Environmental Movements in Asia

edited by Arne Kalland and Gerard Persoon
Curzun Press, 1998

Culture, Gender and Community in Taiwan’s Environmental Movement

Robert P. Weller and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao

Fifteen years ago the Taiwanese rarely voiced concern about environmental problems, and seemed heedless of issues that were already rocking the West and Japan. Yet now ‘garbage wars’ over the placement of sanitary landfills threaten the island with mounds of uncollected refuse; large and well- organized protest movements have seriously delayed nuclear power-plant and oil refinery construction; and a wide range of environmental organizations, from the Taiwan branch of Greenpeace to the Environmental Mamas, have tried to organize people towards new attitudes and policies. The government itself, long considered oblivious to environmental issues, now produces educational cartoons on environmental protection (e.g. Xingzheng 1991).

Taiwan newspapers reported 278 cases of environmental protest in 1991, up from just ten a decade earlier. The three years between 1988 and 1990 saw over NT$ 12 billion (about US$ 500 million) paid to settle environmental suits (Lianhe Bao, 21/7/92).1 The economic impact, of course, goes far beyond direct reparations, as the island begins to deal with the legacy of decades of rapid growth with little concern for the consequences, and as more polluting industries consider moving their investment elsewhere. The environment has grown into a major issue in many local elections. It also causes an occasional scandal, as when the President was found to patronize several illegal and environmentally unsound golf courses (The Economist, 23/10/93). This sudden surge of interest in the environment as an issue – in fact a metamorphosis of how nature itself is conceived – responds in part to simple facts of increased pollution levels. Protesters complain of foul gas emissions which force their children to stay away from school, of stunted crops caused by polluted air and ground, and of tap water that ignites at the touch of a match. ‘Sanitary landfills’, the most volatile issue recently, are usually neither sanitary nor landfills, but just great heaps of garbage.

At the same time, this new awareness of the environment grows from the tensions and changes of modernity itself. Western environmentalism has its most immediate roots in nineteenth-century reactions to modernity, from Thoreau’s partial withdrawal from the world of social commerce to Muir’s half-religious communion with the wilderness.2 Like in the West, the move to the cities, the mechanization of daily life, the commodification of human relationships, and a general feeling of alienation from both nature and tradition contribute to the new appreciation of nature in Taiwan. This general increase in the Weberian rationalization of experience encourages the idealization of earlier pastoral ways of life, or of a nature unsullied by humanity. Thus, in addition to the environmental movement, Taiwan has had a recent surge in nature tourism, nature publishing, and traditional ways of relating to nature like geomancy. Harrell traces the rapid growth in Taiwanese nature tourism to just these processes of modernity:

The Taiwanese value nature because the city is polluted and noisy, and because nature is more accessible than it was. They go on weekends because their time, as industrial citizens, is structured in regular blocks. Their extended kin networks structure fewer of their activities because industry enables and requires mobility … There is nothing particularly Chinese about any of this, nor is there anything particularly Western or Westernized. There is something peculiarly modern, the self-critique of the social formation that has allowed all this leisure and luxury. Chinese culture still exerts a powerful influence, but in some ways, modern societies really are remarkably alike. (Harrell 1994: 183)

Until fairly recently, various lines of general theory about capitalism and culture also led us to expect a global cultural homogenization accompanying economic development, in spite of the great political differences among the various approaches. The modernization theory that thrived in the 1960s, for example, tried to generalise Weber’s argument about the Protestant ethic to all societies, looking for the creation of a functional equivalent to that rationalizing work ethic as a precondition for capitalist development. Thus, in a spectacularly unsuccessful prediction, many expected Chinese East Asia to be a developmental disappointment. The ‘enchanted garden’ of Chinese religion was thought to discourage ascetic secular rationalization (Weber 1951; Bellah 1965), while family-centred particularism impeded effective economic decisions (Levy 1949: 354-359). Culture, in these views, was monolithic and powerful. If countries were to develop successfully, however, all would independently have to recreate similar fundamental features – a single culture of capitalism that was secular, rationalizing and ascetic.

Modernization theorists expected each country, eventually, to follow England’s path of capitalist development, or at least to play variations on a common theme. By the 1970s, however, critics began to point out that developing countries in the twentieth century faced a fundamentally different world than had Europe in earlier times. Dependency and world systems theory argued that the economic (but not political) integration of the world in the sixteenth century created a single global division of labour (e.g. Wallerstein 1974). New relations between the core and periphery fundamentally altered developmental chances in the Third World. There was, in essence, only a single case of capitalism after that, and one could not argue for the independent recapitulation of European change in culture or economy.

