The Traditional Roots of Parental Pressure and Academic Success in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan


Song Dynasty Imperial Examination, 11th century illustration (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Chinese state media once called China a “world superpower in stress“. According to a 2012 survey, 75% of Chinese workers are stressed, compared with 47% in the United States, 42% in the United Kingdom, and 58% in Germany. Over 70% percent of Chinese white-collar workers suffer from overwork, which poses a serious risk to their health. China Daily cites rising home prices, long working hours, overtime work and living costs as the main sources of stress.

A survey showed that almost 70% of Chinese women believe that a man must have a house and earn more than 4,000 yuan (USD 634) a month in order to have a relationship with a woman and eventually ask for marriage. “The concept of marriage in China is becoming more practical nowadays,” China Daily quoted a Shanghai professor as saying. “No matter how self-confident a woman is, she will feel she is losing face if her boyfriend or husband doesn’t have a home.” Continue reading


The 228 Incident – The Uprising that Changed Taiwan’s History

228 Incident (The Terrible Inspection), circa 1947, by Li Jun
At 11:00 A.M. of February 27, 1947, Taipei City’s Monopoly Bureau was informed that a boat carrying fifty boxes of illegal matches and cigarettes had arrived near the port of Danshui, north of Taipei. Matches and cigarettes were part of the system of government monopolies set up by the Guomindang regime after the Republic of China (ROC) had taken over the administration of Taiwan from the Japanese in 1945. Only traders with a special government license were allowed to sell them.
A team of investigators was dispatched to Taiping Street (present-day Yanping North Road) where it was thought the smuggled items would be sold. But there was no trace of the dealers. Instead, the investigators bumped into a street vendor, a forty-year-old widow. The officials, believing that the woman was selling contraband goods, confiscated the cigarettes. She resisted. “If you confiscate everything,” she said, “I will not be able to eat. At least let me have my money and the cigarettes provided by the Monopoly Bureau.”

One of the investigators hit her on the head with the butt of his gun. The woman’s daughter began to cry, and soon a crowd of angry citizens gathered around the officers, demanding that the men returned the cigarettes to the woman. One of the officers panicked and shot in the crowd, killing a man.

This episode led to violent protests, which the understaffed Taipei police forces were unable to handle. While the Japanese had 208,480 military and police personnel, in 1947 the Nationalist government had only around 10,000 police officers on the whole island (see: Tse-Han Lai / Ramon H. Myers / O. Wei: A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, 1991, p. 89). On 28 February 1947, the police tried to suppress the revolt and fired in the crowd, killing several people.

The protests turned into a popular uprising that channeled the dissatisfaction of many Taiwanese people with the corruption, inefficiency and arrogance of the Guomindang administration. On March 7 (other sources say March 9), Nationalist troops landed in Keelung (Jilong). They brutally suppressed the uprising and killed thousands of people. An American reporter in Nanjing, then capital of the ROC, related eyewitnesses’ accounts of the massacre.

An American who had just arrived in China from Taihoku [Taipei] said that troops from the mainland arrived there March 7 and indulged in three days of indiscriminate killing and looting. For a time everyone seen on the streets was shot at, homes were broken into and occupants killed. In the poorer sections the streets were said to have been littered with dead. There were instances of beheadings and mutilation of bodies, and women were raped, the American said. Two foreign women, who were near at Pingtung near Takao [Kaohsiung], called the actions of the Chinese soldiers there a “massacre.”

They said unarmed Formosans [Taiwanese] took over the administration of the town peacefully on March 4 and used the local radio station to caution against violence.Chinese were well received and invited to lunch with the Formosan leaders.Later a bigger group of soldiers came and launched a sweep through the streets. The people were machine gunned. Groups were rounded up and executed. The man who had served as the town’s spokesman was killed. His body was left for a day in a park and no one was permitted to remove it.

