How Taiwanese women are made to fear abortion and what this says about women’s sexuality, everywhere.
A peculiar superstition in Taiwan talks of the fetus ghost. When a woman goes through an abortion, the unborn fetus is released into the world as a ghost (yingling 嬰靈) and begins to “haunt” the woman in different ways. For the rest of her lifetime, whenever the woman experiences illness, mental instability, or negative feelings, all can be conveniently attributed by her doctor to the abortion that she had many decades ago. If she has never had an abortion, her female family members are probed, for the fetus ghost can travel among the entire family and descend through its generations.
The idea of a fetus ghost was imported from Japan in the 1970s. Beginning in sixteenth-century Japan, the practice of praying for their unborn fetuses emerged among the alarm around female abortion. For this, they prayed to the jizo 地蔵, an infantilized version of a god that was itself imported from China. While Japanese occupation lasted from 1895 to 1945, legacy from Japanese influence would be felt for much longer after its end. Taiwan, in many ways, has since considered Japan as a role model for industrialization and social reform. Even now, Japan and Taiwan share close political and economic ties.
The fetus ghost therefore is a relatively new import compared with other beliefs that long existed in Taiwan. Belief in fetus ghosts in Taiwan arose to popularity in the late twentieth century as the country experienced freer abortion regulation and increasing numbers of college-educated women. While Taiwanese people were used to relying on paid religious services and fortune-telling, the ritual of fetus-ghost appeasement was more unfamiliar, and therefore has been publicly criticized for its financial “exploitation.” The more pressing issue, however, lies in the fact that haunting stories of fetus ghosts like to overlook the fetus’ misfortune as an outcome forced out by both parents and their situation, but lays the sole blame on the mother.
Qiongyue Xu, a religious master in a Taiwanese fetus-ghost temple, proposes specific, seemingly arbitrary rules on how and when a couple should have sex: “While engaging in sexual activity one should keep one’s eyes closed and turn off the lights, otherwise one will go blind,” she writes in 1995. “One should not have sex when there is a large wind, when there is a big rain, when there is a heavy fog, when it is extremely cold, when it is extremely hot, when one has eaten too much…” and so on. Underlying these strict rules is the fear of excess. Drawing on Chinese tradition, women’s sexuality, in particular, is portrayed as an invulnerable and everlasting yin 陰 essence, while men’s yang 陽 essence is limited and vulnerable to influence. Xu’s strong morals are not a gender-neutral protocol on sex; rather, they are instructions on how women should regulate their sexuality in order to protect men, and for the sake of maintaining the yin-yang balance which would be essential to the health of society.
This ties in with one of the lasting hallmarks of Confucian values: the individual’s role in societal stability. According to Xu’s and others’ morality tracts written in the late twentieth century, a woman that “wields” her sexuality in a way that prioritizes her own pleasure is a threat to society. The fetus ghost not only curses the woman’s health and fortune well into the coming decades, but also curses her husband, her family, and even the children that she ends up giving birth to. The myth of the fetus ghost cleverly instrumentalizes the woman into the devoted role of the housewife and denies her the power to own her sexuality.
In 1984, abortion became legal in a series of Taiwanese efforts to emulate Western “modern” society. The United States in particular has long had a tremendous influence on both Taiwanese politics and the people at large, since it has aided in Tawian’s reconstruction after pulling out of Japanese control, reserving for the country a low but solid place in the international economy. Economic development was the best and only way for Tawian to earn political legitimacy, seeing that a clear independence from China was something that the U.S. (as with the rest of the world) was reluctant to grant.
This meant that in the 1980s, there was a sudden influx of American goods into the Taiwanese market. At the same time, Taiwanese economy shifted to a reliance on the service economy to serve international demand, and there arose a new, well-educated and economically independent class of women. A far cry from the traditional position of a housewife, these women were targeted as an entirely new class of consuming power. Not only were they tasked with housework and raising children, they were now also juggling a paid job—international women’s magazines, many still big names to this day such as Cosmo, Marie Claire, and Cleo, rushed in to promise these women to make their lives easier.
How indeed to make a woman’s life easier? By making their relationships more pleasurable, of course. These magazines had always revolved around the theme of sex and relationships, embracing it as the “international spirit” which bound all women. These topics were localized upon entering the female market in Taiwan, such as through interviews (“confessions”) of local people on their sex lives, and sex was packaged in Taiwan as a universal and consumable feminine product.
The fetus ghost and the international women’s magazines seem, on the surface, to be advocating different things. The fetus ghost is primarily a force that scares women into taking pro-life decisions, while the magazines may seem much more familiar to contemporary feminists by highlighting women’s sexuality and pleasure. Yet there is a disturbing context behind the magazines’ prolific sales. When more and more women entered the service sector for work, they were pressured into take on a career-oriented, rational, and masculine persona. At the same time, their “loss of femininity” caused alarm among Taiwanese society, and various issues within the household were now attributed to this “relationship syndrome.”
For the women that were guilt-tripped into assuming responsibility for their “loss” of femininity, and were encouraged to regain it, these magazines were a promising source of enlightenment. “By constructing women as the negation of sexuality, or ignorant of sex knowledge…women’s magazines designate themselves as the guru of sexuality,” writes I.Y. Fang-Chih. These magazines seem to negate taboos around female sexuality that had been emphasized so harshly by the fetus ghost, but it is the patriarchy still hard at work. Women are in both cases made to fear their own sexuality, whether that is fear for its inadequacy or its excess. Sexuality and passion are things that desperately need to be rationally understood, regulated, and controlled in order to pacify the world owned by men.
The idea of the fetus ghost itself, originally, is not one of fear but one of self-love and forgiveness. Fetus-ghost appeasement is done not only as a prayer to avoid misfortune in the future, but also a coming-to-terms with a traumatic event. “It provides strength and solace, especially to women who are by and large left to fend for themselves with both the physical and emotional strain of having an abortion,” writes Marc Moscowitz.
Abortion is, by and large, blamed on the mother in Taiwan as it is common anywhere else. Seeing that the aborted fetus is claimed to be woman’s own doing, fetus-ghost appeasement is also, although unintentionally, a space that is reserved only for the woman herself. It is where she is allowed to make amends with her lost child and be wholly forgiven. Seeing her unborn child as a spirit that floats about her is not necessarily a haunting idea, but can be a charming one, and speaks multitudes of her possibilities of love.