Opening the Doors to Liberal Education in Hsinchu

The Former Residence of Hsin Chih-ping

2017 / December

Yang Ling-yuan /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Geof Aberhart

Renowned for its liberal approach to education, National Hsin­chu Senior High School has produced no small number of leaders in business, politics, and the arts, counting among its alumni Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh, National ­Tsing Hua University president Lih J. Chen, and poet ­Cheng Chou-yu.

The sophisticated and fresh approach to education taken by the school goes back to its seventh principal, Hsin ­Chih-ping (1912-1985). As Hsin­chu Senior High’s longest-serving principal, Hsin is one of the most missed and most discussed figures among the school’s alumni.



The soaring buildings and crush of cars may remind us that Hsin­chu is a high-tech hub, but nestled amid the towers are century-old Hok­kien-style homes, temples, and ceremonial gateways, along with the city gates and remnants of the city moat, that recall the glory of the old city. Between its modest land area and its mingling of old and new, Hsin­chu City has developed a style all its own.

Rising from the ruins

In 2000, the former residence of Hsin Chih-ping, principal of National Hsinchu Senior High School from 1945 to 1975, was set to be demolished to make way for a parking lot. Fortunately, at the behest of several alumni of the school and of National ­Tsing Hua University, the residence was saved and made a municipal historic site.

At the center of Hsin’s compact, rectangular residence is the dining room, from which you can see into most of the other rooms of the house. Passing through the vestibule and living room, you enter a corridor that runs past the master and guest bedrooms. The sliding rice-paper panels along the corridor can be opened up, letting people sit in the corridor and enjoy the view out into the yard, including a small pond that rings with the croaking of frogs in midsummer nights, singing guests to sleep.

At the request of Hsin’s eldest son, the interior has been restored as much as possible to its original state, with incandescent lighting, wallpaper with Japanese-style pine, bamboo and plum designs, and staggered shelves for displaying pieces of art. Beyond the interior design, the team entrusted by the Hsin­chu City Cultural Affairs Bureau with running the site sought out old household items like a sewing machine, a TV, fans, and a record player, setting them out much as residents of the time would have done, to give the house that warm, lived-in feeling.

Once the renovated residence was opened to the public, alumni from the high school quickly made their way there to indulge their nostalgia, with some even volunteering as guides. Now several teachers from the school also bring their students to visit the former principal’s residence and hear stories from the school’s past. The site not only includes displays of some of Principal Hsin’s personal effects, but also offers an overview of his life.

Cultivating democracy among students

When Hsinchu Senior High’s most famous alumnus, Lee Yuan-tseh, donated a replica of his Nobel Prize medal to the school, he did so to mark his gratitude for the education he recieved there. Hsin Chih-ping was one of few principals in Taiwan to eschew the mainstream emphasis on examinations and testing into higher levels of education. Instead, he made a more holistic view of education his life’s work, emphasizing moral, social, physical, and aesthetic education in addition to intellectual education.

“When Principal Hsin was at Hsin­chu Senior High, he also taught basically everything except science,” says current school librarian ­Huang Da­zhan. “At first the school only had two classes, about 100 people, and he remembered every student’s name and got along with everyone.” Hsin was also a passionate sportsman, Huang recalls, often playing basketball with students and always being first to jump into the pool at swimming meets.

He wasn’t all fun and games, though. Hsin required ­every student to swim at least 25 meters and complete a cross-country run over Shi­ba­jian Hill before they could graduate. Some students were even kept back, Huang says, because their grades weren’t good enough in art, music, or physical education. In the end, though, it was thanks to Hsin’s insistence on a comprehensive approach to education that the school produced so many outstanding conductors and writers, several of whom discovered their love of their chosen art at Hsin­chu Senior High.

The school has its own museum, which displays a variety of information on Hsin. ­Huang points to the stage in the museum, which was where the school’s renowned student meetings were held. Each month, the school would hold a meeting with a chair elected by the student body, and the principal and a few senior teachers sat down below the stage to hear the student’s opinions.

These meetings were no-holds-barred affairs, with virtually all topics fair game. Students brought up questions from “Why does the school want walls around the campus? Aren’t we supposed to be advocating for openness?” to “At morning exercises, the principal just paces back and forth, watching. We want him to join in!” or even “Whenever we’re late we’re told to go stand in the hallway and to write a letter of apology. The principal has been late a lot recently. Shouldn’t he be punished too?”

With all these challenges to the authority of the school and the principal, at any other school—especially back in the days of martial law—the students would surely have been disciplined, but Hsin always listened attentively and responded thoroughly no matter what. While he couldn’t make decisions on the spot, he always promised to address the issues raised and to respond at the next monthly meeting.

“When the next principal took over, after attending his first meeting he said with amazement, ‘That was like a [communist] struggle meeting!’” According to ­Huang, many alumni have said the experience of those meetings changed how they saw the world. “Principal Hsin always believed that it took courage to stand up and accept criticism, and that by giving the students the power to organize the meetings themselves, he was helping cultivate their sense of democracy.”

Courage under fire

The total respect and freedom that Hsin gave his students is evidenced in several ways, from letting students take the lead at the monthly meetings and having the library subscribe to the Free China Journal for the students to read during the martial law period, to not having walls around the campus, not taking roll, and letting students skip classes if they gave a good reason. All this freedom didn’t mean a total lack of discipline, though—Hsin had three iron-clad rules: no fighting, no stealing, and no cheating. Anyone caught breaking one of these was expelled immediately, and no amount of special pleading or personal connections did any good.

Hsin’s connection with his students is well illustrated by one example. Once there was a student who was crazy about table tennis, forming a school team to take part in competitions, and even still competing as the university entrance exams were approaching. The student lived quite far from the school, meaning a long commute each way, so Hsin made an exception for him, letting him stay in the gym so he could prepare for his exams. In the end, he tested into medical school.

That student has grown up to be well-known Hsin­chu-based pediatrician Lin Qi­ming, who says, “If it hadn’t been for Principal Hsin, my life would have been very different!” Overseas Chinese students far from home also enjoyed special care from Hsin—those who couldn’t return home for Chinese New Year, for example, would be invited to spend it at the principal’s home. Today, many of Hsin’s former students are teachers at the school, a demonstration of the loyalty Hsin was able to foster in them.

The attic located above the cupboards in the house’s storeroom once served as a hiding spot for Hsin and his family. On the day the chaos of the February 28 Incident made its way to Hsin­chu, the sound of machine-gun fire was heard coming from Xu­ding Bridge, near today’s Hsin­chu City Hall. The citizens were alarmed, including Hsin, who himself had previously been to war. A group of students came to the family’s aid, leading them away from their hiding place to the student dormitories at Shi­ba­jian Hill. Later, when the government published a list of “agitators” that included several teachers and students from the school, Hsin immediately leapt to their defense, vouching for them and saving no small number of people from danger.

The influence of Hsin’s approach to education is still felt at the school today. Times may have changed, but his old school motto—“Honesty, Wisdom, Health, and Determination”—still hangs above the school gates. The new generation of Hsin­chu Senior High students may not be able to appreciate just how much their martial-law-era predecessors valued the educational freedom they had, but they are nonetheless proud inheritors of that tradition, a tradition that will forever be an important part of Taiwan’s educational heritage.                   

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