Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Taipei MRT Knife Attack and Taiwan's Society

Every time a crime is perpetrated, the media find themselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, they have the responsibility to spread knowledge, inform and analyse. On the other hand, they are a business that must make money out of the news they report on. They are easily tempted to speculate on the suffering and the misfortunes of people, to turn them into entertainment. 

The Taipei Metro knife attack that happened a few days ago is such a tragic and sad event that I think everyone should be careful not to use this massacre as a pretext to speculate and fabricate theories that try to explain why Zheng Jie committed that crime. The most absurd of such theories is that the Sunflower Movement made society more violent and therefore encouraged individual acts of ferocity such as Zheng Jie's. These ideas can't be taken seriously, as they completely lack evidence and are nothing more than insinuations. The murder of four people should not be used as an instrument to fight political battles. 

Another theory that has been suggested is that society is responsible for the alienation of young people like Zheng Jie. In particular, a post that went viral these days claims that Taiwan's obsession with success and the wrong attitude of parents creates a negative social atmosphere. The post was written by Chris Wang (宥勝), a Taiwanese actor, singer and writer

Do we care about Zheng Jie?” he asked in his post, wondering if it is right to condemn him as a “scum”, instead of trying to understand what led him to become violent. Chris Wang criticised the attitude of Zheng Jie's parents. 

According to Wang, despite the fact that they publicly apologised to the nation, they didn't seem to love their son very much, as they were all too ready to declare that Zheng Jie had always been a problem in the family, that he liked to play violent video games, that they felt shamed, etc.

Now, I am not interested in such supposedly psychological analyses. It is not given to us to see through the mind and soul of a person. We know neither Zheng Jie nor his parents personally. And the crime that has been committed is so atrocious that I believe we shouldn't use it as an excuse to rant about politics or society. It is the job of the police to clarify Zheng Jie's personal and psychological background and to determine why he murdered. But we shouldn't forget that he did murder. So, before starting to make him a victim or a hero, let us express our solidarity to the families of the real victims, those who have lost their lives. 



Therefore, I will skip the part of Chris Wang's argument about Zheng Jie, and focus on some of his general reflections about Taiwanese society, which I find extremely interesting.   

People familiar with Taiwan may know that many Taiwanese tend to project a positive image of the island as a friendly, kind society. “Taiwanese are nice, friendly, helpful” etc. are phrases one often hears; they are part of Taiwan's self-image. This view is often passively adopted by foreigners, as well. I am not saying that there are no nice Taiwanese; I have indeed met many people who were extremely kind to me. However, the idea that Taiwan as a whole is nice and kind is in my view entirely at odds with evidence that shows a different picture. 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Neoconfucianism and China's Internet Valentine's Day

(source: Wikipedia)
On May 20 China celebrated the so-called Internet Valentine's Day (网路情人节 / 網路情人節 pinyin: Wǎnglù Qíngrénjié). Chinese netizens believe that this day at 13:14 is the most auspicious time of the year for lovers. Those who already are in a relationship should declare their eternal love, while those who are still single have a good chance to find a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Before Internet Valentine's Day, a Chinese netizen published a post called “The 2014 New Girlfriend Criteria” (2014女友新標準 / 女友标准, pinyin: nǚyóu xīn biāozhǚn), in which he listed off the characteristics that a perfect girlfriend should have: 

her height should be between 1.62 to 1.73 and her weight between 50 and 61 kg. She should have long hair. Her nature should be gentle and soft, and she should neither drink nor smoke. She must be able to cook, she should care about others and be a filial daughter (孝順父母). She should love animals, have elegant manners, she shouldn't say bad words and not be suspicious without reason. She shouldn't check her boyfriend's mobile phone, and from time to time she should give him a little surprise. 

A girl who meets these criteria is someone worth marrying.

Does this Chinese-style male fantasy have any general cultural interest? I would say that it does.

In fact, these criteria echo a long tradition of Confucian social roles, about which I often wrote on this blog. I wonder how many Westerners living in China or Taiwan have heard with a certain feeling of surprise some of their Chinese or Taiwanese friends talk about the necessary criteria that a future husband or wife should have: tall, rich, white skin, gentle etc. It is as if one chose a partner on the basis of abstract patterns, long before meeting the actual individual they might eventually marry. 

