The etymology of the word “disaster” refers to breakdowns of natural or social harmony. As Madam Yu demonstrated, women have an essential role in preventing and rectifying them.

by Stefania Cerruti*

*A paper presented at the seminar “Remembering Shimu’s Fight: Conscience and the Tai Ji Men Case,” Pasadena, California, April 5, 2024.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on April 9th, 2024.

On September 16, 2001, a few days after 9/11, the “Back to the Origin” and Prayer Ceremony was regularly held at the Hawaii Theatre Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. In the picture, Madam Yu is on the right of Dr. Hong.
On September 16, 2001, a few days after 9/11, the “Back to the Origin” and Prayer Ceremony was regularly held at the Hawaii Theatre Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. In the picture, Madam Yu is on the right of Dr. Hong.

A defining moment in the life of Madam Yu Mei-Jung, Dr. Hong’s wife, happened after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When asked by her husband for her opinion whether their United States tour leading them to Hawaii should continue, considering the possible dangers, Madam Yu answered, “Wherever you go, I will follow.”

Tai Ji Men had a sustained experience of confronting disasters, such as devastating earthquakes in Taiwan, and Madam Yu was always there to encourage volunteers and support Dr. Hong. “Wherever you go, I will follow.” When a human-made disaster, the persecution that started in 1996, hit Tai Ji Men, Madam Yu was also there to support her husband and was even detained herself. “Wherever you go, I will follow.”

I serve as External Relations Manager of MEDIS, the Major Emergencies and Disasters International School, and my field is the study and prevention of disasters. “Disaster” is what philologists call a false Latin word. Both the prefix “dis” and the word “astrum” existed in Latin and if we would come across the word “disastrum” we would easily recognize it as a perfect Latin word, formed according to the rules. But the fact is that the word “disastrum” did not exist in Latin. It only appeared in Italian as “disastro” in the 15th century, from where it went to French (“désastre”) and to English, where “disaster” is first attested around 1590.

This late appearance of the word “disaster” is significant because it indicates what in the Renaissance was considered the root cause of disasters. “Aster” in Greek and “astrum” in Latin mean “star.” The prefix “dis” means “non” or “not.” I am sure Tai Ji Men dizi have experience of the word “dishonest,” as they had to confront dishonest bureaucrats. The “dis” before “honest” means “not”: bureaucrats are dishonest if they are not honest.

But what does “dis” mean if you put it before the word “star”? A “non-star”? This would hardly make sense. To understand the original word “disaster” we should consider that in the Renaissance astrology became extremely popular in countries such as Italy and France. The kind of astrology prevailing in the Renaissance assumed that almost everything was determined by the correct alignment of the stars. If the stars fell out of alignment, there was no way of escaping catastrophic consequences. The word “disaster” was thus coined to indicate what happens when stars (remember, “aster” means “star”) “are not,” meaning “are not in the correct alignment.”

A Renaissance astrologer in Florence (AI-generated).
A Renaissance astrologer in Florence (AI-generated).

Whether we believe or not in the influence of the stars, a truth we can all believe in lying behind the word “disaster” as a misalignment of celestial bodies is that there is a certain harmony both in the universe and in human society, and that breaking this harmony leads to disasters. This is often true in natural disasters, which may not be totally spontaneous and unpredictable but are the result of human-made violations of the harmony of nature. And of course wars of aggression break the harmony between countries, and injustice breaks the harmony in society, as it happened in the Tai Ji Men case.

When disasters hit, women have a special role. Women and female organizations have played an essential role in disaster relief activities. Women are often the most vulnerable during disasters, and their needs are often overlooked. Women activists and female organizations have been instrumental in providing support to women during these challenging times.

One of the earliest examples of women’s involvement in disaster relief can be traced back to the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. After the earthquake, women’s organizations such as the Women’s Emergency Committee played a critical role in providing aid to the victims. Another example is Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005. Women’s organizations such as the Women’s Earth Alliance and the National Organization for Women provided food, shelter, and medical assistance to those affected by the disaster.

Volunteers offer help after Hurricane Katrina. Credits.
Volunteers offer help after Hurricane Katrina. Credits.

In addition to supplying aid to the victims of disasters, women’s organizations have also been instrumental in promoting disaster preparedness and risk reduction. For example, the United Nations Women, a United Nations entity whose mandate is to empower women internationally, has been working to promote gender-responsive disaster risk reduction and resilience. The organization also tries to ensure that women’s voices are heard in the development of disaster risk reduction policies and programs.

It is thus not surprising that when Tai Ji Men dizi remember and celebrate the work they did in the aftermath of Taiwan’s earthquakes and how they confronted the human-made disasters of injustice and legal and tax persecution, their gratitude and remembrance immediately goes to the dear memory of Shimu, Madam Yu. When a disaster hit, we need brave women to help. Madam Yu’s work will never be forgotten.