Confucianism, Belly Dancing, and the ‘Ideal Woman’ in Taiwan

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Source: “Dancer” by Chinese oil painter Tu Zhiwei.

As in most East Asian countries, Confucianism has had a considerable influence on the values and traditions of Taiwanese people. When it comes to sex and gender discrimination, male-centrality, dominance and superiority characterise the traditional ideals of Confucianism as well as the prevailing Han Chinese worldview and policies of Imperial and modern-day China (Du, 2011Chang & Bairnier, 2019). The subordination of Chinese women is maintained through the family system, which operates on the patrilineal principles where family lines, corporations and all other kinds of property, are passed patrilineally, from father to son (Harrell, 2002). An important part of sustaining the patrilineal system is patrilocal residence, which prescribes that wives should move in with their husband’s parents or extended family at the time of marriage. In their discussion paper series, Landmann et al. (2017) found that in patrilocal residence, women are usually expected to take over housekeeping tasks from their in-laws and the burden of child and elder care increases. 

         Domesticity and restrictions on women’s role in society was also reinforced through several ancient writings that discussed the ideal ‘good women’ model. These rules maintained that women were expected to stay home, serve their husbands and parent-in-laws, and adopt behavioural restrictions so that harmony would be maintained within the family (Tamney & Chiang 2002). Although Chinese and Taiwanese society has undergone rapid and radical changes since post-Mao economic reforms, Raymo et al. (2015) state that traditional Confucian family doctrines continue to be manifested in multiple aspects of society, including men’s and women’s work and family roles. 

         That being said, communist and capitalist ideologies created new opportunities for Taiwanese women to challenge the dominant discourse of domesticity, especially with the emergence of new media and commercial advertisements that promoted Western lifestyle and ‘sexy’ body images. As Shaw (2012) asserts, while the ‘ideal’ woman of the past had been the strong, thrifty, family-oriented woman, in contemporary Taiwan, a double-burden has been created because, in addition to these virtues, the ideal woman now must also be slender, beautiful and eternally youthful.

         As part of the emergence of the beauty industry and women’s leisure and exercise, the sport of belly dancing was introduced to Taiwan in 2002 and has been promoted as a beneficial exercise for toning muscles and enhancing women’s self-confidence (Chang & Bairner, 2019). Spreading all over the Taiwan, belly dancing is now popularly offered in dance classes and community universities, in which housewives, female office workers and retirees constitute the majority of the students. Chang and Bairner (2019) explain that a relatively low registration fee makes belly dance classes affordable and attractive to women of various social classes who use this sport as a means of women’s community, feminine solidarity, personal enjoyment, cultural exchange and artistry. 

         While consumerism, healthism, and globalisation have produced the rise of the new ideal Taiwanese woman, where sensuality in the feminine body is encouraged through community sports such as belly dancing, the constraints of traditional culture have not disappeared as the legacy of Confucian gender and sex discrimination remains. For instance, various studies (Hsieh 2003; Tsai 2006, 2008, 2009) show that marriage and family continue to be influential in women’s leisure participation. In Chang and Bairner’s (2019) participant observations and in-depth interviews, it was found that some people opposed their female family members from taking part in belly dance classes. As one participant noted:

“It’s actually not just opposition to belly dancing, they just don’t want you to go out. Our society still is kind of conservative…Usually the opposition of family comes from the husband or mother-in-law, the reason we usually hear from mother-in-law is something like ‘Others will gossip if my daughter in-law does this (belly dance).’ (p. 1335-1336). 

A dance instructor interviewed also shared that several mothers in his class told him not to let their husbands and family members know that they were belly dancing and those that were strongly constrained did not show up to class at all. While it is far less common to see family preventing women from belly dancing in the West, opposition from husbands and elder relatives, especially mothers-in-law, continues to constrain women in Taiwan.

