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Sexuality in Taiwan and the Objectification of the Female Body

As I have mentioned in my previous post, we cannot understand the peculiar – mostly negative – way in which the Taiwanese public perceives women who go clubbing, if we do not examine the historical development of the position and self-perception of women in the Chinese-speaking world. In this post, I would like to attempt a very brief analysis of this issue.

In traditional Chinese society, women enjoyed a low position in the familial hierarchy, which was structured on the basis of inequality: the older came before the younger, the male came before the female. Therefore, in traditional Chinese families there was a distinction between superior, inferior and complementary social roles (see Lang 1946, p. 24).

As Patricia B. Ebrey explains:

Confucianism, including classical and Han Confucianism, provided a view of the cosmos and social order that legitimated the Chinese patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal family system. Confucian emphasis on obligations to patrilineal ancestors and Confucian exaltation of filial piety contributed to a moral order in which families were central to human identity and to a family system organized hierarchically so that men and older generations had considerable power over women and younger generations (Ebrey 2003, pp. 11-12).


That the Taiwanese family did not differ much from the general social pattern in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world, has been documented by scholars such as Margery Wolf (see for example: The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Family).

The result of this Confucian worldview was that the woman existed as a function of the man’s filial piety, or otherwise as a function of the man’s desire for pleasure. 

The family system of China was organised around the kinship and lineage of men. The patrilineal principle, the worship of the male ancestral line in a lineage hall, was instrumental in controlling women, their social roles and sexuality … 

Implicit in the traditional status of women in the patriarchal family system was that their position, because of cultural and religious beliefs, was comparable to that of an ‘outsider’. Family interest might thus dictate and justify the sacrifice of a female member, including her disposal in a commercial transaction … (Maria Jaschok / Suzanne Miers [edit.]: Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude and Escape1994, p. 80).


Therefore, the woman’s social role was either that of the filial daughter, wife and mother who helped the man fulfill his own filial duties by serving his parents and bearing him male heirs. Or she lived as a courtesan, outside of the family system, but often striving to enter it. 

This attitude towards women is well documented and has partly survived until recent times, and in some respects even until today. For instance, Margery Wolf wrote about the problem of young women sent out to work as prostitutes in 1960s Taiwan. These women would be regarded as particularly filial, for they repaid their debt to their parents “more completely than other young women” (see Susan Mann: Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History 2012, chapter 2).
The point I would like to emphasise here is that women were taught to see themselves as instruments of male family planning or male sexual pleasure. However, it would be wrong to think that women were simply victims of a patriarchal system. In fact, men were also the instrument through which women could achieve social advancement and personal fulfillment. Women “were not merely passive agents in this system: many played active roles in keeping the system going. Mothers trained their daughters to occupy certain statuses in this system, fostering in them the modesty expected of upper-class wives, the charm expected in courtesans, the obedience expected in maids” (Ebrey 2003, p. 13).

Keith McMahon’s masterly study on polygamy in Ming and Qing Dynasty fiction shows that women were not simply passive servants of men; many of them sought to manipulate men for their own purposes. In order to do this, women first had to accept the logic of the system, and then use the system itself to their own advantage. From this perspective, marriage and sexuality in imperial China appear as a network of male-women relationships that define power, prestige, and filiality. A central part of this system was polygamy, which was practiced mostly by the ruling elites:

[P]olygamy was a model of success, a kind of perfected form of marriage aspired to by lower-class men and even women (who would rise by becoming concubines or chambermaids in wealthy households, for instance). The access to multiple sexual partners, whether marital or not, was legalized, glorified, and widely enjoyed by Ming and Qing men, a great number of whom were the most powerful and competitive members of their local and national elites. To be sure, polygamy was not the model or ideal for every man and woman; and in fact Monogamy was the usual form of marriage, while polygamy was a matter of privilege and means (Keith McMahon: Misers, Shrews, and Polygamists: Sexuality and Male-Female Relations in Eighteenth-Century Chinese Fiction 2012, Chapter I).

McMahon does not stop there, however. He takes his reasoning further: “Although polygamy has now been outlawed and almost entirely shamed out of existence …” he asks, “what still remains in its aftermath?” (ibid.)
Contemporary examples seem to show a trend that is particularly fascinating. On the one hand, the status of women has greatly improved; they have become economically independent, have access to high education, and have freedom to live their own lives without external restraints (in which they are helped by the Western-inspired legislation most East Asian countries have adopted over the last few decades). 

On the other hand, however, they have not stopped seeing themselves as inferior to men and as recipients of male care and support. Consequently, men’s duties have somewhat increased, while women’s have decreased. Women expect of men to be tall, have a house, a car, and a good job with a higher salary. These are all indicators of the desire of women to be taken care of by men and to be in a lower position.  Many men, too, stick to their concept of female inferiority; for example, they prefer to have women with lower education and with a docile character. Many women will consider only marrying men who, by their standards, are capable of taking care of them and giving them security. 

Let me show you two example which document the logic of marriage and family in contemporary Chinese society. The first is from Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China:

There were several ways to find a husband, and after a migrant woman landed a stable job that was the next order of business. Some girls consented to the services of a matchmaker back in the village, though that risked being paired with an unpromising young man who had never ventured far from home. Girls who had lived in Dongguan for a while sought introductions from friends, but when you met a man in the city there were things you didn’t know about him, like whether he had a wife and children back home (Chang 2008, p. 206).

