When National Dong Hwa University professor Hsiao Chao-chun (蕭昭君) asked to lead an annual gathering for ancestral worship in 2007, it was akin to revolution within the Hsiao (蕭) family clan. The controversy revolved around one simple fact: the professor is a woman.
The debate over whether a woman should serve as chief worshipper at the gathering continues.
“My father actually asked the Doushan Temple’s [斗山祠] administrative committee if I could serve as the chief worshipper at the annual gathering to worship ancestors when I received my doctorate in 1990,” Hsiao said at a news conference yesterday held to announce the release of a documentary on her struggle to lead the gathering.
“The committee chairman at the time told my father: ‘Of course a PhD can serve as chief worshipper, but not a woman.”
Doushan Temple is a centuries-old Hsiao family temple in Hsiao Chao-chun’s hometown of Shetou Township (社頭), Changhua County.
The Hsiaos are the biggest family in Shetou. Each year, the worship gathering at the temple attracts around 500 Hsiaos from across the country.
Traditionally, the role of chief worshipper is given to a male descendent considered successful by the temple’s administrative committee.
But Hsiao, a long-time women’s rights activist, felt the tradition constituted discrimination.
“I understand why only successful men can serve as chief worshipper ... Only men were educated or went to work in the past, so clearly only men could succeed,” Hsiao said. “But times have changed and the tradition should, too.”
When Hsiao approached temple administrative committee secretary Hsiao Jui-lu (蕭瑞祿) in 2007 about serving as chief worshipper, Hsiao Jui-lu said yes.
But after media outlets reported the news in advance of the ceremony, organizers were bombarded with protests from members of the Hsiao clan.
The administrative committee called a meeting, which approved Hsiao Chao-chun’s proposal by a vote.
“Some people were worried bad things could befall the Hsiaos if we changed the centuries-old tradition, because it could upset our ancestors,” Hsiao Jui-lu says in the documentary. “But frankly, what does it have to do with a female chief worshipper if misfortune befalls someone in the family?”
“Would you blame [her] if someone got into a car accident while driving drunk or was jailed for a crime?” Hsiao Jui-lu asked.
“It would seem that as long as it’s a male PhD who wants to be the chief worshipper, the clan elders can make the decision alone, but if it’s a woman, the decision is made through democratic means,” Hsiao Chao-chun said.
Lee Yuan-chen (李元貞), a cofounder of the Awakening Foundation, said having a woman serve as chief worshipper was a symbolic step.
“Women basically do not exist in history; their names are not recorded in the family books of their biological families nor of their husband’s family and they don’t have a say in any ancestral worship rituals either,” Lee said.
“Breaking the tradition is symbolic and can be considered a kind of success in the campaign for women’s rights,” Lee said.
Despite the victory, Hsiao Chao-chun was saddened when some of her relatives chose not to take part in the 2007 ritual in protest.
Members of the Hsiao clan in Shetou are still divided over the matter.
“The 2007 situation was an isolated case and a mistake. It won’t happen again, it will absolutely never happen again,” Hsiao Cheng-chi (蕭成洽) says in an interview in the documentary.