Curriculum Protests Challenge Chiang-Confucian Social OrderWith their recent actions, Taiwan’s youth have put their elders on notice about the changes to come
At 2 am on July 31, soon after protesters against the changes to the high school history curriculum guidelines had occupied the courtyard of the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Taipei, a couple arrived at the MOE looking for their 18-year-old son Chou Tien-kuan (周天觀) and tried to make him go home with them. The footage of what happened next quickly went viral, and for many people the scene epitomized the chasm between the social ideals of two generations, just as Dai Lin’s (林冠華) clash with his parents had days earlier.
The United Daily News footage begins with Chou Chin-hua (周進華) trying to forcibly pull his son Tien-kuan away from the protest and moaning, “I’m your father.” Enraged, Tien-kuan resists and eventually gives his father a headlock. He tells his father to let go and they separate after his mother, Kuo Ying-lan (郭盈蘭), tells the father the same. Tien-kuan then turns and yells at Chin-hua, “I’m working for Taiwan’s future. What have you contributed?” Kuo responds by slapping Tien-kuan and scolding him; he pushes her and tells her to go away. Other protesters and eventually the police separate them and calm everyone down.
This video was like a Rorschach test. Many saw a young man trying to establish his independence and resisting his parents’ physical veto of his life decision. His statement, “I’m working for Taiwan’s future. What have you contributed?” reminded them of their own family members who have refused to contribute to, or even opposed, Taiwan’s democratization.
But many others saw a tragic symptom of social collapse. Parents who wanted what was best for their child were instead insulted, physically assaulted, and ultimately driven away. They wanted to save their child from a “dangerous” environment of youths breaking the law while physically challenging the authority of the ministry devoted to educating them, and were instead humiliated.
While one big reason for this divergence of opinions is a simple generation gap — people are more likely to identify with others closer to their age and stage in life — another is the massive change in social ideals brought on by democratization. In Taiwan today, many people were raised to treasure democracy, but many others were raised to treasure traditional Chinese culture, and these two value systems do not fit together comfortably, whether in politics or in family life. It is the source of arguments behind closed doors everywhere, and when the social pressure gets too high, as it did in the past month, it bursts into the open.
Taiwanese youth consider democracy a fundamental element of their identity: Don Rodgers of Austin College found that 95% of youth he surveyed agreed that protecting democracy is essential to Taiwan’s future, for example. The freedom youth enjoy means not only the freedom to vote how they would like but also the freedom to make their own choices about how to live, and the freedom to speak out against their parents, teachers, and the government. Even President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who is decidedly a conservative, trumpets the Republic of China (ROC) as the only “Chinese democracy.”
Under the Chiangs, however, ROC leaders more often emphasized that their nation was the last bastion of true Chinese culture, which the Chinese Communist Party was busy destroying back in China. And in their telling, the foundation of Chinese culture is Confucianism, which democracy had to accommodate and which they had the magisterium to interpret.
Future pan-blue presidential candidate James Soong (宋楚瑜) wrote the following in World Affairs in 1992, when democratization was already in full swing:
“In spite of ethnic and religious diversity, there is a background culture that binds people together in Taiwan, a culture deeply rooted in Confucianism…In politics, Confucianism views government as an extended family, with individuals knowing their place and responsibility. As Lucian Pye explains, ‘Just as the Confucian concept of the ideal government was an extension of the ideal family, so the prime tasks of government were the same as those of the family: to provide security, cohesion, and solidarity.’
“Against such an inherent cultural backdrop, the notion of a participatory pluralist society where an actively involved citizenry compete for favorable policy outcomes by open, frequently hostile confrontation appears peculiar to most Chinese on Taiwan. In particular, Confucian emphasis on group harmony rather than individualism sets the socio-political context in stark contrast with many of the early-industrialized, parliamentarian democracies in Western Europe and North America…[As Samuel Huntington said,] ‘In such a society, the critical need is to avoid competition and disharmony, and hence elaborate consultation within the group is required before a decision can be reached.’
“Therefore, importation of concepts such as democracy must first be grafted onto traditional values and developed into an acceptable version before becoming part of the code of conduct, and it remains important to reconcile policy measures with traditional Chinese values of deference to seniority, maintenance of networks, and preference for mediation over confrontation. While features of paternalism might have gradually been phased out and replaced by participation and competition in today’s Taiwan, a complete elimination of Confucian ideals that have had profound impact on Chinese social ethos and political structure for thousands of years is unlikely.”
