The “Savage” Women of Pre-Colonial Taiwan
My notes from reading ”An Island of Beautiful Women: The Discourse on Gender in Ch’ing Travel Accounts of Taiwan” by Emma Teng, a chapter in the book Women in the New Taiwan: Gender Roles and Gender Consciousness in a Changing Society. Wish some of the pages weren’t missing from Google Books…
- Western colonialism was not the only civilization to use feminization as a tool to justify colonialism—the Chinese did it too, to Taiwan.
- Qing dynasty Chinese travel writers used to write that on Taiwan, "The savages value woman and undervalue man." This was a direct call out to the Confucian saying of “value man and undervalue woman.” Scandalous.
- The Chinese colonists of Taiwan didn’t get it. Teng says they probably thought they had stumbled upon the mystical Kingdom of Women (an Amazon-like ancient Chinese myth.) The Kingdom of Women was actually a common Chinese literary trope from as early as the Six Dynasties (222-589 AD). Chinese writers were super fascinated by the “savage women” of Taiwan who “took the lead while the men followed” because it made a fantasy setting real. To the Chinese, Taiwan was a bizarre “mirror” fantasy world due to the gender inversion. Teng argues that the discourse of gender was used to represent Taiwan as “savage.”
Colonial dominance was represented in terms of Chinese access to indigenous women. These Taiwanese women were ethnographically written in a hypersexualized manner—they would be framed as more erotic and promiscuous than the modest Chinese woman.
"Record of the Eastern Savages "by Ch’en Ti is the only first hand account of Taiwan from the Ming dynasty. This is one of the only Chinese accounts of Taiwan from the Dutch colony/Koxinga era. "Record of the Eastern Savages" established some of the earliest travel diary tropes about Taiwan. Chinese writers in the Qing Dynastry then wrote and popularized ethnographic travel accounts to Taiwan.
- "The depiction of Taiwan as a matriarchal land can be regarded as part of a long tradition of southern exoticism in classical Chinese literature." Teng notes that other non-Han Chinese groups and lands were described in similar ways. Non-Han women were hypersexualized (so sensual) and dehumanized (they give birth like a cow with no issues!) in narratives .
"Cultural Shock" themes in these Chinese travel accounts about "the savages" included:
- Uxorilocal marriage— Taiwanese women were considered a part of their family of origin even after getting married. Husbands would even move into the wife’s family. This freaked out the Chinese colonists.
- A preference for female children. (whaaaa?)
- Matrilienal inheritance (given the uxorilocal marriage practice, that makes sense, actually.)
- Taiwanese women’s “sexual assertiveness”— in contrast to arranged marriage systems in China.
- Division of labor—women did the farming (scandalous) while men did the hunting (how lazy)
- Female local chiefs and tribal heads. Women in leadership positions? whaaa?
- Women were not sequestered or secluded Lots of physical contact and men and women sitting together in the same place..
- The nakedness of the “savage women” and their bathing habits. Of course.
Predictably, the number of rights women had, the role of the husband in moving in with the wife’s family, etc. were used by Chinese colonists to “feminize” and “infantilize” Taiwanese aborigine men. Chinese observers argued that indigenous men were “womanlike” because they did not have facial hair. The Chinese wrote that because the indigenous Taiwanese men let women farm for them, the indigenous men were idle and dependent on women (uh, no, they were out hunting…) The writers also hypersexualized the native women and framed an ”image of Taiwan as a fantasy island where Chinese men had free license with the native women.”
Women’s bodies became battlegrounds for colonialism “contested terrain for the colonizers and colonized” as indigenous Taiwanese women married Han Chinese settlers. Yu Yung-Ho wrote that Chinese men would “take the barbarian women as their wives and concubines” and flog the disobedient ones. He noted that despite this treatment, the “barbarians did not hate” their “husbands.” (Uh huh. Haven’t heard that one before.) Since so many benshengren are descended from Chinese men and indigenous women, this is actually really fucking scary.
These Chinese writers…ugh. Teng notes that the exotification of indigenous women served two purposes. Not only was it an exotic fantasy, it was also a way for the Chinese men to slut shame and advocate for greater conservatism in gender roles for Chinese women back at home. So a writer like Wu Tzu-kuang would talk about how plain and primitive Taiwanese aborigine women were in one breath and then use the next breath to shame Chinese women for wearing cosmetics (what a slut) instead of being down to earth like the native Taiwanese.
Woman became a stand-in for the Other…the strangeness of the “savage” woman of Taiwan represented the strangeness of her culture as a whole. The native woman also served as a mediator between colonizer and colonized, and as such became a figure through which relations of desire, domination, and exchange were expressed…discourse of gender was central to the construction of ethnic difference in [Qing] travel writing…representations of “savage” gender relations thus in large reflected Chinese interests and cannot be read as reliable observations of indigenous life.
Teng notes the figure of the indigenous “mountain woman” is still a stereotype in modern day Taiwan and the de-facto representation of indigenous culture to Chinese ethnics in Taiwan. The KMT used the gender inversion tropes to “civilize” the indigenous people, particularly targeting the role of women, the “vehicles for transmission of Chinese culture.” Indigenous women are commodified even to this day— used to market tourism brochures and used as photo opportunities at Wulai and Taroko Gorge. They are also disproportionately represented in illegal underage sex trafficking and sex tourism. Stereotypes about promiscuity and wantonness, combined with poverty, greatly influence this treatment.