[M]arriage was a filial duty; by the time a migrant worker was twenty years old, the parental pressure to wed was relentless and directed at both sexes. No one wanted to become the dreaded daling qingnian, a phrase that literally meant “aged youth” and was defined in the dictionary as “unmarried men or women between twenty-eight and thirty-five.” The traditional timetable of the village matched the city’s pragmatism: A young woman should lock in marriage early, when her value was at its peak (ibid., p. 207).

Women wanted a man with a good job and steady income. Men wanted a woman who was young and healthy. Women wanted a man who was over 1.7 meters tall—at least five feet seven inches—and had his own apartment. Men didn’t care about height or real estate but they preferred a woman with a gentle temperament …

Most of the members [of a matchmaking group] were not looking for love. They did not crave walks on the beach or hot-air balloon rides; their overriding concerns were pragmatic. HAVE AN ENTERPRISING HEART. HAVE GOOD ECONOMIC CIRCUMSTANCES. HAVE STABLE JOB AND INCOME. CAN EAT BITTERNESS. Women in particular were obsessed with height …

The preoccupation with property was not as mercenary as it appeared. Like height, apartment ownership was a marker, a sign that a man could be depended on (ibid., pp. 213-215).

Despite all the changes that have occurred in Chinese society, these ideas about marriage show an astounding continuity between contemporary and traditional culture. When looking for a partner, it is not love or personality that matter most, but whether one can fulfill the social role assigned to him or her by society.

The second example is from Zheng Tiantian’s study on prostitution in Dalian, Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China:

[T]he identities of the hostesses do have a central, unifying axis: the persona of the filial daughter. The distinction between the Chinese hostesses and Western sex workers could also explain the surprising marriageability of Chinese sex workers. In China, the notion of chastity is fluid, and female virtue is defined first and foremost by filiality.  

As long as the hostesses subordinate their sex lives to their filial obligations, this mitigates social criticism. Given the importance of filiality, they have in some sense proven themselves to be worthy and virtuous women. Filiality gives them a modicum of power in Chinese society. Thus, women use filiality, an ideology that essentially oppresses them (from a social science perspective) to endow themselves with a degree of power (from the perspective of their individual life histories). But in so doing they reinforce the structure that oppresses them (Zheng 2009, p. 213) … 

[A] twenty-year-old rural woman from Hunan, explained to me that the key to being a successful hostess was the ability to establish a stable relationship with the customer and then to exploit him. To reach this goal, as she and many other hostesses emphasized, the hostess needed to play on the customer’s expectations and the stereotypes of how a hostess should act (ibid., p. 214). 

Referring to what a hostess told her, Zheng Tiantian writes:

“Fang [a hostess] joined the company in order to get closer to the powerful men there. Every day she dressed up very womanly and appeared very gentle and pure in front of the boss”; with these words, Lin was mimicking Fang’s demeanor, casting her eyes down and looking very subservient. She continued, “She had the techniques to convey her devotion and romantic feelings to the boss. She finally succeeded in hooking up with him and became his second wife.” Needless to say, with her changed status, she obtained financial mobility (ibid., p. 223).

When about a year ago I interviewed Meimei, a Hong Kong escort, I found a stunning similarity between what she told me and the pattern described above. Meimei, too, wanted to be a filial daughter by selling her body so as to earn money to buy her parents a flat and give them financial security. Moreover, she dreamt of finding a customer that could marry her. Marrying a rich man would both fulfill her need for financial security and make her a “respectable” woman.

The Female Body as an Instrument 


Interestingly enough, many women in Taiwan seem to accept the idea that the way in which they look and act may help them advance their status in a male-dominated world. A Westerner might think that this attitude is submissive and humiliating. However, one should not think that women are necessarily damaged by their acceptance of social roles. Rather, if they have internalised the mechanisms of power-relations and have come to consider them as naturally given facts which can never be changed, they will actively contribute to the maintenance of this system and use it to achieve as many benefits as they can. 

As a consequence, employing the right techniques to serve the male ideal of beauty and femininity, as well as taking care of their appearance in order to seduce men, will be seen as useful instruments to find a good marriage partner and in certain cases to advance their own position in the workplace (see also my post about the cult of cuteness in East Asian societies). 

I found this huge ad of a beauty clinic in Taipei Main Station.   


From this point of view, the main difference between Western and Eastern concepts of sexuality is that the first tends to have hedonistic purposes pursued by individuals, while the latter is a reflection of given power structures inside a society dominated by hierarchy and social roles.  

This would explain the extreme amount of attention that certain individuals in Taiwan and other East Asian countries give to appearance and “proper” feminine behaviour (provided, of course, that they – more or less consciously – accept the premises of the system, and certainly not everyone does). This interpretation would also explain why a large number of women willingly try to fulfill the requirements of male desires and fantasies by sexualising and objectifying their bodies. 

Examples of this are the frequency of and motivation behind plastic surgery (you can read this interesting article, though I don’t completely agree with the argument that Asians want to look ‘Caucasian’) and women who dress in a sexy way and act demurely and flirtatiously in public displays of “femininity” as men see it. The following two videos are examples of commercialisation of the female body and of women who act in a cute, demure, and meek way, but also appear flirtatious and sexual, in order to satisfy the male understanding of femininity.

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