“I Felt Like I Was Drowning”: On Women’s Rights in Taiwan




IN FEBRUARY 2017, Taiwanese indie press Guerrilla published a novel by a first-time author named Lin Yi-Han. Lin was the only child of a well-respected dermatologist in Tainan, one of Taiwan’s largest cities on its west coast. She was a top performing student during high school — beautiful, smart, bookish yet popular — but she was also privately struggling with a hell she had no language for. At 16, she began admitting herself to psychiatric clinics in the capital, Taipei, and was in and out for the next several years. Mainstream publishers refused to take her on as an author, believing her mental illness would be bad for publicity.

The novel follows a 13-year-old girl who is groomed and raped by her literature teacher for a number of years. The candid, raw descriptions of sexual abuse enraged some readers in a country where private matters are seldom aired publicly. Yet the book became an instant best seller. Lin gave several interviews on television and in print, deflecting questions about whether her protagonist’s experience reflected her own, and focusing instead on the craft of her writing. Two months after the release of her book, Lin was found dead in her apartment by her husband. She died by suicide. She was 26 years old.

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After Lin’s death, speculation arose that her novel was actually a factual account of the abuse she suffered at the hands of a well-known teacher she had in high school: 55-year-old Chen Guo Xing. Chen was taken to trial, accused of perpetrating the abuse detailed in the novel and of driving Lin to her death. (The preface of the book reads: “The characters in this novel are adapted from real people.”) The book was not permitted as evidence in the trial. Chen claimed that he’d entered into a sexual relationship with Lin when she was 18, above the age of consent. He was released due to “lack of credible evidence.”

In Taiwan’s educational system, the powerful often act with impunity. This is, in part, due to Taiwan’s cultural ideology of reverence toward the elder — you do not question what a teacher asks of you. A historically entrenched system of power imbalances still holds sway over cultural institutions, and even over the legal system.

Last year in South Korea, the most tweeted social issue hashtag was #SchoolMeToo, with high school students tweeting stories of abuse at the hands of teachers. In Taiwan, abuse in academia is also rampant. The premium on academic success gives teachers overwhelming power, overriding concerns for a student’s comfort and safety. This is an especially dangerous situation in a country where gendered violence is so common. The rate of domestic abuse across the island is among the highest in Asia.

In July last year, more than 15,000 gathered in Daehangno, a neighborhood in central Seoul, to protest against violence against women. Two months later, 60,000 people attended a rally, named “Uncomfortable Courage” in Hyehwa. In Taiwan, there have been comparable rallies for independence and for LGBTQI rights, but rarely for women’s issues.

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When I was in Taiwan earlier this year, I spoke to the founder of Taipei’s Women’s March, Crystal Liu, who told me many believe Taiwan has achieved gender equality. We met in a traditional Taiwanese tea house one afternoon as the sky began to darken underneath low, layered clouds. Inside, the tables were ankle high, and we sat cross-legged on flimsy cushions. I’d attended the march the previous week, and told her I was disappointed by the low number of attendees. Roughly 100 people walked from one part of the city to another. The weather might have had something to do with it — it rained heavily all day.

Liu told me that the women’s movement in Taiwan dates back to the early 1970s, but that the stigma around women’s issues remains high, preventing women from speaking out. “Some people are not familiar with sexual harassment and assault, as there isn’t much education, resources, or discussion of such topics,” she told me.

That day, the news reported that a woman had been evicted from her apartment after accusing a man of sexually assaulting her. The landlord told the woman that she was “too pretty,” that she invited the assault on herself, and asked her to leave “for causing trouble.”

Many women I spoke to in Taiwan told me that ideologies of good feminine behavior are often policed by their fellow women. Liu echoes these sentiments. “Instead of telling women how to protect themselves or seek help, women advise other women not to stay out late and even blame the women for getting themselves into trouble,” she says.

