Not once during the three-hour funeral did the voice of the master of ceremonies depart from his meticulously calibrated tone, soothingly providing comfort to the grieving while announcing the delegations of people who had come to pay their respects. But every now and then, he would say something that stung like a stun gun.
We were in Taoyuan on Friday attending the funeral of a young Taiwanese woman who decided to end her life last month. Her father, who spent about five years in jail following the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, a protest by pro-democracy activists, is a former legislator for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who now faces a 10-year prison term for corruption. While local media reported that the young woman decided to end her life due to pressures associated with her studies, it is difficult to imagine that her father’s travails did not also weigh heavily upon her.
The woman — a beautiful and wonderfully talented artist who had gone to school in New York — also studied law so that she could help with her father’s defense, reviewing interrogation tapes and turning to well-known international lawyers for assistance. Much of her art reflected the deeply held political views of her family, which emphasize a Taiwanese identity separate from China. Some of her creations had been used, or were to be used, by the Formosan Association for Public Affairs’ Young Professionals Group, an assemblage of young US-based Taiwanese who support Taiwanese self-determination. The beautiful booklet, DVD and postcards handed to those who attended the service also had an undeniably pro-Taiwan slant.
Yet, the MC repeatedly used the phrase “we Chinese” (我們中國人), which stopped us in our tracks. How could the man not have been aware of the political views of the grieving family and those of the woman whose life and death we had gathered to remember? How insensitive would the man have had to be not to realize that her father, a well-known DPP politician with a reputation for singing and wearing costumes, had served five years of his life behind bars because he and others had stood up to the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the White Terror of the Martial Law era? How could he not take her work, her life, into consideration, knowing full well that in life she fought for and took pride in her Taiwanese identity and would always refer to herself as “Taiwanese” (台灣人)?
To me, the affront again confirmed that organized religion has little patience for individuality and limits itself to general platitudes. I have seen this occur time and again at weddings and funerals — regardless of the belief system. That is why priests or monks will movingly talk of “loving husbands” when describing a deceased man who spent his married life inflicting physical and emotional pain on his wife and members of his family.
I do not think the MC meant any slight or sought to impose his political views on the family; he was simply following the script (this could also be indicative of the extent to which the KMT sinicization of Taiwan also left its mark on religion).
By focusing on the masses, organized religion — and the same could be said of another system of control, politics — fails to bring itself to the level of those it claims to represent. How simple it would have been for the temple to change the wording so that it actually meant something for the grieving family and reflected their desires, wishes and beliefs during that one last moment.
There is no reason why priests and monks and rabbis should not have to do their homework on the people whom they purport to serve as celestial intermediaries. But then again, when have religious figures ever been servants of mankind?
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has over the past few months continued to escalate its hegemonic rhetoric and increase its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The US, in turn, has finally realized how its “strategic ambiguity” is increasingly wearing thin. Similarly, any hopes the US had that the PRC would be a responsible stakeholder and economic player have diminished, if not been abandoned. Taiwan, of course, remains as the same de facto independent, democratic nation that the PRC covets. As a result, the US needs to reconsider not only the amount, but also the type of arms
Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9. Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of
China constantly seeks out ways to complain about perceived slights and provocations as pretexts for its own aggressive behavior. It is both victimization paranoia and a form of information warfare that keeps the West on the defensive. True to form, China objected even to the innocuous reference to Taiwan at April 16’s summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Neither leader’s prepared remarks even mentioned Taiwan, out of deference to the Japanese side. Biden’s opening statement was modest: “Prime Minister Suga and I affirmed our ironclad support for US-Japanese alliance and for our shared security.
There is no ambiguity when it comes to war. Ambiguity begs for certainty and a lack thereof has historically led to war. History is full of examples: Europe’s and the US’ ambiguity as to how they would respond to Hitler’s growing territorial expansion in Europe was certainly a contributing factor to World War II. In the same vein, US ambiguity toward Japan’s expansionist militarism in the 1930s clearly led to the Pearl Harbor attacks that started the war in Asia in 1941. Ambiguity in a world with leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) will inevitably