This has to do with a specific element of traditional Confucian thought that has survived until today despite all political, social, and economic changes: the individual is subordinated to standardised social roles, hierarchies and power relations. The individual's task is to conform himself to these roles, to fulfil them and repress his individuality whenever this comes into conflict with society's expectations. 

One of the major concerns of Confucianism was indeed how to create a perfect state and a perfect society by using the family as its foundation. In this context, huge pressure was put on women so that they might dedicate their lives to repressing their individuality and committing themselves entirely to Confucian family ideology, in which they existed mainly as functions of the patrilineal family. As Kai-Wing Chow puts it in his masterful study The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China: Ethics, Classics, and Lineage Discourse:

The ritualist ethics of the Han Learning scholars in most cases served to enhance the gentry's effort to promote the ancestral cult and the cult of women's purity--two of the most important values on their cultural agenda. [They put pressure on] women to conform to the cult of women's purity. 

Purity is not to be understood in the Christian sense of the term – as many Westerners often mistakenly do. It does not make sense to interpret a non-Christian tradition by referring to the concepts of a Christian or Christian-derived system of ethics. Rather, we must understand purity in a thoroughly Confucian way, that is, from the point of view of an ideology in which women's virtue was subordinated to the requirements of filial piety and the perpetuation of the husband's family lineage. 

This ideal is best explained by the works of Zhu Xi (朱熹; 1130 – 1200), one of the most important neo-Confucian scholars (I will write a separate post about him). 
Zhu Xi saw the survival of the patrilineal family as depending from the compliance of the wife with the precepts of Confucian virtue. Zhu Xi writes:

[Taking] a daughter-in-law in marriage is to continue the family line. Some ancient people predicted whether a family would prosper or decline on the basis of the virtuous or vicious character of the daughter-in-law. The matter is of utmost importance. Should the choice be neglected? (Zhu Xi, Chapter VI).

Therefore, the choice of a wife wasn't a son's matter, but a family matter. The future wife had to meet 'the criteria' of virtue as envisioned by Confucians. She had to be docile and submissive, be able to work hard and sacrifice herself, and she had to accept her husband having other women. From the moment she was married on the meaning of her life was help maintain the prosperity, the proper hierarchies and rituals (what Chinese often call 'harmony') of her husband's family.

Zhu Xi gives an interesting examples of a virtuous woman. He quoted the Song Dynasty scholar Cheng Yi, who wrote about his own mother:

My mother was known for filial piety and respectfulness in serving her parents-in-law. She and father treated each other with full respect as guests are treated. Grateful for her help at home, father treated her with even greater reverence. But mother conducted herself with humility and obedience. Even in small matters, she never made decisions alone but always asked father before she did anything. She was humane, altruistic, liberal, and earnest. She cared for and loved the children of my father's concubines just as she did her own (Zhu Xi, Chatper VI, my emphasis)

The comparison of the respect between husband and wife and that proffered to guests shows how human relationships were viewed not in terms of mutual understanding and individual feelings, but in terms of standardised social roles and hierarchies. We see that it is expected of the mother to accept her husband's concubines. Not even the son expressed any pity for his mother's condition. This reveals that the family was not based on love in the Western sense, or on purity in its Christian meaning. 

As mentioned before, the individual was obliged to hide his true feelings and conform to social norms. This is exemplified by the following passage:

Shun served his parents well but they were on occasions still not delighted because his father was obstinate and his mother was insincere. They were absolutely unreasonable. But when parents have the nature of an average person and their love and hate do not violate principle, the son should obey them. He should do his best to entertain his parents' dear friends so as to please his parents. He should do his best to prepare for the service of his parents' guests, without figuring whether he can afford it. However, in supporting parents one must not let them know that one is straining one's effort and resources. If they should became aware of the difficulty, they would not feel happy (ibid., my emphasis).

We see that a son had to subordinate his own happiness to that of his parents. The purpose of his life was to 'serve' them, make them happy and continue the family lineage. In the West, parents-children relationship was never understood on the basis of 'service' or life-long hierarchical subordination, at least not in mainstream discourse. Therefore, a Westerner might show understanding for children who do not love parents whose behaviour is bad. 