Official Confucianism analogizes the father-son, ruler-subject, and teacher-student relationships. The inferior — the son, subject, or student — should always obey and respect the superior — the father, ruler, or teacher — but the superior should love the inferior.
The ROC-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government liberally conflated the roles of father, teacher, and ruler and integrated them all into its political order. Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) was recruited into the KMT by her high school teacher when she was still a student, no older than the curriculum protesters she now considers too young to be involved in or even understand politics. At that time, Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) was referred to as the Father of the Country (國父) far more than by his given name. For all intents and purposes he was Our Father Who Art in Heaven as well, looking down upon his descendants from his ubiquitous portraits, his doctrine of the Trinity — I mean, the Three Principles of the People — venerated as the salvation of the “compatriots in the mainland who are in deep water and hot fire” (生活在水深火熱中的大陸同胞). Successor to the Sun god was Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), portrayed not just as supreme leader but as a master of all arts, a sage, and in his later years, a genial grandfather. Sun’s and Chiang’s birthdays were officially commemorated by the government as if they were everyone’s family.
President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) performed all the social roles the state demanded of its citizens excellently. He played national patriarch with aplomb, kissing babies around the country on his trips to inspect the progress of construction projects. He served dutifully in his father’s government for decades before taking over the family business. And he publicly displayed his filial piety through acts such as this 1978 essay, printed in English in Perspectives: Selected Statements of President Chiang Ching-kuo, 1978-1983:
“Father [CKS] passed away more than three years ago, and I can no longer hear his strict instructions or bask in his kindness and benevolence. But when I am so engrossed in my work that I can hardly take even a brief moment of respite, I instinctively raise my head and look into the eyes of Father’s statue. Suddenly I can hear Father’s voice advising me to rally my spirits with an interlude of calm and relaxation. Immediately, I am able to brace up again and feel the resurgence of life. When I am pondering a problem and find my mind confused, the brilliant light from the eyes of Father’s statue penetrates my heart and opens up the clogged channels of thought. The problem is resolved. In his lifetime, he was my leader, my kindly father and my stern teacher. I am still under the influence of his love.”
Meanwhile, rebels and protesters against the ROC social order were portrayed not just as bad citizens but as wayward children and traitors to their families. Consider this statement by Chiang Ching-kuo about Taiwanese independence activists:
“The blood of the Chinese people still runs in the veins of today’s so-called ‘Taiwan independence’ elements. Some of their forefathers were patriots. Their incomprehensible conduct has brought cries of anguish from their ancestors in heaven and has broken the hearts of relatives who hate them in silence. Any good family of high moral standing may have one or two ingrate children, but there are no parents who do not hope that their children will return to the ways of rectitude. We believe that while human nature and conscience persist, all wayward children will return to the right course. More than a few of the Taiwan independence elements have already changed their minds. The government’s attitude toward these elements is based on the expectation — fueled by sentiments of kinship — that others will do likewise. However, if they are unrepentant and attempt to take the law into their own hands, sentiment will no longer be a factor in the weighing of their cases.”
Because Confucianism teaches that education is crucial to shaping moral character, rebels were assumed to be poorly raised and taught, meaning they endangered not only themselves but their parents and teachers. Thus parents and teachers were contacted by the state about wayward youth and continually pressured their charges to be obedient citizens. If their efforts were unsuccessful, to save themselves they might desperately disown these wayward souls by attributing their wrongdoing someone else’s false teaching.
Chou Tien-kuan’s and Dai Lin’s stories provide vivid modern-day examples. Chou Chin-hua and Kuo Ying-lan were already public figures, having founded the Chou Ta-Kuan Foundation, which gives awards to inspiring individuals fighting cancer, in honor of their son Chou Ta-kuan (周大觀), who passed away at an early age from cancer but left behind very inspiring poetry. The Chou Ta-Kuan Foundation is one of the non-profits that have long maintained a good and cooperative relationship with the government, so their younger son’s activism surely was a special cause for anxiety.
