On a weekend getaway organized by Jinwen University of Science and Technology, a group of senior students from four different faculty departements subjected over a hundred new students to degrading practices as part of a ‘welcome ceremony’ (yingxin).

The events took place at a village in Miaoli County from October 7th to October 9th. Members of the trip included 43 seniors, 136 new students and a group of teachers to supervise the whole group : however, teachers were not present at all times. Students came from the Departments of Electronics, Environmental Science and Technology, Applied Foreign Languages and Marketing and Logistics. The bullying started as soon as the students were on the bus, with male and female seniors pressuring newbies into licking each other’s gums. When they protested, the seniors mocked them and noted that “[They] used to take it even further in [their] time”, “it’s really tame now”.

Things escalated further in the afternoon when, following a game outdoors, new students were coerced into several degrading practices such as removing their underwear, writhing on the floor and biting different objects, and licking each other’s toes. Those who refused to comply were mocked and bullied until they caved. One female student became physically ill ; another male student fled the scene and called his older sister to let her know “people [were] being hurt.” A group of students eventually managed to contact their teachers and asked for help ; the trip was interrupted and the parents of all students were immediately notified of the events.

The next day, Jinwen University received 25 students to hear their stories and complaints : representatives formally apologized and recognized supervising had suffered from unforgivable negligence. The case was handed over to a disciplinary committee. A number of parents have expressed the intention to sue the school if they felt the committee failed to handle the case in an appropriate manner. Meanwhile, each and every senior student was made to formally apologize to the victims, although one may legitimately doubt the sincerity of the apology. As bullies will often tell you, it’s just a bit of harmless fun.

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Students made to remove their underpants. Picture taken by a student. (Source : udn)

There is no term in Mandarin equivalent to “hazing”, but the practice is certainly not unheard of in Taiwanese universities. The expression that is used in this case is yingxin (literally, to greet newcomers or welcome new students). Following the events, a number of college students explained that rituals of “welcoming new students” were often passed down from one generation to the next, including a handful of “corrupt practices” (louxi). Seniors want new students to experience what they have endured themselves : basically, “I had to do it, now it’s your turn” (wo dangshi jingli guo, ni ye yao).

A student in Political sciences at Zhengda University recalled one such “corrupt practice” called the “Demon Mailbox” (e’mo xinxiang: students are made to write on pieces of papers the act that would disgust them the most. Papers are all put in a ballot : the students then have to pick one paper at random and perform the action described. Those who hesitate or refuse to comply are bullied and coerced until they give in. Theoretically, they are free to walk out or speak out against it : in truth, peer pressure and the desire to fit in can often make this very difficult, not to mention dangerous, as those who do so risk being subjected to further harassment. Laughing nervously and going along with it (even convincing yourself it’s indeed a bit of “harmless fun”) may feel like the easiest option.

In the wake of the events, president of Yangming University’s student union Chen Jiajing (陳佳菁) has enjoined the association in charge of organizing welcoming activities for new students to reflect on the original intent of these activities, as the kind of behavior expressed at Miaoli constitutes an attack on the “fundamental worth of individuals”.

Bullying is a pressing issue in Taiwan, but there seems to be a lack of data regarding the situation in universities. The first study to use a nationally representative sample to explore issues of school violence in Taiwan focuses on elementary and secondary school : results found that “Taiwan has higher rates of school violence perpetration than reports from other countries” :

Although the methodologies used to measure school violence perpetration slightly differs between previous studies and the present study, it appears that there is a relatively high rate of violence perpetration among Taiwanese students compared to other countries. These findings do not support contemporary and popular theories asserting that certain Asian cultural values such as emphasizing harmony in social relationships may account for lower prevalence of school violence than Western cultures (Nisbett, 2003).

Most common violent acts were “cursing, insulting, teasing and mocking.” Schoolboys were found to be more likely to exhibit agressive behavior than their female counterparts (71,2% of boys admitted to committing at least one violent act as opposed to 48,5% of girls), suggesting bullying is very much a gendered issue.

Another study confirmed the trend while suggesting former victims of school and college bullying seemed more likely to also experience harassment at work, with “instances of workplace abuse [being] more severe among females than males”. Bullying victims all exhibited higher stress levels than bullies and non-involved persons, both in college and in the workplace, and scored highest in depression.

While the Ministry of Education has launched anti-bullying campaigns in the past, they have been met with some degree of skepticism, notably by commenters who pointed out the real issue underlying bullying would be institutionalized violence or the harsh competition for the highest possible grades in Taiwanese high schools, creating an informal “caste system” in which students with lower grades are treated poorly by teachers and principals, and thus by fellow students.

For now, it seems the specific issue of hazing rituals in college has not yet been investigated or been the object of a nationwide prevention campaign.