Thoughts on Sajiao

twitter threads, Taiwan Studies

Today’s #TaiwanStudies Twitter thread is a discussion of @sydney_yueh’s 《Identity Politics and Popular Culture in Taiwan: A Sajiao Generation》.

(Link to Twitter thread.)

What is sajiao” 撒嬌? There is no equivalent term in English but Yueh’s definition is pretty good: communicative acts that express the vulnerability and helplessness of the actor through imitating a child’s immature behavior”

Central to the book is the argument that these sajiao acts are learned, and sure enough one can find a ton of books, TV shows, articles, etc. describing how and why one (especially women) should learn to sajiao. Here’s one from Youtube:

These communicative acts include a wide range of features very carefully documented by Yueh, which are too detailed to summarize here. But, to give you a sense, they include things like adding the sound ou” to the end of a sentence,

replicating words (saying 狗狗 instead of 狗 for dog”), making a pouty face with one’s cheeks puffed out, play punching one’s partner with both fists, using a high nasal voice, etc.

The problem with such a feature list is that many things could have one or more of these features but still not be identified as sajiao. Rather, one has to judge from the context. Yueh makes the important point here that it takes two to sajiao.

Without a receptive audience these gestures will fall flat. Or, they might be recognized as sajiao but still fail, for instance if the person doing it fails to embody the ideal body image associated with the kind of person who would sajiao.

At the same time, not everyone who performs sajiao is a young cute” woman. The book gives several accounts of men of all ages engaging in sajiao, even politicians. In many such cases the meaning is reversed in such situations.

A manager might sajiao with one of his workers in order to soften what otherwise would be interpreted as an order, or an older woman in the night market might sajiao with a customer to create a sense of intimacy in what otherwise might be just an impersonal transaction.

In the case of politicians and celebrities it is often done when apologizing. Here they are in a double bind. If they do sajiao they will be accused of not being genuine, but if they don’t they will be accused of being aloof and not caring.

To make her argument Yueh draws on a wide range of sources. Chapter two explores the evolution of the term from classical Chinese texts, where it was largely used negatively to describe the behavior of women of ill repute, to modern Taiwanese how-to books.

I probably most enjoyed the third chapter, which uses real world examples. The methodology, which largely consisted of eavesdropping on conversations in public places, might not pass a strict IRB review at some universities, but it seems harmless enough, and the results are fun.

The fourth looks at the rise of the term (and associated behavior) in Taiwan’s changing media landscape, especially with regard to TV dramas, talk shows, and the (mostly female) celebrities who perform sajiao in these venus.

Finally, the fifth chapter (the last one before the conclusion) shifts gears to compare the term to tai” 台 as in taike” 台客, which is used to describe Taiwan’s modern working class culture. While often seen as positive when describing men,

she argues that it is often rejected by the taimei” 台妹 whom it is applied to. She argues that this is because most women would prefer to be seen as cosmopolitan and chic rather than gaudy and a bit slutty.

That women who sajiao are somehow associated with a certain kind of cosmopolitan chic culture has to do with something she argued earlier, in the chapter on media: that there is an association between this behavior and the import of Japanese kawaii (cute) culture into Taiwan.

This leads us to one of the arguments used to frame the whole book, which is that sajiao is intimately tied up to the process of Taiwanese democratization, globalization, and even to Taiwan’s insecure geopolitical status.

I alluded to this last point earlier today, in a thread about recent changes in China’s media landscape.

At the same time, I have questions, since (as we’ve seen) sajiao can be used just as well by those in power. For instance, see @debra_occhi’s work on friendly authoritarianism in Japan.

We see exactly this kind of friendly authoritarianism” in the use of Zongchai as the face of Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.

This is a book that already encompasses literary history, ethnography of communication, media studies, gender politics, etc. already, so I feel guilty asking the book to do any more, but I do feel that some more comparative data would have helped.

I especially think that more could be said about the use of sajiao in China, since the few examples she does provide make it clear that there is a lot of interest in it there as well. Or about male use of tag questions” in English, once associated with women’s speech.”

In short, sajiao can be an sign of weakness, or it can be a sign of the opposite. I personally think that part of the popularity in Taiwan has a lot to do with women entering traditionally male spaces and finding ways to make that less threatening for the men.

As I said in my last review, I like books that make bold, provocative, arguments, and I’m glad this one does as well. I enjoyed reading it a lot and think it will be an especially fun book to teach with this semester. Looking forward to seeing what students have to say.