Sun, Apr 21, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The devout and determined poet

As the role of women in society expanded in the 1920s, Tsai Chih-chan became Penghu’s first female Chinese-language teacher, later moving to Changhua and setting up a school called ‘Equal Rights Pavillion’

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

This only known photo of Tsai Chih-chan was found in the 1933 Yingzhou Poetry Anthology, which featured one of her poems from a nationwide poetry congress.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

April 22 to April 28

According to Penghu County records (澎湖縣志), Tsai Chih-chan (蔡旨禪) was born after her childless parents prayed to the Buddhist goddess of compassion, Guanyin (觀音).

“She was a virtuous and gifted child with great intelligence, distinguishing herself from her peers at a young age. She enjoyed embroidery and drawing instead of playing, and by the age of nine, she had become a vegetarian and devout Buddhist,” the records state about Tsai.

Whether true or not, embellished biographies involving deities are reserved for extraordinary people. Tsai was born in on April 28, 1900 in the Japanese-ruled backwaters of Penghu to parents of modest means — not exactly the right elements for a woman to make something of her life.

Tsai grew up to be a well-respected poet, her work appearing in numerous publications between 1923 and 1937. At the age of 24, she became Penghu’s first ever female Chinese-language teacher. When she accepted a teaching position in Changhua the following year, she named her school “Pingquanxuan” (平權軒), literally the “Equal Rights Pavillion.” Before Tsai left Penghu, she wrote a poem to her classmates, one verse expressing her desire to “make my name known as a woman.”

Tsai wasn’t the only prominent female poet in those days. In a 1933 island-wide poetry anthology from which Tsai’s only known photo was procured, there were several other women featured in the author introduction pages. Notable names include Huang Chin-chuan (黃金川), who authored Taiwan’s earliest known anthology of classical poems by a woman, and Chang Lee Te-ho (張李德和), another accomplished poet and painter who later served in the Taiwan Provincial Assembly.

Historian Lee Yu-lan (李毓嵐) writes in the study that the 1920s saw the awakening of Taiwanese women as they started participating in public affairs; the local newspapers ran many columns discussing new attitudes toward females regarding marriage, education, work and even entering politics.

The same period, for example, produced Taiwan’s first female physician Tsai A-hsin (蔡阿信, born 1899) as well as Hsu Shih-hsien (許世賢, born 1908), Taiwan’s first woman to earn a doctorate degree. Both have been featured in previous Taiwan in Time columns on June 5, 2016 and June 24 last year, respectively.

A CELEBRATED DEBUT

Although women’s roles were still fairly restricted at the turn of the 20th century, change was brewing. The year Tsai was born, a group of intellectuals and businessmen formed the “Taipei Natural Feet Association” (台北天然足會), which aimed to stop the crippling practice of foot binding for women, which was more prevalent among the upper class. The group also encouraged women to go to school and handed out badges to women who unbound or never bound their feet.

Other groups worked with the government to set up vocational training centers for women, encouraging them to step beyond home labor. The government’s aim was not so much to promote gender equality, but to increase Taiwan’s labor force to speed up the colony’s industrial development.

Tsai reveals in a poem that she decided by the age of nine to never marry and devote herself to Buddhism so she could support and take care of her parents. It may seem odd today, but Tsai was proud of her decision, which was widely praised by her contemporaries as virtuous.

Wei Hsiu-ling (魏秀玲) writes in Study of Tsai Chih-chan and her Poetry and Painting Collection (旨禪詩畫集) that Tsai likely never received a formal Japanese education, instead acquiring her literary skills from private tutors who taught Chinese classics. One of her teachers was Chen Hsi-ju (陳錫如), who hailed from the same township in Penghu. Before returning home in 1923, Chen was known for training 12 talented female writers in what is today’s Kaohsiung area, and Tsai commends Chen in a 1927 anthology for his efforts in preserving Chinese education under colonial rule and encouraging female education.

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