         The reason why many women chose to hide their participation is because, for some, belly dancing continues to be associated with the image of the exotic, dancing woman in sexy shows. This ‘bad’ category of women, who make money by dancing, entertaining, and pleasing men are depicted as wearing sexy costumes, heavy perfume and makeup, and using their feminine charm to attract male customers. Therefore, to avoid being recognised as the ‘bad’ dancing woman, many belly dance interviewees emphasised the exercise component of belly dancing and avoided buying belly dance costumes.

In this case, even though foreign sports provided more opportunity for Taiwanese women to engage with their community and explore different ideals of womanhood, traditional Confucian practices and attitudes continue to restrict particularly married women’s expressions and movements even today.

Conference Announcement: Last Call for Papers, ‘Confucianism and World Disharmony: The Quest for Harmony in Difference’

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28-31st August, 2019

Bond University, Queensland, Australia

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About the Conference:

The international conference ‘Confucianism and World Disharmony: The Quest for Harmony in Difference’ will be held from Wednesday 28th August to Saturday 31st August 2019 at Bond University on the Gold Coast, Australia. It is hosted by the Centre for EastWest Cultural and Economic Studies and the Faculty of Society and Design (Bond University), organised with support from the World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures and The Centre for EastWest Relations (Beijing Foreign Studies University).

Conference Theme:

For over three thousand years, Chinese philosophy and Confucian thought have built up sophisticated approaches exploring social, political and environmental harmony. One of the key understandings of these approaches is that a diversity of roles and relationships are required for the evolution of sophisticated states and adaptive cultures.

Confucianism became one of the main drivers of societal norms across much of East Asia, and has been going through a global academic revival over the last two decades. The Confucian tradition has insights that can help us reflect on the root causes of, and remedies for, disorder in the 21st century. An engaged Confucianism can be inclusive of diverse national identities and build bridges of dialogue to alternative philosophical and religious traditions. The conference has been designed to draw in a wide range of intercultural, interdisciplinary and critical viewpoints.

Keynote Speaker:

The keynote speaker will be Professor Chenyang Li (School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) who specializes in Chinese and comparative philosophy, and has written widely on related political, cultural and educational issues.

Prominent Scholars:

Prominent Scholars making presentations at the conference include Professors Rogers Ames, Tian Chenshan, Chenyang Li, Raoul Mortley, Bee Chen Goh and others from East Asia, Australasia, the United States and Europe.

Panels and Themes:

Delegates can suggest or form their own panels, but the following issues are central to the overall Conference themes:

  • Harmony and Everyday Experience in Confucian Thought
  • The Language and Practice of Harmony: Comparative Perspectives
  • Confucianism in Expanding Asian and Global Contexts: North to South, East to West
  • The Confucian Approaches to Aesthetics
  • Confucius and Confucianism: Philosophy and Institution
  • Confucianism and Education
  • Avoiding Conflict and Moderating War: Transformative Relations in Confucianism
  • Chinese Diplomatic Dialogues: Past and Present
  • ‘Peace’ in Comparative Perspectives
  • Conceiving a Good Life: Confucian and non-Confucian Perspectives
  • Inter-Cultural and Inter-Civilizational Approaches to Global Harmony

Contact Details:

For further details about the Conference and Submission details, contact one of the following:

 Dr.R. James Ferguson (jferguso@bond.edu.au); Dr. Yi Chen (ychen@bond.edu.au); Professor Roger T. Ames (rtames@hawaii.edu); or Cindy Minarova-Banjac, the Research and Communications Coordinator for the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies at Bond University (cminarov@bond.edu.au).

Final Submissions: If you have not already done so and want to present a paper, please send us the title, a brief biographical paragraph, and the abstract of your proposal by the 1st August 2019. There is no cost, but registration is necessary since places are limited.

South Korean Confucian academies put on UNESCO list

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photo@yna.co.kr/2019-07-06 20:43:26/

In recent news, the ‘Nine Seowon’ Confucian academies from the Joseon era have been officially put on the UNESCO World Heritage list, according to Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA).