While these ideas in general have been even less empirically useful in explaining East and Southeast Asian development than modernization theory, they carry important implications for the problem of global culture. World systems theorists in general gave short shrift to the idea of culture, but the approach did make clear that indigenous cultural responses to economic change could not possibly recreate Europe, because the economic core in the West now offers powerful cultural pressures that had no parallel in the sixteenth century. The new world division of labour could reinforce the cultural dominance of core over periphery as much as its economic dominances.3

While these approaches differ from one another quite fundamentally, all lead us to expect the world to develop a shared ideological core. This could be a set of relatively independent developments rooted in the shared pressures of successful modernization, or a hegemony growing out of the structural dominance of the core. For concepts of the environment, this core culture of capitalism centres on the split between nature and culture, which typically undergirds the entire range of Western thinking. The tensions between nature and culture have long roots in the West, in both Christianity and classical Greece (White 1967; Evernden 1992). Yet it is no coincidence that the distinction gained its greatest prominence during the Enlightenment, just as the new economy was beginning to take off (Bloch and Bloch 1980). Philosophers like Rousseau began to question the complacent anthropocentrism of the time, shaping an argument around the contrast between natural law and its abuse by human society. The debate continues about which side of the opposition should take priority, with greens largely arguing for a biocentric priority to nature, and others standing behind an anthropocentric subordination of nature to culture. All, however, share the language of a contrast between culture and nature. Its increasing role since the Enlightenment has strong affinities with the modem experiences of urbanization, mechanization and connmodification. At the same lime, the split has encouraged an objectification of nature, opening it up to scientific scrutiny and control (Merchant 1989).4

Environmental activists usually prefer the nature pole of this dichotomy, insisting that humans adapt to an ideal natural equilibrium. Dcvelopmentalists instead see nature adapting to human culture (see, e.g. Tucker 1982; Thomas 1983; Evernden 1992). Both sides, however, differ greatly from earlier Chinese traditions. These traditions themselves offered many alternatives. Some stressed an interactive harmony of humans and nature, where moral Confucian leadership led to a nurturing environment (e.g. Tu 1984). Daoist traditions looked less to human leadership and benefit, and more to the shared nature of all things in the flow of qi energy. At the same time, farmers cut down forests and transformed the landscape into rice paddies. For all the variation, however, no tradition really saw an inherent tension between nature and culture. Indeed, it is difficult to find a close translation of the word ‘nature’ in Chinese before the late nineteenth century, when da ziran entered from the West via Japanese science and philosophy.5

This leads to an empirical question: Is Taiwan’s environmental movement the progeny of world capitalist culture, either as a recapitulation of modem experience or as the direct creation of the core? Are earlier, more indigenous ways of thinking about the relation between humanity and environment doomed? As we shall discuss below, at least some of the data do show Taiwan looking very much like the West. Leaders are clearly well aware of developments abroad, and groups like Taiwan Greenpeace or ‘Earthday’ Taiwan are only the most obvious examples of direct ties. The strong influence of Western environmental thinking also shows up more subtly in the standard opposition that Taiwanese environmental leaders now pose between culture and nature, development and ecosystem. Indeed, their discourse is very hard to tell apart from that of their American or European colleagues.

However there are significant differences between Western and Taiwanese environmentalism. At local levels in particular, as we shall discuss, the environmental movement is unmistakably Taiwanese in culture and social organization. It is also more complex and less clearly organized than the discussion so far would imply, with ties to internal differences of class and gender.

In a sense, this essay attempts to rescue the baby of culture from being thrown out with the bath water of modernization theory. The theoretical critiques and empirical problems of that theory have pulled us away from one of its most significant (if unsatisfactorily resolved) issues, namely the relation between culture and the transformations of capitalism. This essay begins to explore the complexity of global culture change, with its contradictions, reverberations and resistances. In particular, we shall address empirically how far Taiwan’s culture of nature really resembles that of the West, as both modernization and world systems theory anticipated. How far have the pressures of economic change in fact reshaped earlier ideas in the face of a shared modernity? To what degree do Western ideas dominate or supplant indigenous ideas? Indeed to what extent do indigenous ideas and organizations shape the movement? We shall take up three major themes that appear consistently in Taiwan’s environmental movement: ecology, community and family. Some of this, like the ecological discourse, comes straight out of the West, but other parts – like the use of temples or the gender-laden emphasis on filial piety – come directly from local experience.


Taiwan’s transition away from martial law in July 1987 was a watershed for national environmental organizations, as it was for civil groups of all kinds. Most of the first generation of major environmental organizations – the New Environment Foundation, Taiwan Greenpeace, the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU), and the Homemakers’ Union Environmental Protection Foundation – were founded within months of the lifting of martial law.6 All of these organizations shared comparable goals. As the TEPU put it in their newsletter, they were ‘based on the principle of uniting people who care about protecting the environment in all regions and fields of work, jointly promoting the environmental protection movement and preserving Taiwan’s ecology’ (Shi 1988).

Academics have dominated the island-wide leadership of environmentalism in Taiwan. Both New Environment and Taiwan Greenpeace, for example, have developed into organizations run by and for small groups of perhaps a hundred academics. Neither organization has a significant grassroots membership, and both primarily sponsor academic lectures and similar events. When they join protest movements, it is mainly to lend their academic weight and public influence (which is sometimes considerable) to the most significant issues, like opposition to nuclear power. They do not actually go out and organize such opposition. Most environmental activists we talked to described them as relatively moribund, run by important public figures who helped found the movement, but have now moved on to other forums. Edgar Lin (Lin Junyi), the founder of Taiwan Greenpeace, for example, chose to pursue electoral office as a way of promoting his goals, and the organization has done little since then.7 He has more recently helped found the Green Consumers’ Foundation.

