• Valentina Poletti

The collective shadow of Taiwan


Taiwan is a truly fascinating country, a hidden gem in the Pacific Ocean - an experience you don't expect. The kindness of strangers stuns many of its visitors. Taiwanese people seem to be always ready to help, and to be of service.

The influence of Buddhist disciplines surely had its merit, as well as the values brought forth by Chinese and Japanese colonisations. Yet there is more to Taiwan. As you spend more time in this little island, you see what seems like a world example of cohesion and harmony. Crime is very low, stealing is very uncommon: you can literally leave your cellphone and wallet on the street for hours and be almost certain to find them untouched. What's more exemplary is the harmony between different classes. Homelessness is practically inexistent, and the social structure takes care of people in poverty. Taiwan is also an incredibly safe country. A very unique feature of Taiwan is that as a woman I can walk in the middle of the night, in the most remote alleys and with provocative clothing, and be sure I will not be bothered in any way: a true rare feature in this world. Kindness and a smile seem to always be at the top priority in any situation for Taiwanese people: weather it is the police, business or friends. Rudeness and violence are not encouraged or enabled.

Having lived in Taiwan for a few years, I came to greatly appreciate its qualities. Yet underneath this incredibly harmonious facade, lingers a shadow, which you can start to feel as you live long enough in this culture. This shadow starts to crawl in, as you realise that after meeting many friendly people and having many encounters with locals interested in you, you don't seem to be able to create any real, deeper connections - the kind of connection where you share vulnerabilities and raw emotions. Moreover, if you try to do that, you will often encounter a wall on the other side, most often expressed as indifference or avoidance. This shadow will mercilessly hit you in the face as you drive through high traffic, older urban areas, marked by cage-looking grey buildings, monster-like highways, and the visual and noise pollution exhausts you. It will become clearer as you get to know the work and family culture - and its rigid and unbendable obligations, hierarchies and demands. If you pay enough attention you will see a violent, cruel-like discipline displayed towards some little children and animals.

What is this shadow? Taiwan's tumultuous history, including a dictatorship and many invasions, surely has left its mark in the collective culture. Every culture in the world has its collective traumas, unconscious patterns and cultural and national barriers and blindspots - a series of patterns, dynamics and belief systems, created through historical traumatic events and collective unawareness, that keep people in a sort of collective blindness. Part of the reason why travelling can be such an eye-opening experience is precisely because it allows us to exit those national blindspots and barriers, by seeing the world from another perspective. The shadow of Taiwan is particularly interesting and complex precisely because it is a mix of many different cultures and historical events.

The first point to understand this shadow are family values and dynamics that are typical of Asian cultures in general. In Asia, group oriented values are very strong. Unlike Western cultures - where there is a strong tendency towards narcissistic and individualistic values, and where often social goals are sacrificed by individual interests - Asian cultures tend towards the opposite, i.e. they prioritise conforming to social values above the individual. Sacrificing the individual for the whole is not only acceptable, but often considered honourable in many Asian cultures. Think of the Harakiri tradition, for a very notable example.

Now, in my studies and observations of human nature I found that social harmony is indeed one of - if not the - most important value for the flourishing of the species. The human species, more than any other, is based on social connection, dependency and harmony. No other species is as lost and damaged by isolation and rejection. Indeed isolation and rejection can be the most painful experiences for a human being. As children we completely depend, with our every need and necessity, by adults around us, for many years. Being disconnected therefore means death. On the other hand, all the greatest human achievements have been obtained through harmony and collaboration as a group. The fact that today many of us can have such an incredible comfortable life as humans, lays precisely on this basis: just think of how many humans it took to create the house you live in, with all the things you own, and you get an idea of what a collaborative effort it took to make your life this comfortable.

