceiving a boy have an “easy” solution: having an abortion as soon as the sex of the baby is known. This is by no means just a problem in Taiwan, but is also all too common a problem in China and India, as well as a minor issue in a few other countries. Aside from the obvious ethical dilemma, it is extremely irresponsible from a demographic point of view.
The current ratio of boys to girls born in China is estimated to be around 120 boys to 100 girls. The world sex ratio at birth is usually estimated at 105 boys to 100 girls, and in any given country, anywhere between 101 to 107 boys per 100 girls is deemed acceptable and normal. Taking this into account, we can appreciate just how extraordinary the Chinese sex ratio at birth is. While Taiwan’s ratio is likely significantly lower, due mainly to the lack of state family planning policies, this is still a huge problem. Eventually, when all these children grow up, how will they be able to find spouses of their own? Sure, the ones that can afford to move abroad might consider that option, but for a large amount, there will be very little hope of finding a wife. The irony of this is that the main reason for wanting boys in the first place is to carry on the family name. If those boys have no girls to form a family with, then the family name is doomed anyway, after only one generation.
Photo by Hubert Kilian
The problem with selective abortions is it’s very hard to determine the exact reason why a family might want to abort. In China, it is now illegal to scan for the sex of the baby before it is born, but there is a whole black market built upon illegal gender scanning. These kinds of policies are clearly not enough. In Taiwan and in China, what is needed is a general shift in the perception of girls’ value in society. In Taiwan, a country where women have the same rights as men and are capable of holding just as high positions and having similar opportunities to succeed, what sense does it make for a family to deny their daughter the chance of proving just how great she could be based on family name? This is one of the prejudices that need to change if women are to be treated as equal to men.
Currently, it is all the rage to talk about terms such as Renewable Energy, Sustainable Development, and a long list of etc. This is exactly what societies with heavy discrimination against baby girls need to practice: “Renewable Birth” and “Sustainable Demographics”. People need to realise that the effects of what they are doing will be devastating in the long run. They need to be aware that rationalizing it away as “we are only one couple doing this” is not a viable choice when everyone else is thinking the same. The governments are also at fault here and need to abandon their laissez-faire attitude in favour of a proactive approach which recognizes the gravity of the situation, with projects to increase the perceived value of women in society and economic incentives to those families that choose to have baby girls.
The saddest part of it all, for me, was seeing the effects this devaluation of women has on the little themselves, rather than in the big economic or demographic picture. I remember seeing a little girl, only five or six years old, the only one in a class of twelve students, having to walk all the way across the school to another classroom just to find other girls to play with at break time. For her it was normal, what she had always had to do to play. But this attitude, the one that sees the gender imbalance as normal, is precisely what has to change. Otherwise, in the future, the problem will become much more serious than a girl having trouble finding friends to play with.
In Taiwan I've often heard the word Xicanmei (西餐妹) bandied about —— Xicanmei literally means girls who like to eat Western food, but here it is used to mean Asian girls who date Western men—— but the term always made struck me as over-emphasizing the difference between Taiwanese people (us) and Western foreigners (them). The fact that it refers almost exclusively to women suggests also that there is a male chauvinist implication behind the term - it functions to undermine the individuality and independence of women in the choices they make in their love lives, and sees these choices instead in terms of a failure to be patriotic and marry 'into the tribe' so to speak. The term was popularized when a Taiwanese rapper wrote a song about it, the lyrics of which are anti-Western in sentiment and very critical of girls who date with foreigners. This is an extract from the song originally in Taiwanese:
'When they're not listening to ICRT [Taiwan's English Radio Station] they're looking for girls, they go round bars with a Heineken in their hand
The stuff they talk about is vulgar and shallow, they're all talking about Dog-G's new album.
One of my friends is dating a big-nose [Taiwanese word for foreigner] She says he's a gentleman and very romantic
She thinks maybe she can get a green card and have a little foreign baby, she's at the night market buying oyster omelettes
You say that some are actually alright, I understand, they'll toss you a "ni hao" and you think it's so cute, give me a break!' (Dog-G)
Below is an interview with several women and one man who express their views on the use of this term, and its ideological implications:
(Remember to press CC in the bottom right corner for English Subs)
Illustration by C. Phiv
Dim light is cast by the dragon-head-shaped wall lights, the pulse of electro shakes the entire space, comfy sofas divide the room into different nooks and crannies for people to drink in, pink nylon and muslin hang from the ceiling to the floor, prints of hundreds of bored faces are faintly discernible upon it. It could only be the hottest spot in Beijing this weekend.