Taiwanese courts are known to practice victim-blaming: it is not uncommon for judges to ask a victim, “Did you refuse him when he came onto you?” “Do you have any evidence that to prove you refused?” “If you weren’t willing, why have you always had a relationship with the defendant?” The story is often taken away from the woman and reimagined by the media, which, in Taiwan, consists primarily of seven 24-hour news channels with sensationalist, often unethical reporting standards.

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When Lin discovered she was not the only girl Chen had “groomed,” she attempted to report him to police. At this point, she was still involved with him, and the police told her that since she was 18 and in a consensual relationship, there would be no grounds to charge him. In fact, Lin would be convicted of the crime of adultery, since the teacher was married to another woman. As a result, Lin would be the criminal and the teacher’s wife would be the wounded party in the affair. Often, the wife withdraws charges against her husband. Attorney Lee Yen-jong said all her adultery cases follow the same pattern: the husband is let off the hook, and the third party (often a woman) is convicted. “Women always end up blaming the affair on the other woman,” she said. “It’s never the man’s fault. Women blame other women.”

I visited Lee in her law office on the fifth floor of an art deco building in Zhongzheng near the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall on a Wednesday afternoon. The walls in the foyer were marbled black and the glossy tiled floors reflected the beige ceiling lights. The meeting room where we sat to talk looked out onto the beautiful grounds of the hall. Lee sat across from me in a black cotton wrap-around and offered me tea and water. “Women often end up dropping cases against their husbands,” she told me. “Wives forgive their husbands because they rely financially on them. They are economically bound to them: it’s the safer alternative.”

On the day of Lin’s death, a 27-year-old woman was sentenced to seven months in prison for her involvement with her 50-year-old married professor. The professor’s wife withdrew charges against him after he claimed the young woman had “lured” him into the affair. The affair had lasted more than a year, during which time the woman had two abortions, for which the professor paid. After her conviction, the woman attempted to mobilize support against the teacher from other female students, who all claimed to her in private conversation that he’d forcibly tried to have sex with them. None of the women were willing to speak publicly.

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Since Lin’s death in April 2017, at least 16 women in Taiwan have been murdered by a male intimate partner, often in gruesome ways. In May 2018, a 28-year-old fitness instructor killed his girlfriend and dismembered her body into eight pieces, placing them into as many bags. Two days later, he died by suicide. In a note, he’d written: “She wronged me.”

In the same month, a 67-year-old man murdered his wife after she asked for a divorce. He died by suicide on the same day, after dismembering his wife’s body. Later that week, a 37-year-old man killed a woman. He dismembered the woman’s body and placed the pieces into bags before discarding them in a park outside the city center. I found photos of these bags in Taiwanese online news publications. These deaths turned my indignation into a kind of panic.

Two days later, the most high-profile case of 2018 occurred — that of the Huashan archery murder. On the afternoon of May 31, 2018, a 30-year-old woman attended her weekly archery lesson held at Taipei’s Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a popular community and creative arts space at the center of the city. Her teacher was a 37-year-old man who hired out a space for the purpose of teaching traditional martial archery. After the lesson, the two gathered at the man’s studio for drinks. He mixed her two drinks, adding Kaoliang liquor to her beer with the intention of intoxicating her. She became drunk and asked for a place to lie down. She quickly fell asleep. During the night, according to the confession the man made to police two weeks later, he climbed on top of the woman and tried to have sex with her. She woke up and pushed him off. He told the court: “I was angry she resisted me, so I used both hands and strangled her.”

The woman’s body remained inside his studio for two days. “It started to smell,” he said. The police found a 15-centimeter fillet knife in the man’s home two days later, which he admitted to using to cut the woman’s body into seven pieces and putting them into separate plastic bags. He transported the bags to a popular national park, eight miles north of the city. A week later, the police discovered the woman’s breasts inside the man’s refrigerator in his apartment.

Within days, major media outlets came out to criticize a small group of artists who’d hired the space where the murder took place. The conservative media blamed the “loose morals” of the artists, whose  “alternative lifestyles” had, they claimed, led to the woman’s death. Any suggestion of misogyny or toxic masculinity behind the atrocities was never mentioned, save by a few independent journalists, most of them educated in the West. 

