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The Taipei MRT Knife Attack and Taiwan's Society

Every time a crime is perpetrated, the media find themselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, they have the responsibility to spread knowledge, inform and analyse. On the other hand, they are a business that must make money out of the news they report on. They are easily tempted to speculate on the suffering and the misfortunes of people, to turn them into entertainment. 

The Taipei Metro knife attack that happened a few days ago is such a tragic and sad event that I think everyone should be careful not to use this massacre as a pretext to speculate and fabricate theories that try to explain why Zheng Jie committed that crime. The most absurd of such theories is that the Sunflower Movement made society more violent and therefore encouraged individual acts of ferocity such as Zheng Jie's. These ideas can't be taken seriously, as they completely lack evidence and are nothing more than insinuations. The murder of four people should not be used as an instrument to fight political battles. 

Another theory that has been suggested is that society is responsible for the alienation of young people like Zheng Jie. In particular, a post that went viral these days claims that Taiwan's obsession with success and the wrong attitude of parents creates a negative social atmosphere. The post was written by Chris Wang (宥勝), a Taiwanese actor, singer and writer

Do we care about Zheng Jie?” he asked in his post, wondering if it is right to condemn him as a “scum”, instead of trying to understand what led him to become violent. Chris Wang criticised the attitude of Zheng Jie's parents. 

According to Wang, despite the fact that they publicly apologised to the nation, they didn't seem to love their son very much, as they were all too ready to declare that Zheng Jie had always been a problem in the family, that he liked to play violent video games, that they felt shamed, etc.

Now, I am not interested in such supposedly psychological analyses. It is not given to us to see through the mind and soul of a person. We know neither Zheng Jie nor his parents personally. And the crime that has been committed is so atrocious that I believe we shouldn't use it as an excuse to rant about politics or society. It is the job of the police to clarify Zheng Jie's personal and psychological background and to determine why he murdered. But we shouldn't forget that he did murder. So, before starting to make him a victim or a hero, let us express our solidarity to the families of the real victims, those who have lost their lives. 



Therefore, I will skip the part of Chris Wang's argument about Zheng Jie, and focus on some of his general reflections about Taiwanese society, which I find extremely interesting.   

People familiar with Taiwan may know that many Taiwanese tend to project a positive image of the island as a friendly, kind society. “Taiwanese are nice, friendly, helpful” etc. are phrases one often hears; they are part of Taiwan's self-image. This view is often passively adopted by foreigners, as well. I am not saying that there are no nice Taiwanese; I have indeed met many people who were extremely kind to me. However, the idea that Taiwan as a whole is nice and kind is in my view entirely at odds with evidence that shows a different picture. 

In fact, do many Taiwanese not complain about parental pressure, gossip at work, extreme competition, rude bosses, relationship problems, tough competition on the marriage market etc.? How would all these phenomena exist if all Taiwanese were nice, friendly and helpful? The fascinating thing about Chris Wang's article is that he describes Taiwan's society in a way that is exactly opposite to how many Taiwanese want to be perceived by the rest of the world; in fact, he describes Taiwan as a society that represses its individuals and that values success above all else. Let us look at his arguments.  

Chris Wang writes:

Taiwan's education, from the family to the school system, from the society to the nation, values success more than it values the individual. That's the key issue. It all begins with the idea that men are superior to women (重男輕女) , so that male children by birthright succeed over women and have more power and importance; then there is the “performance-oriented” school … This kind of education system has no place for love, respect and forgiveness, neither for students, nor for co-workers, nor for strangers, and not even for one's own children!

Corporal punishment, giving orders and putting pressure on children are, according to him, the most common education strategies parents use. They slap their children if they lose their temper, or they try to control every aspect of their children's lives, from the way they eat to the time when they should go to sleep. As parents have learnt these methods from their own parents, how could they be wrong?

But the main failure of parents' methods lies in another point, says Chris Wang:
they do not explain children why something is right or wrong, they don't take into consideration their children's opinion, they just want to get an immediate result [compliance] … If children don't obey, parents will just say: “You're so bad!” 