TEPU, in contrast, remains extremely active in a wide range of protest movements, and sees itself ideally as an umbrella for local grassroots organizations. They have branches all over the island, led by local activists rather than national academics. Often these local branches focus on a small but stable leadership that has crystallized out of a major demonstration.8 Their total membership in 1992 was about 1,200. Yet it would be a mistake to think of them as an organic outgrowth of local movements. Academics dominate TEPU’s leadership. The chair has always been an academic, and their academic advisory committee is guaranteed 30 per cent of the seats on their executive committee. It was founded by a group of eminent academics, not as a union of local leaders.

Liu Zhicheng, the chair in 1992, is a good example. He is a chemical engineer with an American PhD, specializing in toxicology. He describes his commitment to the environment as growing in Taiwan, first from an undergraduate course he took, and then from developments in Taiwan after he returned from the United States in the late 1980s. Yet whatever their origin, his attitudes clearly resonate with Western environmentalism. He sees a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, and feels that the economy should be secondary. He argues that new economic growth should be halted at least temporarily while the damage is repaired, and allowed to resume only if this can be achieved with no adverse environmental repercussions. His priorities thus lie in a kind of equilibrated nature, seen in opposition to human expansion. This is quite different from the pro-growth views that Taiwanese often express in opinion polls.

TEPU’s expertise means that they may get involved in all kinds of demonstrations, but they have historically favoured pre-emptive movements against large, government-sponsored projects. Their newsletter has also tended to dwell especially on these demonstrations, like the opposition to new refineries and a nuclear power-plant. This pattern reflects the general oppositional stance of these organizations. While they have no formal links to the political opposition, many of their leaders are in fact members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or its supporters. Antagonism to state-sponsored projects particularly highlights their disapproval of official environmental policy generally.

This commitment stems in turn from an insistence on environmental protection, even at the expense of economic growth – just the reverse of the usual government priorities. A roundtable of environmental leaders in 1992 made such views very clear. Participants included Liu Zhicheng and several other top leaders of environmental organizations, and two important commentators on the movement. All were academics – two engineers, two biologists, a psychologist and a sociologist. Lin Junyi, the founder of Taiwan Greenpeace and now a national representative, set the tone with the first statement. He claimed that Taiwan was twenty to thirty years behind the American environmental movement in building a following, and in fostering any kind of environmental consciousness in Taiwan. Taiwan was only just beginning to show concern for the environment, two decades after Stockholm.

Zheng Xianyou, an active member of TEPU, touched on similar themes by comparing Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement with that in the United States. He traced a. general path of development of environmental organizations, and again placed Taiwan in the formative stages that America had passed through long ago. Other speakers expressed similar feelings, always implying a kind of linear evolution, where Taiwan trudges slowly along behind the West on the way to realizing the true nature of nature. They disagreed about how unified the movement was in Taiwan, and about future strategy especially in the potential for conflict between promoting conservation and fighting pollution as goals. Yet all seemed to accept a Western ecological view of the environment as their ultimate goal. The powerful and direct influence of Western views of nature is very strong here, ruling out even consideration of the possibility that Taiwan could follow any road other than the Western one.

All of these organizations thrive in a world of intellectuals, broadly defined. College degrees typify the leaders of all these groups, and American post-graduate degrees are common. Many of the followers are members of the ‘knowledge classes”- professionals like lawyers and teachers, whose livelihood depends on the manipulation of knowledge more than on production directly. The main exceptions are some of the local TEPU branch organizers. This pattern has also typified environmental organizations in the West, where the long-term membership predominantly comes from these knowledge-based professions (the so-called ‘new class’) while local ad hoc organizations involved in specific issues draw from a much wider spectrum of people.9 This organizational pattern in Taiwan is unlikely to be a direct borrowing, but must instead come from shared social developments. Such people generally have a greater concern for quality of life. Just as importantly, their economic welfare is not directly tied to potentially polluting industry, and in some cases they stand to gain from increased government spending on regulation and research. Direct borrowing from the West is much clearer in the philosophical roots of these organizations. The academics in particular have drawn directly on Western green thinking, which values ecology over economy, nature over culture, and equilibrium over transformation. They see themselves precisely as reiterating Western developments in environmental consciousness and organization.

Environmental leadership also has an official face in Taiwan. Taiwan’s Executive Yuan (roughly equivalent to the American cabinet) created an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1987.10 With a staff of 300 and an initial budget over US$ 600 million, the establishment of the EPA indicated the government’s genuine concern with the environment (Williams 1992: 201). Like the academic environmentalists, leaders of the EPA are often American-trained. Much like their American counterparts, they support developing the environment for human use, creating booming economic growth, while keeping the environment strong through the technological prowess of modem science. They represent the other side of the Western environmental argument, where there is no limit to growth, and no need to subordinate consumption to a transcendent nature. Scientific control of nature will allow us to have both a healthy environment and an expanding economy. The range of academic/ bureaucratic debate in Taiwan thus roughly reproduces Western lines of argument.