While as humans we have achieved great milestones in terms of material needs, we are still however greatly struggling to meet our emotional and spiritual needs. Western cultures are now experiencing serious epidemics in loneliness, addiction and degenerative disease precisely because Western philosophies are set against the fundamental human value of connection. Narcissism reigns in the West: in this sense Asian cultures are one step ahead when it comes to social cohesion. (For a very interesting related account you can read this excellent blog: https://medium.com/@erikrittenberry/the-american-life-is-killing-you-9e7e68135f4a)

However, truly healthy social harmony, is created by reaching a balance between the individual and the group. When the individual needs, desires, purpose, personality, values, are compatibly met with the needs, desires, purposes, personalities, values, of other individuals in the group, true harmonious cohesion is formed, which leads to the expression of the greatest potential of all the talents and potentials of the individuals within it. This unfortunately it not the kind of cohesion that is achieved through conformity values in many Asian cultures. Instead, the needs, desires, purposes, values of the individuals are sacrificed for the sake of the group. This creates a fake social cohesion, obtained through forceful means at the cost of the individual authenticity.

In these cultures, when children are brought up - they are taught to place the needs, desires, purpose, values, of the group they are part of, above their own. They learn to suppress themselves - their desires, their needs, their identity, their self-expression, their essence - and to give up their personal boundaries - their definition - and to self-sacrifice - in order not to lose the vicinity with their group - family or society - and therefore to avoid rejection and isolation and to survive. Failure to do so is often punished with shame, fear of isolation and rejection. Individuals learn therefore to separate from their essence, to disown it, in order to survive. This dynamic is as toxic as narcissistic Western dynamics. In psychology it is often referred to as enmeshment, or codependency.

This unfortunately to some degree stil happens in Taiwan. The school system continues this dynamic by keeping children in schools for long hours, locked in classrooms with little freedom of movement for self expression, pleasure and creativity, to be force-fed with large amounts of study materials. Individuals learn therefore to disconnect and dissociate further from their essence, creativity, body, desires, needs, boundaries.

Interestingly, if you study the Sanskrit system of understanding of human nature, you will see that all these areas of the person correspond to the second chakra - or the sacral chakra - and to the third - or solar plexus chakra. Every chakra in the chakra system is associated with some part of the person: their physical, spiritual, emotional and mental bodies. The sacral chakra is associated with sexuality, creativity, pleasure, desire, passion, and the very essence of the person, as well as the ability to connect through the body. The solar plexus chakra is associated with personal power, identity, confidence, responsibility, integrity, authenticity, freedom.

As a result, the sacral and solar plexus chakras in these cultures are collectively closed. This creates a kind of split and imbalance in the people - between the chakras below and above them. The chakra below is the root chakra, associated with a sense of stability, belonging and security as well as connection to the body and the earth. The chakras above are the heart chakra, throat chakra, mind and spirit chakras.

Let’s see in practice how this applies to Taiwan. With the sacral and solar plexus chakras closed, creativity, ideas, ventures and enterprises don’t have abundant energy flowing in them, as people don't feel the creativity, power and confidence to invest in them. Taiwanese people tend to invest less in new businesses and ideas, and more in real estate - which is connected to the stability and security of the family system - the highest priority in the cultural system - and which is driven by the above mentioned fears. Many people rather than following their passions, desires and pleasure, tend to do jobs that they don’t like, only to get money or for practical and obligatory reasons out of fear and shame.

With a closed sacral chakra pleasure is suppressed. As a result pleasure is often not taken into account in building and designing things. This can be clearly seen in the architecture and urban design in many parts of Taiwan, especially those built by the previous generation. Often practicality is the most important factor, aesthetics and beauty are considered secondary. Artistic endeavours in Taiwanese culture are generally considered inferior to practical ones.

With a closed solar plexus chakra people manifest inauthentically and without integrity, i.e. they can act double-faced. They might for instance act very nice in face-to-face interactions, while deep down feeling resentment or hatred towards the person they are being nice with. A funny way in which this double-faced nature in Taiwan can be noticed clearly, is by dwelling within the Taiwanese traffic: you will notice that all the niceness and kindness Taiwanese people seem to display in face-to-face interactions, seem to go out of the window as long as they are hiding within a car or a helmet. On a more serious note, this niceness will also often shift in the work culture and family culture, to show very unpleasant dynamics such as back-stabbing, gossiping, bullying, mobbying, etc.

