A New Perspective on Taiwan's Identity: Doris T. Chang's "Women's Movements in Twentieth Century Taiwan"

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Friday May 08, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

In addition to its unresolved status, a second pressing issue for Taiwan is its identity. Doris T. Chang's new work, "Women's Movements in 20th Century Taiwan" addresses that issue from a totally unexpected perspective, the role of women. Dr. Richard C. Kagan, Professor Emeritus at Hamline University, shares his review of that work and its importance. Kagan cautions that the book is academic and does not directly address the issues of identity but once read, it calls for a re-evaluation and new assessment of Taiwan's feminist movements in terms of Taiwan's identity and its relations with China.

The review begins here.

For anyone interested in or even curious about the issue of Taiwan's identity or nationhood, Doris T. Chang's "Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan" is the book to read. Why?

Most books that deal with individual or identity issues concentrate on opinion polls or on the documents of international relations. Yet, identity and nationhood develop out of a social context--out of a way of living, out of a shared historical experience. In all the books I have read on Taiwan and its relationship to China, none have taken account of gender and none have researched change over time from the beginnings of the Japanese occupation in 1895, to the present.

Women, after all, are around 50% of the population. Yet their long-term historical experience is never discussed. Doris Chang's pioneer study has created a new standard for studies and understanding of Taiwan's history.

What do we learn?

  1. The history of women's movements in Taiwan--under Japanese and Nationalist Chinese rule--is qualitatively different from the experience in China.
  2. Contrary to the standard Chinese view that Japanese rule was totally oppressive and exploitative, Taiwanese women under Japanese colonialism were able initially to develop autonomous feminist movements.
  3. Under the rule of the Republic of China (1945-present), Taiwanese women were able to escape from the Confucian family ideology. One might more carefully say that they broke from the Nationalist Chinese manipulation of Chinese culture and political control over women's lives, careers, and education. However, the feminists did not use Socialist doctrines, like their sisters under Beijing's rule. Rather, they imported, assimilated, and applied Western ideologies of feminism to their own situation.
  4. One reason to read history is to discover something startling and something overlooked in our past. When people think of women in Republican China, they most often remember Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Through a life span of over 100 years, she occupied our minds as a graduate of Wellesley College, a Methodist, the wife of General Chiang Kai-shek, a spokeswomen for China in its valiant fight against Japan, and a supporter of orphanages and schools.
  5. Yet, this domination of the image of a modern Chinese woman is in our minds only. Doris Chang has given us new and significant personalities to remember and to learn from. First and foremost is the legacy of Annette Lu Hsiu-lien, an early human rights advocate for women, a political prisoner, and a Vice-President of Taiwan. Ms. Lu fought avidly for woman's rights and the democratization of Taiwan. She studied the government's twist on Confucian authoritarian and anti-feminist values.
  6. Whereas Ms. Lu was the leading political activist for women's rights, the intellectual leader was Lee Yuan-chen. This name should be added to any list of significant feminists' in Taiwan or worldwide. Ms. Lee has introduced Western feminism into Taiwan. Though radical, this introduction has been successful because it fit into previous patterns of feminist reforms. It furthered the protection of women and the support of women to live independent and generative lives.
  7. Taiwanese feminism has created a modern variation on the values of Confucianism. It has retained the respect for family, the elderly, and education. But it has removed the oppressive chains and intellectual destruction of the old Confucianism that turned women into a tool of the family or of the state.
  8. Professor Chang's last chapter on "The Autonomous Women's Movement and Feminist Discourse in the Post-Martial Law Era" is a decisive argument against the policy that Taiwan is part of China. The feminist discourse in Taiwan is actively pluralistic. The scope and varieties of the arguments, and the social movements cover an open range of issues and policies. These dialogues "applied the ethos of women's culture to international relations;" argued for greater gender liberation; and designed a reform in the relationship between labor and capital.
  9. What is key to Taiwan's feminist movement is that it has become interwoven in the island's culture, economics, international relations, and identity. In other words, it is an active participant in all arguments and policies about gender, class, national origin, and human relationships. This is an empowerment of the penetration of feminism that does not exist in China. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party would never allow such a forceful democratic power to compete with its political order.

If China were to absorb Taiwan, then a century of women's histories and legacies would be either eliminated or suppressed. A nation is not only built on a shared ethnicity or political identity. It is built on a shared quality of life. And in Taiwan's case, it needs to be built without discriminating against women's contribution to the cultural, social, and political lives of the community.

Richard Kagan Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus Hamline University

Doris T. Chang. "Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan"

University of Illinois Press: Champaign, IL. 2009. 248 pages. $45.00