Friday, 28 February 2014

The Embassy of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the Holy See

A few weeks ago, I posted on my Facebook page a picture of the embassy of the Republic of China to the Vatican (Holy See), which got more likes and viewers than I'd expected. So I decided to write a short blog post about this, in which I will show you the location of the embassy and briefly talk about the history of the relations between the Vatican and the Republic of China.

The Vatican is the only state in Europe that still recognises the Republic of China and not the People's Republic of China. As a consequence, Rome is the only city in the world where you can walk from the embassy of the People's Republic of China (PRC) to the embassy of the Republic of China (ROC). The first is in Italian territory (Italy recognises the PRC but not the ROC), while the latter is in Vatican territory (the Vatican recognises the ROC, but not the PRC). Rome is the only place on earth where the ambassador of the ROC and the ambassador of the PRC could bump into each other on the street, dine in the same restaurant, or have a drink in the same club or cafe'. I was thinking that perhaps they might even make friends with each other without knowing who they really are; but given the East Asian habit of showing each other visit cards, I doubt whether this would ever happen.

The Vatican is a unique case among the world's states. It is an enclave within Rome, with no borders and no own currency (the Vatican uses the Euro). Therefore, despite having its own administration, passports, and police force, the Vatican is in all respects a piece of Rome. 

Since I am in Rome now, I decided to go and take a look at the embassy of the ROC. Before going to Taiwan, I had never paid attention to it. But after living in Taiwan for a while, I was glad to see the flag of the ROC publicly displayed in my own country and in Europe. In most other cities, using the ROC flag would undoubtedly trigger official protests from Beijing.  

Rome is also the only place in Europe where the President of the ROC enjoys the status of a world leader. For instance, on March 20, 2013, ROC President Ma Yingjiu (馬英九) and his wife Zhou Meiqing (周美青) attended the inauguration ceremony of Pope Francis (note). Judging by his smiles, Ma must have found pleasure in such a rare occasion, when he could be a statesman among equals and sit next to Angela Merkel or Joe Biden.

The ROC Embassy to the Holy See

Since I have got used to seeing the ROC belittled and neglected, I thought that the ROC embassy would be in some small alley, hidden from the sight of passers-by. But in fact, it is located in the very heart of Rome, in Via della Conciliazione. This monumental boulevard, built between the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s, is a prestigious thoroughfare that leads from the Tiber river directly to St. Peter's Square. 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Sexuality in Taiwan and the Objectification of the Female Body

As I have mentioned in my previous post, we cannot understand the peculiar - mostly negative - way in which the Taiwanese public perceives women who go clubbing, if we do not examine the historical development of the position and self-perception of women in the Chinese-speaking world. In this post, I would like to attempt a very brief analysis of this issue.

In traditional Chinese society, women enjoyed a low position in the familial hierarchy, which was structured on the basis of inequality: the older came before the younger, the male came before the female. Therefore, in traditional Chinese families there was a distinction between superior, inferior and complementary social roles (see Lang 1946, p. 24).

As Patricia B. Ebrey explains:
Confucianism, including classical and Han Confucianism, provided a view of the cosmos and social order that legitimated the Chinese patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal family system. Confucian emphasis on obligations to patrilineal ancestors and Confucian exaltation of filial piety contributed to a moral order in which families were central to human identity and to a family system organized hierarchically so that men and older generations had considerable power over women and younger generations (Ebrey 2003, pp. 11-12).

That the Taiwanese family did not differ much from the general social pattern in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world, has been documented by scholars such as Margery Wolf (see for example: The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Family).

The result of this Confucian worldview was that the woman existed as a function of the man's filial piety, or otherwise as a function of the man's desire for pleasure. 

