TAIPEI – Hardly any place on the planet has a lower birth rate than the island of Taiwan. In 2010, the least babies in the island’s history were born, prompting Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to call for “national-security level” counter-measures to address the matter.
Yet even with a monetary reward for each newborn, subsidies for in-vitro fertilization treatment, funding for babysitters, a rather bizarre initiative that offers a US$35,000 cash prize for a slogan to encourage births, and the proposed annual budget of $1.3 billion for birth incentives and child-care support, the situation refuses to improve. The real reason for this phenomenon is a surprising one: the belief that children born in the Year of the Tiger are not as
good as others.
The historic graphs in the Statistical Data Book of Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior speak volumes. Recorded from the 1950s on, birth rates in Taiwan have been clearly influenced by the ancient Chinese zodiac’s 12 animal signs. The years in which Taiwanese couples decided to give birth most often came in the Year of the Dragon: 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988 and 2000.
The belief is that children born under the dragon sign are not only honest, sensitive and brave, but will also be free from habits like borrowing money or making flowery speeches. Quite the opposite is believed about the Year of the Tiger. Whoever was born in 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986 or 1998 tends to question authority and is therefore likely to cause trouble for himself, his family or to his employers at some stage of life.
But aren’t these worn-out superstitions that modern Taiwan, a world leader in information technology, no longer heeds? There is strong evidence that the island still does. Last year was again the Year of Tiger, and despite more subsidies, 24,424 fewer babies were born than in 2009. But for 2012, the next Year of the Dragon, it is feared that Taiwan could await the bounce back of the birth rate in vain.
“The effect of the tiger and dragon years on fertility behavior in Taiwan and many other Chinese societies in Southeast Asia is not just media hype but a very important issue,” says Yang Wen-shan, professor at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at Taipei’s Academia Sinica, in an interview with Asia Times Online. “In Taiwanese demographic history, during the tiger years, the fertility rate drops, while in the dragon ones, it rises. The expert on demography nonetheless cautions that the Taiwanese could well be disappointed with the baby yield of the next Year of the Dragon. “In recent years, while fertility dropped as usual during the tiger years, it failed to fully recover in the subsequent Year of the Dragon, unlike in the past.”
Despite Taiwan being a region obsessed with education, where a university degree is something of a prerequisite to social recognition, big decisions in many people’s lives are made according to superstitions rather than scientific recommendations. Next to the field of family planning, this is most obvious in the real estate market, where the advice of feng shui masters is widely sought before plots of land, buildings and apartments become subjects to transactions or planning.
It may not be out of mere superstition that couples decline to have children born in the Year of the Tiger. A baby born then could realistically be likelier to endure hardships later in life than others.
Charlene Chang, public relations manager of the Taiwanese recruitment agency 1111, talks about the not-so-uncommon practice of selecting job aspirants according to their zodiacs. “Quite a few firms assign fortune tellers to page through job applications,” she says, and “before bosses hire, they want to know whether a newcomer is likely to become a friend or foe within the company.” Chang also points out that apart from the year of birth, the number of strokes needed to write the Chinese characters in the applicant’s name are analyzed.
But it’s not only names and the years of birth that are of relevance for all those who want their babies to start their lives auspiciously – it’s the days and hours, too. In many cases, after a pregnancy has been diagnosed, families hire fortune tellers who then choose the specific time for delivery.
This questionable practice is a subject of intensive discussion and investigation, as it results in the high incidence of Caesarian sections (CS) in Taiwan, where the CS rate is among the highest in the world. In the past decade, more than one out of three of the island’s babies were born by means of this surgical procedure, in which incisions are made through the mother’s abdomen and uterus as opposed to delivering naturally by vaginal birth.
By comparison, in Japan, Taiwan’s neighbor to the north, the rate is an estimated 8%. From a medical point of view, the issue is worrying, as considering the risks accompanying any major surgery, women who had a CS are significantly more likely to have problems with later pregnancies.
Objections that the reason for so many Taiwanese women opting for CS might have to do with the implementation of the country’s National Health Insurance (NHI) and not with folk beliefs are dispelled by statistical data: no noteworthy difference was found in the CS rate before and after NHI implementation in the mid-1990s. Furthermore, according to a study sample of 2,497 in-patient deliveries in Taiwan’s Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, conducted to determine the association between CS and various factors, it was found that folk belief was indeed a major aspect.
Given that the influence the Chinese zodiac and fortune telling has on Taiwanese people’s family planning is evident to such an alarming extent, it’s all the more surprising that effective campaigns to educate the general population have so far not taken place.
“There’s no official policy to persuade couples not to care about horoscopes,” says demographer Yang. “However, many officials in charge of population policy instead choose newspaper interviews as a platform to unofficially ask couples not to pay too much attention to the zodiac.”
As government-run programs to encourage procreation were on the whole somewhat unsuccessful, and also because of the acknowledgment that there’s no cure in sight for the notion that children who were not born at a specific time are worse than others, Taiwanese demographers are firmly convinced that immigration is the only viable option.
However, this conclusion is not easily accepted by the Taiwanese, who are picky about who to let in. Yang’s institute conducted a survey which showed that while people in Taiwan do welcome skilled immigrants from Hong Kong, Singapore and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, they tend to harbor considerable misgivings about people coming from the most plausible source of immigration, the Chinese mainland.
“The Taiwanese people are afraid to open the door to mainland China, as the sheer amount of the people from there could overwhelm the island and cause Taiwan unifying with China,” Yang says.
However, there is good news for Taiwan’s pet population in all this. On February 3, the Year of the Rabbit will begin. Although babies born under this sign are considered financially lucky, historically the Year of the Rabbit has failed to have a noteworthy impact on the birth graphs. But it is expected to lead to an increase in demand for pet rabbits.
Animal rights activists have already begun calling for people to treat the bunnies gently. “We are very concerned about more people buying rabbits for good luck in the upcoming Year of the Rabbit and later abandoning them,” lamented Liao Shue-ping of the Taiwan Homeless Bunny Protection Association.