Fri, May 26, 2000 - Page 13 News List

An Asian daughter comes of age

Taiwan is the outrageously intelligent, pierced and tattooed daughter of every Chinese parents' nightmares, who though she loves her family, isn't ever going to live by their rules again. And the world should be encouraging her, not trying to force her to live under the family roof.

By Christopher MacDonald

Illustration: By Yu Sha

It's a story that is repeated, with endless variations throughout Asia: a daughter grows to maturity in a traditional family that is beginning to enjoy the fruits of economic prosperity but has yet to adjust to the liberal realities of the age.

Imaginative, intelligent and with an irrepressible sense of self, she has learned from an early age that while expected to honor and serve the clan, be it her father's or her future husband's, she is valued less highly than her brothers.

Her rebellion, when it comes, consists of raising her worth by outperforming the boys at school, exploiting to the full the opportunities for higher education that her society provides, pursuing her own career in a progressive, urban environment and determining for herself the course of her love life -- which may or may not come to include marriage.

As an adult she continues to see her parents frequently and remits a sizeable portion -- maybe a quarter or third -- of her income to them, partly out of filial love and partly as a nod to the age-old tributary relationship between parents and children that in her culture is held to be part of the natural order.

She is proud of and loyal to her family, but is irrevocably detached from the culture of paddy fields, arranged marriages and unquestioned parental authority that they still hearken after. Her hard-won autonomy is something she can negotiate over, but will never sacrifice. They, meanwhile, the older generation and the men of the clan, have no choice but to accept and respect her as she is (not least for reasons of economic expediency), or lose her forever. So accept her they do.

It is one of the definitive tales of our time: the recovery of women -- one half of the species -- from the allegedly heaven-ordained condition of being a permanent underclass. And it is a tale which is simultaneously being played out by the citizens of Taiwan, whose recent election of the first homegrown leadership in their island's history marks a decisive moment, the point of no return in a centuries-long struggle to shake off the authoritarian control of the parent culture across the Taiwan Strait.

In short, Taiwan -- a rebellious but essentially loyal daughter -- has come of age. Unfortunately, China -- the intolerant old patriarch to whom she owes a debt of filial gratitude -- has yet to adjust. Worse, he's busy working himself into a state of apoplexy over this irreversible new reality.

Taiwan, now dangerously exposed, is going to need the sympathy, support and active assistance of her friends and neighbors all around the world if the tyrant is to be pacified. And China must be made to realize that if it yields now to the rash impulse, it will grievously harm itself -- and will lose Taiwan forever.

All in the family

The key to this confrontation, as in so many aspects of Chinese life, lies with the family. While it may seem ponderous, yoking cross-strait relations to the framework of Confucian kinship connections, it should be recalled that during the past 1,000 years, since the Song dynasty, the Chinese have created and maintained the most enduring and deep-seated system of state governance that the world has ever known, and that this system has been consciously crafted around the principles of familial obligations and obedience.

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