The family system of China was organised around the kinship and lineage of men. The patrilineal principle, the worship of the male ancestral line in a lineage hall, was instrumental in controlling women, their social roles and sexuality ... 
Implicit in the traditional status of women in the patriarchal family system was that their position, because of cultural and religious beliefs, was comparable to that of an 'outsider'. Family interest might thus dictate and justify the sacrifice of a female member, including her disposal in a commercial transaction ... (Maria Jaschok / Suzanne Miers [edit.]: Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude and Escape1994, p. 80).

Therefore, the woman's social role was either that of the filial daughter, wife and mother who helped the man fulfill his own filial duties by serving his parents and bearing him male heirs. Or she lived as a courtesan, outside of the family system, but often striving to enter it. 

This attitude towards women is well documented and has partly survived until recent times, and in some respects even until today. For instance, Margery Wolf wrote about the problem of young women sent out to work as prostitutes in 1960s Taiwan. These women would be regarded as particularly filial, for they repaid their debt to their parents "more completely than other young women” (see Susan Mann: Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History 2012, chapter 2).

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Taiwan's Nightlife and Male Chauvinism

A recent article by the popular Taiwanese tabloid Apple Daily reveals a dark side of the island's nightlife: the phenomenon of men who sexually assault drunk women.

I myself witnessed something that did not but could have ended in sexual assault. I was in a club in Taipei (it was the first of the only two times I've been to a club here) and there was a girl whom I couldn't help noticing, not only because she was very young and pretty, but also because I saw her kissing at least six men, one of whom was way older than herself. The problem is that she was obviously completely drunk; so drunk that she could barely stand on her feet. Some guys approached her, told her something, and then began groping her. I don't know if she was consenting, or if she simply did not understand what was going on. 

This article is particularly interesting because, for once, it does not serve the stereotype of the bad Western guy who goes to Taiwan to find easy girls in nightclubs, but it focuses on the native population, openly referring to male chauvinism (男性沙文主義). This shows that the phenomenon of nightlife and the ambiguous way in which it is perceived by the public is a reflection of deeper social concerns. The topic of nightlife and female behaviour seems to stimulate the imagination of Taiwanese in a manner that transcends the issue of Westerners vs locals.

Advertisement of a nightclub in Taipei. You don't need to be a genius to understand how they are consciously objectifying and playing with female sexuality.

I've lived in Taiwan for more than a year and a half, and I often planned to write a post about Taiwan's nightlife. But I never went beyond the first couple of lines. I simply cannot make sense of it. What I know is that - like many other foreigners - I too feel a morbid and strange fascination for it but cannot entirely explain it to myself.  

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sun Yat-sen Memorial House in Taipei

Just a few metres away from Taipei Main Station there stands an interesting building which is easy to overlook in the urban jungle of the city. Surrounded by whitewashed walls and by a small park, it is a prominent Japanese-style construction that differs markedly from the prevailing modern architecture of the area. It is the so-called Sun Yat-sen Memorial House, which is a fascinating testimony to the history of Taiwan and the complex relationship between Taiwan and China. 

Sun Yat-sen Memorial House was originally built by the Japanese during their colonial rule on the island (1895-1945) and it served as a high-class hotel; it was the most exclusive and elegant guesthouse in the neighbourhood. Its guests were mostly visiting Japanese government officials, but also the Japanese governor-general, who used to hold banquets there (see Zhuang Zhanpeng et al.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lvyou. Taipei 2000, p. 123). 

The name of the hotel was at that time Umeyashiki (梅屋敷). The characters 屋敷 (pronounced yashiki) in Japanese describe an upper class hotel, while the character 梅 (pronounced méi in Chinese and ume in Japanese) means 'plum'. Therefore, the name of the hotel can be translated as 'Plum Mansion'. 

You have to take off your shoes before going inside, according
to the Japanese custom. Slippers are provided.

But what does a Japanese colonial guesthouse have to do with Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese nationalist and father of modern Chinese revolutionary movements?

During his long career as a revolutionary and then as the leader of the Guomindang, Sun Yat-sen travelled to many places in order to learn things that could be useful for his political project and also to spread his message throughout the world. Moreover, he was often forced to leave China when he suffered defeats. 

