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In 1959 the renowned American anthropologist and sinologist Arthur P. Wolf went on a study trip to Taiwan with his wife Margery. They spent two years in the house of the Lims, a “joint” family who lived in a small village in the countryside. Living side by side for a long period of time with a traditional Taiwanese family allowed the American couple to gain deep insight into the society and culture of the island.

This experience prompted Margery Wolf to write an account of those years, a book that is today almost forgotten, like many other great books, but which, more than fifty years after its publication, is still worth reading.

The House of Lim describes the life of rural Taiwan at a time when the modernization of its economy and society was still in its infancy. She depicts a world in which the old Confucian family system dominated life in an almost totalitarian way. Individuals were embedded in a network of relationships based on formality, hierarchy, social roles, and obligations.

As we shall see, the “harmony” that was typical of the traditional family structure did not derive from mutual understanding or lack of conflicts among its members, but rather from the compliance with formal norms of behaviour. Everyone had to accept the hierarchy and duties of the Confucian family, and whoever refused to do so was considered an outsider, an outcast, despised by his parents and relatives for not fulfilling their obligations. This social order was not based on true feelings. It didn’t matter if a husband loved his wife, or if a daughter-in-law hated her parents-in-law etc. What was expected of every family member was compliance with ancient norms.

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Below are a few passages from Margery Wolf’s The House of Lim in which she portrays the life of the Lim family:

The interaction of the Taiwanese villager with his friends and neighbors is like the spice in his soup, savory but of little sustenance. It is with his family, his parents and grandparents, his children and grandchildren, that he takes the measure of his life. His relations with his parents may be strained, with his wife distant, and with his children formal, but without these people he would be an object of pity and of no small amount of suspicion. He would be pitied because he had no parents to “help” him and no children to support him in his old age, pitied because he had no place in a group, because he didn’t belong anywhere …

A man not thoroughly imbedded in a network of kinship cannot be completely trusted because he cannot be dealt with in the normal way. If he behaves improperly, one cannot discuss his behaviour with his brother or seek redress from his parents. If one wants to approach him about a delicate matter, one cannot use his uncle as a go-between to prepare the way. 

A visitor to the home might conclude that these arrangements function quite smoothly. The family’s meals are always well cooked and served at regular times; the children are usually as neat or neater than the neighbors’ children; the house is kept reasonably clean and in good repair; the family’s land is always cultivated and the general appearance of the fields is neat and orderly; the factory seems busy most of the time. In short, the various members of the family perform their particular duties efficiently and effectively. To see the less fortunate effects, one has to look beneath the surface of the family’s daily routines. As Lim Chui-ieng once told me, “If you look at the face of our family, it looks good, but if you look at its bones, it’s not like that.” In the “bones” of the family there is ceaseless friction […]. [F]or the most part their conflict is wordless, expressed only by the emotional distance between them, but on occasions the tempers flare, revealing the true intensity of the tensions below.

A bride comes to her new home as a complete stranger, both to the family and to her husband. For the first year or two she has the duties of, and little more status than, a servant. She is expected to release her mother-in-law from the drudgery of cleaning and cooking, bring her morning tea, help her dress, and see to her comfort in every way. In the days of Lim Han-ci, a bride also had the humiliating task of washing her mother-in-law’s foot bindings and rewrapping the twisted, deformed feet. She was expected to serve her father-in-law’s meals whenever he wished them, with her eyes lowered and her mouth shut. [T]o her husband, a man whom she had not met until the day of her marriage, she was also subservient. If ill temper prompted him to beat her, she must accept it without complaint. She was expected to provide his meals, keep his clothes in order, and, in the old days, make his and the rest of the family’s cloth shoes. Above all, she was expected to provide the family with a son – the means of continuing their line of descent. the life of a bride today is considerably less onerous, but there has been no change in the family’s primary requirement of her. Until she produces a son, she has no secure place in the family (Margery Wolf: The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Family, 1968, pp. 23,  35, 39).