In 2023, the fertility rate in Taiwan was estimated to be at 1.09 children per woman, making it the lowest fertility rate worldwide. This poses a serious threat to Taiwan’s future economic development.
Often Taiwan has been in the news for having one of the world’s lowest birth rates, maybe competing just behind Korea, Hong Kong, or Singapore. But have you ever wondered why?
I feel like I have never come across an adequate answer. I mean some superficial answers have been given, but I have never really heard something that has gotten to the bud of the issue in my opinion.
Put simply, the answer is Taiwanese culture, specifically traditional family expectations with a backdrop of increasingly economically independent women in an affluent society. I will discuss this in detail below, but first, let’s get the superficial reasons out of the way.
Below are some of the common answers you will see for the birth rate in Taiwan are as follows:
On a side note about older mothers, a study in 2021 found that “a high 31.6% of Taiwanese mothers were aged between 36 and 41. In contrast, the percentage of mothers in the UK aged 35 to 39 was 15.7%, and in Sweden it was 17.7%, suggesting that the popularity of motherhood later in life in Taiwan outstrips these Western countries.”
It has been argued that “Taiwan’s high infant mortality reflects that Taiwanese women have more opportunities to advance in their work and in professions than other countries, so they tend to put off childbirth.”
So we can tack on Taiwan’s amazing job opportunities as a reason for low childbirth. Really? That doesn’t sound quite right.
I’ve heard the above reasons for Taiwan’s low birth rate again and again, but I feel like they don’t really address the heart of the problem. There are not really good reasons for why these problems exist in the first place. Also, many of these problems exist in many other countries, so it doesn’t help to answer why Taiwan specifically has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. You really need to dive deep into the societal and social pressures going on in Taiwan in order to fully understand the low birth rate in Taiwan.
Although many of the problems above exist all over the world, the fertility problem is especially bad in East Asia. This is because the combination of modern work life and traditional East Asian family (and marriage) culture does not mix well, in fact, it makes fertility drop to lower rates than other countries in the world.
Why is the Marriage Rate in Taiwan and East Asia so Low?
Understanding the marriage question is the real key to really understanding more about the problem of women in Taiwan not having babies. Although Taiwan is an advanced modern society, views on traditional marriage as a precondition for having kids are still strong. In fact, only 4% of births in Taiwan are outside of wedlock, which has remained the same in the past four decades (as a comparison, the birth out of wedlock percentage for the US is 40% the UK is 51%, Japan is 2%, and Korea is 3%). This shows that in Taiwan and East Asia, for almost everyone marriage is a precondition for having children. Also, it is clear that there are many, many pre-marriage abortions in East Asia, because a birth would mean you have to get married.
Here we will explore the details of traditional East Asian married life that makes it so unappealing to East Asian women.
I ran across a Facebook post that my wife shared with me a few days ago that shows the reasons that Taiwanese women don’t want to get married so perfectly, that it is actually the inspiration for this blog post, interrupting the usual travel and vacation blogs that I like to share. Here it is:
For those of you who can read Chinese, eat it up. For those of you who can’t, I’m going to sum up the main points in English here.
Some general background of traditional family roles in Taiwan:
Taiwanese girls have a lot of pressure on them from the traditional patriarchy in Taiwan. Just as a general background, traditional Taiwanese culture (as well as other places in East Asia) typically favors having male children over female, because males can carry on the family name and have a duty to worship the family ancestors. Once a young woman is married off, she is considered to be part of her husband’s family line and needs to primarily help with worship and rites related to her husband’s ancestors. Also, the mother-in-law (the groom’s mother) becomes kind of like the boss of the new bride, and the bride becomes subservient and needs to show respect to the elders of the husband’s family. The new bride then has children and eventually becomes the mother-in-law in a position of power over her daughter-in-laws and the cycle repeats itself. With this basic background in mine, I will continue with the contents of the Facebook post:
Expectations for Modern Married Women in Taiwan:
Expected Family Roles and Tasks for a Married Woman in Taiwan:
As a side note, the author points out that even if the husband has some extra money after paying for loans, food, daycare, cram school classes, tuition fees, management fees, rent, gas money, miscellaneous expenses, etc. there is no way the average Taiwanese man would have enough left over from his monthly paycheck to be able to pay enough to hire someone to complete the above tasks.
Working Conditions for a Married Woman in Taiwan:
Some of the things apply to me as a husband, and I am not saying I am perfect. I have a lot to improve including less screen time, being a better listener, improving communication with my wife, showing heartfelt appreciation, and splitting the house chores evenly between the two of us. Also, I am not saying that everything in the above list is specific just to Taiwan, but many of them are experienced by Taiwanese women. Just for reference, in the USA the family culture is much more laid back. In general, you are not required to live with in-laws, and pressure from in-laws is much more subdued. After you leave the house you are independent and you don’t have to listen to your parents anymore, and you don’t have to listen to your in-laws after marriage. Also as explained above, marriage is not a prerequisite for having kids in America, and this may be why the birth rate is slightly higher over there.
