Preserving My Roots

A few weeks ago, I sat in my a-ma’s living room and listened to her read and explain my a-gong’s commemorative essay regarding my a-zoh (who are both long gone). Afterwards, she sighed and commented, “It’s a pity you can’t read Chinese. If only you could read a-zoh’s books, you’d know how 偉大 (significant) he was.” From that moment on, I vowed that I would do my research and learn as much as possible about my great-grandfather, my a-zoh, while I was still here in Taiwan.

Before leaving Jiali (a small town in Tainan Province), I took a copy of my a-gong’s essay and told my a-ma, “I think I’d like to translate this into English with Daddy.” So of course my a-ma called me a few weeks later, “Sa-jit-gong (3rdGreat-uncle) says a professor translated some of your a-zoh’s writings into English. I’m not sure, you should call Sa-jit-gong and ask.”

Less than an hour later, I was in Taipei’s largest library hassling a pour soul behind the reference desk. Below, I summarize part of Shih-Jung Tzeng’s 361-page Oxford-published PhD thesis, From Honto Jin to Bensheng Ren: The Origin and Development of Taiwanese National Consciousness. This is the most I’ve ever learned about my great-grandfather — a historic Taiwanese literary figure — Wu Xinrong (吳新榮).

A Confused Identity
Shih-Jung Tzeng writes, “Wu Xinrong (1907-1967) was a medical doctor, a socialist writer and an active politician during the 1930s and 40s in colonial Taiwan. He was born in 1907 in coastal Beimen in Tainan, southern Taiwan. Tainan, regarded as a centre of historical culture in Taiwan, was both the commercial and the political base of Dutch rule from 1624 to 1661, the capital of Koxinga’s Kingdom from 1661 to 1683, and the political and economic center of Taiwan during most of the Qing period.” With that as the historical setting, “The first generation of the Wu family in Taiwan had immigrated from Quanzhou in Fujian soon after Taiwan was integrated into the Manchu Qing Empire in the 1680s”—proof of my bensheng ren roots. (“The Wu family” refers to Wu Xinrong’s lineage, not the Wu family in general, as there are many. My dad and his cousins are recorded as the 10thgeneration.)

As I read Tzeng’s translations and analyses, my own confusion manifested my a-zoh’s confusion with his own identity. A-zoh first shifted from his anti-colonial, leftist college years (spent in Japan) with the idea that “the Taiwanese should fight for our own liberation” to his moderate local political involvement and war efforts as he later believed that Taiwan should be part of the “Eastern Asian People”, the then-expanding Japanese empire, on the basis that it was imminent after the Japanese had taken over Shanghai and Nanjing. My a-zoh’s Japanese political identity was so strong then that he sent my grandpa, my a-gong, to a Japanese school in town and named him (along with my second and third great-uncles) with 南 meanings, such as Southern Star or Southern Map, signifying his belief in Japan’s Southern advancement and his anti-Western sentiment then. I find it amusing that my grandpa, Wu Southern Star, later became an English teacher.

In the midst of his Japanese political identity, A-zoh nursed his cultural and spiritual Taiwanese identity as he felt “a sense of belonging and responsibility to defend the island of Taiwan and her people in the face of the war crisis” (Tzeng, 158), possibly to keep himself sane as he was going through much turmoil. (To justify becoming “Japanese” and helping with the war effort as a medic on the battlefield, he had a discussion with a Taiwanese scholar who shared that Wu ancestors had moved to Southern, barbarian-held lands of ancient China and become “impure Han-Chinese”—meaning he, himself wasn’t technically full Chinese.)

During a serious illness in April 1939, A-zoh recorded, “I was born Taiwanese, and will die Taiwanese,” but to be “Taiwanese” confused him then since he was both politically Japanese and ethnically Chinese by being Taiwanese, since the concept of being a bensheng ren (native Taiwanese) had not really formed until the waishen ren(mainlanders) came in later. In late 1941, A-zoh reconnected with his circle of writers, contributed articles to Taiwanese-based magazines, and deepened his understanding of Taiwan’s past, which, according to Tzeng, articulated his Taiwanese identity throughout the wartime.