The parents’ first public action to bring their son back was to try physical compulsion, as the video shows. This was a very common way to maintain order in the Chiang-era ROC when subordinates were unhappy with the arrangements made for them. Parents beat children: Lien Chan (連戰) recounts (with no hint of condemnation) in Premier Lien: A Man of Pragmatism that when he was a child and World War II was ongoing, his mother would draw a circle for him to stand in until she came back, and if she realized upon returning that he’d stepped outside it, she would beat him soundly. Teachers beat students: Even today some older Taiwanese tell me that the reason children today are so hard to teach is that teacher-on-student corporal punishment has been outlawed. Secondary and tertiary schools used to have drill sergeants (軍訓教官) on campus; Hung Hsiu-chu played a similar role as a junior high guidance counselor (訓導主任). And as we all know, the state beat, imprisoned, and killed dissidents. One reason the traditional system eventually cracked was that society could no longer accept the lengths to which the state employed violence to maintain the status quo.
When force failed and their story was out in the open, Chou Tien-kuan’s parents needed to save their own face. So when journalists approached her the next morning, Kuo Ying-lan defamed her son and dissociated herself from his activism. She tearfully told the press the following tale: Tien-kuan used to be a pure and good child full of love. He would never do anything wrong or even crush an ant, and his grades were excellent. But over the past two-to-three months, he had changed. A week ago, after returning from the U.K., he charged off to the student protests like a Red Guard (echoing Hung Hsiu-chu’s description of the students). That’s when Kuo found out her son had been “taking classes” from politicians, professors, and social movement leaders. “His thoughts and actions had all changed!” she said. She demanded that these adults stop using these children (echoing the KMT), implicitly negating Tien-kuan’s agency. Finally, she said that she had already lost one child (to cancer) and didn’t want to lose another (to politics), a supremely emotionally charged statement given the subtext that Tien-kuan was squandering the life that pure, heroic elder brother Ta-kuan didn’t get to enjoy.
On top of fitting the official ideology so perfectly, what made Kuo’s story so remarkable is that Chou Tien-kuan had already actively participated in a social movement in March and April 2014, more than a year before his supposed turn to the “dark side.” But that group was the White Justice Social Alliance (白色正義聯盟), which held counter-demonstrations against the Sunflower Movement and in support of the government. Clearly that movement was “good” and “appropriate” for children.
Fortunately, this spat was resolved peacefully and constructively. When Chou Tien-kuan finally got a word in with the press, he apologized for rudely treating his parents, explained how his views had changed between his White Justice Social Alliance days and his current period of activism, and stated that he would remain firm in his convictions and continue contributing to the movement. For their part, his parents promised to respect his opinions, admitted they were conservatives, and said they just hoped he wouldn’t get hurt.
Dai Lin’s own family catastrophe, on the other hand, ended in the worst possible outcome. The exact causes of Lin’s suicide will never be known. His parents’ remarks after his death indicate he was suffering from depression. A LINE conversation he had the night of June 1 strongly implies he planned in advance to kill himself to stop the implementation of the curriculum, and in his last Facebook post he called for the new curriculum to be abolished.
If his suicide was tactical, it was the latest manifestation of the ultimate traditional Chinese method of protest, passed down from generation to generation. The prototype, I argue, is Qu Yuan (屈原), the pure official whose suicide is commemorated annually even now through the Dragon Boat Festival. Profoundly enraged and aggrieved when the deeply corrupt court of his native country, after ignoring his counsel and exiling him, led its nation to ruination culminating in a rival state conquering and sacking the capital, Qu Yuan wrote the “Lament of Ying” to express his worry for the country, pity for the people, and fury at its ruler, then drowned himself in the river in public. (Grieving citizens dropped zongzi (粽子) rice balls into the river to keep the fish from eating his body, inspiring the water sports and cuisine of today’s holiday.) For modern Taiwan, the model suicide-protester is Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) who self-immolated for freedom of speech in 1989. Recent suicidal protesters include Chang Te-cheng (張德正), the truck driver who rammed into the presidential office, and a Mr. Huang who self-immolated in front of the same building in May this year.
The state has its reasons for teaching citizens that suicide is the utmost form of protest. It may shame a superior into changing his own ways but doesn’t affect the superior’s power in any way, and once the dead are gone they cannot fight the government anymore on this or any other issue. Last year a deep-blue acquaintance of mine posted publicly on Facebook that the Sunflower protesters to show their sincerity by killing themselves. If the Sunflowers had done so, there would be no New Power Party today.