In a speech made on March 10, China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek defended the government’s decision to put down what he described as a “disturbance” caused by “evil persons” and by a “Japanese-style deceit”:

Since our recovery of Taiwan last year, the central government regarded the state of the harmony and order in Taiwan as very satisfactory, and we did not send troops to be stationed there … [The] spirit of patriotism and self- respect [of the Taiwanese] is no different from that of the Chinese people in other provinces. Recently, however, some people formerly mobilized by the Japanese and sent to the Southeast Asian theater to fight–and some Communists among them–took advantage of the Monopoly Bureau’s smuggling case to promote their own ends and create a disturbance. 

[On] March 7, the so-called February 28th Incident Resolution Committee unexpectedly made some irrational demands. That committee demanded that the government abolish the Taiwan Garrison Command Headquarters, that the Nationalist forces surrender their weapons, and that all security organs and the army and navy be staffed only with Taiwanese. These demands go beyond the jurisdiction of the local administration, and the central government cannot accept them. Moreover, yesterday many people illegally attacked government administrative organs.

Because these incidents have repeatedly happened, the central government has decided to dispatch a military force to Taiwan to maintain security. It has been reported that a military force already has safely landed in Keelung and that harmony has been restored.

After the indiscriminate butchering perpetrated by the army, a period of organised suppression of real or presumed dissent to the regime began. “China put down the revolt with brutal repression, terror, and massacre,” wrote Peggy Durdin on May 24, 1947. “Mainland soldiers and police fired first killing thousands indiscriminately; then, more selectively, hunted down and jailed or slaughtered students, intellectuals, prominent business men, and civic leaders.”


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“The House of Lim” and the Myth of the Harmonious Chinese Family

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. Continue reading

Democracy, Mob Rule, Dictatorship: The Problem of Freedom in Ancient Athens


The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After World War II democracy began to be viewed in the West as the best possible form of government. However, a history of democratic states shows that freedom is not something to be taken for granted. Democracy is not simply “freedom for all” or “the will of the people”. It is a complex, delicate machine, a system of rules, institutions and checks and balances that can work harmoniously but can also swiftly degenerate and collapse. It appears that pro-democracy public discourse often ignores the difficulties and the inherent fragility of democracy, while anti-democracy discourse all too readily denies its benefits.

History, far from being a discipline detached from reality, can teach us that democracy should never, not a single day, be taken for granted, and that one should not rely on a too simplistic concept of freedom. Many democratic or semi-democratic states, such as ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages, Revolutionary France, the Weimar Republic, the Republic of China, the Russian Federation, only to name a few, failed to keep the promise of freedom for all and ended up in failure. Most of them not only collapsed, but were succeeded by despotic regimes.

The fragility of democracy had already been noted by the ancient Greeks, who by their own experience and observation knew that no form of government is eternal and inherently stable.

In the present article (which will be divided in three different chapters) we shall briefly analyse three cases in which democracy destroyed itself: the ancient Athenian democracy, the Weimar Republic, and the Republic of China. Afterwards we will show why parliamentary democracy, despite limiting citizens’ freedom, has achieved stability by creating a middle way between direct rule by the people and rule by leaders.

The Contradictions of the Athenian Democracy

In his History of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) the Greek historian Thucydides narrates that shortly after the beginning of the conflict the Athenian statesman Pericles held a speech to commemorate the fist citizens who had perished in the conflict. The definition of democracy formulated in his funeral eulogy is one of the most impressive testimonies to the unique form of government established by the ancient polis: Continue reading

‘Pretty, Innocent Asian Girls’: The Cult of Cuteness in East Asian Societies

Different countries have different aesthetic standards: the shape of houses, streets and squares, the way people talk and dress, the landscape, orderliness, chaos etc. – these are all elements that make up each place’s unique atmosphere. 
Aesthetic traits such as fashion and manners belong to the visible characteristics that distinguish peoples in different parts of the world. Of course, every individual is different. But at times it is possible to find features that are peculiar to certain areas. One of them is undoubtedly the ideal of beauty. As far as East Asia is concerned, the cult of ‘cuteness’ surrounding the concept of female beauty is certainly one of the most fascinating phenomena which sets this cultural area apart from others.
Cuteness is ubiquitous in East Asian countries: from ‘Hello Kitty’ to high-pitch voices, from fashion to manners, one can easily detect numerous aspects of this phenomenon which indeed is one of the most conspicuous differences between Western and East Asian countries. Where does this phenomenon come from? What are its causes? 