Tzeng analyzes A-zoh’s statement, “If justice is still alive, human consciousness will spread all over the world” (in response to the outbreak of the Japanese war against China) and explains A-zoh’s inner conflicts. First, as a Taiwanese living under Japanese colonial rule, A-zoh felt compassion towards China because of ethnic and cultural ties to the mainland. Second, he believed in universal values such as justice, human conscience, and peace and disagreed with Japanese imperialism and how people were suffering in an ‘unjust’ war (Tzeng 204). In summary, A-zoh’s consciousness of being Han-Chinese was part of his Taiwanese consciousness, which conflicted with his Japanese consciousness in the face of the Japanese war against the Chinese (Tzeng 204). (Keep in mind that this Japanese consciousness was not weak considering that he had a Japanese-style wedding ceremony for his second marriage and had also adopted a Japanese surname, following the policy of Kominka.)

The following day after Japan’s loss, A-zoh changed the language of his dairy from Japanese to modern Chinese, and despite recording how he expected “a new life”, there was a huge sense of insecurity in all of his writings. He called Taiwan “an orphan of the Pacific Ocean”.

To diminish his sense of orphanage, A-zoh quickly shifted from his Japanese national consciousness to a Han-Chinese consciousness (Tzeng 269). He was desperately over-enthusiastic about becoming a Chinese national and participated in establishing China-oriented societies, which connected with China-based organizations helping the Chinese takeover of Taiwan. A-zoh was also concerned about the increasing social conflicts and problems caused by the harsh Japanese economic mobilization (during the wartime) and the rising confrontation between the left-leaning Taiwanese youth and the right-leaning local gentry, so he created two groups: The Righteous Society aimed at maintaining social order and The Jiali Peasant Society aimed at resisting warlords.

Four months after the Japanese surrender, A-zoh and nearly 2000 other local Taiwanese warmly welcomed a Chinese police officer at the town hall, but my a-zoh wrote in his diary that he could not help but reveal a sense of disappointment when he saw the officer’s disorderly followers from China. Only ten days later, he started becoming dissatisfied with the Chinese officials when the chair of the five-member committee in charge of the takeover of Tainan prefecture appointed only one local Taiwanese to the committee, without even consulting the Beimen branch of the left-leaning “sanminzhuyi qingniantuan” aimed at assisting with the takeover (which my a-zoh headed). A-zoh’s abstractly imagined Chinese national identity started crumbling.

As A-zoh became more dissatisfied wit the Chinese takeover, he (along with others) formed a psychological distinction between the local Taiwanese (the bensheng ren) and the mainland Chinese (the waisheng ren). (A-zoh first uses the distinguishing term “bensheng” in his diary on November 19, 1945.) At the end of December that year, my a-zoh wrote, “The year that has undergone the surrender, peace, takeover and then the turmoil is finished. Nevertheless, our happiness has turned into dispair and then dissatisfaction. Still, we have to work hard, fight, and construct for the future next year.”

Tzeng explains that such a dramatic change in perception of the Chinese rule (in just four months) was caused by A-zoh’s over-expectations and misunderstandings of the foreign Chinese rule. To be so forcedly enthusiastic initially was an “indirect way for the Taiwanese to concede a failed war in which they had participated”, and thus the Taiwanese had transformed their sense of insecurity into an “over-enthusiastic welcome of the Chinese” (Tzeng 272). According to Tzeng, A-zoh’s expectations of the coming Chinese rule were based on “an abstract, unilateral and opportunistic footing, which led to unrealistic and fragile over-anticipation.” Even from a second-hand analysis, I felt his sorrow. (I would probably cry if I read his dairies directly.)

A Taiwanese Identity
Four months after the Chinese arrival in Jiali, all of the Japanese inhabitants living there were sent back to Japan in one day. A-zoh was so shocked that he wrote on March 17, 1946, “The Japanese left Gaoxiong Port yesterday…I can’t see any Japanese in Jiali now. This hasn’t happened once in the last fifty years. I am bitterly experiencing the tremendous impact of this historical event! All of a sudden, our fifty-year-old Japanese neighbors have left. Although they were the conquering rulers, I can’t avoid a sense of loneliness. For instance, the leaving of the Japanese school principal’s couple from my primary schooldays made me burst into tears, showing a transcendence of national distinction. However, although we were not willing to protect those who used to be Japanese police officers when thehy left, we still had to keep them alive” (translated by Tzeng, 273).