The environmental bureaucrats and the academic environmentalists typify the two main sides of Western-style discourse on the environment. Both assume a fundamental split between nature and culture, world and humanity. They differ primarily in which side of the split they choose: should humanity subordinate itself to the natural order, or should nature be a tool for human comfort? In general, a wide gap stands between the top national leadership – from the EPA through TEPU – and local participants. Members of national environmental groups, like members of the government dealing with environmental issues, tend to be relatively wealthy and well educated, with a general ecological consciousness they often trace directly to Western thought.

These intellectuals and civil servants show the enormous power of the Western influence, but not because of any direct hegemonic attempt at control from the ‘core’ states. Instead, the convergence of ideas stems from their recognition of genuine problems of modem economic change – Taiwan’s environment really has deteriorated significantly – combined with the availability of a systematic body of thought already worked out in the West. Thoroughly modem, these environmental leaders have felt no need to look for indigenous answers to their problems. Yet as the following sections will show, these particular ways of thinking about nature do not characterise all of the society, and prevail only at the top.


While these national leaders may become involved in local protests, especially in very high-profile cases, their influence is only indirect for the great majority of cases. Local organizers instigate and lead most environmental protest in response to what they consider threats to local health. They use any local ties available to help organize -religious ties, kinship and personal networks, and local political factions. Here we shall focus on the role of temples in these protests as they have proved powerful when they have been involved. They illustrate clearly both the localism and the anthropocentrism that characterize grassroots movements, in contrast to the universalism and biocentrism of the larger organizations.

Temples have long been centres of local identity in Taiwan. Temples often serve as political bases for factions, and organize communities in many ways, some of them directly political. Many major community temples, for example, use the official village heads to collect an informal tax to fund an annual festival. Deities themselves take on the trappings of local political authority, dressing as imperial officials, living in temples modelled on official residences, and responding to the legalistic petitions that Taoists present to them. Many temples also control a great deal of wealth stemming from donations made by grateful followers over the years.

Given their intimate symbolic and organizational tics to local authority, it is no surprise that most major community temples arc under the control of relatively wealthy, politically conservative community leaders. It is thus often difficult to acquire their support for protests. Yet when temples can be won over, they offer the movement a powerful moral sanction in local terms, alongside a ready-made organizational network and a stockpile of funds. Indeed, both sides may try to mobilize religion. When Formosa Plastics decided to build Taiwan’s sixth naphtha cracker (a large and often polluting industry that refines oil products into base materials for making plastics) in Yunlin, Y.C. Wang (Wang Yongqing) – chief executive officer and one of the wealthiest men in Taiwan – called on each of the major local temples and offered a generous donation. Apparently as a result, none of them has become involved in local protests.11

Protests against Taiwan’s fifth naphtha cracker, however, made very effective use of religion. This plant was to be built in the Houjing neighbourhood of Gaoxiong City by China Petrochemicals, in a large refining complex already there.12 Protesters had blockaded the west side gate to the compound soon after the new plant was proposed in 1987. The blockade continued through the next two years supplemented by occasional blockades of the main gate after alarming incidents – once after one of the leaders was beaten and robbed by a drunk China Petrochemical employee, and again after extraordinary emissions from the main refinery.

Cai Chaopeng, one of the main leaders of the movement, was a religious specialist and devotee with an intimate understanding of the potential power of religion. Cai had run a fortune-ielling business before the protests, and had wide experience with planchette writing and other forms of Taiwanese religion. More recently he has taken lay Buddhist vows and is involved with a local Buddhist environmental group. Liu Yongling, another top leader, told us that they had asked one of their major local gods – Shen Nong, the god of agriculture – for support at the very beginning. They used the simplest method of divination, throwing two curved pieces of bamboo root (poe), which can come up ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘laughing’. Defying the odds, he says it came up ‘yes’ nine times in a row. When the KMT (Kuomintang, the nationalist party that has ruled Taiwan since 1945) tried it, he says, the result was always ‘no’. Probably more critically, Cai managed to garner financial backing from this temple in August 1987 – it gave NT$ 2 million (nearly US$ 100,000) directly to the self-help committee. The most creative use of religion came in December of that year.

As Cai Chaopeng and Liu Yongling told it, the protesters had left a handful of people to keep watch over the banner that represented their blockade of China Petrochemical. Plain-clothes police came by late at night, bringing alcoholic gifts. When the sentries finally passed out the police removed the banner, symbolically ending the blockade. Expecting trouble the next day, a thousand riot police were out in force to prevent a renewal of the blockade. When the self-help committee discovered this in the morning, they used the temple’s public address system to call people together. Religion provided an ideal mechanism to re-establish the blockade, because religious parades, unlike other forms of public demonstration, usually receive rubber-stamp official permission.

As part of their show of religious force, the group mobilized the temple’s traditional martial arts performing group, the Songjiang Zhen, to support them while they set up a spirit altar at the gate.13 These performing groups involve dozens of young martial arts enthusiasts, armed with spears and swords, who perform traditional routines at important festivals. They wear operatic costumes and makeup, and their steps are ritualized. Nevertheless, the weapons are real, the performers can fight, and the element of real physical threat was obvious to everyone.14 The police had to back down, and in the end the protesters agreed to take the spirit altar down in return for the right to leave their banner (and the blockade) up.