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Memorial Arches, State, and Family Virtues in Imperial China

In imperial China the family was the nucleus of social order and state ideology. Unlike its Western counterpart, the Chinese family was not simply a social unit; it was an institution that over the centuries gave rise to an ideology that permeated the lives of every individual and shaped the structure of the state. 
Memorial Arch in China, built in 1825. It is located near the cemetery of Confucius, in Qufu
During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial state continued the practice of strengthening the family to maintain what was considered the proper, natural order of the world. Despite having a legal system that meted out brutal punishments to offenders, the imperial government did not rely primarily on repression and coercion, but on the self-regulating power of family ideology. Through education, public rewards and ceremonies, the state strove to propagate its message and to keep society peaceful. 
“Universal marriage and residence in a household based on [the] family system was the government’s goal for all the ‘people’, and that goal was aggressively promoted” (Susan L. Mann 2011, Chapter 3). On the one hand, Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi had devoted much of their work to the family system. Their theories helped shape and perpetuate a family-centred worldview in Chinese thought. The order of society rested on hierarchical, yet complementary social roles which depended on gender, age, blood relations, social standing etc. 

When people – both in East and West – talk about Asian “collectivism” as opposed to Western “individualism”, they actually refer to the fact that for centuries Chinese individuals were embedded in a rigid network of familial and social relations. The value of individuals as human beings depended on whether and how successfully people could fulfill their “proper” social roles as sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, etc. Through the family, individuals were disciplined and made to fit into “proper” hierarchies.

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Propriety and Ritualism in Chinese Society

To many Westerners China seems a mysterious and unfathomable country, and the behaviour and mindset of her people almost impenetrable. One thing that appears to have been puzzling Western observers for decades is the question of moral values and interpersonal relationships in Chinese society.
Among East Asian nations, China is the one that conceals best her true nature. While in Japan or Korea, for example, hierarchical structures are visible both in the deportment and in the language of the people, China at first sight appears to have a much less complex and stratified society. But when one looks more carefully, one can see that hierarchy, social roles, and ritualism are extremely important elements of Chinese culture. Without an understanding of them, one cannot understand China.
Of course, etiquette and rites have changed radically in the Chinese-speaking world over the centuries. However, what has not changed is the particular emphasis placed on ‘rules of proper behaviour’ and ritualism in Chinese thinking.
Chinese philosophers such as Confucius and Xunzi did not view etiquette and rites as mere formalities. They saw them as powerful tools that moulded individuals’ characters and made them fit in the hierarchical order of society. According to Confucius, “The whole world would respond to the true goodness of [a ruler] who could for one day restrain himself and return to ritual” (Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd EdPatricia Ebrey 2009, p. 42). 
The Confucian scholar Xunzi, who believed that man is by nature bad, argued that rituals were one of the most important ways to educate people to good behaviour:

A warped piece of wood must be steamed and forced before it is made straight; a metal blade must be put to the whetstone before it becomes sharp. Since the nature of people is bad, to become corrected they must be taught by teachers and to be orderly they must acquire ritual and moral principles. When people lack teachers, their tendencies are not corrected; when they do not have ritual and moral principles, then their lawlessness is not controlled.

In antiquity the sage kings recognized that men’s nature is bad and that their tendencies were not being corrected and their lawlessness controlled. Consequently, they created rituals and moral principles and instituted laws and limitations to give shape to people’s feelings while correcting them, to transform people’s emotional nature while guiding it. Thus all became orderly and conformed to the Way (ibid., p. 25). 

Taiwan – Kaohsiung Prison Drama

On February 11 Taiwan‘s society was shocked by the events that unfolded in Kaohsiung prison, where 6 inmates rebelled and took staff members hostage. This was the first prison riot in Taiwan’s history. This drama highlighted not only Taiwan’s need to reform its prison management system, but also the existence of a grey zone between legality and criminal syndicates.