“The departure of the Japanese hastened the decline of Wu’s Japanese consciousness and strengthened his awareness of being Taiwanese, while his abstractly imagined Chinese consciousness was being increasingly frustrated by his real experiences of encountering the Chinese from the mainland, which psychologically implied a gradual return to his Taiwanese-dimension identity” (Tzeng 273). In simpler words, With the Japanese gone and the Chinese being difficult, my a-zoh strengthened his Taiwanese identity.

When A-zoh lost the provincial council election in April 1946, his political expectations were let down. Two days later, he modified his left-leaning approach and joined the conservative Guomindang on the grounds that the party needed “progressive” new members. A-zoh delivered an ultimatum to the local authorities by handing a letter to a Chinese magistrate, appealing for political reform and the support of a police officer who he thought was a “good Taiwanese”. Since A-zoh didn’t receive any positive responses, he decided to withdraw from all political activities on May 13, 1946. On May 18, 1946, he wrote, “We refuse to cooperate with those who are merely impractical, those who are corrupt, those who gain private ends through public cases, and those who are cold-blooded and unreasonable.”

As early as April, 1946, A-zoh sensed a looming economic crisis caused mainly by a shortage of rice, which was clear when his daily earnings could no longer meet his daily expenses. As a doctor, he also found that terrible diseases, such as cholera, were spreading widely in his residential area. 10% of the villagers in coastal villages had become ill and many Tainan citizens were dying from diseases. A-zoh even contracted cholera twice himself, “thus clearly revealing the worsening hygienic environment in Taiwan following the end of Japanese rule and the Chinese takeover” (Tzeng 278).

A-zoh concluded that the reasons why “the Taiwanese are so against the waisheng renand the public so distrustful of the government” was because of “first, the failure of the takeover, which was undertaken by corrupt officials; second, the inefficiency of governance caused by the awful administration; third, the serious food shortage, which caused unrest; and fourth, the spread of terrible diseases by low cultural standards.” Tzeng extracts two major points: first, A-zoh’s observations imply a comparison of the previous Japanese rule to the current Chinese one; and second, it reveals that the confrontation between the two was a conflict between “modernity” (represented by the former Japanese rule) and “less modernity” (represented by the current Chinese regime). A-zoh recorded, “Since the take over, we greatly suffered in both a spiritual and material sense and secured only some superficial reputation.” A-zoh regarded the Chinese way of governance as “perfunctory”, which he “could not get used to and also disagreed with”, thus implying that the Japanese rule was much more efficient (Tzeng 277).

May 1946, A-zoh complained that the newspapers in Taiwan could not function as an instrument to report facts and express public dissatisfaction. A few weeks later, he immediately “realized the real situation on the mainland”, which led to “a visible shift in mentality shortly after reading newspapers and magazines from Shanghai. This realization shattered his expectations of the Chinese central government, further strengthening his decision to withdraw from public affairs in Taiwan. (This sense of indifference was shared among many of the Taiwanese elite.) On August 30, 1946, A-zoh recorded, ”The crisis I am currently encountering is extremely serious… Where on earth should I go?” According to Tzeng, this sense of “nowhere to escape” was caused by a multi-level crisis that intensified in late September 1946, due to further social deterioration. A-zoh felt like he was “at the end of the world” where “righteous people were forced to leave their homes” and “only vicious people were promoted”. At the end of December 1946, A-zoh recorded that his only hope was the coming of a “big revolution in society and politics” that would garner the support of “progressive youths” and “the righteous people”. Otherwise, he would become “an economic serf forever”.

A week before the outbreak of the 2.28 Incident, two of A-zoh’s friends, one being a leftist named Li Lu, came to see him. They discussed the current political crisis and “strongly suggested organizing people,” which implied that they were waiting to take action. On March 1, 1947, a day after the outbreak of the 2.28 Incident, A-zoh recorded, “The policemen of the Bureau for the Monopoly of Tobacco and Wine gunned down a citizen yesterday, causing Taipei citizens to rise up. They repeatedly shouted and beat the ‘A-san’ (the mainlanders) and surrounded the governmental office…I frequently heard the term ‘coup in March’. It might be true. Personally, I am increasingly dissatisfied with the current situation. My mind, however, has become more certain.” The next day, A-zoh went to Tainan city to visit some friends, including a leader of the youth corps. That night, he dined with some friend’s in Jiali, “toasting to Taipei’s uprising” (Tzeng 282).

