Margery Wolf - Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan.

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A moldy oldie of studying "Chinese" on Taiwan

Jun 30, 2008
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:discussion of "uterine family" and female agency

Cons:way out of date, marred by naivete, especially about ethnic domination

The Bottom Line: read Norma Diamond, Rita Gallin (or us!) instead


Margery Wolf accompanied her husband anthropologist Arthur Wolf on fieldwork during the mid-1960s in Peihotien, which is in northwestern Taiwan (south of Taipei). She published a somewhat fictionalized account of one Taiwanese peasant extended family over the course of three generations The House of Lim in 1968, filled with generalizations about “Chinese” customs and beliefs and seemingly oblivious of the oppression by Chinese ("Nationalists" speaking the language of Beijing ) of the Taiwanese (who spoke a language she could not understand at all) and no consideration of how they identified themselves (not that they would have felt free to reveal their identities even if she had been able to ask them).

The Lims were a "joint family" (rather than having split into nuclear ones). This made economic diversification within the family possible, success of the business one side engaged in led to suspicions between the side of the family engaged in business and the side continuing to work the land. They were too proud to divide the hearth (huen ge hu -- the Taiwanese metaphor for breaking up the family into distinct nuclear-family households), but the tensions were so great that eventually they did, thereby losing "face" in the community.

Arthur Wolf focused on the adoption of girls of poor families who were raised with their future husband (and the lack of sexual interest that resulted from this arrangement that felt like incest). Margery Wolf included a case in The House of Lim and discussed such arrangements (called simbua) more in her 1972 book Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan.

This later and drier book is the account of a "typical" life-cycle of "Chinese" women in a multi-surnamed Holo-speaking village. (Holo also has another name that the word filter blocks: it is the language of Fujian and of the majority of people on Taiwan). Margery Wolf managed to somewhat enliven the demographic analyses of her (then-) husband’s work on patterns of adoption and marriage.

She stressed the importance of informal neighborhood groupings of (unrelated) women within a somewhat untypical Taiwanese village. (Untypical in that most had a dominant lineage.) She took an interest that seems obsessive in prostitution, especially by adopted daughters, and on rivalry between women. In particular, Wolf stressed the rivalry between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law as a centripetal force that recurrently leads to the breakup of larger family units into nuclear family households (the huen ge hu phenomenon central to The House of Lim).

Wolf failed to understand the extent to which women’s work outside the house was important to them and to the economic well-being of their families, As Norma Diamond (who did exemplary fieldwork on a Taiwanese fishing village and did not make the unexamined equation of "Taiwanese" and "Chinese" that both Arthur and Margery Wolf continued to assume) complained at the time of the book's publication, "there is little feel for how adult women view themselves and their lives, how they interact with the males in their lives, and how completely they accept the male evaluation of them as economically useless, ritually polluting, and of less importance” (p. 112).

As an analysis of Taiwan in the 1950s and 60s, the value of the book is reduced by Margery Wolf's inability to understand the language of the women (competence in the language of Beijing among rural Taiwanese women of the time was practically nonexistent) and the way a unitary "Chinese culture" was being used by Chinese to dominate and repress Taiwanese. Nonetheless, at variance with neo-Confucian Chinese ideology, Margery Wolf did notice some rudimentary counterforce to patriarchal domination, what she called the "uterine family." Distant fathers and close-binding mothers who, depending on who is defining it "cherish" or "spoil" their sons generate strong son-mother bonds and use (or exploit) these against their husbands (the father of the boys).

Wolf (and Wolf and others) seem to me to have taken Confucian prescriptions for descriptions -- or Chinese prescriptions for Taiwanese descriptions -- in regard to the severing of bonds between a daughter given to another family in marriage and her brothers. In my family at the same time as the Wolfs' fieldwork, sisters were not so cut off or cast away as Wolf contends, though in matters of inheritance being patrilneal we fit the model more closely.

In that The House of Lim is more readable -- even approaching being entertaining -- I am surprised that it is no longer available and that Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan is.

----

This is an expansion of our critique of Margery Wolf's service to the ethnic domination of Taiwanese by Chinese from our book Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society. Yet another return to the well of her incidental observations while her husband was doing ethnographic fieldwork in Taiwan during the 1950s is A Thrice-Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility. Steve adapted some of what we wrote for Looking Through Taiwan about her ethnographic irresponsibility and distorting victimization lens (forgetting the kinds of agency she had written about in her earlier book) here at /http://www.epinions.com/book-review-5772-F1A2615-398E19D2-prod1


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