Taiwan Too10 min read

How the suicide of a female author sparked Taiwan’s Me Too movement – Jessie Tu 

In February 2017, indie-press Guerrilla published a novel by 26-year old Taiwanese author Lin Yi-Han, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise. The story follows a young girl who is raped by her cram school teacher over a period of five years, beginning from the time she was 13 years old. The book sold more than 200,000 copies in Taiwan, and has been translated into Korean, Japanese and Thai. Speculations arose that the novel was based on the author’s own life when, two months after publication, she died by suicide.

Despite Lin’s public denial before her death that the novel was not autobiographical, it was widely reported that she’d attempted suicide several times before her death, and that the cause of her depression was the years of abuse she suffered at the hands one male teacher. Before her death, Lin was an outspoken advocate for mental illness and had been admitted into psychiatric clinics since the age of 16. In an interview with an online critic before her death, Lin said: “I don’t want people to think of Si-Chi (the protagonist in the novel) as just another fictional character. I want people to sympathise with her.” The preface of the book reads: “The characters in this novel were adapted from real people.” 

After her death, the Taiwanese government established a law requiring the names of teachers to be publicly accessible, and forced regular police checks on teachers. Lin’s parents released a statement accusing a male teacher in his 50s, well-known throughout the country, of perpetrating the acts detailed in the novel, and of driving their daughter to her death. He was taken to trial, but the case was dropped on account of “a lack of credible evidence.” When interviewed, the man claimed he’d entered a relationship with Lin when she was 18 – of consenting age in Taiwan. One news site published an op-ed by a Taiwanese journalist who said the legal investigation was conducted only to calm an indignant public.

In the publisher’s media release for Lin’s book, comparable titles include Nabokov’s Lolita, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and the 2017 debut novel My Absolute Darling by American author Gabriel Tallent. All these books tell the story of young girls who are abused by men. Two of them involve male perpetrators who are significantly older; all of them involve victims under the age of 15. Does it really take the death of a promising young author to begin this conversation?

Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise is divided into three sections: ‘Paradise’, ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’. The tenor of the narration is steady and calm. Our protagonist, Fang Si-Chi, is an astute, high-achieving teenager. Her best friend, Liu I-Ting, lives with her family on the same floor in a high-rise luxury apartment building in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city. One day, I-Ting stumbles upon Si-Chi’s diary. She opens it and reads about the first time her friend is raped by their teacher:

“I brought my composition 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.”

When I read that last line, I felt the familiar torsion in my brain – a visceral flare that hits me over the head like a rude slap. I knew the feeling well, because I too, have apologised for crimes enacted against me. I too, am a young Taiwanese woman (I was born in Taiwan, migrating to Australia at the age of four), and I too had my body’s integrity compromised by an older man. I know that the first thing to spark the mind after a traumatic incident is a question – ‘What did I do wrong?’

As in South Korea, identifying as a feminist in Taiwan attracts suspicion”

Lin’s novel was published five months before the eruption of the #MeToo movement in the fall of 2017, beginning in the U.S before spreading globally. It revealed yet another story of sexual abuse perpetrated by a male figure of authority, depicting the destruction of a young girl’s body and personhood. Taking the name of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost for her second section was a bold decision by Lin. But the entire novel is bold. Despite an immediate public firestorm that followed her death, the controversial themes in the novel remain stuck in the broader Taiwanese public’s peripheral vision – together with other uneasy and complex issues concerning sex, abuse and intimacy.

Taiwan is unique for its dissonant layers of social-political ideology. Its rapid development of multiparty democracy and remarkable economic success in the last few decades has left a population living in progressive urban enclaves grinding against older communities who remain invested in patriarchal Chinese values. Traditional attitudes such as filial honour, reverence towards elders and the importance of saving face continue to shimmer underneath the tenor of everyday life in Taiwan, like a dormant volcano waiting to erupt.

Despite having a female president, the strongest representation of women in any Asian parliament, and a progressive image as East Asia’s champion for LGBT rights (same sex marriage was legalized earlier this year) conservative gender expectations in Taiwan remain embedded within older legal and social structures. These structures function as barriers preventing a mass mobilisation of support for true gender equality.

As in South Korea, identifying as a feminist in Taiwan attracts suspicion. In a patriarchal, traditional Asian society, women suffer from oppressive standards of femininity, and are often tasked with fulfilling feminine-coded stereotypical roles. In mainland China, penalties for not fulfilling these roles are severe, as examined by Leta Hong Fincher in her powerful book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China (both reviewed and excerpted on the China Channel).