Consequences for not Fulfilling the Above Expectations and More:
Although some of the above is hyperbole, much of it is true, and are things that most Taiwanese women have to deal with. From the above, hopefully, you can clearly see why Taiwanese women don’t want to get married into a family with such a toxic society and ridiculous demands, and end put off having kids, and don’t want to continue to contribute to the toxic patriarchy, especially when it is so hard to leave a marriage in Taiwan. Also when it comes to money, you can see why there is a big incentive for a married woman to go back to work as soon as possible especially when she cannot spend her husband’s money for even simple pleasures. In the end, the author just tells women in Taiwan to think twice about getting married.
Insights from the Perspective of a Foreigner Living in Taiwan:
I would like to add some of my personal opinions here. First I would like you to know that I am an American man that has been living in Taiwan for over 10 years, and I am married to a Taiwanese goddess, and have two children born in Taiwan. Although I am no expert on the subject, my wife is, and I can add some insight especially because she has shared with me her feelings on the subject in great detail.
More Reasons that Taiwanese Women don’t Want to get Married and have Children:
Intercultural Marriages – Ditching the Toxic Patriarchy
As some other foreigners may notice, you can see more and more intercultural marriages in Taiwan, not just from Taiwanese men marrying Southeast Asian and Chinese brides, but also from Taiwanese women marrying non-East Asian foreign men.
Many Taiwanese women don’t want to be under the yolk of a toxic patriarchal filial culture, and non-East Asian foreign men can offer them more freedom and less baggage when it comes to their in-laws and family obligations. Not to mention, mixed babies are considered cuter. Also, learning English is considered affluent and has become a popular trend, and Western foreigners are seen as better off financially in general.
As for Taiwanese men marrying Southeast Asian and Chinese women, I think it is obvious that many of them do it as a last resort after they are very old and can’t seem to attract a Taiwanese woman who does not want to get married to a Taiwanese man for the reasons above. Southeast Asian and Chinese women are by far the most popular choice of foreign spouses. In general, I think East Asian guys want a girl who will be subservient in order to fulfill the family roles listed above.
I should mention that there are Western women who marry into Taiwanese families, but as far as I can tell the Taiwanese families in question don’t have the same expectations as they would for a Taiwanese girl. There are not as many couples like this in Taiwan, but if you have experience please feel free to share it here in the comments.
With the above in mind, I am going to throw some statistics at you. As of 2022, there were over 549,000 foreign spouses living in Taiwan, 87% of which were foreign wives, and only 13% of which were foreign husbands. 64.8% of foreign spouses in Taiwan are from China, 29% are from Southeast Asia, and only 6.4% are from other countries.
Chart of the current foreign spouse statistics for reference (sorry only in Chinese).
I have heard sometimes Taiwanese men complain that white foreign men are stealing all the women. That is not the case. The truth is Taiwanese women are choosing to not get married and have children at all. It is the Taiwanese men that are taking the lion's share of foreign spouses, which are mainly Chinese and Southeast Asian women.
How to fix Taiwan’s low birth rate problem – superficial solutions
Many people never lay out how to solve the problem of low birth rates in Taiwan. Those that do I feel do not really hit the nail on the head. But I’m going to list their solutions here anyway.
How to Actually Fix Taiwan’s Low Birth Rate Problem
In conclusion, I would just like to point out the irony of Taiwan’s toxic patriarchy. The whole reason toxic family institutions in Taiwan exist is to perpetuate male family lines, promote the worship of ancestors, and make sure that elders in the family are cared for. Women as new brides have played an integral piece in keeping this institution going by acting as de-facto slaves and raising male children. However, now with the introduction of modernity, feminism, and a stagnant economy, the daughters of generations of East Asian women are rejecting these traditional roles and providing for themselves, effectively depriving family lines of children, and defeating the toxic patriarchy. At the same time, this just has an unintended side effect of dooming the economy and plunging Taiwan into an ultra-aged society with not enough young people to take care of the swaths of aged people. I say, well played Taiwanese women.
How do we fix the toxic patriarchy? The only way I can realistically think of this happening is waiting for older generations to die off, and be replaced by modern-minded youngsters (more foreign spouses!) that can help to change the family culture. Right now Taiwan’s generation gap is too wide, with ultra-traditional elders being paired with super modern young women and momma’s boy husbands; this is the ultimate clash that is leading to Taiwan’s societal stall and stagnation. Frankly, I feel it’s just a matter of waiting for generations to change. In the meantime, Taiwan’s population is going to shrink no matter how much money you throw at potential mothers.
Finally, I would like to say that the above does not apply to everyone in Taiwan. Every individual is different and has various reasons for having children or not having children. Some of the examples above are extreme and do not apply to every family. However, I hope that I have shared with you something interesting that will give you a deeper picture of why Taiwan’s birth rate is so low and what can be done to really improve Taiwan in the future.
For more info about life in Taiwan, you can check out our Taiwan FAQ here, which covers various topics such as having a baby in Taiwan, getting married in Taiwan, and funerals rites in Taiwan.
We are US Expats that have extensive experience living, working, and travelling in Taiwan. In our day, we had to learn many things about Taiwan the hard way. But we have come to learn that Taiwan is one of the best places in the world for Foreigners to live. Our blog does not represent the opinions of every foreigner in Taiwan. We are just trying to help others learn more about this beautiful country.