The other crucial religious intercession occurred on 5 May 1990. This was the eve of a local referendum on the issue to which the government had agreed. Everyone expected a victory for China Petrochemical; 81 per cent of people polled nationally supported building the plant. The forces most adamantly opposed to construction gathered fifty to one hundred people to worship the god of agriculture and ask his preference in the referendum. Again they threw poe, and again they got a powerful response of eleven straight agreements with the most radical position. As word of this minor miracle got out, a crowd began to build, finally developing to perhaps a thousand people. Most of them made incense offerings to the temple, and the contents of the incense pot eventually burst into a large fire. This phenomenon is called hoat to (manifesting the incense pot), and people consider it a powerful acknowledgement of the deity’s approval.

Further enhancing the power of the event, the goddess Guanyin suddenly possessed an older woman. Putting her fingers into the lotus mudra (a religious hand gesture), the goddess/woman began chanting that the Houjing neighbourhood would be doomed if the plant were built. Such spirit possession is not at all unusual in Taiwan, and provides a powerful opportunity for mobilizing religious power, since the normally conservative authorities who manage temples cannot control what their god says through a medium. After the fact, many people credited this single event with the results of the next day – people voted to oppose the naphtha cracker without compromise. In the end, the government ignored the referendum and approved construction but the long protest did succeed in pushing the company to set up a NT$ 1.5 billion (about US$ 60 million) foundation to benefit Houjing, and to promise extensive investment in pollution control. The blockade of the west side gate was lifted in November 1990 after 1,202 days.

Winning the support of the local temple thus added a powerful social network and symbol of community well-being to this movement. Others have been less spectacular, but just as effective. One Gaoxiong County community successfully opposed a garbage dump when the temple realized that its main deity, a plague god (Ong la), would have to set sail in an important annual ritual in polluted water. In another case, the local temple in Dalinpu, Gaoxiong City, finally supported the long and angry protests against Taiwan Power, China Petrochemical and China Steel but only after a riot. The temple agreed to pay bail (over NT$ 100,000) for people arrested, primarily because the accused rioters included a relative of one of the temple management committee members.15 Even this lukewarm temple committee could not however, prevent people from borrowing god images to use in their demonstrations. Dalinpu did this at least twice. The first time was another plague god they set up in the local police station, to keep the police honest. Protesters say the police capitalized on the situation, praying to the image for winning illegal lottery numbers. The second-time was before the demonstration in front of Taiwan Power that led to the riot. The god agreed to come, but then decided to leave (through divination) when the police ordered them to disperse. Many people left with the god, missing the riot that followed.

Religion thus offers, at least potentially, an alternative to the Western ideas about nature and community that dominate the national organizations. As protectors of community welfare, and often as symbols of community opposed to national or other interests, deities provide easy cultural opportunities for these movements. Religion, in addition, offers an established social network that can be mobilized. Indeed, temples and political factions together (and sometimes kinship) provide the main lines through which leaders can normally mobilize local people.

The people who control both religious and factional networks usually have strong political ties to the KMT, and may not be sympathetic to local mobilization for social protest. Yet as we have. seen, local protest organizers can often neutralize these networks from the grassroots. In fact protesters sometimes manage to win them over fully by showing potential political rewards, threatening loss of popular support or even by worshipping a god who conveniently speaks through a possessed medium, a blazing incense pot or a good fall of the divination blocks.

The national environmental organizations have avoided local religion completely. In part this stems from their social origins: they are urban, highly educated, and quite secular. Typical of modernizing elites anywhere, they generally feel a great distance from tradition bound local religious practice, especially in the forms most effective in actual movements – possessed mediums, flaming incense pots, powerful divinations. Just as importantly, they reject the localism inherent in the use of religion. The gods of local temples above all protect their human communities, and worry about the environment only when it threatens their people. Taiwanese religion structurally and culturally offers little encouragement for a global or even. an island-wide view of ecology. It centres instead on the welfare of its people (not so much opposed to nature as living with it), in its specific locality.16


The family and its rituals, especially death ritual, form another common motif in grassroots environmental action in Taiwan. Demands to save resources for descendants resonate deeply with the Chinese ideals of filial piety, and mesh with economic behaviour that attempts to maximize an estate to be handed down. The frequent borrowing of funeral symbolism in protests furthers the image of filial piety, and rebuts state or corporate worries about economic growth with the classical Confucian value of filial piety. At the same time, however, ‘family’ has never been the same to all Taiwanese, and gender differences in kinship experience also reveal themselves in the way men and women talk about the environment. This section will begin with filial piety and funerals – the men’s view of proper kin relations – and finish with a discussion of women’s views.

Of the three great unfilial acts in Confucianism, the worst is not to bear a son. Murdering a parent is terrible, of course, but it kills only one person. Having no son kills an entire line, forever. Such an act strands a long line of forebears, and destroys what should have been an infinite line of descendants. While Confucianism as philosophy has always been far from people’s daily lives, this attitude towards sons continues to reflect people’s real experience in Taiwan, even now. Men want sons to carry on their line; women want them to assure their places in their husbands’ families; and everyone needs to be certain that someone will care for them when they get old.17 Women still often continue to bear children until a son is born.