Sun Yat-sen

In March 1913 Sun Yat-sen's party, the Guomindang, won the majority of the seats in the National Assembly, the parliament of the fledgling Republic of China. But the second President of the Republic, general Yuan Shikai, was scheming to overthrow the democratic government and make himself new emperor of China. He launched a terror campaign against the powerful Guomindang, in which thousands of its members and supporters were killed (Taylor 2009, p. 26). The two major leaders of the party, Sun Yat-sen himself and the young Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Japan (ibid., p. 27).

Sun Yat-sen did not go to Japan directly, but via the Japanese colony of Taiwan. For one night, he stayed at the renowned Hotel Umeyashiki (Zhuang et al. 2000, p. 123). This was Sun's second visit to Taiwan, the first being in 1900. He travelled to the island two more times, in 1918 and 1924 (ibid.). 

Over thirty years later, the Guomindang, now led by his disciple Chiang Kai-shek, lost the civil war against Mao Zedong's Communists and was forced to flee China. The government of the Republic of China was relocated to Taiwan, where it still survives. In the Guomindang regime, Sun Yat-sen and his ideology, the Three Principle's of the People, played a paramount role. Sun was revered as the founding father of the Republic, he and his thought were central to the identity and self-assigned mission of the party (see also Harrison 2007). It is therefore not surprising that all places more or less remotely connected with Sun Yat-sen were treated like sacred Republican symbols. 

However, as the first Chinese nationalist leader and revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen is revered by both the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party. It is no coincidence that during his recent historical government-to-government visit in mainland China, Wang Yu-chi, Taiwan's mainland affairs chief, had an official trip to Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Nanjing

As blogger seems to be unable to load the website when I post too many pictures, I uploaded them on my Facebook page. If you want to see more photos of the nice memorial house and the park, just click here

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Taipei Futai Street Mansion (撫臺街洋樓)

While at first sight the area around Taipei Main Station may seem modern and of little historical interest, if you take a closer look at the facades you will discover surprising remnants of the urban landscape of Japanese colonial Taipei. 

A few days ago I was walking from North Gate along Yanping Road, one of the most historic parts of the city. The appearance of the street seems to conceal its significance. After the Guomindang's retreat to Taiwan, Taipei became the provisional capital of the Republic of China. As the economy of the island and the population of Taipei grew fast, new buildings inevitably sprang up everywhere, and the old ones were often sacrificed. However, sandwiched between new grey constructions one still finds houses and shops from the Japanese era. One of them is Taipei Futai Street Mansion.

Taipei Futai Street Mansion

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

5 Unusual Things That Greece and Taiwan Have in Common

Greece and Taiwan are two places that seem to be totally different. I think that no one I know has ever used the names of these two countries in the same sentence. They indeed appear to have nothing in common. Taiwan is an island with around 23 million people, located in Asia and with a population mostly made up of Han Chinese. Greece is a peninsula, in the Mediterranean Sea, and it has just around 11 million inhabitants. Its culture is a mix of ancient Greek elements, Christian civilisation and Balkan culture.

Nevertheless, the first time I went to Taiwan my first impression was: "Hey, this place looks like Greece!" Over time, I noticed some weird similarities between the two countries, some of which are entirely subjective and perhaps make no sense at all. However, I decided to list them off in this post.

1- Streets and Buildings:

Before going to Taipei I had expected to find clean streets, neat houses, traditional architecture or super modern glittering buildings. But while I sat on the bus from the airport to main station and looked outside the window, what I saw were mostly small buildings, narrow pavements, and loggias. The buildings didn't look very clean, or particularly homogeneous in their shape. The whole thing looked quite similar to Greece's capital Athens. Here, too, there is a concrete jungle of rather short buildings, a little bit shabby, and long loggias, and the pavements and streets are also full of cars and scooters. Of course, I am talking about certain residential areas of Taipei and Athens, mostly built either before WWII or in the following two-three decades. 

