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.

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