With a closed solar plexus chakra, people feel a lack of choice and therefore lack of responsibility for their own choices, which leads to a lack of freedom. They often do things out of obligation and demands, not because they want to. As a result they will stay in jobs they don't like, overwork themselves long hours, as well as stay in relationships they are unhappy in, and tolerate all sorts of other situations that are not healthy for them. This duty system is most clear in the family system, which in some cases is even backed by the local laws. For instance, infidelity in Taiwan is considered a crime. Not honouring family obligations is considered shameful.

With a closed sacral chakra connection and kindness cannot develop deeply. The physical body is the container of emotions. Without engaging with the physical body in connections, empathy is very limited to a mental version. Kindness becomes dry and cold, rather than visceral and passionate. Instead of feeling each other, people mentalise of each other. It is also very difficult to express emotions and feelings when we are detached from them, thus conversations stay on the surface and at a more practical, materialistic level. There is no true, deep connection.

With a closed sacral chakra sexuality and physical connection is suppressed. In the older generation in Taiwan sex was considered only a practical means to procreate, not a means to achieve pleasure. Although the younger generation is changing this paradigm, sex is still largely undervalued in Taiwanese culture. People often date in order to find a spouse and have children - thus to fulfill family obligations, not to seek pleasure or fun.

Many spiritual practices in Taiwan continue this paradigm by suppressing the identity, desire, the body and emotions. A lot of spiritual practices in Taiwan are based on detachment and dissociation - the attempt to achieve an inner dissociated state away from emotion, desires and any inner turmoil. Spiritual practitioners are often deprived of their self-expression and sensuality, by wearing a very simple robe, and shaving their head. Their spiritual practice is based on calmness, devoid of passion and desire. The diet of many spiritual followers is deprived of garlic and onion, as they supposedly spark too much desire.

In addition, the split between the lower and higher chakras, creates a strong cultural disconnect between the connection to the roots and the earth (the root chakra) and the heart, mind and spirit (higher chakras). This disconnect is visible in the heavily artificial life that the average Taiwanese conducts: usually between artificial indoor spaces such as offices, homes, cars, cafes', scooters, public transportation - fed by artificial and strongly processed foods, focussed on technological devices such as phones, and with little to no touch with natural activities like exercise and time in nature, as well as with poor physical hygienic care. Although there is definitely a trend of Taiwanese people in touch with nature and their roots - which stems from the root chakra not being entirely closed in this culture - this is usually the exception, not the norm. Another form in which this disconnect manifests is via the political conflicts between Taiwan and its roots, or "big father" China: it oscillates between the extremes of rebellion and submission, without a true harmonious balance.

The other day my acquaintance who has lived in Taiwan many years, made me notice how during the evolution of the design of languages in particular, almost every culture has come to the realisation that there is a way to design a writing system that corresponds to the phonetics of the language, thus making writing very efficient. However in China, and Taiwan still to this day many years of children education are wasted in learning a task that is practically completely pointless, only to conform to a tradition.

Unlike Japan or South Korea, Taiwan has not yet established its own identity - it tries too hard to be like China - some local older people say - so naturally China does not recognise its own independence and sovereignty.

As I channeled the collective consciousness of Taiwan, I noticed that behind the harmonious facade, many Taiwanese people suffer in silence, they hide their pain and their anger. Yet they have still not recognised that they are the creator of their own suffering, so they look for external factors to blame it to.

Hopefully as Taiwan keeps evolving, the newer generation will learn to embrace these human qualities, along with all the other beautiful already existing value in this nation, to create a truly harmonious, balanced and beautifully creative culture and become an example for the entire world to follow.

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