In the given example, the author admits that Shun's parents had a bad character, although they formally complied with social norms (“their love and hate do not violate principle”). However, the son must repress his feelings and pretend. Some Westerners may view the parents who ignore their son's feelings as selfish, and the son who doesn't show his feelings as deceitful. To Chinese, on the contrary, not repressing one's feelings and not subordinating to parents is perceived as selfish. 

The perfect woman of the 2014 list of criteria is modern only on the surface. In reality, this is a Confucian ideal of a docile, submissive, filial woman, subordinated to man. The perfect woman is not a real human being, an individual with a name, a face and a soul. It is an abstract pattern, a framework, an ideal – indeed, a Confucian-style social role. 

Many Chinese women end up conforming more or less sincerely to such standards, if they feel family pressure and social pressure to get married before getting too old. In the Chinese marriage market, this understanding of social roles often leads to tensions between feelings and social expectations, which may be manipulated for individual purposes, as I will show in another post. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

An Old House in Taipei - Or Not?

It's hard to write a blog post the day after the Taipei Metro knife attack. So I decided to just upload a few pictures I took one or two days before I left Taiwan in February. 

These are the pictures of a building I've always been curious about. It has an old-style tile rooftop and it looks quite old. Since it's located inside a courtyard separated from the street by a wall I couldn't see much except for the roof. 

The house is in Roosevelt Road in Taipei, and I've always wondered if it's really an old one or not. My dream is that it's a Japanese or Qing-dynasty house, and that we can save it from its decay. But I'm pretty sure it's just a dream, because the whole area is modern, with nearly no exception (but there are a few, which I hope to show in the future). 

I would like to meet some local Taiwanese who know something about this building. But so far, that, too, has been a dream.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

My Love-Hate Relationship With Taiwan's Convenience Stores

Some Taiwanese friends of mine make fun of me because I spend too much time in convenience stores. I have a favourite one near my home. Late at night, I am often the last customer sitting there. It is quiet, there is Wi-Fi, I can read books or surf the internet or do some work while drinking a beer, or coffee, or eating some snacks. Sometimes I also have dinner there.

And yet I don't like convenience stores. They don't have the relaxed, individual atmosphere of coffee shops; their packaged food - which must be heated in the microwave - is full of preservatives; Wi-Fi isn't free; they are more expensive than supermarkets. 

Nevertheless, there is hardly a day when I don't go to a convenience store to buy a drink, to top up my phone, to withdraw money from an ATM, etc.

Inside a Family Mart store

Taiwan is the country with the highest density of convenience stores in the world, and perhaps it is also the country where they have reached their highest stage of evolution so far. They have all sorts of food and snacks: rice dishes with meat and vegetables, cold noodles, noodle soups, fruit boxes, tofu snacks, vegetable snacks, tiramisu, cakes, soy milk, yoghurt, sushi, salads, rice and fish snacks - the list is simply endless. Apart from food, you can buy plenty of other merchandise; from disposable raincoats to umbrellas, from surgical masks to underwear, from deodorant to shampoo. You can also order drinks, withdraw money, buy train tickets, receive mail – well, you can do so many things there that I would need a whole catalogue to list them all off.     

A recent article on the WSJ shows how fond Taiwanese are of their convenience stores. Many people go to convenience stores several times a day. They buy coffee, have a meal, meet colleagues, hold meetings, or take away food. Convenience stores have become a part of many people's lives, most especially of single workers who have no time to cook. Besides, more and more convenience stores (like my favourite one) have tables, so that many people go there to eat food, read newspapers, study, surf the internet etc.

Many Taiwanese I met in Berlin complained about the fact that Europe has no convenience stores. “Where can I buy things at night?” they asked me. “Where can I buy things on weekends?” “It is so inconvenient!”

Divas and Open Chan, the 'cute' 7-11 mascot

Most of us foreigners tend to be even fonder of convenience stores than Taiwanese. I guess the majority of us resorted to convenience stores during our first days or weeks in Taiwan. There are so many restaurants and food stalls in Taiwan, but we don't know which one to choose, how and what to order. We see the menus full of Chinese characters we can't read, and only pictures can save us – but most menus have none. Little by little, we start to experiment, go to different restaurants, compare them, make some mistakes, but gradually we learn. At the beginning, however, convenience stores are by far the easiest option. 

