In January 2015, I returned to Europe after six-months in Taiwan as a Research Fellow sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Taiwan Fellowship Programme. Usually I tend to be based in Taipei when I am in Taiwan for research. Taipei offers everything a scholar may wish for. The administrative and cultural centre of the island, Taipei is easy to access thanks to its well-connected transportation system, but also provides easy access for research, especially in terms of social networking given that many people there speak English, or at least Mandarin. Other cities around the island tend to remain under the shadow of Taipei. The geographical distribution of foreign residents in Taiwan reflects this situation: according to the National Immigration Agency, between half and two thirds of the citizens from most European countries lived in Taipei in November 2014. As a consequence, we get to know about Taiwan mainly through the distorted lens of its capital city.
This time I decided to switch my location to the southern part of the island, more precisely in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city, yet one that is different Taipei. One of my objectives was to extend my network of informants and carry out some fieldwork activity with local civil society organisations related to mainland Chinese spouses married to Taiwanese citizens. For half a year, Kaohsiung Medical University, with its Institute of Gender Studies, was my host institution, while Yancheng district, in the south of Kaohsiung, was the centre of my daily life.
Kaohsiung Medical University is relatively well-known for medical related subjects. Yet recently it has established a new College of Humanities and Social Sciences. The Graduate Institute of Gender Studies is part of this College. Despite the fact that the Institute of Gender Studies started to accept students only in 2001, it represents a milestone in the history of women's studies in Taiwan. The Institute was one of the first of this kind to be established in southern Taiwan at a time when women and gender issues started to attract the attention of academic research.
Despite the presence of a feminist grassroots movement since the 1970s, gender studies in Taiwan entered academia only in the second half of the 1980s. At this stage, the process of democratisation allowed greater space of expression to civil society groups, the feminist movement included; and this, together with the introduction of interdisciplinary research as well as increased interactions with feminist groups abroad, favoured a spread of research on women and gender issues. In northern Taiwan, the Women's Research Program (renamed in 1999 as the Population and Gender Research Program), supported by the Asia Foundation and based at National Taiwan University, was established in 1985. This was the first institution with the objective of coordinating interdisciplinary research on women and gender in Taiwan. Then in 1991, the Kaohsiung Medical College created its Centre for Research on the Two Sexes (the current Graduate Institute on Gender Studies). This became the reference point for research and activism related to gender and women's studies in the south (Cheng 2012).
During the 1990s, institutions in the field of gender and women's studies proliferated throughout Taiwan, with new centres established at National Tsinghua University, National Central University, Tamkang University and National Kaohsiung Normal University. This expansion created the conditions for the institutionalisation of research on women and gender in Taiwan. According to Cheng Ling-fang (2012), Associate Professor at the Institute on Gender Studies in Kaohsiung Medical University, a professionalisation of the field has contributed to systematic research in gender and women's studies, covering a broad range of topics including LGBT identities and rights, media/technology and gender, transnational marriage and multicultural families/parenthood/spaces, technology and the body, sex and intimacy, masculinity, labour and workplace, care and welfare policy. Most of these themes are also covered by the curriculum offered by my host institution, Kaohsiung Medical University.
This environment offered an inspiring and stimulating environment to learn more about the most contemporary debates on gender in Taiwan. I had access to a group of renowned scholars in the field, such as Professors Yang Hsing-chen, Cheng Ling-fang, Lin Chin-ju, Yu-ying Hu and Shu-chun Li, and I had the chance to participate in a number of talks and conferences hosted by the centre to which Taiwanese and foreign specialists on gender were invited (including the 21st Annual Meeting of the Taiwanese Feminist Scholars Association). Yet I believe that the best way to discover the unique character of this centre was in the classrooms during lectures and seminars. My colleagues kindly invited me to audit some of their classes, and observing the interaction between educators and students was an interesting experience.
In a broader cultural environment where obedience to elders is regarded as a value and the young are expected to keep their ideas to themselves, teacher-student relationship could be characterised by silence and a lack of assertiveness on the side of the student, and this could also favour unequal power relations between the two sides. However, feminist praxis emerged as an important part of the teaching practice at the Institute. Great effort was placed on reducing power relations between students and professors without hampering the quality of teaching, leading instead to the active participation of students during classes and seminars. In order to achieve this, lecturers spent a significant amount of energy and time not only to respect, but also to evaluate their students' diversity, and considered each individual's needs, skills, and intellectual development. There was a clear recognition that each student could contribute to the whole class‘s learning and development by offering his/her own unique understanding of the world. Furthermore, sensitivity towards the various gender and sexual identities of students was another important characteristic of this institute. It was not simply a matter of respecting the sexual orientation of students in a safe and judgement-free academic environment, but it was also a genuine commitment to favour their personal development and strengthen their assertiveness beyond the university space, by encouraging them to participate in collective actions to affect broader social change. Creating and developing such a committed and person-centred environment requires an unusual degree of engagement and passion.
As it is often noted in the literature (eg. Cheng 2012; Hsieh and Chang 2005) non-canonic disciplines, such as gender studies, could face the consequences of the fact that they do not belong to mainstream scholarship. Thus, they may suffer because of a lack of institutional support to develop research in a field that does not bring credit to scholars and institutions and which often communicates through non-mainstream and unofficial channels. Moreover, they could also be affected by the fact that only a limited number of students enrol in these courses. On the other hand, I believe that the degree of flexibility and intimacy between students and teachers, such as I observed at the Institute of Gender Studies at Kaohsiung Medical University, would not be possible in a traditional academic environment. I am indebted to my colleagues at the Institute of Gender Studies at Kaohsiung Medical University for letting me be part of such a committed and diverse group and to see feminist praxis put into practice during the teaching process.
Cheng, Ling-fang, 2012. 'Ten years in institutional building of gender studies: looking back and forward.' Taiwan Literature Studies, 1 (2): 31-43 (in Chinese).
Hsieh, Hsiao-chin, and Chang, Chueh, 2005. The development of the women's movements and women's/gender studies in Taiwan. In: Lin, Wei-hung, and Hsieh, Hsiao-chin, eds., 2005. Gender, Culture and Society: Women's Studies in Taiwan. Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, pp. 21-82.
Lara Momesso is Research Fellow, China and East Asian Studies, University of Portsmouth.