The debt of gratitude to all those forebears requires regular acts of memorial worship. Informants in Taiwan frequently speak about filial piety, expressed through action from care for aged parents to ancestor worship. Many people see this as one of the biggest differences between their own traditions and those of the West. By the same token, the responsibility for the continuation of the line means not just having a son, but providing as much of an estate as possible for him and his descendants. As Harrell (1985) pointed out this provides a powerful motivation for the combined work ethic and frugality regularly associated with Chinese cultures. In addition, it helps explain the common preference in Taiwan for being a ‘chicken’s beak rather than a bull’s behind’, that is, a very small entrepreneur rather than an employee of even a large and booming firm. An enterprise forms part of an estate that can be handed down; a salaried job does not.

It is thus no surprise to hear local environmental movements pick up the language of kinship. A fishermen’s protest in Hualian, for example, put out a brochure called ‘Protect Hualian’s Shore for Our Children and Grandchildren’. It read, in part: Dear people of Hualian County, teachers, mothers: Let us unite for the sake of our beloved sons and daughters, and absolutely oppose the China Paper factory, which continues to poison Hualian’s seas and air.

Most uses of these terms are more gender-laden than this brochure. One example strikes anyone passing through the site of the proposed fourth nuclear power generator, planned for the northeast coast of Taipei County. Opponents have lined the road leading through the area with signs. Probably half of them denounce the plant as a threat to the local people’s descendants. When we interviewed Jiang Qunhe, one of the local leaders, be also frequently talked about the importance of preserving the area as a patrimony for his descendants. The term for descendants here is zisun, literally children and grandchildren, or sons and grandsons. Such sentiments appear over and over in grassroots environmental organizing.

Zisun was also the word used in the title of the brochure from Hualian. The term can include both genders, but in this society the implications of that Confucian male line are clear. Reversing the two characters into sunzi, for instance, makes the word for grandsons, excluding granddaughters who must be specified as female (sunnü). Frequent use of such language at local levels clearly reverberates with men’s lineage ideals and a general dedication to filial piety. Typically, the main organizers against the nuclear power-plant are men, and the author of the Hualian brochure was also male.

The use of kinship to justify environmental protest is also specifically local. Both TEPU and the opposition-led county government have actively opposed the plant, but neither takes great advantage of the metaphors of kinship. They are more strictly anti-nuclear on general principle, and do not appeal to the fundamentally particularistic ties of kinship.

Funeral Ritual

Funeral ritual is the most public enactment of filial piety, and it is no surprise that funeral symbolism often shows up in Taiwanese protests. Funerals are often the platform for protest in many pans of the world, but seem especially prone to re-readings as protest in East Asia. They cover a wide range of functions: from the conversion of official mourning to political protest in the People’s Republic of China (as in Zhou Enlai’s funeral in 1976, or Hu Yaobang’s in 1989); to the South Korean borrowing of funerals of slain student demonstrators as forums for pushing democratic reforms; to the use of standard funeral symbols like white headbands and banners, pioneered in Japan but now spread throughout East Asian protest movements.18 Taiwan echoes these same themes, as the idea of filial piety helps to justify protest in widely held and politically acceptable values. As the most obvious visible commemoration of the debt owed to ancestors and the obligation owed to children, funeral ritual is a natural vehicle for environmental protest. In most cases, the funerals identify the local land, river or sea as a dead parent. Such a funeral fights for the moral high ground in these battles. By implication, holding such a funeral accuses the state or company of murdering the environment. At the same time, the mourners’ claim an expanded filial piety in response to the usual accusations that protesters are just out for financial compensation.

Funeral ritual also has implications beyond these general rhetorical uses. Real funerals help cut the dead off from the living and reconstitute new social relations among the survivors. At the same time they also transform the death into fertility, wealth and success for the descendants (Thomson 1988). Geomancy provides a simple illustration of this. Geomancers align the bones to channel vital energy from the environment to the male descendants. At the burial itself, in addition to making sure the coffin is properly sited, they scatter a mixture of rice and other grains, coins and nails over the grave. The symbols here are typically unsubtle: the grains are for fertility, the coins are for wealth, and the nails, in addition to their obvious phallic qualities, make a pun on a word for adult males (Hokkien tieng).

Sometimes protest funerals borrow another occasion for mourning, instead of mourning the land directly. One of the most influential occurred during the three-year fight against the fifth naphtha cracker, which we have already discussed. Part of their response to the police removal of their blockade (discussed in the previous section) was a funeral, which the newspapers dubbed the Battle of the Coffins’. The protesters carried four coffins, intending to set up a spirit altar back at the west gate of the factory compound, and thus re-establish their blockade. This funeral was nominally to commemorate the death of a man who had recently immolated himself in Taipei over other issues entirely. Typically, these coffins suggested the idea of mourning for a slain environment just as they conjured up images of the discarded Confucian responsibility to the welfare of future generations. They also added an element of threat, because the group carried the traditional funeral wreaths, but wrote the names of factory managers on them, instead of the name of the dead man.