Let me show you a few pictures of Taipei (one of them is of Danshui):

Friday, 7 February 2014

Religious Beliefs and Superstition in Taiwan

Die Wahrsagerin ("The Fortune Teller"). By an
unknown German painter (source: Wikipedia)
A few weeks ago I was watching an Italian news channel. I was not paying much attention to it, until the anchorman introduced a report: "Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the number of Italians resorting to fortune-telling has increased". 

According to recent statistics, more and more Italian people take refuge to the occult as a means to overcome personal hardships. During the first six months of 2013 alone, the revenue of the fortune-telling and occult business has increased by 18,5%. Around 13 million Italians resort to fortune-telling, and the topics that interest them most are career, health, and love. These services can be very expensive, and while the crisis rages and impoverishes the population, fortune-tellers' and magicians' earnings grow: a consultation can cost around 50 euros, and a "job-finding lucky charm" up to 200 euros (note).

As I was watching this report, my mind travelled back to Taiwan, where fortune-telling is not only widespread, but it is also considered something normal. In fact, it is part of many temples' religious practices (as I have shown in two posts, one about Xiahai Chenghuang Temple and another one about the God of Wealth), and it is resorted to by a large number of individuals. 

Fortune-telling sign inside a Metro station in Taipei

People go to fortune-tellers, astrologers, temples etc. for a number of reasons: they want to know a propitious date for marriage, for moving to a new house etc.; they want to find out if a partner is suitable; they have difficulties in life and want to know what might happen to them in the future, and so on. For the majority of Taiwanese, there seems to be nothing wrong in such practices. 

What struck me about the Italian TV report was that fortune-telling was regarded as a serious social problem, and as a superstition of ingenuous people who are ripped off by reckless exploiters of human weakness. A Taiwanese would not think this way when he or she goes to a private fortune-teller or to a temple. 

To my mind came a few books written by Western people who lived in China in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Many of them appeared to regard the Chinese as 'superstitious'. Why is it - I wondered - that these Westerners contemptuously called the Chinese superstitious, while they themselves, as Christians, believed in the supernatural? Do Christians see themselves as 'gullible' victims of exploitation when they finance the wealth of their churches through their taxes and contributions? What is the difference between Christianity and forms of folk beliefs that include fortune-telling? Though I do not like fortune-telling and I would not encourage any of my beloved ones to resort to it, I asked myself if such disdainful condemnation of divination is justified, and what are its causes.  

As I shall try to show, one of the main reasons for this negative verdict on fortune-telling and other kinds of folk beliefs lies in two characteristics that Christian communities developed over time: 1) the thousand-year-long tradition of anti-paganism; 2) the claim that the Christian faith is the only true religion. 

In the next posts, I will briefly discuss three historical periods in which Christians were confronted with a non-Christian environment, and how they reacted to it:

1) anti-paganism of the late Roman Empire
2) persecutions of non-Christian in South America by Spanish conquistadores
3) Christians in Ming and Qing dynasty China

Monday, 3 February 2014

Number of Foreign Residents and Foreign Teachers in Taiwan

How many foreigners are there in Taiwan? How many of them are from Western countries? And how many are teachers? The statistics may surprise you.

According to the National Immigration Agency of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), as to 31/12/2013 there were 525,109 legally registered foreign residents. The by far largest number of them come from the following countries:

  • Indonesia: Male 40,481; Female 151,859
  • Philippines : Male 33,688; Female 53,384
  • Thailand: Male 52,424; Female 14,341
  • Vietnam: Male 64,413; Female 57,233

The total number of foreign residents from these countries alone amounts to 467,823.

