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«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»

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Lien, Heng. General History of Taiwan, http://ef.cdpa.nsysu.edu.tw/ccw/02/taiwan3.htm, consulted on 17 April 2007. Also in Cheng, Z, ibid. I need to explain that Hunan and Jiangsu provinces are considered as the most influential regions for the fabric industry in China.

Ko, Dorothy. Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London:

University of California Press, 2001, p 79.

M. Turner, © 2008 nügong are understood merely for the sake of domestic purposes, as ‘crafts’ and were signified as femininity. Confucian ideology towards women’s needlework is similar to that in the West.

Before addressing how the Taiwanese have developed a hybridised form which distinguishes themselves from the original colonial authority (the Chinese, and later the Japanese fabric heritage), I would like to investigate how fabric work has been signified as a symbol of inferiority and domestic production for women in Confucius-influenced society, and how the discourse of gender has been involved in this argument. In Confucianism and Women (2006), Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee argues how different expectations of work are

given in terms of gender by asserting that:

Having a proper distinction between genders was what separated the Han from its neighbouring barbarians. […] In the traditional account, the gender division of labour is defined in terms of the idea of nangeng nuzhi, that is, man ploughs and woman weaves.21 Confucius (551-479 BC) emphasised different rules that different genders and classes should obey.22 For example, Rosenlee further details how, in ancient Chinese history, different jobs symbolically applied to different genders. She

asserts that:

The imperial annual sacrificial ceremony in which the emperor’s ritual ploughing in the fields during the spring is paired with the empress’s symbolic act of tending silkworms reflects this traditional account of the

Rosenlee, Li-Hsiang Lisa. Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation. Albany:

State University of New York Press, 2006, p 80.

Ames and Rosemont, op cit, p 1.

M. Turner, © 2008 gender division of labour.23 Since proper gender distinction is viewed as a sign of civilisation in Confucianism, the differentiation between men and women determines their different jobs, which they are expected to perform as a norm and as being civilised. 24 Fabric works are thus considered to be women’s labour in Confucianism-influenced societies including not only China but also Korea, Japan and Vietnam.25 As a result, the idea that women are categorised to produce fabric works has been implanted in Taiwan’s society since the Han’s emigration to the island, as well as during Japan’s colonisation.

With regard to Japanese influence on Taiwan’s fabric art, Chang Mei-Yun, a Taiwanese embroiderer educated in Japan, has conducted some important research which was published in 1995 in her book, Jen Sin Jen Ching: Art of

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handiworks, especially using embroidery for clothes, socks, handbags, handkerchiefs, scarves, etc, and that the Japanese policy to Japanise Taiwan has helped the development of fabric art on the island.26 She explains that ‘in Rosenlee, op cit, p 80.

In order to explain the argument that ‘gender distinction is viewed as a sign of civilisation for Confucianism’, it is worth looking at some length at how Rosenlee interprets Confucian

concepts of li (read: politeness):

Li, as a means to differentiate, to draw boundaries, is then understood as originating in the need for social division of labour in order to achieve social harmony and good governing. Li holds the key to social and political cohesion because li is a body of normative expressions and institutions that defines as well as reflects one’s unequal yet reciprocal social status and kinship role in relation to others. […] In short, the proper distinction between genders is an integral part of good governing, and hence is a defining feature of civilised human society as opposed to the primitive mode of life that makes no distinctions among the unequals.

Rosenlee, op cit, pp 75-77.

Details of the regions which have been influenced by Confucian philosophy, can be found in Ames and Rosemont, op cit, p 1.