At about 16:30 local time Zheng Lide (鄭立德), a leader of the Bamboo Gang (竹聯幫), a notorious Taiwanese triad, and 5 other prisoners faked an illness and asked for medical treatment. The 6 men took hostage the three guards who had come to help them. They forced the staff to take them to the prison armoury, where they stole four 65K2 rifles with 177 bullets and 6 guns with 46 bullets.

The prison’s head guard, Wang Shicang (王世倉), and the prison warden, Chen Shizhi (陳世志), asked to be taken hostage in exchange for the three guards, to which the prisoners agreed.

The inmates entered into negotiations with the authorities and claimed that they had rioted because of what they considered an unfair treatment on the part of the state. They demanded that a car be delivered to them and that they be allowed to leave the prison. However, the police refused to accept their request.

The police asked the help of former lawmaker Li Fangzong (李榮宗) and of the prisoners’ family members.

According to reports, the six men had committed serious crimes and were all serving prison sentences exceeding 20 years. Bamboo Gang leader Zheng Lide (鄭立德) had been arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 28 years in prison for murder, possession of weapons and other crimes; Qin Yiming (秦義明) was serving a 46 years’ prison term for banditry; Wei Liangxian (魏良顯) had been sentenced to 34 years and 3 months in prison for drug trafficking; Huang Xiansheng (黃顯勝) had been sentenced to 34 years and 2 months in prison for drug trafficking; Huang Ziyan (黃子晏) had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for drug trafficking and robbery; Jin Zhusheng (靳竹生) was serving a life term for robbery.

The negotiations between the prisoners and the police lasted for several hours. At around 23:00 Zheng Lide issued five demands and asked that they be read in front of media reporters by Wu Xianzhang (吳憲璋), the director of the Agency of Corrections of the Ministry of Justice.

Wu Xianzhang appeared in front of the cameras before midnight and read the letter written by Zheng Lide in which he explained the reasons for the rebellion. He accused the authorities of discriminating against prisoners, citing former president Chen Shuibian as an example. In 2009 Chen had been found guilty of corruption and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he was released on medical parole on January 5, 2015. “Chen Shuibian was released from prison for medical treatment thanks to his faked illness, but other prison inmates who have more serious illnesses cannot?” wrote Zheng Lide. “Why? It’s because we are criminals, it serves us right to die. Is Chen Shuibian not a criminal, as well? Since he was released, everyone should be treated the same way.”

Zheng protested against the fact that he and the other 5 prisoners had been denied the right to be paroled and that their wages were too low.  “Because of the three-strikes regulations we cannot even ask for parole. It is you officials who force us to rebel. We work for a month and we only get 200 Taiwan dollars (around US$6.30), it’s not even enough to buy clothes, and we must ask our families to support us. We have lost even our dignity.”

He denied having committed the crime of which he had been found guilty. “I have been convicted of murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison, but I have killed nobody and I am not resigned. I am just the tip of the iceberg. There are many inmates in the same situation as me. Who will come here and talk with us?”

Zheng appealed directly to president Ma Yingjiu (Ma Ying-jeou) for help. “Ma Yingjiu,” he wrote, “you are not a very good president, but you were a good Minister of Justice. If you still have power please come and save us. Thank you.”

In his last point, Zheng asked the authorities to change the three-strikes laws. “Why don’t you change the proposed three-strikes law and give people a little hope? Why can people who have committed less serious crimes have their sentence shortened, while those who have committed more serious crimes cannot? If you allow the prison terms to be reduced, why do you have to discriminate? Aren’t we all criminals?”

In the course of the evening Zhang Anle (張安樂) arrived at the prison to help Zheng Lide. Zhang Anle, known as the “White Wolf”, was himself a leader of the Bamboo Gang and was a personal friend of Zheng’s. Zhang wanted to go inside the prison and talk to him, but the police did not consent. Zhang grew angry and had a row in front of the cameras with Lai Zhenrong (賴振榮), the deputy warden. Then Zhang Anle telephoned Zheng Lide and warned him. “The police will storm the prison, be careful,” he said.

