Taiwan in Time: Crawling to school

Born with deformed legs to a poor family, Cheng Feng-hsi overcame all odds to earn an education, and his autobiography was one of the most widely read books in the 1970s and 1980s

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Sun, Mar 19, 2017 - Page 8

March 20 to March 26

When Cheng Feng-hsi’s (鄭豐喜) mother first saw his deformed legs, she decided to kill him. Living in poverty with 10 other children to raise, she did not think a good life was possible for this child. But right before the act, she hesitated — and several family members pleaded with her to let the infant live.

“This child is a treasure. He will bring prosperity to our family. He’ll do great things when he grows up,” his grandfather proclaimed.

“He undoubtedly said this only to comfort my parents,” Cheng writes in his autobiography, Boat in a Stormy Sea (汪洋中的一條船).

Cheng was unexpectedly resilient. Both parents were illiterate, but he insisted on crawling to school, eventually earning a law degree, and was named one of Taiwan’s “10 Outstanding Young Persons” of 1974. Cheng’s life was cut short by liver cancer a year later at the age of 31, but by then he was widely known due to his remarkable life story, which was featured in many newspaper articles and his autobiography.

Initially released as Broken Boat in a Stormy Sea (汪洋中的破船) in 1973, the book was posthumously republished on March 23, 1976 under its current name. It became one of the more beloved books in Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Please don’t read this book as a novel or a work of literature,” Cheng writes in the introduction. “There won’t be any seasoned writing techniques, beautiful words or profound thoughts. But it’s worth reading because it’s an honest and raw tale about how a disabled person battled fate and overcame difficulties. It’s an expression of confidence and perseverance.”

DOUBTED AND RIDICULED

Cheng had a rough early life — in addition to being unable to walk, he left home at the age of five to work as a traveling performer with an old man and his monkey. After the old man was arrested following a scuffle with a local gangster, Cheng continued to travel and perform on his own, but he was robbed during a show and left with nothing but the monkey and a unicycle.

His itinerant life lasted 13 months, often having to forage for vegetables to survive. The monkey remained by his side until Cheng left her with a woman who helped him get back to his village, where he settled and helped his brothers on the farm.

“Time passed quickly,” he writes. “I was no longer a child, but I felt that I had gained nothing. How can I make something of myself by spending my time with these chickens and ducks? I suddenly started to ponder my existence — what kind of future can a disabled person have?”

Cheng’s family did not send him to school because he couldn’t walk the distance. But after visiting the school with his neighbors and speaking with a teacher, he was determined to enroll. At 10 years old, he finally started the first grade. His classmates carried him at first — but their parents told them to stop as they believed that Cheng’s deformity was contagious. Cheng had no choice but to crawl.

“I wrapped my books in a piece of cloth and tied it around my waist, and chose a route with few people to crawl to school. Whenever I saw a stranger, I would stand up, wait for them to pass, and keep crawling,” he writes. Later, he managed to learn how to ride a bike.

Although Cheng was frequently bullied, his grades were excellent. Still, his legs remained a problem — after winning first place in his hometown speech contest, the school sent the second place winner to the county-level competition. People also repeatedly told him that he couldn’t attend junior high school because of his legs, and he had to endure the same doubting voices again when he prepared for the high school examinations. And even in high school, the principal attempted to expel him.

From the book, it appears that people back then would ridicule or insult a handicapped person at any chance they had — from teachers to neighbors to even Cheng’s own brothers. There was no subtlety, and everything was said straight to his face.

GAINING FAME

The first version of Ship in a Stormy Sea was made public after it won honorable mention in an essay contest during Cheng’s second year in high school. It garnered him many letters of encouragement from strangers and earned him the praise of his classmates.

The attention continued to increase, and his plight was published in an article in China Daily News (中華日報), titled Born deformed, a person challenges fate. Support poured in to fund his college education, and a doctor from Taipei even visited him and offered to give him prosthetic legs at no cost.

Cheng still struggled with his tuition and daily expenses — but he was no longer mocked, and even found a girlfriend. After college, he got married (to much objection from the bride’s family) and found work as a teacher in his hometown. Around this time, the district education superintendent contacted him and asked him to write a book about his struggles.

“I was excited because … someone as poor and disabled as me could receive help from the higher ups,” he writes. “But I was scared because my prose was unpolished and juvenile, and my situation would only make people cry instead of bringing them laughter. Would anyone even read this book?”

They not only read the book, but adapted it into the wildly popular 1977 feature film He Never Gives Up, which claimed six trophies at the 1978 Golden Horse Awards. In 2000, the story was made into a television series. And his wife carried on his legacy, establishing the Cheng Feng-hsi Foundation for Culture and Education to help people with limb disabilities.

Taiwan in Time, a column about Taiwan’s history that is published every Sunday, spotlights important or interesting events around the nation that have anniversaries this week.