A-zoh once said that he would no longer meddle in politics, but this ‘coup in March’ seemed to have revived his spirits and gave him hope that he coulddo something. On March 2, 1947, A-zoh took charge of organizing the “Temporary Committee for Handling the Current Situation in the Beimen Area”, conducting the takeover of military facilities at the police station, and overseeing an armed defense of his hometown. A-zoh later became the vice-chair of the committee, although a rescue team of twelve armed local Taiwanese was sent to Jiayi without his agreement, so he proposed to dismiss the committee and return the arms to the police station (which caused some disputes along the participants). Wu then participated in a conference for people from Tainan County during which forty-seven officials (including the Chinese magistrate) were recalled.

On March 10, 1947, A-zoh was elected as the chair of the Beimen branch of the island-wide “er-er-ba chuli weiyuan hui” (Committee for Tackling the 2.28 Incident), which consisted of major leaders from the Beimen area (two thirds of whom A-zoh regarded as “progressive”). That evening, an armed force organized by Taiwanese students in Taipei had encountered two divisions of Nationalist Chinese troops sent out by the Nanjing government from the mainland. This single event led to a full dissolution of the island-wide “er-er-ba chuli weiyuanhui” and the enforcement of Martial Law in Taipei.

On March 12, 1947, A-zoh recorded, “Today is the memorial day of Sun Yat-sen’s death. The national flags fill the streets…however, there is a sense of indescribable insecurity on the faces of the masses…anyway, nothing is predictable. Things break out without principle or reason. So, I have to firmly withdraw from the event and closely watch how it progresses.” The next day, a couple of unidentified armed men arrived in Jiali, and the day after that, my a-zoh went into hiding.

A-zoh described his experiences from March 13-18, 1947, as, “The most depressing and confusing period in my life,” when the Nationalist Chinese military crushed the Taiwanese participants in the 2.28 Uprising. On March 18, 1947, he was taken by forced by a couple of armed men to the police station to open an arms depot, then subsequently released as he did not have the keys for the caches. For the next few weeks, A-zoh went back into hiding, thought the situation had improved, went home, was told that officers had come to arrest him at his house, and went into hiding again.

On April 9, 1947, over ten members of the Taiwanese elite in the Jiali area (including A-zoh’s dad, my great-great-grandfather) were arrested and imprisoned in Tainan city. On April 20, 1947, A-zoh formally surrendered to the military police corps with the assistance of an advisor at the military headquarters in Tainan city. He was questioned about his relationship with the communists and his involvement in the 2.28 Incident, and then imprisoned in Taipei.

A-zoh was released on June 21, 1947, and on June 30, he went to visit his dad (who had been accused of hiding bandits) in Tainan Prison. The next day, he went home to Jiali after the “hundred day disaster” with a concrete sense of seeing “a broken country with an intact mountain and river” (Tzeng 285). The 2.28 Incident greatly frustrated my a-zoh, as he felt “a great sadness for the future of our nation and country”. He related the incident to the “May 30th Tragedy” in 1920s China, a “flood-wreaked” political disaster, and composed a poem entitled “After Reading ‘The Deluge’”. The poem revealed his sense of mourning for the Taiwanese youth who had been killed in the 2.28 Incident and his sense of hopelessness regarding the Chinese authorities. (Several years after Martial Law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987, the death toll of the 2.28 Incident remains unknown, although an official report written in 1994 suggests that around 18,000 were killed during that one event.)

To lighten the mood a little, here’s a fun trivial fact: Japanese food became increasingly popular in Taiwan during this period, thus indicating a physical return (by the Taiwanese) to their common Japanese experience after the 2.28 Incident (Tzeng 285).

When A-zoh’s mood recovered, he assisted Wu Sanlian, a Tainan-born Taiwanese, to run for the National Assembly, and when he was elected, A-zoh recorded that “the Taiwanese people have made a good choice, and naturally Taiwan is still hopeful,” revealing his increased expectations of Taiwan-born figures and his continued anticipation of a better time to come (Tzeng 286). My a-zoh then dedicated his life to writing national and family histories, historical autobiographies covering the feudal Qing, the capitalist Japanese, and the socialist Chinese periods. He also edited and wrote for the Tainan County’s Gazette and the Journal of Nanying, which promoted the local history of the Tainan area (Tzeng 287).

