An Elegy for Tehpen Tsai

An Elegy for Tehpen Tsai
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Tsai Family

What you need to know

The life of Tehpen Tsai, a teacher, writer, playwright, and former political prisoner provides a different kind of insight — as valuable as figures of wider renown — to Taiwan’s history.

The modern history of Taiwan is turbulent. To understand it the temptation is just to look at the big events and the people who shaped them, but less celebrated lives can provide a different kind of insight, equally as valuable.

Tehpen Tsai (蔡德本) was born on December 6, 1925, in Bokushi, Tōseki District, Tainan Prefecture (now Puzi City, Chiayi), the youngest child of six in a respected, well-to-do merchant family. They owned a whole block of real estate in Puzi and his father and four paternal uncles ran one store apiece there, each selling a different range of goods. Tsai’s mother (born 1886), in common with almost all women of her generation and class from the majority Hoklo people, had her feet bound as a child. When the Japanese colonial government banned the practice in 1915, she was exempted from releasing the bindings as it would likely have crippled her. When she died in 1991 at the age of 105 she was probably one of the last women in Taiwan with bound feet.

After early schooling in Puzi, in 1937 Tsai went to Moji, Kyushu, Japan to live with his brother Teh-hsin (蔡德馨), who was thirteen years older. The quality of education in Japan was highly prized and, despite some discrimination because of his Taiwanese background, Tsai thrived. Teh-hsin’s wife, Ayako, was Nissei, born in Japan to Taiwanese parents, and Tehpen came to consider her his “second mother.” He moved with Teh-hsin and Ayako to Tokyo in 1940 and remained there until he finished school in 1944. Returning to Taiwan was a hazardous affair in wartime, and the usual three-day sea journey from Kobe to Keelung became a nearly two-week voyage. On arriving back he was employed for a few months as a school teacher in his hometown, a career which he would later make his own. 

Japan’s strategic situation in World War II deteriorated rapidly through 1944 and conscription, previously limited to Japanese nationals, was extended to its colonial subjects in Korea and Taiwan. Tsai received his call-up in December 1944 and headed to Hsinchu for infantry training. He was fortunate that the war ended before he could be sent to fight. On being demobilized after the Japanese surrender Tsai resumed his teaching position and drafted a book describing his wartime experience.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Tsai Family
Tsai in school uniform in Japan, early 1940s.

In September 1946 he started his further education. A devastating fire had diminished the family fortune, so rather than attending National Taiwan University as planned he switched to Taiwan Provincial College (now National Taiwan Normal University) as he was offered free tuition, room and board, and a monthly stipend. It was here that his literary talents started to gain attention, and some of his short stories were published in the Shin Sheng Daily News. He set up a drama association at college to perform works in the Taiwanese language, and several of his plays were performed around Taiwan, including Before the Dawn and The Death of Ah-T. The film director Ang Lee (李安), who was later one of Tsai’s students, called him a “pioneer of Taiwanese-language theater.”

The initial Taiwanese goodwill towards the new government dissolved under Kuomintang misrule. On February 28, 1947 soldiers shot dead three protestors, which was followed by a widespread uprising and then mass killings as the Kuomintang reasserted control. The intellectual elite were targeted; some of Tsai’s college classmates disappeared, along with many thousands more across Taiwan. In the wake of the carnage, Tsai burned the manuscript of his wartime memoir and kept his head down. Further repression followed the April 6th Incident in 1949, when student protests against police brutality resulted in the disbanding of all student associations, including Tsai’s drama group. His creative outlets were gone and his class of fifty had dwindled to just twenty by graduation.