A closer look at the last days of Lin’s life, however, reveals a different picture than Qu Yuan’s. Dai Lin was a young man stripped of his dignity and forced to choose between his ideals and his future. The authority figures argued to him that unless he accepted a state of affairs he considered unjust and a curriculum he believed to be false, he would have no way out.
As in days of old, the unofficial chain of command between the government, school, and parents was mobilized. After Lin stormed the MOE, the state arrested him and in his accounting, locked him up in a tiny cell together with drug dealers and gangsters; he slept only half an hour because he was so terrified. After his parents posted bail, the ministry threatened him with criminal charges. It then sent the following message to his school:
“Your student Dai Lin was arrested while protesting at the Ministry of Education July 23. His bail has been set at NT$20,000. The ministry hopes for each school to send teachers familiar with arrested students to help learn the following from the students and their parents. Send the following information to the ministry today:
(1) Why did the student participate in this activity and what s/he felt about it
(2) What the student is thinking about the future (criminal lawsuit included)
(3) Is the student willing to meet with the department head or minister of education to make requests and for mutual communication”
What happened next is now seared into Taiwan’s collective memory. Watch this 7-minute clip from Lin’s talk show appearance soon before his death in which he explains how his principal, teacher, and parents pressured him, and then the hosts praise and encourage him. I have translated the Chinese and written English subtitles (if they don’t load automatically, click on the YouTube closed captions box in the bottom right corner):
This public recounting of a family argument, with the hosts taking the side of the government-resisting youth and advising his parents to change their minds, never would have been permitted in the old days. There are also concerns that the hosts, while saying the right things, raised the tension in Lin’s house by making his father lose face.
Besides that, what’s said is eye-opening. He notes this was the first time his school principal had ever paid so much attention to him, and that instead of discussing with him whether he was doing the right thing, the people meant to give him guidance all cast aspersions on his ability to make his own decisions and warned him he was ruining his future career prospects.
Lin’s mother told him that students of Jianguo High School (the nation’s top-ranked men’s high school, and President Ma’s alma mater) can protest and still get into National Taiwan University Law (also renowned, alma mater of former president Chen Shui-bian [陳水扁]), but vocational school students like Lin cannot afford to speak out. “Who do you think you are?” she asked. She was raised to believe in the Confucian model where the government is staffed and the nation is led by its greatest scholars (as determined by the civil service exam), and the common people must obey. Lin responded that her attitude was elitist and that all people, those with good and bad grades alike, should have a say in their nation’s future.
Lin acknowledged that his teacher and principal were showing their concern for him, but also said that the rest of what they said was full of negativity (否定). This calls to mind Minister of Education Wu Se-hwa’s (吳思華) repeated expressions of “concern” for the student protesters and their demand that he “stop pretending to care about them.” The students’ response appears surprising, but a reflection on traditional culture may explain it.
In traditional Chinese culture, relationships are transactional. Whatever is given must be returned in kind. The money in the red envelopes you receive at your wedding must be meticulously catalogued so you can pay back the gift with interest at your friend’s wedding. The care you receive from your parents as a child must be repaid with you taking care of them in their old age, and the money you receive from your elders as a child on Lunar New Year must be repaid with red envelopes to your elders after you marry.
Combine that concept with the Confucian relationship model, in which the inferior should obey and respect the superior, and the superior should love the inferior. The logical conclusion: A show of great concern and love by a superior creates the obligation of obedience and respect from the inferior. So whenever the state expresses its concern and care, it is not just showing compassion but consolidating its authority.
After Lin’s death, the school system did everything it could to dodge the blame. It divulged Lin’s mental health record and counseling history to the public. The principal denied that she had been too hard on him or that her visit played a role in his suicide.