Even the Taipei County government began to play at this when they sponsored a ghost festival for the slain Tamsui river in 1992 (Beixian Wenhua 1992; Zili Zaobao 21/8/92). The ghost festival (Universal Salvation, pho to) occurs annually in the seventh lunar month, when ghosts are temporarily released from the underworld. Major temples sponsor large and colourful rituals to feed these hungry ghosts, and hopefully to save them from their fates. The ghost festival includes more important rice/fertility symbolism, where the Buddhist or Taoist priests who conduct the ceremony transform visible rice into invisible quantities large enough to feed all the ghosts. As part of the process, they toss grains of rice (and sometimes coins) to a waiting crowd, who cook the grains with their daily rice for good fortune in the coming year. Everyone in the community participates with financial and food offerings, and with the extended mutual feasting that characterizes important rituals in Taiwan. Various governments of the island over the last century have campaigned against it as a colossal waste of money, a potential threat to public order (which in fact occasionally did become an actual threat), and an embarrassing superstition (Weller 1987: 129-142).

The County government departed from this practice because they are under the control of the opposition party. The ghost festival made a convenient platform for them because it affirmed Taiwanese religious traditions (and specifically Taiwanese identity is the centrepiece of the opposition platform), and because environmental protest is a useful thorn in the side of the national government.19 In conjunction with a temple, they performed a fairly traditional ceremony, but also added their own touches, including a parade whose participants are dressed up as ghosts and a new version of the Eighteen Hells (updated with punishments for modem sins). They had school children paint the traditional water lanterns (sent down the river to announce the ceremony to drowned ghosts) with environmental themes. They sometimes talked about the river itself as an ancestor, or as the mother of civilization who was then killed by her offspring. This theme again captures the ideas of filial debt that allow protesters to characterize pollution as an unfilial attack (Beixian Wenhua 1992: 29).

Womens’s View

All of the death rituals cited above further the idea that the environment is part of an estate which must be passed along to descendants. Women in Taiwan, however, tend to take a different view of what kinship is about. After all, the line of ancestors so important to their husbands and sons excludes the women’s natal kin completely. Women’s interests lie instead primarily in what Wolf termed the ‘uterine family’, the woman and her sons, with the husband brought in if possible (M. Wolf 1972). This is the group that will spark her initial acceptance by her in-laws (through the birth of a son), protect her interests in the family in the long term, and take care of her in old age. We might expect women to be less interested in claims about infinite lines of male kin, and more in issues of nurture. Certainly female deities tend to be more nurturing and less tied to local geographic interests than male ones (see Sangren 1983). Martin (1988) has also speculated that women have very different views of funeral rituals.

Women are not usually the public leaders of local environmental protest. Yet they are often very active, and in fact tend to stress nurturing nature much more than creating a patrimony for sons and grandsons. One of the scholars at the Academia Sinica, for example, made a speech along just these lines. She was protesting against the proposed construction of a sanitary landfill nearby. Towing her children along to make her point she even borrowed a couple of extras to help the image along. She clearly felt that her authority as mother and caretaker would carry more weight than her position as scholar and professional, and happily pointed out afterwards that she had been taken for a housewife. This call to more global issues of general nurture marks the earth both as mother to us all, and as sick child in need of loving care. This strategy downplays the male appeal to patrimony, heirs and local resources.

Women make up the membership of several national environmental groups. In general, they only speak about these issues, in contrast to both the more academic and male organizations, and to male leaders of local movements. The most important of these groups is the Homemakers’ Union Environmental Protection Foundation. Their activities rarely involve open resistance to policy, and focus instead on the household. Many of their original leaders were the wives of leading academic environmentalists, and most of the group are middle-class (or upper-class) women in their thirties and forties, generally with a college education.20 Organizational policy is to serve women who are married but not employed.

In spite of their intimate ties to the academic environmental groups, the Homemakers’ Union pursues an independent path. With a popular base, in middle-class housewives, they are not willing to take on the controversial political issues of TEPU. and arc not interested in the more strictly academic lectures and roundtables of the other groups. Unlike the academic groups, which are mostly male and mostly holders of American PhD degrees, they try to root their environmentalism in issues of household and motherhood. As Lu Hwei-syin has discussed, the stock Chinese image of the nurturing mother plays a pivotal role in their imagery. Their introductory brochure thus shows an image of a woman pushing the bandaged earth in a wheelchair, with the slogan, ‘Women take care of the wounded earth’ (Lu 1991:34).

Most predominantly for these women, environmental protection appears as a means to protect the health of their children. Following this logic, the Homemakers’ Union uses the term ‘environment’ in an extremely broad sense. For example, they run summer camps for children, organize very popular meetings on child-rearing practices, and publish books encouraging children to be more independent. especially as a way of discouraging molestation and abuse. All of this falls under the heading of ’spiritual environment’ (xinling huanjing).