During the phone call Zheng Lide said that he wanted Zhang to bring them 6 bottles of rice wine and 2 bottles of Gaoliang. After finishing their drink, he added, the 6 men would come out with Zhang and surrender. But the police refused to let Zhang meet the inmates. Zheng proposed that the police could give them the wine and the liquor, and announced that after drinking it, the 6 men would commit suicide. If the police did not deliver them what they wanted by 02:00, he threatened, all of the 8 men would die.

Zhang Anle is a highly controversial figure. He joined the Bamboo Gang in 1964 and soon became known as the “brain” of the syndicate. In 1985 he was arrested in the US for drug trafficking and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He returned to Taiwan in 1995. The following year the government launched a major crackdown on organised crime and Zhang fled to China. There, he seems to have established ties with the Communist Party and to have become a supporter of Beijing’s pro-unification policies with Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” model. In an interview with the Global Times, China’s Communist newspaper, he openly declared that he wanted to nurture a pro-Communist electorate in Taiwan.

In June 2013, Zhang returned to Taiwan and founded the Party for the Promotion of Chinese Unification. Despite his criminal past, he continues unhindered his political activities and has often appeared on Taiwanese TV shows.

Read: Zhang Anle, the Sunflower Movement and the China-Taiwan Issue

At 03:20, after having drunk their wine and liquor, the inmates released one of the hostages, head guard Wang Shicang.

Several minutes later shots were heard. The police were alarmed, not knowing what was happening inside the prison and whether someone had been killed. The police soon realised that the shots were aimed at drones sent by some media reporters to capture footage of the events inside the prison. Zheng Lide had become nervous and had tried to stop them. The deployment of drones and the overly sensationalist live reports of some Taiwanese media were widely criticised. The police confiscated the drones and asked the media not to get too close to the building.

At 4:44 shots were heard again, yet this time the convicts were firing at the police. Having realised that their demands would not be met, they apparently tried to escape, but the police fired back and they returned inside the prison. Silence fell.

At around 5:00, the collective suicide which had been announced earlier began. Four prisoners killed themselves. The remaining two, including Zheng Lide, examined the bodies of their fellow inmates to make sure they were dead. At around 5:30, Zheng and the other prisoner committed suicide, too. The police watched through the security cameras as the 6 men took their own lives.

The following day, a Taiwanese TV station called Zhang Anle and interviewed him live. TV host Wang Jiemin (汪潔民) asked Zhang about the events of the previous night. Zhang stated that Zheng Lide had asked him to bring him a few bottles of wine and liquor and that he would allow the hostage to leave the prison together with Zhang. But the police did not agree with this proposal, whereupon Zhang became enraged and said to the police, “You don’t even care about the life of one of your colleagues!”, referring to the hostage. Zhang said he believed that the police rejected the offer because they wanted to “save face”. If Zhang had sorted things out, the police would have been put to shame.

Journalist Wu Guodong (吳國棟), replying to Zhang Anle’s assertions, pointed out that the authorities were in charge of the matter and that it was not for Zhang to take over the functions that pertain to the state. “I ask you,” responded Zhang Anle irritated, “does the Taiwanese state deserve to be trusted? You already know the answer.” At this point the conversation became heated. “Because Taiwan’s system is unjust,” he continued, “it’s people like you who trample on the public authority. I don’t want to quarrel with you. Don’t talk so much.” When a lawmaker of the Democratic Progressive Party was about to ask him another question, Zhang Anle hung up.

In the wake of the hostage drama, president Ma Yingjiu said that Taiwan’s prison management system had loopholes that needed to be addressed quickly. He instructed the Minister of Justice to release a report by Friday and prepare a programme of reform for immediate implementation.

As of 2014 Taiwan’s prison population was over 64,000, but the official capacity of the prison system is only less than 55,000.  A 2011 BBC report revealed that overcrowding had become a serious problem in Taiwanese prisons. Inmates “often housed 10 to 12 to a cell, sleeping on floor mattresses, with no air conditioning.” Moreover, many people in Taiwan do not want prisoners to be treated too leniently, but want them to be punished and understand the suffering they have caused to the families of their victims. For this reason, Taiwan’s prison system has not paid much attention to reforming the convicts but has focused mostly on punishing them .