Island of Women

Mar 30, 2018 · Jenna Cody

I invite you to recall Beauty and the Beast.  One thing that does strike me, is how Belle's worming away from Gaston without ever overtly telling him to just get bent, is a perfect a cinematic metaphor for the way Taiwan deals with China.  Faced with a bully and a cohort of villagers who aid rather than stop him from tormenting her, Belle (literally "beautiful woman") deals with him the only way she can, even though she deserves much, much more than some provincial life.


Consider this: when we watch that movie, we all like to think of ourselves as sympathetic viewers. At the very least, we want to think we'd be Belle's father or the kindly village bookseller. Nobody thinks they are just another villager helping a predator corner a woman who isn't interested.

If you replace Belle with Taiwan, Gaston with China and the villagers who abet his predatory behavior with literally the rest of the world - most of whom probably aren't even aware of the role they are playing – well…


Consider this as well: when we hear about real-life cases of men treating women badly, or of women simply being ignored or their concerns dismissed - their words not even really heard let alone considered - we like to think we're "the good guys" who are "better than that", who support women, listen to them and take them seriously. Sometimes we are. Often, though, we're just a bunch of casually sexist villagers who let perpetrators get away with cruelty.


We (by "we" I mean "other countries, including the West, and liberal thinkers around the world") want to think we're doing right by women, and we want to think we're doing right by Taiwan. In fact, we're failing both, and for similar reasons - the way the West dismisses women and the way it dismisses Taiwan have a lot in common.

By Muakai Paqaliyus
                              By Muakai Paqaliyus

Women have been historically treated badly in liberal circles (and in conservative ones too, but that's a different topic), from abolitionists to the Civil Rights movement to the LGBT rights movement.


Not only are women not a small, homogenous group, it's also that the issues facing us express themselves differently depending on background and context, and connect in unexpected ways. Here's an example: to really understand what women face, you have to consider things like the relationship between the wage and achievement gap at work and sexual harassment in the workplace - two related issues that nobody seems to have put together until recently. Thinking in this way, connecting these kaleidoscopic and always-moving issues, is daunting and unappealing. It requires standing up for what is right, even if the "right" values are abstract with abstract benefits, whereas there are clear real-world incentives to stay in the good graces of the old boys' clubs.

Maybe, for a lot of people, it's just easier to be dismissive - to not listen, or pretend the problems we face don't exist. 


Liberalism has been just as unkind to Taiwan. From valuing peace over justice (especially abroad) to creating false equivalencies between divergent value systems to not even realizing that there are gaps in Western education on Taiwan to believing narratives spun by non-experts in the media, we've created a belief system that excuses and apologizes for Chinese Communist brutality and dismisses - either by explaining away or not listening to - narratives from Taiwan. After all, they're all Chinese, right? We've insisted on diversity and respect in our own countries while flattening the other half of the world into the image the Chinese government wants to promote, and we don't even realize we're doing it.

In short, we (and I say "we" because I'm a Western liberal too) treat Taiwan the way we treat women. That is, like garbage.


Thinking about Taiwan requires a similar level of abstract thought - it necessitates understanding a complex history to the ins and outs of identity among people who, from 10,000 miles away, "all look the same" to the average Westerner (though most would never admit it). It requires not only understanding KMT and CCP history, but also understanding indigenous, local, Southeast Asian and Japanese history as well as the identity issues behind home rule and de jure independence movements. It requires looking beyond economic incentives and the dominant narratives peddled by China about culture, identity, history and what is rightfully theirs. It means acknowledging that, although there is some relativity between cultures and some things that cannot be compared and ought not to be judged from a Western cultural lens, that there is also a line between right and wrong, and winning doesn't always make one right. It requires deciding to stand up for what is right even when there are clear incentives to selling Taiwan out. Abstract notions such as self-determination, self-identification, freedom and democracy may not be as straightforward as the clear world of business and trade, but their absence will manifest in very real ways if Taiwan loses this fight.

                                                                   Unravel it by Jon Renzella
              Unravel it by Jon Renzella


But money is money, and China is very loud - it's easier for a lot of people to explain away Taiwan. To dismiss it, if one is listening at all. After all, it's easy not to hear voices that are not given space to speak out by dominant narratives. 