How many foreign residents from English-speaking countries are there? Here I will list off only those countries whose passport holders are usually considered by Taiwanese schools eligible for becoming English teachers without having a professional teacher's degree. These countries are: USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Lunar New Year in Taipei

I do not know how other foreigners spend Chinese New Year in Taipei, but as far as I am concerned, this year has not been much more exciting than the last (which I mentioned in another post). I think that if you have no family or girlfriend / boyfriend in Taiwan, it is quite hard to find something to do during the Spring Festival. The city seems to come to a standstill. Even some coffee shops, restaurants and Eslite bookstores are closed. 

Yesterday evening I took a walk around to see if there was something going on. I have to confess that I was quite disappointed. Perhaps I went to the wrong places; but I knew of no others. 

There was no particularly festive, special atmosphere, no excitement in the air, no happiness emanating from the people, and there were not even remarkable street decorations. How comes it that during the most important festival in Taiwan, everything seems so somber, and a veil of melancholy descends on this city? Or have I just imagined all this?

Maybe I am indeed imagining. The Spring Festival is a period for family reunions. I think of family gatherings in Taiwan as very formal, stiff parties. I have already written about what I consider to be a certain ritualism and attachment to social roles in Chinese/Taiwanese families, much of which has its roots in Confucian traditions. Family meals are occasions in which the elders discuss about the younger, and compare them: job and marriage are two of the subjects most talked about. 

Only yesterday, the Chinese newspaper The Global Times published an article about a man who passed out while on a train back to his hometown, because he learned that his parents had arranged for him a series of blind dates. This is, of course, an extreme example. But it's an extreme example of something that seems to happen in many households. Whoever among the younger has no job, no boyfriend / girlfriend, or isn't married by what is considered to be the "right" age, may face pressure. Certainly, this doesn't happen in all families. But I do imagine that it does happen in many of them, and that the filial duty to make parents proud is strong, and is keenly felt. Or am I biased?

Later in the evening I went to Xinyi District. I had a strange encounter near Taipei 101. I was about to take a picture of the building when a girl stopped and asked me: "Do you need any help?"
"No, I'm just taking some pictures," I said smiling, and I thought she'd go away. But she didn't. 
"Where are you from?" she asked. 
"I am from Italy."
There followed a series of questions, "Do you work here? How long have you lived in Taiwan? Are you here with your family?"
Whenever I didn't give her a detailed answer, she looked annoyed.
"Do you want to go and have something to drink?" she suddenly asked.
I was baffled. What could I reply? "I've come here to take pictures," I answered vaguely.
"You can come back tomorrow to take pictures," she insisted. "Taipei 101 is closed now. You should come again tomorrow morning or afternoon."
"I just want to take some pictures."
"But it's closed now, you can come tomorrow," she said, somewhat angrily. She simply wouldn't listen to what I was saying.
Then she began talking about herself: her job, her ex-boyfriend, her travels. I just hoped she'd stop at some point, but I felt she could go on for ages. 
"I think I should go now," I interrupted her. "I want to visit Longshan Temple."
"So you want to visit Longshan Temple?" She looked disappointed.
"Yes, I do."
"Can you give me your phone number?"
"Okay," I said reluctantly. I didn't want to be rude.
As we spoke she became increasingly assertive. She patted on my arm as if we were good friends, and she laughed out loud at things I said, which were not supposed to be funny. I began to feel uncomfortable and just wanted to leave as quickly as possible. But she dragged on and on. 
"Listen, I've got to go, it's getting late," I said, quite impatiently now.
"Okay. After you visit Longshan Temple, call me and we can talk. I am looking for a job in Europe, maybe you can help me."
I couldn't believe my ears.
"I think it'll be a little too late when I come back home" (it was already 10 pm).
She stared at me as if she couldn't understand my words. 
"It's not late," she said.
I realised there was no point in arguing with her at all. I put on a fake smile. "Okay."
"So, you go to Longshan Temple, then you call me, okay?"
But I saw in her eyes she sensed I was not going to do it. 
What kind of person would talk to strangers on the street, in the middle of the evening, behaving in such an intrusive, almost aggressive manner? Perhaps I am too suspicious. While in the MRT, I blocked her number.