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.
Illustration: By Yu Sha
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.
Men rule over women, parents rule over children, officials rule over commoners and the emperor rules over all. So successful has the system proved at propagating itself that it has come to dominate the world-view of all who live within its compass. In English, we bracket this ideology under the heading of "Confucian values."
In the Confucianist creed, maximum value attaches to the twin ideals of "stability" and "harmony." In practice, stability has largely meant preserving the privileges of those who hold the upper hand in each of the officially sanctioned forms of relationship, while harmony has been a byword for the suppression of attitudes and opinions that oppose the ruling orthodoxy. In other words: Father knows best -- Got that?
If you don't get it, or if you object to the inferior status that your sex or social rank condemn you to, then you are violating the cosmic order and must bear full responsibility for the dreadful consequences.
For centuries, the cult of stability sentenced nine-tenths of the population to lives of artificially sustained ignorance and illiteracy, lest they learned the means to outwit their tormentors. This put China at a deadly disadvantage when it finally had to confront the dynamic, expansionist powers of the West. And harmony, among other things, meant literally hobbling (footbinding was wide-spread) women's aspirations to live their lives in any way indepen-dent of the male-monopolized economic hierarchy. This too, turned out to be a chronic handicap for China as it belatedly raced to catch up with the modern world.
China nearly paid the ultimate price -- total dismemberment and colonization -- for over-zealous attachment to this conservative family model. But it survived, throwing off the stifling blanket of imperial rule, staggering through several chaotic decades of war and strife and eventually, with the founding of the PRC, banishing once and for all the "feudal" mentality that for so long had stymied development and wreaked havoc on the population. Or so it seemed.
For the tragic irony of 1949 was that the traditional state was actually reborn in a new guise: strengthened and further centralized by Leninist mechanisms for social control, but otherwise forming the same political patriarchy that had prevailed for centuries. The new father of the people was the Communist Party of China and it demanded total obedience -- on pain of detention, torture and death.
For all the economic liberalization of the past two decades, Beijing has cleaved ever more fiercely to the conservative certainties of Confucianist political rule. The Chinese public, meanwhile, has more or less made a bitter trade-off: in exchange for gaining a fair shot at personal economic advancement, people accept that the state is prone to react with vicious and irrational fury wherever it perceives a challenge to the established order.
Hence their sullen tolerance of the savage crackdown that ended the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Hence also the depressing fact that hardly a soul in China rejects the notion that Beijing has a duty to discipline, in the severest manner imaginable, that recalcitrant "renegade province" across the Taiwan Strait, should it persist in its folly and refuse to kneel at the family altar of the oldest, biggest, bestest nation-race on Earth.
Such is the character of the sprawling, dysfunctional, control-obsessed clan -- so fond of concealing its horrors and domestic abuse behind closed doors ("China's internal affairs") -- amid which the peaceful, democratic island state of Taiwan has grown up. All things considered, it's a miracle she turned out so well.
To understand just how Taiwan came to depart so radically from the expectations of her parent culture, we need to view her life-story against the backdrop of China's history.
There is little controversy about the fundamentally Chinese character of society in Taiwan, given that some 98 percent of her people are either descended from Chinese immigrants or have arrived from the mainland in living memory. It is worth noting however that since the early settlers were almost all male and that intermarriage with the plains Aborigines of that time was inevitable, aboriginal blood probably flows in the veins of every Taiwanese whose family has been here since before the watershed of the late 1940s.
What brought most of those early settlers to the island, dating chiefly from the period of Dutch rule in the mid-17th century, was not the missionary zeal of official colonizers so much as the desperation of refugees from persecution, tyranny, calamity and overpopulation. Their motivations must have been not unlike those of the Europeans who risked their lives crossing the Atlantic to find a better life in the New World. Emigration was illegal and punishable by death during much of the Ching dynasty (1644-1911), so for those who made it to Taiwan there was no boat back.
They comprised Hakkas, a formidably intractable segment of China's ethnic mix who had long borne the brunt of imperial wrath for popular uprisings and other disasters, and Hokkien people from southern Fujian, a truculent and defiant branch of the Chinese family who infuriated the emperors with their unfilial resistance to central control, and whose entre-preneurial zeal and maritime flair built a trading empire -- without the consent of the court in distant Beijing -- that dominated the Asian littoral from Java to Japan during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The point is that those settlers, the Chinese who came to build a "land of the free" on this neglected outpost of empire, stood in opposition from the very start to the monolith of central state control and the supposed cosmic order on which it was predicated. That they never established a viable polity of their own, unlike the founders of the US, can be partly attributed to the fact that the Manchu rulers on the mainland had less than 150 miles of water to cross in order to extend some semblance of military and political control to Taiwan.
It is also worth bearing in mind that for most of the Ching dynasty the Chinese accounted for only a small proportion of the island's inhabitants -- as late as the 1870s Aborigines still made up as much as half of the population -- and that they lived under frontier conditions, with each stockaded community placing its own security and survival ahead of any notional islandwide interest.
Living under the knuckle of the Dutch, then the Manchus, then the Japanese and then the unexpectedly alien KMT regime which arrived at the end of WWII, the Taiwanese nurtured their own distinct political and economic identity, combining a streak of ingrained anti-authoritarianism with the Chinese genius for petty capitalism.
Thus it was that in the early 1960s, when the dead hand of Chiang Kai-shek's
Breaking the straitjacket
Taiwan, this proud daughter of Asia, is financially secure (US$110 billion in foreign exchange reserves and a per capita income which the IMF predicts will, on current growth trajectories, overtake those of the UK, France and Japan within the next decade), politically mature (with the recent democratic election of her first truly native administration), intimidatingly well educated (spit out the office window and the chances are you'll hit a PhD) and throughly independent (with sovereign territory and ample means of defending it).
While increasingly regarded as paragon of economic and political virtue, she remains a diplomatic castaway, shunned in public (though assiduously courted in private) by those she'd really like to impress, the big boys on the international stage.
She is an expert at self-preservation, having spent five decades in the shadow of a violent and unpredictable tyrant, quietly observing his every move and noting his mood-swings and moreover has the support of an important ally, the US, whose own interests coincide so closely with hers that any attack against the island would amount to an assault on the Pax Americana of the Pacific rim. She is, despite being dwarfed by the PRC, a force to be reckoned with.
She needs and loves her Chinese family, and has no intention of repudiating her ethnic heritage. The cultural ties will always be strong and the economic bond is already an important competitive advantage for both Taiwan and China, one which neither nation can afford to sever.
Nevertheless, Taiwan is nobody's chattel and she won't be bossed about in her own home: the island whose governing authorities -- for the first time in the history of Chinese civilization -- reflect the concerns and aspirations of ordinary people rather than the other way around. It is clear enough that if push comes to shove her people will fight and resist, and China will lose her forever. For what is at stake is not only the fruit of half a century of political struggle, but 300 years refusing to be subservient to emperors in Beijing -- 300 years fending off the suffocating grip of the oversized Chinese nation-family.
Beijing, probably alone in the world, objects to the political transition we are now witnessing in Taiwan, for it presages a seismic shift in the claustrophobic confines of its own household. It proves that the people of China, too, can break out from the man-made -- not heaven-ordained -- straitjacket of Confucian authoritarianism. For this reason we all need a Taiwan that, like her sisters throughout Asia, can preserve her hard-won liberty and independence.
Christopher MacDonald is a freelance writer based in Taipei.
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