Chris Fuchs: A Modest Man’s Modest Proposal To Embolden Taiwan’s Citizenry under Japanese Colonial Rule
Standing in front of the grave of a man I have spent the last year researching, I finally felt a sense of relief. I finally knew the year he died. I finally knew the names of his children, the name of his wife and how many days he spent in jail after being arrested in connection with the 228 Incident in Taiwan. It was all there, carved in stone. And while other plots were adorned with ornate statues and headstones, Zheng Songyun’s was as plain and understated as the life he led as an attorney fighting for the rights of his fellow Taiwanese during Japanese colonial rule.
As a teacher of Mandarin and AP English at a dual-language and Asian studies high school in Manhattan, I often search for authentic materials related to East Asian history and culture to enrich my lessons. Many textbooks paint East Asian history with the same worn-out broad brush and overlook the stories of ordinary citizens, or colonial subjects, who challenge the status quo and incrementally effect change. Thanks to the Weatherhead MA Summer Training Grant, I was able to travel to Taiwan this July to better understand the story of one such man and how his low-key social activism created a space for ordinary Taiwanese to participate in government through the simple act of filing a lawsuit.
I arrived in Taiwan expecting to spend much of my time in archive centers examining government documents and lawsuits Zheng Songyun filed. But having worked for almost five years as a reporter before changing careers, I knew that historical documents told only one part of the story. I also needed color. So I did something I had done dozens of times before but with no luck — I typed Zheng Songyun’s name in Chinese into Taiwan’s Google search engine. Unlike previous searches, this one yielded an article published in a local newspaper in late April reporting that Zheng Songyun’s former residence in Taichung was to be designated a historic landmark.
I reached out to the Taichung City Government, which put me in contact with the current homeowner, Ding Qingxiong, a distant relative of Zheng Songyun. In early August, I visited the home and spoke with Ding, who later drove me to Zheng Songyun’s burial site. It was there that I learned that Zheng Songyun was born on August 23, 1891, in Fengyuan, a town outside of Taichung. After a brief stint as an elementary school teacher, he entered Meiji University in Tokyo and studied law, passing the bar at age 32. That same year, he and some of his classmates, who were members of the Taiwan Culture Association, founded the Taiwan Minbao, a newspaper whose mission was to enlighten Taiwanese readers. In the first few issues, Zheng Songyun penned a column called “Legal Consultation,” where he answered readers questions about the Japanese Civil Code, which was applied to the island in 1923, and advised them how to proceed－or not－with their lawsuits.
According to the Taiwan Colonial Court Record Archives, Zheng Songyun was hardly an ambulance chaser. Between 1923 and 1945, he filed a total of only 364 court documents and was most active between 1930 and 1935. Except for 20 cases, all were brought before the Chiayi District Court. Most involved repayment of debts and compensation for monetary losses, records showed. Zheng Songyun also handled 14 divorce cases at a time when more and more women sought recourse in the law to leave their philandering husbands.
For Zheng Songyun, the application of the Civil Code to Taiwan in 1923 meant a new beginning in Taiwanese jurisprudence. The Taiwanese now had a mechanism to seek real justice in a real courtroom through positive law. No longer did Taiwanese need to rely on didactic mediation, overseen by Japanese officials who were not necessarily trained as lawyers or judges, to resolve their legal disputes. By teaching Taiwanese the ins-and-outs of the new Civil Code in his newspaper column and by representing everyday citizens in their litigation, Zheng Songyun brought the Taiwanese one step closer to participating in government in a climate that largely fettered the freedoms of colonial subjects.
Still, many questions remain unclear. I interviewed Zheng Songyun’s only surviving daughter, 91-year-old Zheng Huihui, through her daughter, Xue Duanduan, who translated my questions from Mandarin to Taiwanese. Zheng Huihui said she did not remember many details of her father, including why he chose to study law over medicine. Tay-Sheng Wang, a distinguished professor of law at National Taiwan University, suggested in an interview that the allure of taking and passing the bar was an honor similar to that of passing the imperial exams in China. Zheng Huihui did say her father was a member of the Taiwan Culture Association, a group of intellectuals that travelled around the island giving speeches to Taiwanese about their rights. Court documents and newspaper articles also suggest that Zheng Songyun was acquainted with more well-known figures of his time, such as Lin Xiantang, Cai Peihuo, Cai Shigu and Jiang Weishui, to name a few. Still, Zheng Huihui was not sure what her father spoke about at these gatherings or the extent to which he was involved.
Zheng Songyun’s career in public service came to an abrupt end in 1947, two years after the Japanese surrendered in World War II and Taiwan was handed back to the Kuomintang government. In 1945, Zheng was appointed procurator, a position no Taiwanese held during colonial rule, and was assigned first to Taipei, then Hualien. Two years later, he resigned his post and soon after was detained by the Kuomintang for 75 days in connection with the 228 Incident, in which countless Taiwanese were imprisoned or killed by Nationalist troops after protesting the death of a woman shot by soldiers for selling illegal cigarettes.
Records from the 228 Incident archives in Taipei show a petition for release signed by Zheng Songyun’s wife, Zhang A-Yue, and submitted to officials stating that her husband was a patriot who was often investigated by the Japanese during colonial rule for his participation in the Taiwan Culture Association and the Taiwan Parliamentary Movement. It is unclear what impact this plea had on the length of Zheng Songyun’s detainment.
Disillusioned with politics, Zheng Songyun purchased his Taichung home after his release and lived there for 20 years before his death on May 4, 1967, Ding said. The courtyard-style house with three — instead of the traditional four — walls has quite a history itself. It is rumored that Xie Xuehong, the founder of the Taiwanese communist party, holed up there for three years in the 1930s while evading government officials, though Ding could not confirm this. In April, Zheng Songyun’s house was designated an historic building, a status that Ding said he fought hard to obtain after the local government floated plans to build a parking lot there.
As I stood in front of Zheng Songyun’s grave, I wondered how a life so remarkable could so succinctly be summed up on a piece of marble. During my stay, I was hoping to have stumbled upon a long lost diary or a groundbreaking lawsuit filed on behalf of a client, a story perhaps from Zheng Songyun’s daughter about her father’s time in the Taiwan Culture Association or in prison. In short, I was hoping for anything that would turn this sketch of a man into a more intricate portrait of his life. That never happened. And while questions remain, the ones answered during this trip have opened up other avenues of research that I plan to explore further on my own and with my students as I continue to examine the role ordinary people like Zheng Songyun played in creating a space for citizenship during Japanese colonial rule.
For more information on the Weatherhead Undergraduate Training Grant fellowship, please contact Kim Palumbarit at email@example.com.