I am not a very talkative person and I don't like crowded places. So I still go to convenience stores from time to time to have dinner. On weekends, when restaurants are teeming with people, who even form long queues in front of entrance doors, I choose not to eat in the rush hour; I just wait patiently, with empty stomach, until the crowds have dissolved. Then the atmosphere becomes more relaxed and quiet. But restaurants have already stopped serving food or are about to close (the rhythm of Taiwan's dinner rush hour is something I'll never understand). I have no choice but to go to a convenience store, eating a sad prepackaged meal. But better than sitting next to tens of people in an overfilled place, with customers walking around, searching for a seat, wishing you got up and freed a table, and while waiters look at me as if I was eating too slowly, and as if reading a book or watching a video during dinner was inconsiderate. 

In such cases convenience stores become my refuge. They have air-conditioning, are open 24-hours, I can sit there and take my time. 

When I first came to Taiwan, I actually loved convenience stores. But after some time I began to perceive them as symbols of what is not so good about Taiwan's lifestyle. Many Taiwanese people are restlessly busy; busy with dealing with their family, busy with making money, busy with getting by. There is not much time to relax at home, to cultivate hobbies and interests, to stop and breathe in and just enjoy life. Convenience stores reflect this rhythm, this restlessness, this desire to consume quickly. At some point I got tired of eating microwave-heated food, of seeing the frustrated faces of underpaid store staff, especially of those who do night shifts. Convenience has its downsides.

A long 7-Eleven advertisement video

Monday, 19 May 2014

Paris vs Taipei: The "Importance of Appearances" Experiment

A few days ago norniTube released a video that shows how people react when a man falls down in a street in Paris, pretending to be sick. In the first part of the video, the man is dressed like a homeless person. People get by but no one helps him. In the second part of the video, the man is dressed in a suit, and immediately some people go to him and ask him if he's all right (note).

The incident is supposed to show that people often ignore each other's suffering, and that the way someone looks determines how helpful and friendly others will be. 

The same experiment was tried by Apple Chen in Taipei, in the wealthy Eastern District, near Sogo department store. However, the experiment was not about the different reaction of passers-by to a homeless and a rich-looking man. 

A normally dressed man begins to cough and then falls down. After just a few seconds some people go to him and ask if he's all right. He says that he has pills in his pocket, and they help him take them.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

What I Really Think About Taiwan's Independence

Every now and then I receive messages from people who accuse me of being pro-KMT, pro-China, anti-Taiwan etc. etc. Well, I admit that I'm not a China-hater or KMT-hater, and that repeating over and over again that China and everything related to it is bad is not the purpose of my blog, and I wish - as a reader of blogs and newspapers myself - that the attitude of demonising others were less widespread. 

I have explained in another post that I think the media coverage of China is often extremely biased; it is either ideologically pro-China or ideologically anti-China. During my academic career I have learnt one important thing: when you write about something, distance yourself and try to be balanced. Being balanced doesn't mean you can't interpret things from your own perspective, but you must try to take into account all possible perspectives. 

However, in this post I would like to explain my own personal opinion about the Taiwan issue, so as to do away with all misunderstandings.

First of all, I condemn the fact that the People's Republic of China has not renounced the use of force to bring about unification. I never support the use of force, except when force is used for the defence of invaded sovereign states. From this perspective, I condemned the Iraq war of the Bush administration, the wars of Putin, and every war that did not have self-defence purposes, no matter which country was the attacker. 

Second, it is a fact that the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People's Republic of China on the mainland have been two entirely separate states for 65 years. 

At this historical juncture, I think the most humane thing to do would be to hold a referendum in Taiwan, so that the people of Taiwan themselves can decide if they want to maintain the current Republic of China or if they want to found a new state called "Republic of Taiwan". Like Singapore, which has a majority of Han-Chinese but is an independent state, Taiwan could be an independent state and certainly the universe would not implode and the PRC nationals would have no practical damage whatsoever. If the PRC were not threatening the ROC, I think such a referendum might have been held long ago.

Nevertheless, my personal opinion will not prevent me from trying to understand the point of view of pan-Chinese nationalism. There are reasons why mainland Chinese and why the KMT see Taiwan as part of China. I believe a referendum is the most humane politcal way to solve the Taiwan issue and uphold the cause of world peace. But I also think that every point of view needs to be understood, analysed, and taken seriously. I hope the people who sent me those angry messages will understand that I am not willing to turn my own blog into a propaganda machine for either side.