In 1950 the secret police arrested Tsai Hsiao-chien (蔡孝乾, no relation), a high-ranking Communist agent. He defected and handed the Kuomintang a list of every known Communist in Taiwan. In the mass arrests that followed, three Puzi natives — all friends of Tsai Tehpen — were detained. Convictions were swift, the sentences inevitable. On November 29, 1950 Huang Shih-lien (黃師廉), Li Shui-ching (李水井), and Cheng Wen-feng (鄭文鋒) were executed by firing squad at the notorious Taipei “racetrack,” Machangding (馬場町), now a park in Wanhua. Around 1,800 people were convicted based on evidence from Tsai Hsiao-chien. Many were sentenced to death, and many more to lengthy prison terms on Green Island.

Tsai, unsure why he had not also been arrested given his close relationships with some of the executed prisoners, threw himself into his teaching job at Puzi Elementary School. In spring 1951 he was introduced to Huang Pan-tao (黃燔桃) by a close friend of his who was also her cousin. They were engaged a month later and married in September. The next year his daughter Shih-chen (式貞) was born. In 1953 he was chosen for a scholarship in the United States, and spent a year at George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. He returned to Taiwan in September 1954.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Tsai Family
Huang Pan-tao and Tehpen Tsai's wedding, 1951.

On October 3, 1954, Tsai was at home playing Go with a friend when the arrest he had feared finally came. He was taken to Chiayi City and accused of being a member of the Communist party. For two weeks interrogators worked in shifts, using sleep deprivation and harsh conditions, but avoiding physical torture as orders had recently been issued not to use such techniques on intellectuals. Central to the accusations were his associations with people already convicted of political crimes and certain books he owned or had read.

After the Chiayi inquisitors were unable to extract a confession, he was transferred to Taipei for further interrogation, first to the police Criminal Investigation Bureau, and then after a few days to Taipei Military Court, called the “Devil’s Palace” by prisoners. It was here that his suspicions were confirmed: he had been implicated by his friend Chang Pi-kun (張壁坤), who had been arrested some time before Tsai, and it was Chang’s testimony that had led to Tsai’s arrest. The most damning accusation was that Chang had seen a copy of The Collected Writings of Mao Zedong at Tsai’s house, something Tsai denied.

Fear was rife in the detention center. President Chiang Kai-shek had written that it was “better to kill a hundred innocents than let one guilty person go free” (可錯殺一百,不可錯放一人) and mixed in with genuine Communists were plenty of men incarcerated on entirely spurious grounds. Here Tsai learned that he had been named by Chang Pi-kun in the hope of avoiding the death penalty. Tsai told his cellmates that he could endure the ordeal, unjust though it was, if it would save his friend’s life. After further interrogation over several months, Tsai’s case was brought to trial and he was found guilty. The verdict cited his “close association with convicted rebels” and possession of “reactionary literature,” including a Japanese volume on materialism, the writings of Lu Xun, and the underground periodical Kuangming Bao (光明報), but the Mao book he had always denied having was omitted.

Tsai was lucky. Though he was convicted under the Statute for the Denunciation and Punishment of Bandit Spies (the Communists were called “bandits” by the Kuomintang) he had avoided the most serious charges and was sentenced to a term of “reeducation.” His cellmates were astonished at the leniency of the judgment. Reeducation was imprisonment by another name, with added political study sessions where the prisoners would discuss Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People and other concepts central to the ideology of the Republic of China. After spending five months and five days in Ankeng Military Prison, he was released on November 2, 1955, thirteen months after his arrest. 

He returned to his family, now one larger with the addition of his son Shih-liang (式良), born in June while he was still detained. After an illness he returned to work in February 1956, teaching English at a middle school in Puzi. In 1958 Pan-tao gave birth to their second daughter, Shih-hsiang (式香), and the family moved to Tainan the following year so Tehpen could take up a job at Tainan First Senior High School (臺南第一高級中學), a school known for its academic rigor and students from southern Taiwan’s elite. He was to remain a teacher there for the next thirty-one years, until his mandatory retirement in 1990.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Tsai Family
The Tsai family, 1968. Back row: Shih-liang, Tehpen, Pan-tao, Shi-chen. Front row: Shih-chung, Shih-an, Shih-hsiang.