The Seowon were active spaces designed as libraries, publishing houses and venues for discussing social and political matters and honouring renowned Confucian scholars.

Today, the academies located in various provinces around the country are preserved as state-designated cultural properties of Korea. The UNESCO committee recognized the “outstanding universal value” of the Seowon and commented on its individual characteristics that “maximize the link to the surrounding environment and [promote] Confucian ideals,” during a live-streamed UNESCO meeting.

For the head of the CHA, Chung Jae-Suk, the nomination of Seowan was both a challenge and opportunity for the Republic of Korea. After facing rejection in the 2016 evaluation, the CHA received advice in preparing the second nomination and finally succeeded. Chung Jae-Suk stated that “through dialogues with the advisory body, the local experts could more clearly understand the crucial concept of World Heritage and the nomination process”.

The World Heritage Committee recommended that the South Korean government should create a preservation plan for the nine academies, to which the CHA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they plan to work towards with the country’s regional governments.

Anarchism and Daoism- 无政府主义与道教

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A common misconception in mainstream texts and media is the idea that Confucianism has always been a doctrine for the ruling class whereas Buddhism and Daoism appeal to the “ignorant masses” (Welch & Seidel, 1979, p. 1). However, all three indigenous philosophies have contributed to shaping Chinese culture which views the universe as a harmonious and inter-related whole. While Confucianism puts emphasis on morality and how people should maintain proper relationships to achieve an ideal state of harmony (or ‘harmonisation’ depending on the translation of he, 和), Daoism is more individualistic and mystical, relying on instinct and consciousness rather than rules to govern social conduct (Jing, 2008). 

            The name daojia, 道家 or “school of the dao” was created by the historian Sima Tan in the text, Shi ji (“Records of the Historian”), which was written in the 2nd century BCE and later completed by his son, Sima Qian. According to Sima Qian’s classification (liujia zhi yaozhi, 六家之要指), the Daoists are one of the Six Schools in Ancient China, which also include the Confucians, the Mohists, the Legalists, the Logicians and the Yin-Yang school (or school of Naturalists). The classification of Daoism as a single school meant that historians compiled a list of texts such as the Laozi, 老子 and Zhuangzi, 莊子 of the pre-Han period that shared similar views on themes related to cosmology and ontology. Some of these themes include discussing ‘the Way’ (dao, 道, lit. “path”) as the ultimate metaphysical force in the cosmos, and ‘wu’ (無, “nothingness” or “nonbeing”), as a state that is complementary to being rather than meaning non-existence. Through the idea of wu, Daoists went one step further than the Greeks by expanding the traditional definition of ontology as examining the ‘being’ or existence of a human being by dealing with the concept of nothingness. This resulted in heated debates during the 3rdand 4thcenturies over whether things in the world were born from nonbeing or being (Chai, 2012). The eventual consensus in the Daoist school was that dao gives birth to both nonbeing and being and so, dao itself must be beyond the sphere of existence and non-existence.

            Once institutionalised, the experts and practitioners of Daoism began to promote self-cultivation practices or “techniques of the Way” (dao shu, 道術), which would help individuals realise the daoand live a more harmonious life. While some of these techniques included adopting a sceptical mind and finding meaning in indirect, non-argumentative writing, often in the form of poetry and parable (Hansen, 2007), the political implication of Daoist thought was its opposition to authority, government, and coercion. As Loy (1985)noted, the Daoist concept of “spontaneity” (or wu-wei, 无为, lit. “without exertion”) was contrasted to the Confucian practice of obediently following teachers and traditions. For the Daoists, rules and social conventions restrained individuals from expressing their true nature, while natural movement was a way of promoting freedom and egalitarianism. Hansen (2007) argues that from a Confucian perspective, the rejection of order through authority and rulers was anarchist since the role of government was to promote moral character, whether by education, attraction or force.[1]