Every three months a new nightclub appears in Beijing, and everybody trips over themselves to go there. The nightclub will normally be in a hutong, a dilapidated courtyard style house or a factory that's about to be demolished. The same people every time scurry along to explore the new bar, they spout their cigarette smoke while telling you in lofty tones how the music in this new place is cool. After three months have passed, if it's not that the style of the music has changed, or that the building which houses the club has suddenly been demolished by the city government, then it's that it loses popularity for no particular reason whatsoever. Another bar opens, it's also housed in an old factory, a hutong, or a traditional courtyard style house, wherever it may be, it always sounds incredibly cool.
Everyone vies with one another to be the first to spread the news. Then, at the new bar you meet the same familiar faces who recommended the old bar to you so enthusiastically.
When someone mentions the old bar, it's as if they're talking about a has-been celebrity. It's so passé, they say. I don't even know why it was so popular in the first place, it's only logical that it's become as out of fashion as it should have been in the first place.
It's Friday night at 2am at the hottest bar of this couple of months, situated in the Sanlitun area. She has drunk quite a lot, but she's still quite sober. She came with a friend who had a song twenty years ago which was popular throughout the whole of Beijing but who never followed it up with any other songs, when meeting a stranger he would always say "I'm so-and-so, do you want to buy me a drink?'. She would stand next to her friend, then not long after that she would ditch him, and sit down next to an immaculately dressed foreigner.
She wants to shoot a documentary. It's only a remote dream, remoter still in China. She is a single girl from Sichuan, without any money, without work and without connections. She only has herself. She tries to write during the day, but as the evening draws near, her literary talents are not sufficient to resist the tide of loneliness, she recruits a few friends to go drinking with her. Her lips press closely to the foreigner's ears as she whispers to him, what should I do, tell me, what should I do. I want to shoot a documentary, but I don't have anything.
There are countless young girls just like her in Beijing. From every corner of the country they come, to study, or in search of career opportunities. Their hometown is far behind them, their imagination of themselves is the most important luggage they carry. They are young but they grow up quickly, they have a strong sexual appetite, and white jade skin, they have a baffled lost expression and a naive, homely smile. In the bar, they thirst for the kindness of strangers as flowers thirst for the rain, they'll snuggle up to any stranger who is willing to listen to their dreams. Because only outsiders are willing to take her seriously. During the day, she walks around this city of hers, that is at the same time not her own, her black haired and yellow-skinned compatriots would think at most that she was an unrealistic country girl, not willing to work despite having no money and without any professional skills, who can't even find a man to marry her. Her so-called "artistic ambitions", are nothing but an excuse for her lethargy, something she uses to fool foreigners at bars. In the end all she wants is to marry a glassy eyed, white-skinned foreigner, allowing her to escape to distant climes.
Louis Aragon, a French poet who was part of the Resistance during World War II, once said, "L'avenir de l'homme, c'est la femme" (the future of man is woman), here 'man' can be understood to mean the more general idea of 'humanity'. When society develops to its pinnacle, it will be along the road of effeminization. The status of women and the rights they are able to acquire in any society have always been the benchmark of civilization. The more esteemed the status of women and the greater the extent to which they are held as the equal of man or his superior, the more advanced a society is held to be. This is because the evolution of civilization is actually the process of society’s effeminization. Characteristics traditionally attributed to women, like peace-keeping, compromise, equality, selflessness, the ability to listen, forgiveness, concern for the education of the next generation, respect for etiquette and a love of the arts, are all particular to developed societies; on the other hand, the characteristics traditionally attributed to men carve out an image of a more primitive society, such as bellicosity, conquest, violence, ego-centrism, factionalism. Men brag about being the innovative force of progress, however, it is the care and prudence of women that stabilize a society, and articulate its cultural basis. Effeminization is equivalent to advanced civilization, it represents a maturity in both the material and spiritual realms. In an age when India has many female MPs and female business leaders, in China female CEOs and female officials are still few and far between. The rate of suicide for Chinese women is still the highest in the world.
She also came here for the music. She says this as her practiced hand unbuttons the foreign man's shirt. The guy buttons it back up. She leans close to his body and says something else. The music is too loud, no-one else hears what she says, but they see the foreigner suddenly blush. The buttons are undone again. Then buttoned back up again. Opened. Buttoned. The fourth time it happens the guy relinquishes the struggle.
It's three in the morning now, everyone is getting up to go home. As my taxi turns from the small alley on to the main road, I catch a glimpse of her locked in an embrace with the foreigner underneath a towering poplar tree.
Her face obscured in the darkness of the night.