The victim-blaming rhetoric around rape culture also exists in Taiwan’s courts, where it is not uncommon for judges to ask a victim, ‘Did you refuse him when he came onto you? Do you have any evidence to prove you refused? If you weren’t willing, why have you previously had a relationship with the defendant?’
 In Taiwan, this story of victimhood permeates a spectrum of other factors, including traditional gender roles, Buddhist ideology, Confucian hierarchy – all operating within a collectivist, patriarchal society. Women who insist on being the centre of attention are seen as self-important. In East Asian culture, humility is a critical social trait, especially for women.

Crystal Liu, the 24-year-old founder of Taiwan’s Women’s March, told me that many people refuse to acknowledge the gender division and imbalance in Taiwan, prefering to believe gender equality has been achieved on account of there being a female president. “Some people are not familiar with sexual harassment and assault,” she said. “There isn’t much education or discussion of such topics, so it’s still taboo.” Incidents of sexual abuse by teachers against students occur frequently in Taiwan. It is difficult for a victim to negotiate the complexities of a crime enacted against them, because often they are young and raised in a society that does not provide them with the language to talk about sexual encounters, consensual or not.

Taiwanese society at large, especially outside the major cities, remains shrouded behind a veil of taboos that paralyses any attempt to discuss sexual matters. It’s a topic that invites so much discomfort that many adults choose not to address it. When you’re young, you learn about sex and love from movies and television shows. In November last year, more than half of respondents in the national referendum voted against introducing sex education to school-aged children.

Lin’s novel grapples with the complex emotions of love, sex and misused power in a candid, unrepentant tone. Is it a sexual awakening? Or a tale of malicious sexual abuse? “Is this love?” Si-Chi asks herself in the novel. “If this is love, why does it feel so violent? And why does he take other girls into his room too?” When she describes her feelings after being raped, her self-disgust is visceral and uncompromising: “It is too dirty. Self-esteem is often a needle that hurts oneself, but here, self-esteem will sew my mouth.” 

The protagonist’s quiet, unhinged psychosis leads to memory lapses: “I often wake up and don’t remember where I am. Sometimes I stay in bed all day. I wake and don’t have an impression of what I’ve done all day.” In trying to negotiate a difficult reality, she wills herself into self-delusion: “If I love him too, it would be love-making. A long, and beautiful night of love-making.” She screams after being raped. “Little little slut,” she tells herself. “I need to love Teacher, otherwise, if would be too much pain.”

Does it really take the death of a promising author to begin this conversation?”

Just as Si-Chi alters her psychology to tolerate the abuse, perhaps Lin also, through her construction of a narrative, was testing the elasticity of her own resilience, her quiet fortitude, the weight of which became, in the end, too unbearable to live with.

After Lin’s death, the Taiwanese feminist website Womany created a page titled ‘There is more than one Fang Si-Chi in the world’, publishing hundreds of victims’ accounts. What startles me, after reading all of them, is how similar they are. The perpetrators are all men. They are all in positions of power. The victims are all prepubescent girls. The self-blame is pungent throughout all the accounts. “When the incident happened, we first reviewed ourselves,” one anonymous female wrote. “Society told us to blame ourselves, and I did. I apologised for losing my control.” Another woman, who was assaulted by her teacher, was told by a case worker “You shouldn’t have seduced him.”

Many women I spoke to in Taiwan told me that these constrained ideologies of feminine morality are often policed by other women. Crystal Liu echoed these sentiments: “Instead of telling women how to protect themselves or seek help, people advise them not to stay out late and even blame the women for getting themselves into trouble.”

The Confucian virtue of obedience and subordination continue to marginalise and oppress women in Taiwan, just as they do across Asia. The fear of shame and public ostracism leads victims to self-silence. And this silence is murdering young women. Just this week, South Korean K-pop star Goo Hara was found dead in her home in Seoul, a suspected death by suicide. She was 28. Last month, fellow actress and pop star Sulli, 25, also killed herself. Both women were victims of vicious online criticism and cyberbullying.

Saving face is the priority, and the other Asian value of filial piety compounds the problem. When a female victim speaks out about trauma, she does not just throw herself under the bus, but her entire family. To speak about a crime can tarnish a family’s reputation in the public eye, and reputation is everything.

The lack of precedent for cases which successfully brings a powerful man to justice means that Taiwanese women are reluctant to come forward to tell their stories. Speaking out is a risk; it is psychically arduous and emotionally taxing. Consequently, the crime of sexual assault has no face in Taiwan, no language, and no name. Nameless and faceless things cannot be destroyed. They will continue to fester in the dark, hidden. ∎

Header: Water taxis in Kaoshiung (Ted McGrath on Flickr).