            However, whether this is a correct understanding of Daoism is debatable. For instance, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy John Clarke (1983) points out that it has become commonplace to identify Daoism and anarchism in political discussions, and Andrew Vincent (1992) adds that “it is also asserted that anarchist themes are to be found within ancient Chinese texts like the Tao te Ching [Daodejing]” (p. 116). But for Feldt (2010), these claims have often been made in passing or without critical engagement. The Zhuangzi also tends to be overcited when linking Daoism to anarchism because it is one of the only pre-Qin philosophical classics that does not make normative political claims. Whereas other Daoist texts like the Daodejing (also called the Laozi) provide theories for rulership and legitimate political power, where the ideal government would exert a minimum amount of interference over individuals (Ames, 1983), the Zhuangzi is silent on political issues and suggests that people should stay away from politics and any external, dominating powers (D’Ambrosio, 2018). Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which was dominated by a Bolshevik-style state-party system, anarchist activity and Daoist thought have been isolated and marginalised in the Chinese radicalism movement. Anarchism in China was also more associated with Buddhism because of the large number of Buddhist monks joining the Guangdong anarchist movement in the early 1920s (Dirlik, 2012).

            Chinese anarchist visions were largely influenced by the writings of Russian activist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin (1901), who put forward a version of ‘socialist anarchy’ that called for the abolition of individual property and the emancipation of the individual from the State, which was thought to maintain and reproduce conditions of economic slavery. Although some Maoist policies that integrated agriculture and industry were in line with the anarchist movement’s goals of setting up a more equal society, the emergence of state-based and armed groups such as the Communist Party and the Kuomintang meant that the Chinese anarchist community quickly lost its influence amongst the political elite (Dirlik, 2012). In its historical context, Anarchia, meaning the absence of government in Ancient Greek (coming from the word an-arkhíaor “not authority”), is about organizing society without government or coercion. Mainstream anarchist movements are opposed to states, armies, slavery, the wages system, prisons, all forms of capitalism, bureaucracy, patriarchy, matriarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, and intimidation by gangsters (Rooum, 1995). Anarchism is not perfect freedom in that people are not universally assumed to be altruistic or good. Rather, the movement is based on the belief that although humans are imperfect and can be unpredictable, a non-coercing and non-authoritarian way of organizing society is ethically worth striving for. In other words, anarchism seeks to offer a plausible alternative to current systems of governance where, it is argued, modern-day forms of slavery and brutality increase inequalities and reduce individual opportunity. It should be noted that when anarchism was applied to China, the anarchists did not insist on an anarchism with Chinese characteristics, but tried to apply universal anarchist principles to China’s political situation. 

            While there are some similarities between anarchist beliefs and Daoist principles, there are also fundamental differences. For example, although both Daoism and anarchism see freedom of the individual as a crucial aspect to human relations and existence, the meaning of freedom in anarchism is socio-political, where an ideal society would be free from oppression and authority, whereas the Daoist freedom is based on metaphysics. In the Daodejing (道德經), it is written that humans should have the freedom to cultivate their natural and simple character that originally comes from the dao. For instance, in chapters 8 and 9 the ideal human condition is described as natural governing “without desire which is like the softness of water that penetrates through hard rocks. His work is of talent like the free flow of water. His movement is of right timing like water that flows smoothly. A virtuous person never forces his way and hence will not make faults.” In that case, the cultivation of the self involves action without force. An individual is free in their creativity and accessing this freedom means not holding on to things such as desire and success. While some writers appeal to the noncoercive and nonauthoritarian conception of wu-weias one of the key links between Daoism and anarchism, there are various ways of translating wu-wei. Roger Ames and David Hall (1983) use the term “noncoercion”, but Ames (1994) also generalised the meaning through the terms “noncoercive activity”, “nonaction”, “doing nothing”, and “acting naturally”. D.C. Lau (1963) uses “nonaction”, while Edward Slingerland (2003) refers to wu-wei as “effortless action”. The different translations can have different meanings when discussing political authority. For example, a government that “does nothing” or is non-active seems like an appeal to anarchism, whereas governing through “noncoercive activity” or natural action is to voluntarily govern without relying on force. But the authority would still remain. Thus, Wu-wei is not simply the lack of authority or action. In chapter 43 of the Daodejing, the Sage is advised to do nothing (with a purpose), and in chapter 48 it is stated that a person should arrive at the point of non-action where “there is nothing which he does not do.” Thus, there is still activity, intention, and spontaneity in the meaning of wu-wei as the dao can only be expressed and realised beyond actions and words.