The view of nature here has few direct ties to Western environmentalism, although it has been strongly influenced by Western ideas about social welfare and childcare. Its Chinese roots remain clear, especially in the emotional power of the issue of children. These housewives take special pride in their childcare (Lu 1991 35); groups like the Homemakers’ Union legitimize childcare as a calling every bit as important as mens’ careers. At the same time, it has deep roots in Chinese history. Women have always prayed, for example. primarily to goddesses known for help in conceiving and bearing children. Even Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, holds a small baby in the images that women often worship. Preservation and improvement of the ‘environment’, in the broadest sense of the term, appear as maternal duties.21

Two kinds of differences thus permeate this section: the gap between the discourse of national leaders and that of local movements, and the gap between male and female outlooks on kinship. The general concern with kinship as a way of talking about relations to the environment and the importance of environmental protection, which is so widespread at local levels, is almost entirely absent among the Western educated leadership. The localist, particularist, and generally ‘traditional’ features of kinship make it less appealing to these leaders than to local activists. In addition, it implies important differences over how the environment itself should be considered. The biocentrism of green leaders has no place in the metaphors of kinship.22 Rather than being inherently good and threatened by humanity, nature is either part of a local inheritance for the good of the patriline, or a sad invalid requiring human care. Geomancy itself makes this attitude clear – it does not attempt to adjust people to nature, but rather to focus the forces that energize both nature and humanity for the good of certain groups of people. It denies the distinction between nature and culture, while putting human benefit at the forefront.

The distinctions between male and female uses of this language play on the two most dominant themes in Chinese kinship: the need to maintain the infinite line of descent from fathers to sons, and the need to bear and nurture children. As Margery Wolf (1972) pointed out, however, these two themes create an inherent tension centred on the position of women. Men require women from outside the lineage to bear them sons, but also fear their lack of loyalty and ties to other lineages. Women in turn, under great pressure to bear sons, hope to create their own base of support in the uterine family. Women are both sexual and external threats to the family (as in the legends of female fox fairies who destroy men through sex), and virgin nurturers (as in the tales of many goddesses like Mazu and Guanyin).

Fittingly, large demonstrations, which are mostly run by men, often talk in generalities about preserving the world for their descendants. Such language promotes neither a nature for its own sake nor a general love of humanity; instead it builds on the old Chinese reverence for the patriline. Women’s groups, in contrast, tend to emphasize the household itself over the lineage, raising broad themes of nurture for children and for the earth itself (Lu 1991:34-35).

The Homemakers’ Union thus talks about raising children, not duties to the lineage. As one member said in a speech, ‘Many of my friends dare not have babies. Who has the courage to bring more children into this filthy world? Facing this polluted environment, we mothers don’t know what to do’ (Lu 1991: 34).


Western ideas about the environment – both environmentalist and developmentalist – have gained their currency in Taiwan largely through education, and most clearly among the top political and academic leaders. International organizations like Greenpeace and Earthday have also had a very direct influence. Both policy-makers and environmental leaders tend to have Western graduate degrees, and both speak most clearly in familiar Western idioms of economic growth versus environmental protection. Looking only at the leadership, we see fundamentally Western discourses built on the contrast between nature and culture.23

Yet as soon as we look beyond those top ranks, the nature/culture split looms less large, as does Western thinking about the environment generally. Specifically Taiwanese cultural forms and social organization help organize people. They talk very little about preserving nature for its own sake, independent of human use. Instead, they tend to emphasize a preservation of nature in ways compatible with humans, recognizing that both will be mutually transformed. Thus some people argue for kinship responsibilities to preserve nature as human patrimony for the family line, and others invoke local gods to protect community values.

Just as for economic development, we cannot read a Western evolutionary scheme on to the rest of the world. Nor can we assume a simple Western cultural hegemony, an inevitable and unstoppable new cultural world order. Neither a simple modernization nor a simple world system scheme suffices. Taiwan has to a great extent recreated the Western experience of modernity, but it has done so with two crucial differences: it builds on a specifically Taiwanese social and cultural base, and it develops in relation to current Western solutions to modernity. The cultural world system, if we can borrow the concept very loosely, has changed. Unlike the West in the nineteenth century, Taiwan has modernized in a world already dominated by competing paradigms of culture and nature already developed in the West. Indigenous developments now occur only in dialogue with a discourse that began without them.

Will the differences in Taiwanese environmental culture lead, in the long run, to an alternative Chinese environmentalism? Certainly these various bits of popular culture seem to offer the germ of a new view of nature. These include the emphasis on children and family life, creating and maintaining a patrimony for future generations, the interaction between human microcosm and natural macrocosm in geomancy and parts of popular religion, the ties between deities and community health and values.

In practice, however, these ideas so far have little chance of being mobilized into a broader, specifically Taiwanese philosophy of nature. Taiwanese popular religion has only a very weak institutional existence beyond local communities, nor does it have a group of intellectuals, like priests, who might pull such a set of ideas together.24 National leaders, thoroughly modern themselves, have little inclinations in this direction, and are thoroughly immersed in other ways of thinking about nature.


We are especially grateful for the research assistance of Huang Chien-yu, Li Zonglin and Zhao Huimei, and for comments from colleagues at the Institute of Ethnology of the Academia Sinica and the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard University.


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