Ecclesia of Women in Asia

Forum of Asian Catholic Women Theologians

Shadow Lives/Public Faces: Women in Taiwan - Plenary Presentation by Nonie Gutzler (under construction)

(This is only a summary of the presentation. To see the Chinese characters more clearly, click on view in the menu and zoom in or increase text size)

Many women in Taiwan live within a ‘shadow’ world that is hidden beneath the woman's “public” face. It is found in the increasing reports of domestic violence, suicides and trafficked women. Many girls born into this world have their lives shaped by traditional understandings of gender roles. Their voices are silenced by the power of language that orders and controls the complex relationships between women and men. In Taiwan, the power of language to shape a woman’s life is seen concretely in the writing of Chinese characters which has shaped woman’s self-understanding over the millennia and influences her choices and decisions today.

The Chinese characters for ‘woman’ and ‘man’ present a visual picture of the subtle, hierarchical, gender dualism that lies beneath this discourse and which is expressed most clearly in the oft-quoted dictum: 重男漠女 (“The man is of great importance; woman less so.) 女 shows a woman with her arms folded in submission; while 男 man (shows a field 田over 力representing power) exhibits the strength needed to till the fields and care for the land.

Perceptions about woman’s nature, temperament and personality are subtly woven into the psyches of both women and men as certain characters, with 女 as their semantic root, are studied and memorized. Among these characters are: 奴 (slave), which pictures a 女 under the master’s hand ____; 怒(anger), which is composed of the characters for 奴(slave) and 心(heart) indicating that the source of anger has its root in the heart of the slave; 妒 (jealousy), which depicts a 女venting her jealousy outside the 戸 (door/family) where she cannot seen by others, and 姦(adultery)’ which is composed of three 女 (women).

The oft-quoted maxim: 男主外女主 (The man works outside; the women is in the home) codifies woman’s role in marriage and the family. Among several Chinese characters for wife, 妻indicates a married woman 女 who handles the broom stick 帚, while 妻 pictures a woman’s hand holding a duster. The ideogram for ‘submission’ ___ , shows ‘woman’ 女 under “drooping heads of grain” ____ and is “the symbol of the proper attitude of woman, she should acquiesce even to unreasonable demands from her husband.”

Lastly, the character for ‘peace 安 pictures ‘woman’ 女 under the ‘roof’ of the house, that is, under the ‘roof’ of patriarchy – when she is in the house all is peaceful. ‘Woman’ is thus enclosed in the ‘shadow’ world of socially approved, gender-specific areas of activity to which she must give a “public face” of contentment. Although many women today would reject the patriarchal concepts implied by these characters, the society continues to be unconsciously shaped by them.

Within the past 25-30 years, Taiwan has experienced a great social upheaval in the arena of gender-specific roles and the use of power in the relationships between the sexes. Increasing feminist consciousness, among both women and men, challenges traditional, patriarchal values about women, marriage and family life, particularly in the areas of HIV/AIDS and trans-national marriages (foreign brides).

A recent study by Nai-Ying Ko, of National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, explored “the gender-based power relationships, and social and cultural influences on reproductive decision-making among heterosexual couples with HIV/AIDS in Taiwan.”[1] Her study highlights the lingering effects and subtle power of the maxim: 重男漠女 and the expectation that woman will “submit ___ to the desires of her husband. Although one of the fastest growing groups of women with HIV/AIDS are those of child-bearing age, most studies on woman’s reproductive health do not include their male partners and thus render “the role that gender-based power relationships play in the process of reproductive decision-making” invisible.

Beginning in the mid-1970’s, men, who were unable to find marriage partners within Taiwan, began to engage in ‘transnational marriages with foreign brides.” Gender-based abortions, resulting in an imbalance of the male to female ratio and women’s changing attitudes towards marriage, led “men of lower income and lower social status, [or] older men or men with disabilities started to seek brides outside Taiwan.”[2] According to Sister Stephania Wei, this Asian phenomenon of ‘mail-order brides,’ is a “commercialization of transnational marriage.” The ‘bride’ is obliged to work in the family business and bear sons to carry on the family name. She is a commodity and is expected to live as a traditional woman in a traditional marriage.

Our Christian faith maintains that the gospel of Jesus challenges these gender-specific roles, power-dominated relationships and long-held traditional ideas about women. The world of Jesus of Nazareth was also bound by gender-specified roles and power relationships. The women of his times were marginalized within ancient systems of gender, especially if they were unmarried, widowed, childless, possessed and/or physically afflicted. It is interesting to note that Jesus speaks only to women who are not the wives of other men. This is a departure from earlier Scriptures, where husbands and wives appear together and presents a great challenge to women of our day.

The challenge is that she must depart the “shadow world” of gender-roles and power relationships and reclaim her true ‘self.’ This requires a strategy that turns symbols of oppression into instruments of liberation; it is a ‘finding’ of what was ‘lost.’ It can be likened to the steps of the woman in the Gospel of Luke who tirelessly searched for her lost coin (Luke 15: 8-10). What was that coin and what was its symbolic value? Did it represent more than the common understanding of money that had fallen out of her pocket or her purse? Perhaps it was a piece of jewelry that had fallen from her necklace or headdress and which was a statement of her public identity -- such as social status, gender, age, etc.” The loss of the coin was tragic.

Re-reading the parable in this light brings added understanding to the intensity of her search and her use of the broom – symbol of woman’s place under the roof of patriarchy – to find what was lost. She transforms a symbol of oppression into an instrument of her liberation. During her lifetime, she learned to use the broom well and now she uses it to her advantage. She searches and reclaims her identity – and invites all to celebrate with her. It is the formation of a new community – a new family witnessing to the joy of the Reign of God.

Recent scholarship has devoted much attention to the question of whether Jesus inaugurated a new type of family through his preaching of the Reign of God. This new family is depicted through various relationships in the gospels. The family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany – is a family of siblings with no mention of parents. The home of Peter’s mother-in-law does not mention her husband or Peter’s father-in-law. After the finding of Jesus in the temple in Luke’s gospel, Mary of Nazareth is never seen with her husband nor are the brothers and sisters of Jesus seen with their father. Without the presence of a husband – and without the presence of their father – the mother of James and John requests that her sons have a place at Jesus’ right hand.

This new family – this embodiment of the “Reign of God among us” – was visualized in the banner made in Taiwan in 2000 for the Year of Reconciliation. It shows the many different peoples of Taiwan -- women and men, children and the elderly, different cultural, linguistic and political -- gathered around the open table of God. The image is one of “harmony” – the harmony that is found in the language of 愛 Unlike the character 宠 (love), 愛 has no roof ; it has no boundaries. It is composed of friendship 友 resting under the heart 心 and has the power to uncover the ‘silenced’ world of women and dismantle the ‘roof’ of patriarchy which shapes her ‘shadowed’ life. Awareness of the power of language to oppress is awareness of its power to liberate. The language of ‘愛’ (love) embodies the core of the Gospel of Jesus. It challenges each woman to search, to find what has been lost and to live an “unshadowed” life as an embodiment of the glory of God!

[1] Nai-Ying Ko. “Reproductive Decision Making among Couples with HIV/AIDS in Taiwan.” Journal of Nursing Scholarship (SSCI), (2005).

[2] Sister Stephania Wei, MMB. “Migrant Workers and New Immigrants – An Inquiry Based on the Experience of Taiwan.”

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