In contrast, Lin’s mother, Hiddy Chen, in a dramatic turn from her previous attitude, wrote a heartbreaking Facebook post (translated into English here) in which she apologized to her departed son, disavowed the traditional methods she had unsuccessfully tried to use to raise him, and pointed out her son’s frustration about how his education was centered on rote memorization (typical Chiang Confucian pedagogy). She testified that as a child he was at the top of his class, but his performance dove as he got bored with school: That is, the system had wasted his talent and eventually driven him to the street. She concluded:
“The one who’s sick is this society. It’s the adults. It’s the parents who were brainwashed, like me. You were a little prince who always had pure thoughts. You completed your mission. You made public opinion boil over all right. You’ve made us brainwashed adults rethink things.”
In a follow-up post (translated into English here) she demanded people retract their allegations that political parties were manipulating the students, pointing out how self-motivated and sacrificial her son was for his cause. And she became a firm supporter of the movement to abandon the curriculum changes.
A new era
Hiddy Chen’s tragedy, epiphany, and observations highlight the inevitability of further social democratization. Many Taiwanese youth believe that whether in politics, school, or the home, the traditional order not only violates their cherished values but also fails to prepare them for the future.
One need not read the news to see this. Wherever young adults sit down to talk about Taiwanese education they tell each other versions of the same story. As a child, my wife was considered a “bad student” because she was always asking her teachers why. They’d tell her, “If you want to ask why, move to America.” Now she wants to leave someday so her future children can go to school there and avoid the mental anguish she went through.
Moreover, growing up able to see the rest of the world through the Internet and travel abroad, she believes growing up in the Taiwanese education system lowered her ceiling in her chosen profession. Instead of undergoing long and intensive training in the field she had loved since childhood, she had to go through boring classes of rote repetition, didn’t have enough time to practice because of her homework load, and didn’t have great facilities because there wasn’t enough invested in education.
As an alumni interviewer for my alma mater in the U.S., I’ve had long conversations with dozens of bright Taiwanese students who wanted to study abroad. Every one said he or she wanted to go to the U.S. in order to enjoy a more liberal, open-minded educational environment and cultivate his or her talents to the fullest. What’s more, I’ve perceived clear differences in the maturity and self-knowledge of the students I interview that directly correlated with (1) how much time they spent at schools abroad, (2) whether they went to international school here, and (3) how much international exposure their parents had. It’s painful to see firsthand how much students’ lives were determined by forces beyond their control, how far behind are children of normal lower- and middle-class families who couldn’t afford the best opportunities through no fault of their own, and how relatively inexpensive (compared to, say, building a fourth nuclear power plant) it would be to improve the situation.
This year we have seen high school students fighting back. On the state level, the protesters explicitly stated they don’t want a curriculum politically engineered to “brainwash” them and bring them closer to annexation to a hostile power. They also decried the lack of transparency in the revision process, as they connect transparency and public participation with good outcomes and distrust patriarchal authority figures who could be (and in this case at least, are) captured by special interests. They believe they have as much a right to political participation as anyone.
On the school level, the students want to be active participants in the classroom and have a greater say in school policy, in particular the history curriculum this year. As is, they are so bored in class they have honed pen spinning to a performing art, and this fall many teachers will take on the remarkable social experiment of trying to teach them history lessons they’ve already rejected. From an economic standpoint, now more than ever Taiwan needs to cultivate students with creativity, critical thinking, proactivity, people skills, and independence. The same old factory teaching model their predecessors sat through is untenable. The trivia they’ve been memorizing year after year could just be Googled.
At home, children need freedom to explore from an early age what they most enjoy doing in order to concentrate their energies into fields they are uniquely suited for. Yet many parents are forcing them to sit down with a book all night every night, culminating in them going to college still having no idea what they actually want to major in and with little experience in interpersonal relations or entrepreneurship. And they need to develop critical thinking by being mentally challenged by their parents on questions of right, wrong, and everything else, not just hit and told “because I said so.”
Judging from the MOE’s stonewalling of the student protests and the bureaucratic inertia of Taiwan’s education system — the government has been talking about reform since the ‘90s — today’s disillusioned young adults will not see the change they yearn for until they themselves become officials, teachers, and parents. Then they can give the life they never had to their children. Yes, there will be unintended consequences and some disorder along the way, just as the end of Martial Law led to the peak of organized crime’s influence as gaps in the law and order system were finally exposed, but their memories of their lives they couldn’t live to the fullest should keep their resolve strong. And through their actions this year, they’ve already put their elders on notice about the changes to come.
Anonymous is a translator based in Taipei.