It is fascinating to note that more than a hundred years ago, Wu Tingfang, a politician of the late Qing Dynasty and then ambassador of the Republic of China to the United States, expressed similar concepts:

[In the United States] [i]nstead of children being required to show respect and filial obedience, the obligation of mutual love and esteem is cultivated. Parents would not think of ordering a girl or a boy to do anything, however reasonable; in all matters they treat them as their equals and friends; nor would a girl submit to an arbitrary order from her mother, for she does not regard her as a superior, but as her friend and companion. I find it is a common practice among American girls to engage themselves in marriage without consulting their parents … 
Confucian creed lays it down as the essential duty of children that they shall not only honor and obey their fathers and their mothers, but that they are in duty bound to support them. The reason is that as their parents brought them into the world, reared and educated them, the children should make them some return for their trouble and care … Many young men [in the United States] treat their parents kindly and affectionately, but they do it more as a favor than as a duty; in fact, as between equals (Wu Tingfang: America, through the spectacles of an Oriental. 1914, Chapter 9). 

Similarly, Chris Wang compares Taiwanese and Western families and says that in the latter, parents explain their opinion to children and value their children's opinion.  

What he is describing in this post is basically the idea that in Taiwan children and parents tend not to be equal. In my opinion, this is due to the concept of social roles, hierarchy, and filial piety. According to these concepts, children are by nature inferior to parents during their whole life time. Therefore, there is no communication from equal to equal, but parents are always in a position of superiority. That doesn't mean parents don't love their children; but it's a love that in many ways differs from parental and filial love in the West. 

Because children are supposed to serve parents and make them happy, children either conform to parental pressure and try to achieve as much as they can, both in their career and their personal life, according to their parents' wishes; or they rebel, in which case parents will simply condemn, criticise and disapprove of their children. 

The result of this system of education is apparent. In a study about high youth suicide rates in China, the author notes: 

[Some] children seem optimistic and talkative on the surface, but deep inside they are tortured by mental disorders and easily become emotionally unstable. They are happy and carefree in normal situations but become nervous, sleepless and anxious when the disorder is serious (Yan Wang 2006, pp. 29-30).

Though the situation in Taiwan is much less dramatic than in China, I think this sentence describes very well some of the consequences of a certain style of education in many parts of East Asia. On the surface, young people are carefree, sociable and cheerful. But when you look deeper, you see that many of them are plagued by pressure, stress, and mistrust; you see that they have feelings they cannot let out because the social hierarchies – which are often invisible to outsiders and therefore are not properly understood – do not allow them to do so. 

What Chris Wang does not mention, of course, is that the Western system is not better in absolute terms. People do have conflicts there, too. And there are plenty of broken families. The difference is that, as a rule, Western conflicts happen between relatives who are on an equal footing, they can state and explain their view. For instance, if parents and children quarrel and express their respective point of view, they will probably either understand each other better and come closer, or their views will prove to be so incompatible that they won't have anything to do with each other any more. However, the very fact that they have expressed their view means they can vent their emotions and don't need to repress them. By doing so they can also, to a certain extent, rationalise the conflict.

Yet there are in the West also families where parents do not wish to be equal to children and are not willing to communicate openly; in those cases the result may be similar to the one Chris Wang has described.    

Nevertheless, while he criticises traditional Taiwanese education, he, on the other hand, endorses a principle that is thoroughly Confucian: children are the product of parents, and therefore parents are to be blamed for children's misbehaviour. He says:

Parents are the source of the world. In the whole world, every person has parents. Everything that parents say and do is the key influence children are exposed to. The way in which children grow up and change does not come from the influence of siblings, friends or lovers, but mainly from the influence of their parents. One can say that 95% of what influences children comes from parents.  

In this way, while attacking the lack of equality and of individuality in Taiwanese education, Chris Wang in the end returns to the idea that children, rather than individuals, are the product of their parents' influence, so that, in his post, he appeals to parents to change how they relate themselves to their children. 


  1. I'd like to express my sincere gratitude for what you have shared here. From someone who was not born in this culture this life time (who knows? maybe you were in one of your previous life times :) ), I must say you've really offered a very deep and objective analysis of what's been rooted for decades after decades and of what's been going on. LOVE IS BLIND is probably suitable to describe how people like me, who was born and raised in this culture and taught to only LOVE without thinking about what we LOVE about or whether or not what we always love still exists or has changed without us even noticing it...I sincerely thank you for offering us a different perceptive and a different voice for us to hear so that we can reflect on our own culture and move on with more open-mindedness to face those aspects we know they exist but choose to "ignore" so we dont have to fact them...

  2. I appreciate your reflection on the tragedy, it shows a moral foundation and compassion to do so, whereas to simply condemn the criminal as "scum" doesn't do much beyond perpetuate the atrocity. I like your analysis however I must object to one of your points: That men are superior to women adage causes dangerous agitation. If men are considered superior to women, what influence would that have on a man who went on a killing spree? It wouldn't have encouraged it! So I cannot agree on that point. But I do appreciate your contemplative reflection on the matter.


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