Sun, Jun 05, 2016 - Page 12 News List

A lifelong desire to learn

Tsai A-hsin, Taiwan’s first female doctor, opened her own clinic in Taichung 90 years ago this month

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Tsai A-hsin’s alma mater, Tamsui Girls’ School, was the first of its kind in Taiwan. It is occupied by Chunde Elementary School today.

Photos: Huang Chi-hao, Taipei Times

Taiwan IN time: june 6 to june 12

For much of the latter half of 2005, many people in Taiwan waited eagerly in front of their television sets on weekday evenings as A Cinematic Journey (浪淘沙) came on, watching the dramatic life of Taiwan’s first female doctor unfold.

Based on the life of Tsai A-hsin (蔡阿信), the series was an adaptation of Tungfangpai’s (東方白, real name: Lin Wen-te 林文德), 1990 novel of the same name. It won a Golden Bell for best television series that year, and re-introduced Tsai to the public imagination half a century after she left for Canada.

Tsai A-hsin also achieved many other firsts in Taiwan. Chu Chen-yi (朱貞一), an expert on Taiwanese medical history, writes in his biography of Tsai that she was also the first Taiwanese doctor to receive professional anesthesia training, participate in a medical residency and open a clinic in North America.

There are very few primary sources on Tsai. She wrote a biography in English but it was never published. Tungfangpai interviewed Tsai and obtained a copy for his novel, but Chu writes that he worked off an “incomplete” version. Chu also references the novel, while consulting with Tungfangpai which events were fiction and which were fact.

Chu noted that Tsai’s name was even missing from a list of Taiwanese who had studied abroad in Europe or North America.

“If it weren’t for Tungfangpai’s novel, [Tsai’s] legendary life would surely have been completely forgotten,” Chu writes. “One of the reasons is that she moved to Canada early, but the main reason is probably because of discrimination against women in Taiwanese society.”


Indeed, very few girls attended school during the time Tsai was born, either in 1896 or 1899.

In 1884, Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay established the Tamsui Girls’ School (淡水女學堂), the first of its kind in Taiwan. Though tuition and housing were free, the school saw few students because of societal reservations, the majority of the students being Kavalan Aborigine converts.

Under Japanese rule, Tamsui Girls’ School became a six-year program for girls over the age of 12. Because the school still had trouble recruiting students, Tsai was admitted before she turned 12 as its youngest student.

Tsai’s maternal grandfather’s family was among the first Han Chinese to be baptized by Mackay, which probably contributed to their more liberal views on female education. Her mother also received some professional training as a midwife.

Chu says that Tsai was the only one in her class to master English. Since there were no high schools for women, Tsai went Japan at age 17 to study at a missionary school despite disapproval from her mother and neighbors.

Two years later, she was accepted to Tokyo Women’s Medical School (today’s Tokyo Women’s Medical University) as the only Taiwanese. When she attended a Taiwanese student gathering in Tokyo, she did not encounter another woman.

Historian Yu Chien-ming (游鑑明) writes in a study, Taiwan’s Professional Women during the Japanese Colonial Era (日據時代台灣的職業婦女), that it took a while for the next Taiwanese female medical student to appear in Japan — a dentist who graduated in 1926, five years after Tsai.

When Tsai took a semester off and returned to Taiwan to nurse her asthma, she achieved another first as, after many attempts, she persuaded the principal of an all-male medical school in Taiwan to let her sit in on classes, becoming the country’s first co-ed student at the higher education level.

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