An old Chinese saying which states that “a person’s life begins at 70” has been perfectly illustrated by Wu Tseng-huan (吳曾煥), a 85-year-old widow who found her calling after dedicating herself to the fields of art and philanthropy at the age of 70.
Born into a poor family in Hsinchu County, Wu’s life had always revolved around others and she had little time to pay attention to her own needs.
Because of her financially disadvantaged background, she was only able to graduate from elementary school, and married a man called Wu Hui-tsan (吳惠燦) at the age of 18.
Wu Tseng-huan’s lack of education was her biggest regret in life, prompting her to be the type of mother who would rather starve than deprive her children of an education.
She worked diligently to give her children the freedom to pursue their passions, something she was unable to do as a child.
From an early age, Wu Tseng-huan was interested in painting, but her hopes of becoming an artist were dashed after her parents were forced to refuse her request to frame one of her works that was ready to be exhibited.
“We can barely afford to feed ourselves, let alone frame a painting,” Wu Tseng-huan quoted her parents as saying.
Although her husband’s family made a decent living running a wholesale business, her life was no easier than before she got married because she had to raise her five children and attend to her parents-in-law.
Things took a turn for the worse when her husband’s family business hit rock-bottom, forcing her family to take what little they had left and relocate to Taipei.
In spite of the sudden change, Wu Tseng-huan’s husband and children remained at the center of her life and she helped raise her 10 grandchildren.
However, just when Wu Tseng-huan thought she could start living a more peaceful life after all her children and grandchildren were grown up, misfortune struck again.
She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to have her pancreas, gallbladder and part of her stomach removed.
One year after her surgery, her husband died of colon cancer.
“My mother’s life revolved around her husband and she was devastated by his passing,” said Wu Ling-chiao (吳鈴嬌), one of Wu Tseng-huan’s daughters. “However, she persevered and dedicated herself to philanthropy by working with the [Buddhist Compassion Relief] Tzu Chi [Foundation.]”
Wu Tseng-huan became an honorary board member at the foundation after making a sizable donation, but she wanted to do more and joined a group of volunteers in collecting recyclable items thrown away on the streets as a way of giving back to society.
She also collected donations for people affected by the 921 Earthquake in 1999 and the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.
Although her children were concerned because of her age, she was undeterred, saying that “there are a bunch of volunteers who are older than I am.”
She later found another purpose in life after she apprenticed to the calligraphy teacher of one of her grandchildren.
Starting with the basics, Wu Tseng-huan diligently practiced calligraphy and Chinese ink painting techniques on a daily basis.
Her determination to hone her skills, coupled with her arduous experiences early in life, made her work far more sophisticated than that of her younger counterparts.
Encouraged by her children, Wu Tseng-huan recently had her first exhibition at Taipei’s Zhongshan District Office.
Visitors at the exhibition were frequently amazed not only by Wu Tseng-huan’s skill, which some said was on a par with that of professional painters and calligraphers, but also by how she had put into practice the old saying that “It is never too late to learn.”
“My mother is a woman who lives her life to the fullest. Despite receiving little education, my mother was able to achieve what few people can: To be content with what one has and do things that matter,” Wu Ling-chiao said.