Of course, if Taiwan is the feminine that we dismiss, ignore, ask to supplicate because it's easier than angering a large, powerful country, then of course China is masculine. And it is - it controls the narrative, it has the voice (and it just will not shut up), the muscle and the money. Not to get too Daoist because I'm not into religion, but if Taiwan is yin, China is very, very yang.

This idea of China as masculine (and dominant) and Taiwan as feminine (and ignored or unimportant) isn't a new concept. In Taiwan's Imagined Geography, Emma Teng devotes a whole chapter to conceptualizing Chinese thought as "masculine" - Confucian, patriarchal, and often consciously so - and perceptions of Taiwan as "feminine". That is, an "Island of Women" where many indigenous tribes had matriarchal, matrilineal, uxorilocal practices and often had female chiefs. This was also a common conceptual device to link Chinese culture to being morally upright, powerful, and civilized, and Taiwan to being barbaric and - although Teng doesn't say this directly - weak. 

                                                       Burnished Gaze by Dee Eleanor Wittstock
        Burnished Gaze by Dee Eleanor Wittstock



Despite a brief interlude in the worst years of the 20th century, China has more or less upheld this domineering patriarchy, this masculine hermeneutic as its driving national narrative, affecting business and politics.


Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to have leaned into feminine self-representation. Consider how China talks about itself: 5000 years, Confucian values, strong country desiring global hegemony. Now consider how Taiwan talks about itself: the beautiful island. In one of my favorite comics, China is male, the ROC is androgynous, and Formosa is a voluptuous woman. I will also point out something that struck me recently as I thought about the subtler themes in Shawna Yang Ryan's Green IslandWhile the protagonist's father (representing Taiwanese political ideology, including notions of freedom and sovereignty) was absent for a portion of the novel and never really recovered from his incarceration, her mother (representing the land of Taiwan, including home and family) was always there. It's not offhandedly that, as a young woman, that same mother quotes Du Fu, saying "國破山河在" - the country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain.


It is not a great leap to see that, despite China's talk of two sides of one family "reuniting", in fact, it wants to be the domineering patriarch, forcing Taiwan into the role of feminine supplicant. It wants to be the controlling husband to Taiwan's obedient wife.

It doesn't take much to further leap to the realization that, if China is masculine and Taiwan is feminine, the West is treating them exactly as we treat the genders. We listen to China. We give them space. We try not to upset them, and respect their feelings even when they are disingenuously upset or being blatantly unfair. We try to explain away their worst behavior. We treat them the way we treat men.


And Taiwan? We treat her as we do women: we ask her to take up less space (by literally giving her less diplomatic space). We ask her to keep China calm, to bend and contort herself - whatever it takes to keep that man happy. His happiness is key - her discomfort is not important. Whether or not it's fair doesn't matter, and the more abstract problems beneath this remain unexamined. When Taiwan tries to speak up, we get annoyed, because what she says might anger Big Man China. It's much easier if she pipes down - after all, why does she have to be such a bitch anyway? So shrill. Doesn't she see this would all be easier if she just stopped making trouble? 

China just likes you, Taiwan. He just thinks you're cute. It's a compliment, jeez, can't you take a compliment? You should smile more, Taiwan. He doesn't mean to be sexist, that's just how China is. I know, I know, but just be nice. You catch more flies with honey, Taiwan. God, Taiwan, why do you have to be so difficult? So many countries have it worse than you. Why not just give him a chance?

(American) Conservatives are just as bad about this as liberals, by the way. They are often, though not always, more pro-Taiwan than their liberal counterparts, but it has more to do with Masculine America challenging Masculine China for dominance in Asia. It's two chest-thumping men fighting over a beautiful island woman as a projection of their influence and power. Or, considered another way, their support of Taiwan is almost always translated as support of the Republic of China - just another masculine, militaristic power structure. Buddies protecting buddies. Bros before hoes. (In this metaphor, the US and the KMT are bros, local Taiwanese independence movements are the...you get the point). 

It's not about Taiwan - the feminine Formosa - at all.

We quite literally dismiss and ignore Taiwan the same way we ask women to keep quiet and push them aside.

In other words...

And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand

I want so much more than they've got planned...

misogyny women inequality China Taiwan

Jenna Cody


Jenna is a freelance teacher, writer, editor, Taiwan-watcher and postgraduate student in Taipei, Taiwan, where she has lived since 2006.