            Finally, at no point does Daoism outright reject a ruling authority or the state. This is because, as Xiao Gongquan (1979) states, “what Lao Tzu attacked was not government in and of itself, but was any kind of government which did not conform to “Taoistic” standards” (p. 299). In other words, it is believed that society should be governed by a sage-ruler that follows the standards and spontaneous workings of the dao, which involves allowing citizens to realise their individual freedoms by not applying an excess of laws. In chapter 57 of the Daodejing, Lao Tzu says “Govern the state by being straightforward; wage war by being crafty; but win the empire by not being meddlesome…Hence the sage says, I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves”. Here Lao Tzu puts forward the idea that the state should be non-intrusive with minimal or no taxation and laws so that people can live without unnecessary competition or strife. For Robert Eno (1990), Confucius himself adopted such as Daoist attitude as his political theory was a justification for staying away from government at least until a sage would become a proper ruler. The development of a rule-based, authoritarian Confucianism would later contrast Daoism’s natural spontaneity and scepticism to social control, but to equate Daoism with Western anarchism is to ignore the cultural and historical differences in how both schools of thought developed and influenced Chinese society.


[1]It should be noted that while traditional Confucianism spoke more of virtuous rulers teaching their citizens about correct conduct and moral behaviour, by the early Ming dynasty emperors began adopting an official neo-Confucian theory of foreign policy that allowed for the legitimate use of force (see Feng Zhang, “Confucian Foreign Policy Traditions in Chinese History,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics8 (2): 2015, p. 197-218.  https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pov004).



Chinese Sayings- 中文谚语

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Happy Chinese New Year: 2019 Year of the Pig- 新年快乐 : 2019年的猪年

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Chinese Lunar New Year (chunjie, 春节) is one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar that starts on the new moon in the lunar cycle – between the 21st of January and the 20thof February each year. In 2019, the lunar new year starts on the 5thof February, and it marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig.  

The pig, which is named after the five elements- Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth- is the last of the twelve zodiac animals and symbolises kindness and generosity. According to zodiac legend, the Jade Emperor threw a big party and decided that the order of the animals would be defined by their arrival to his party. The pig was late because it overslept, and so it became the last of all the animals in the zodiac. 

The history of Lunar New Year started when ancient Chinese agrarian society counted the cycles of seasons from their planting experience, and the yearly celebration emerged with the creation of the calendar during the Shang Dynasty. The worshiping activities from this period form the current way the festival is celebrated, which include gifting food, clothes and harvest to the ancestors for blessings and peace at the end of each year. Other traditions are hanging red signs with the Chinese character fu, 福(“happiness”) on front doors along with red lanterns.

The Lunar New Year is one of the world’s most celebrated festivals taking place in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia. The New Year celebrations also results in the largest annual mass human migration in the world. As per the official estimate, the number of trips during chunyunin 2019 is expected to be 0.6 percent higher than 2018, with almost three billion trips to be made between January 21stand March 1st. According to Xinhua News Agency, to account for this mass travel period, China launched 10 new railways at the end of 2018 along with facial recognition software and ticket-less travel systems “to ease congestion and improve passenger movement at train stations.” (Gupta, 2019).

To all readers of the Confucian Weekly Bulletin, we wish you New Year happiness! (Xinnian kuaile, 新年快乐) for 2019.