After the outbreak of the Korean War in the mid-50s, the US Navy interfered in the Taiwan Straits, further separating Taiwan from the mainland in the emerging Cold War global order. A-zoh was worried about Taiwan’s increased isolation and wrote (in response to the US involvement), “The move might protect Taiwan from the threat of war, but we felt that Taiwan could have a great influence on the fatherland in the future. We insisted that Taiwan belonged to the Taiwanese, and the Chinese as well.” According to Tzeng, this record suggested that as both a Taiwanese nationalist and a leftist, A-zoh may have hoped to see an autonomous Taiwan under the realm of China, rather than an “isolated” Taiwan protected by the US. Therefore A-zoh was not a supporter of a politically independent Taiwan around 1950. (This notion soon changes.)

August 1950, A-zoh decided to seek a second term as County Councilor and aimed to “create the democratic basis for the long-term future of Taiwan as a country”. The first step towards this future was to implement local self-rule, including “the introduction of the general election of governors and provincial councilors in Taiwan”. In other words, the emerging Cold War international framework also enabled the formation of an independent state based on Taiwan-sized political governance, even if it did create a sense of isolation or orphanage. This had a significant impact on shaping A-zoh’s bensheng renidentity from the perspective of international politics (Tzeng 290).

Taiwan’s tradition of self-rule, which began during the Japanese colonial period, was a crucial aspect of “modernity”, and since the US involvement allowed Taiwan to reconnect with this past tradition, my formerly anti-Western a-zoh changed his lifestyle from the Japanese to the Western model. Under the gloomy atmosphere of the “White Terror” (when the Nationalists consolidated their political control of Taiwan), my a-zoh increasingly exposed himself to and accepted American influences.

At the end of 1950, A-zoh revealed his platform for the local elections, which formally took place months after the US announcement that it would protect Taiwan. He emphasized that he must first “ensure Taiwan’s status through understanding the international situation” and then “establish local self-rule as the rule of law, to improve science, culture, and agricultural standards, and to widen access for the young by excluding feudal influences”. (His previous platform included caring for disadvantaged minorities, such as farmers and patients as well, thus revealing his originally leftist beliefs.) A-zoh’s Taiwanese national identity seemed to evolve gradually into supporting the idea of a politically independent Taiwan dominated by native Taiwanese (the bensheng ren) rather than the mainlanders (the waisheng ren).

February 1951, A-zoh did not become Councilor for a second term due to his miscalculation and refusal to conduct vote-buying (a new phenomenon that emerged in postwar politics), although he trusted the democratic system. From that moment on, A-zoh withdrew from politics almost completely and focused on his writing. He worked on the Tainan wenxian weiyuan hui (Committee of Compiling and Collecting Local History in Tainan) and as the chief compiler for the Tainan County Gazette.

In October 1954, A-zoh was imprisoned again in Taipei for fourth months, accused of being involved in a communist plot in Taiwan. Afterwards, he lived a depressed life under close watch by the local authorities during the “White Terror”. A-zoh described himself as a “loser” who was “never pessimistic and never looked down on himself” (Tzeng 294).

While in prison, A-zoh wrote a poem titled, “I Love Taiwan”:
Taiwan was the ancient Yingzhou, its mountains and rivers are splendid

It was also called Formosa and horizontally calms the big waves of the Pacific Oceans
Konxinga farsightedly laid its foundation; Tang and Liu created an extensive blueprint
It is protected by ten thousand states without making any enemy in the world
Its politics followed trends; its people love freedom
We wish all of our compatriots to be forever immersed in prosperity

“Wu became, in both a cultural and political sense, a hidden Taiwanese nationalist in mid-1950s Taiwan that had been wracked by the severe ‘White Terror’ environment created by the Nationalist Chinese government” (Tzeng 295).

Perhaps my a-zoh did fight alongside the Japanese…but how did he contribute to the war effort? He volunteered as a medic and wrapped soldiers’ wounds. Perhaps he did have radical, socialist ideas, but what did he truly believe in? Helping the poor, the farmers he attended to in the countryside. Perhaps he did jump from one side to the next, but he trusted his “human consciousness” and did what he felt was “just”. He fought for justice and against corruption…for his beloved island.

My grandpa's parents :). Everyone says my dad looks just like his grandpa...
My grandpa’s parents. Everyone says my dad looks just like his grandpa…

A-zoh's statue in a park in Jiali, which I've been to many times
A-zoh’s statue in a park in Jiali, which I’ve been to many times

I emailed Professor Tzeng and he responded!