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In Taiwan, the fear of shame and public ostracism leads to the self-silencing of victims for whom saving face is the most urgent priority. A lack of precedent for speaking out, as well as the difficulty of successfully bringing a powerful man to justice, means that women in Taiwan are reluctant to come forward to tell their stories. Speaking out publicly about an incident from your past is psychically arduous and emotionally taxing, and it rarely bears fruit. Add to this an ingrained ideology of gendered behavior, according to which a woman, exhibiting traditionally “male” traits — such as assertiveness — is unacceptable, and this is reinforced by Taiwanese media, which refuse to take women’s stories seriously.

Even so, the legal response to the spate of violent crimes in the last decade baffles me. In 2012, a four-year-old boy was stabbed and killed in broad daylight while he was playing in a park. Four years later, a girl of the same age was decapitated in a park by a 34-year-old male. Two years later, four adults were randomly stabbed in the subway and killed. All the perpetrators were men, and all were presented by the media as suffering from “mental illness.”

The White Rose movement was born from these incidents and many other violent, sometimes sexual crimes. It calls on the legislature to increase sentencing laws for violent crimes and to eliminate judges who are deemed too lenient. The movement also called for the return of the death penalty. Recently, in her book Charged: A New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, Emily Bazelon argues that mandatory minimum sentencing and higher prosecution rates don’t necessarily reduce crime. Taiwan, like the United States, has a judicial model of retribution as opposed to rehabilitation. A better solution to this endemic problem in both countries would be to educate young men out of the patriarchal view that women and children are essentially property.

For instance, abortion: it is legal in Taiwan, but only under certain conditions. A woman may obtain an abortion only if the fetus is the result of rape or incest, or if carrying the fetus to term poses health risks to either the mother or child. Furthermore, if you’re married, a minor, or “mentally ill,” you must gain spousal, parental, or guardian authorization to obtain the procedure. 

Where are the rallying cries against such blatantly sexist, discriminatory laws? Where are the public conversations calling out the misogynistic, victim-blaming rhetoric of the media?

In last November’s referendum, the country voted against implementing Proposition 15, which stated that the national education system should stress the importance of gender equality, and offer sex education. Sexual topics are considered unmentionable even in the home, let alone in the schoolroom. I grew up watching movies where my father would yelp each time a love scene came on and tell me to cover my eyes. It was as though physical intimacy was reprehensible and disgusting.

There’s no campaign or action to normalize sex, and thus Taiwanese children grow up without the language to explain or describe their desires and feelings. According to Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother, in China (as in Taiwan) there is an “appalling lack of rights-based sex education, resulting in the strong policing of women’s sexual behavior, widespread ignorance about sex, the vast majority of parents avoiding talking about sex with their children.”

In Lin’s novel, the protagonist is raped by her teacher one afternoon:

I brought my writing book downstairs for Mr. Li to correct. He took his thing out and I was forced against the wall. He uttered seven words: “If you can’t, then use your mouth.” I said six words: “I can’t, I don’t know how.” And then he shoved it in. I felt like I was drowning. When I could speak again, I told my teacher “Sorry.” As though I had done poorly on an assignment.

A few days later, she asks her mother why there is no sex education at school and why she hasn’t spoken to her about sex. Her mother says, “Talking about sex is for people who are looking to have sex. You are too young, so there’s nothing for you to know. You don’t need to know.” The young narrator constantly describes herself as “[d]irty, like rotten milk.”

Did Lin feel her innocence was irretrievable? Perhaps she was unable to imagine a life of freedom. In Taiwan, her womanhood became her fate — her past trauma was inextricable from her future.

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Some incidents cited in this essay were also cited in the author’s article in the South China Morning Post.

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Jessie Tu is a Taiwanese-Australian writer and journalist. Her debut novel A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thingwill be published in June 2019 by Allen & Unwin.

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Banner image: “Street Scene with Pedestrian – Taipei – Taiwan” by Adam Jonesis licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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