Chang, Mei-Yun. Jen Sin Jen Ching: Art of Embroidery. Hsinchu Cultural Centre, 1994, p M. Turner, © 2008 Taiwan’s schools today, skills of traditional Japanese embroidery are still taught in “home education” classes’. 27 Therefore, with Taiwan’s colonial heritage and Confucian ideology, Taiwanese women’s fabric arts, including stitching and sewing, have kept the traditional Chinese and Japanese custom and style alive. On important holidays or occasions, women would wear a special scarf they have made themselves in order to show their faith and love towards their partners or husbands. Girls would be taught to make their own wedding dresses, clothes and shoes when they were very young. In addition, until their weddings, these handiworks were very private and secret and were only shown and shared with their mothers and grandmothers.28 The most popular subjects for their fabric works were dragons, the phoenix, birds and flowers, all of which are seen as symbols of good luck and prosperity.

Thus, from the 17th century until the 20th century, women’s handiworks have been considered to be part of the cultural and colonial heritage of the island and even during the KMT’s period, several institutes which support and

–  –  –

example, the Taiwan Province Handiwork Research Institute was established in 1973, constituting the first governmental research organisation for professional fabric art. In 1990, The Museum of Weaving and Knitting Handicraft, the only museum for handicraft, was established in Taichung, with the aim to collect, research and publish works and events about fabric. In 1992, the Council for Cultural Affairs in Taiwan initially organised the ‘Folk Craft 20.


Embroidery and needlework as preparation for women’s wedding ceremonies were viewed as a secret before weddings. See National Taiwan Craft Research Institute, http://www.ntcri.gov.tw, consulted on 20 March 2007.

M. Turner, © 2008 Awards’, which was later called the ‘Traditional Craft Awards’ (1998-2000) and the ‘National Craft Awards’ (2001-present).29 All of these competitions, which include a session for fabric works, focusing on contemporary craft creation, aim to hybridise traditional and contemporary concepts of needlework and to indicate the ideas of Taiwan’s cultural identity.30 The institutes and awards listed above manifest the fact that Taiwan’s officials intend to seek contemporary fabric works which demonstrate Taiwan’s hybridised culture, through which a sense of national identity is stimulated via a new understanding of colonial heritage. Women artists, not only those whose works combine traditional Han embroidery skills with modern Taiwanese cultural symbols, but also those who tend to be totally westernised, were all invited to participate in the exhibition, BuBaoFu. I argue how their artworks signify the characteristics of hybridised culture and layered cultural representation in Taiwan.


–  –  –

The exhibition title, BuBaoFu, suggests two aspects that the curator, Lin Ping, wishes to illustrate. One is to evaluate fabric as an artistic material; the other is to discuss the abstract space that has limited Taiwanese women’s daily lives More details about these institutes and awards can be found in Chen, Jing-Lin. The Prominent Categories of Taiwanese Art: The Ingenuity of Fibre Artists. Taipei: National Cultural Association, 2006, p 153.

Full details about how the jury will select the awarded works can be found from the press release of the Fifth National Craft Awards, posted by the Council for Cultural Affairs in Taiwan.

http://www.cca.gov.tw/app/autocue/news/culture_news_template.jsp?news_id=11177067321 32, consulted on 18 April 2007.

M. Turner, © 2008 in the past.

The spelling of the exhibition title, BuBaoFu, is written according to the pronunciation of the original title in Chinese words, ‘ ’, rather than to its definitions. There are two different meanings by the pronunciation of the title.

‘ ’ is written according to PinYin, a pronunciation system to transform symbols into sounds for the benefit of people learning the Chinese language, and it indicates two different words: ‘no’ and ‘fabric’. There are also two definitions of the phrase ‘ ’ (BaoFu): ‘a bag made of cloth for carrying stuff’ and ‘burden; worry; trouble’. Therefore, BuBaoFu, as symbolised by the sound of the words, refers to dual meanings: ‘having no burden’ or ‘a handbag of cloth’. With the use of PinYin rather than specific words, the curator’s intention to play around with the meanings of the title becomes clear.

Apart from challenging the notion of fabric work (for example, the debates on dual meanings about the exhibition title), Lin Pin explains another motivation for her choosing fabric as the title for this exhibition, and this is that fabric may also be seen as a sign of showing consideration and care for other people.