Recently, during the run-up to the Taiwanese 2012 general election, I remember talking to a Taiwanese friend of mine, a staunch supporter of the DPP. When asking him what he thought of Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT candidate, he answered: “自我感覺良好”, which could be translated as having delusions of grandeur, high views of oneself, someone with impossible targets to meet, etc. A few days later I mentioned this same conversation to my KMT supporting friend, and she responded by laughing it off and saying that Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP candidate, was the deluded one.
Aside from what this says about modern politics, which is basically a never-ending exercise in bickering and name-calling, what my second friend said about Tsai Ing-wen got me thinking; was she really deluded? Was there ever a real chance of her becoming the first female president of Taiwan? The election results were relatively close, although the victory was still clear for the ruling KMT party. The question is, how big a role did Tsai Ing-wen’s gender play in the results? And finally, was Taiwan, a country in which a large part of women are still often fairly submissive and meek towards men, really ready for its first female president?
Taiwan’s democratic history is very recent, by any standards. Since the first election after the martial law which happened in 1996, the Taiwanese have consistently and passionately campaigned and engaged in political activity. In Taiwan, however, most elections are not won based on personalities or appearances, the votes are rather cast based on family ties to either party or on the basis of one’s attitude towards China, which is the main conflicting point of policy. This allows for, barring some scandalous event such as the DPP corruption case of 2006, significantly less fluctuation in the number of votes from election to election, which made this year’s race an uphill battle for Tsai Ing-wen. It also means it is hard to estimate how many votes she might have garnered on the basis of being a woman. This is not to say that getting to the point of being a presidential candidate and coming so close isn’t remarkable in and of itself. On the contrary, many countries with more established democracies in Europe have never had a female candidate, so it is an impressive achievement indeed and says many good things of Taiwanese society.
Tsai Ing-wen is a very intelligent and intellectual woman who brought real depth to her party and forced people to take it more seriously. Departing from the extreme populism of the past, she strived to ensure that people saw that the DPP can be structured and offer a feasible alternative to the KMT. Whereas in other countries her gender would have been a massive issue remarked on constantly, to Taiwan’s credit it wasn’t a huge point in general, and she herself never made it one of the defining characteristics of her campaign.
In a particular example of just how little focus has been given on the fact that Tsai Ing-wen is a woman, both parties condemned former DPP chairman Shih Ming-the’s comments earlier in 2011 when he claimed that Tsai Ing-wen should reveal her sexual orientation, implying that she might be gay solely based on the fact that she is single. The comments also received strong criticism from gay rights and women’s groups who were outraged by the intrusion into her private life. Certain KMT members, however, insinuated that the comments might have been a subtle tactic by the DPP to get some sympathy votes. These accusations were fervently denied by the DPP, and Tsai Ing-wen herself gracefully declined to comment. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider the possibility that the KMT might have used her gender, if not in a direct fashion, then maybe in an implied one, as a weapon to further their belief that they are the only party fit to govern the island.
This KMT belief was strengthened by the 2006 corruption case involving DPP ex-president Chen Shui-bian mentioned above, which sadly seemed to point out that this exceptional woman’s race was doomed from the start. Unfortunately, this had nothing to do with her personal campaign, and everything to do with the recent history of her party. The messy trial and corruption problems of the recent past have dynamited the people’s trust in the DPP, and made it virtually impossible to win on this occasion. Others have pointed out to me the atrocities the KMT committed during its time in command; but to the voters, the most recent event is always the most vivid, and the DPP’s betrayal of the people’s trust is still fresh in people’s minds. At the end, this has to be the biggest contributing factor to the failure of Tsai Ing-wen’s failed campaign.
To extrapolate from Tsai Ing-wen’s particular case, the status of women in Taiwanese politics is looking positive. According to a United Nation’s survey, Taiwan is the fourth country in the world, and the first in Asia, when it comes to women’s rights. For such a small country and such a recent democracy, this is a monumental achievement. Moreover, over 20% of legislators in Taiwan are female, which is why it shouldn’t be surprising to see more female politicians, such as Tsai Ing-wen, little by little taking back a part of society that is usually heavily restricted to men. Hopefully she will help open the floodgates and start a new trend in which more and more Taiwanese women actively attempt to get involved in politics.
All things considered, I believe that Tsai Ing-wen’s gender was never the issue, but she was rather a crimeless victim of her party’s past. Sadly, if she had been the candidate in 2016, she might have stood a genuine chance, for she is a likeable, smart woman who seems to have a knack for politics. Finally, though, it appears my KMT friend was right, and it seems that her dreams of being president were just illusions, never to be realized.
Photograph by David Reid