The only family tree I possess says my third great-grandfather, Sì-dīng, lived in 茄苳寮 and eventually married 四妹 “fourth sister.” That my third great-grandmother goes unidentified like this could have a been a small genealogical pebble, easily left unturned. But for me, discovering her here, in this way, started a landslide of feelings. I suspect said nameless woman, my third great-grandmother, may have been Indigenous. There is an old Hoklo proverb:
Ū Toňg- soaⁿ kang, bǒ Toňg- soaⁿ ma
There were only Chinese grandfathers
there were no Chinese grandmothers.
Since few Chinese women were allowed to travel to Taiwan early on, it was common for migrant Chinese men to couple with Indigenous women. Recent DNA test results for me, my sister, and a cousin all definitively show Pacific Islander, Filipino Austronesian, and/or Native heritage somewhere among our Taiwanese descendants. But it would be hard, if not impossible, to confirm Indigenous ancestry in our Taiwanese family. Too much herstory has been lost.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge and honor the women in my Taiwanese family and hold space for the sorrow that I will never know as much about about them as I do about the men. Because of Confucian patriarchy, once a woman marries in Taiwan she traditionally belongs to her husband’s family and no longer to her own. Family trees (where they exist) are organized by patrilileanal descent. Women’s maiden names, birth families and hometowns are frequently lost.
However, it’s not just a written but also an ideological practice to erase women from history. Many other details are lost: what kind of people they were, what they did in the world, what was important to them, what they loved. For example, in trying to uncover details about my A-kong and A-má, I have been regailed with stories of my A-kong’s accomplishments, political views, intelligence, the type of beer he liked to drink, his favorite foods and karaoke songs he liked to sing. By contrast, when I try to ask similar questions about my A-má, no one seems to know much other than she was once the prettiest girl in town and got a good arranged marriage.
It’s telling and depressing that my A-kong is remembered for his accolades and how much everyone respected him, but my A-má is remembered for her looks and that she married well. I wish I knew more. Was she serious and introspective, or funny and easy-going? Was she an introvert or extrovert? In her spare time, did she like to read, listen to music, make art? What did she do every day, what did she think about and what was important to her?
As a woman, the loss of my family’s herstories is painful. It re-emphasizes the patriarchal legacy I was born into as a Taiwanese daughter. For example, I’ll never forget when I was growing up, one of 10 grandchildren on my Taiwanese side, how adults were always most invested in the two eldest grandsons. I’ll also never forget, when my A-kong died, how our family was segregated by gender at his funeral. Men and boys stood to one side, women and girls to the other. As we moved through a series of ceremonious bows to pay our respects to my A-kong's memory, sons and grandsons were instructed to bow first, before daughters and granddaughters.
Things are changing and less traditional now. Taiwan has made great strides towards gender equity in recent decades. But patriarchy and sexism still exist. Taiwan’s first female president and incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, has repeatedly had to fend off sexist attacks from male counterparts because she is unmarried and has no children. Taiwan's gender pay gap recently widened to 15.8 percent this year after narrowing the two years prior. It is estimated one in five women in Taiwan are victims of physical and/or mental abuse and reports of domestic violence are increasing.
As a Taiwanese American woman, daughter and granddaughter, I think I have to know and name these realities. I love Taiwan and I’m proud to be Taiwanese. But loving a place doesn’t preclude acknowledging its weaknesses alongside its strengths. I realize, as I continue my journey, I can't truly go forward until I appreciate the difference between how I want to move versus how I'm allowed to move through the Taiwanese diaspora
Feature image: My A-má and A-kong as young, new parents in 1940s Taiwan.
© 2022 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