When interviewing Lin (herself a mother of two children), I was told that she originally used cloth for her babies’ nappies in the 1970s, when there was no disposable alternative. Even though the cloth nappies were carefully washed, there were still some stains that showed a sense of the passing of time and it was this that greatly attracted and touched the curator. Similarly, for nurses in hospitals, cloth has been widely used in the care of patients. Moreover, cloth is the most common material used by people to remove dirt, and all of these M. Turner, © 2008 factors have encouraged Lin to arrange this exhibition.31 The exhibition BuBaoFu, which was held between 3 and 30 May in 2003, was curated to re-think the significance of ‘micro space’ close to women by using fabric as the artistic material. During the interview with Lin, I was told that the idea of ‘micro space’ was inspired by the German curator, Hilde Léon, who participated in the 8th International Architecture Exhibition: NEXT in 2002.

Léon encouraged young students to explore the concepts of space in various forms by providing them with a small-scale model of the architecture of the German pavilion. It was the basic and small shape that inspired numerous ideas. Lin was moved by Hilde Léon’s concept and then thought of organizing an exhibition with a similar idea. The term ‘micro space’, used by Lin, can be found in as small a space as inside handbags to as big as a domestic space, including spaces in the kitchen, bedrooms and living rooms, where women, traditionally perceived, spend most of their lifetime. This exhibition was mounted in order to memorialise how women in different generations have interpreted this ‘micro space’ and created artistic works through it.

Furthermore, through this exhibition, Lin managed to reveal unlimited emotions and spirits through revisiting minor and domestic spaces and objects.

One of the central motifs used by the exhibition was ‘women’s handbags’. For Lin, ‘women’s handbags’ reminded her of how her grandmother dressed herself before going out. Lin claimed that there were two things that her grandmother would always have carried whenever she went out, and they ‘Interview with Lin Ping’, Taichun, 10 October 2004.


M. Turner, © 2008 were an umbrella and a handbag made from a piece of cloth. Taiwanese (Han) women in the past hid their treasures in this small handbag and carried it wherever they went.33 In the small and limited space of this handbag, women kept their dreams and practicalities, for example a letter from their partner, a pair of earrings, a handkerchief or the money needed for that day. One of the few spaces a woman could call her own was compressed into this micro space shaped merely by a piece of cloth. The handbags have become a metaphor for Taiwanese women in the past as the space where they could keep their personal treasures, which was very important to them. This micro space, made by a piece of cloth rolled around a woman’s arm, could also be seen as very large because, in the past, what was kept inside represented the dreams and property held by a woman.

The idea of women’s ‘micro space’ hidden within their handbags and within their domestic space is also inherited from Han culture, which limits women within the concepts of nei (read: being inward), as opposed to wai (read: being outward) for men. The micro space, defined by Lin, is the only space given to women within the accepted social and political context of Confucian society.

Rosenlee makes this point more clear by declaring that:

The shared western image of China as a stagnant civilization frozen in time and surrounded by rigid walls and gates is, in part, supported by the perception of Chinese family and social structure in which both man and woman have their separate places defined by the line separating the nei from wai with no transgression permitted.34 This kind of handbag was used for women before modern western alternatives were introduced in Taiwan.

Rosenlee, op cit, p 69.

M. Turner, © 2008 As already addressed, the vivid division between domestic and non-domestic spaces for women and men has been seen as a sign of civilization, separating the Han from the ‘barbarians’ (those outside of Han areas). Within the category of ‘nei’, traditional women in Taiwan are limited to a small space – a house, where they practice fabric works and undertake domestic labouring.

The traditional social restrictions applied to women have limited women into ‘micro space’, existing in domestic realms. The value that the artists participating in this exhibition have contributed is that through the concepts of ‘micro space’ and ‘nei’, women are exploring the ideas of ‘wai’: political issues and cultural identity. Thus, fabric and cloth have carried special meanings for women in the past and provide today’s women with special life experiences and a political means to re-consider their roles in society.

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