The Tsai’s had two more sons: Shih-chung (式中), in 1961, and Shih-an (式安), in 1963. Tehpen was an industrious man, teaching full-time, then after school teaching other children at his home, including those from poor families in the neighborhood who would otherwise be unable to study English. He wrote a series of textbooks for English learners, worked through weekends, and only took five days off a year. In his rare moments of free time he loved to play Go, sing duets of classic Japanese ballads with his wife, and go out for sashimi with family.

Outside the home Tsai was careful to avoid political topics. From time to time the police would come to check on him and on each occasion his mother, who lived with the family, feared that they would take him away, that this would be the last time she would see him. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s as the dangwai (黨外) opposition movement gathered pace he would host prominent activists and politicians at his house, and subscribe to pro-democracy publications like Formosa Magazine (美麗島雜誌). In public, however, his self-censorship continued.

By the time of his retirement, aged 65, Taiwan was a changed place. Martial law had been lifted and the climate of fear and censorship was disappearing. For the first time, Taiwan had a native-born president. Tsai campaigned publicly for Democratic Progressive Party candidates in the 1992 Legislative Yuan elections, including his own nephew Tsai Shih-yuan (蔡式淵), who served two terms from 1992 to 1998. He decided the time was right to tell the story of his imprisonment, fictionalized to protect the identities of some of the people involved. He wrote in Japanese, and his book, Taiwan no Imokko (臺灣のいもっ子) was a success in Japan, attracting positive reviews from the four big daily newspapers and being reprinted several times. The founder of the Tainan-based Chi Mei corporate empire, Shi Wen-long (許文龍), was impressed by the book and introduced Tsai to president Lee Teng-hui, who also praised Tsai’s work.

Tsai then set about translating it into Chinese. Having learned Mandarin as an adult — he spoke the language imperfectly and with a strong Taiwanese accent — he needed help from his daughter Shih-chen to put the book into “standard” Chinese. Published in 1994 as Fanshuzi Aige (蕃薯仔哀歌), it won three awards including the Special Contribution prize at the Fucheng Literary Awards in 2000. Many supporters of the Kuomintang were naturally not pleased with the book, and even some on the pro-independence side were unhappy that Tsai wrote about genuine Communists among his fellow prisoners, as it complicated their binary good-versus-evil narrative of the White Terror. In the years since publication it has become more appreciated as a valuable first-hand account of the times.

After the Chinese version came the English, Elegy of Sweet Potatoes, ably translated by his niece Grace Tsai Hatch. This was first published in 2002 before being reissued in 2021 and was called “the best book of any kind, fiction, or non-fiction, that I’ve ever come across on the White Terror” by Bradley Winterton in the Taipei Times.

Always a voracious reader, Tsai Tehpen had magazines and newspapers imported from Japan and the United States throughout his adult life, though during martial law issues would come through with pages removed by the censors. When he suffered a series of small strokes at the age of eighty-five he was left with diminished sight, and had his children and grandchildren read to him instead. As his life drew to a close he expressed no regrets about the winding, often difficult path he had walked.

Family, friends, former colleagues, and students remember him as a gentle man of good humor, who never openly displayed anger and did not appear to harbor resentment at his mistreatment. His youngest daughter Shih-hsiang recalls his laugh, “like a thunderclap,” that would startle people around him. He forgave Chang Pi-kun’s betrayal almost immediately and was dismayed when he was executed despite it, in 1956. When denounced after the publication of Elegy by Chang’s nephew, Tsai refused to fight back, saying he would not attack anyone from Chang’s family. Tsai’s account was eventually verified when the files around his case were released as part of the transitional justice process. He was issued a certificate of exoneration nearly six decades after his conviction.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Tsai Family
Tehpen and Pan-tao, 2012.

Tehpen Tsai, teacher, writer, playwright, and former political prisoner died of prostate cancer at home in Tainan on August 29, 2015, at the age of 89. He is survived by his wife, five children, eleven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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