Chang Hsueh-liang (張學良) in Da House

Outside Chang Hsueh-liang's former residence in Chingchuan, Wufeng Township, Hsinchu

 Clowns to the north of me, jesters to the south; there I was, stuck in the middle – Hsinchu. Well, flitting about the border with Miaoli to be precise.  

Last weekend, while friends texted and called complaining of crap weather in Taichung and the capital, I was swimming in cool mountain waters in Chingchuan (請泉), Wufeng Township (五峰鄉).  

I’ve been pondering for a while how to put together something comprehensive on the residences of house arrestees par excellence, the Young Marshall Chang Hsueh-liang (張學良), who was confined in Hsinchu, Kaoshiung and my very own Beitou, and General Sun Li-ren (孫立人), left to rot in Taichung.  

I’ve been to Shann Garden (禪園餐廳), Chang’s place in Beitou, a few times; but various obstacles – the alternating Sundays when Sun’s memorial home is open (I turned up on the off week), time constraints and sheer laziness – have beset my bid to check out the other locations.  

Yuefu (岳父) to the rescue this weekend! My father-in-law is a great chap who has genuinely been a dad to me during my time in Taiwan. He accepted me into his family with not a bat of an eyelid, has helped me out of some of the idiotic binds I make it a habit of getting into, and he always has time for me.   

So when I called him midweek and threw out some pretty blatant bait about being keen to see Chang’s place up in Chingchuan, I felt sure he’d snap it up. I wasn’t disappointed. “Oh, sure, we can drive up there on Sunday,” he said cheerily. 

Brick archways in Shangping, the last stop before the ascent to Chingchuan

A ricksha under the eaves at Shangping. I can't recall having seen a contraption of this kind before in Taiwan.


I’d actually discovered the location of Chang’s first place of internment in Taiwan by chance, after striking up a conversation outside my office in Taipei with a young Atayal aborigine. 

The lad was from Wufeng, which I knew (my wife, who is half Atayal, reckons she has some fam around there), more precisely from an area called Chingchuan, which I didn’t.  

This was the first coincidence. The next rather bigger one was his mentioning the Chang connection – definitely a call for to investigate. My F-in-L back from Oz for a couple of months, and the family home being in Toufen, Miaoli County, which is not a million miles away, it all seemed to fit.  

The journey was actually a good deal longer than I had expected. We started off at 8 a.m. and took the Zhongfeng Rd (中豐), or Provincial Road No.3, northeast out of town, toward Jhudong (竹東).  

Along the way we passed by and through many places that I have visited over the years, including Emei Lake (峨眉湖), Beipu (北埔) and Shihtoushan (獅頭山) , then slowly started our ascent of Wuzhishan (五指山).  

This attractive building in Shangping looked like it was set up as a tourist-stop shop but either hadn't been finished yet or had failed. It was smack-bang next to the Hi Life where we stopped for coffee. Beauty and the Beast: very Taiwanese.

Late cherry blossoms fringe the viiew from the second floor of the building in Shangping.

We stopped for coffee at a sleepy little district called Shangping (上平), or Higher Plain, where I took some snaps of the attractive old buildings. Scurrying around the brick colonnades with her younger brother was incisor-less little girl, who was refreshingly brimful of confidence.   

Three venerable Shangping residents.

“Did you come here all by yourself?” she asked, before pointing down the hill and informing me, with an air of importance: “Down there is Xiaping (下平[lower plain]).” Naturally. 

A trio of oldsters motioned me over from their stools in the shade. The houses, they told me, were more than a hundred years old – not bad going in Taiwan. 

The climb through the mountains was breathtaking. It didn’t surprise me as I’ve made plenty of trips through the Tri-Mountain Scenic Area but it is still genuinely amazing how beautiful Taiwan is up here.  

Considering the much more accessible abode in Beitou is rarely mobbed, I was surprised by the number of people at Chingchuan. It made viewing the residence a bit of a drag.   

From the exterior, it’s a fairly nondescript Japanese-style bungalow with varnished wood, shoji screen doors running along the front of the building and a tiled, two-tier roof.  

Chang and his third wife Edith Chao. Their personal papers are housed at Columbia University and open to the public.

Edith in Atayal garb. I think I can see where Chang was coming from ...

There are no English explanations inside, presumably because Hsinchu County government doesn’t think there’s enough interest to warrant the effort. Admittedly there weren’t any foreigners around for the couple of hours we were there, though I did spot a whitey on a motorbike as we headed back.  

The house, which was restored a few years ago, after it was almost completely destroyed by a typhoon in 1963, is small and immaculate but you don’t really get much idea of how it must have been when the Young Marshall was actually here.  

There are two timeline displays – the first large one, with key events in Chang’s life, is along the wall by the entrance and it’s not much fun trying to take it in when the narrow corridor is full of people. The second shows the various residences where Chang was confined from 1937 onwards, including – at one stage – his jailor’s hometown of Xikou (溪口) in China.  

For those who don’t know, which includes a disappointingly large proportion of Taiwanese – particularly the young ‘uns, Chang was placed under house arrest by Chiang Kai-shek for instigating what became known as the Xian Incident (西安事變).  

Chang tends to his vegetable patch. How much farming he did, I'm not sure. I have read that, when supplies from outside were short during the upheaval following the 2-28 massacre, Chang was moved by the kindness of the local aborigines who supplied taros and sweet potatoes. By most accounts he had certainly become a serious gardener by the time he was moved to Beitou.

I’ll leave aside the details for a later effort focusing more on the history and politics 1; but, basically, having had enough of Old Peanut’s fannying around, Chang kidnapped Chiang in December 1936 and demanded he stop obsessing about the Communists and prosecute the war with a joint front against the common enemy, Japan.  

For this reason, he is still regarded as a great patriot in China, though he was no great fan of the Communists and rejected the offer to visit the PRC when he regained his freedom in 1990.  

Playboy, opium addict, warlord, hero, and – at more than 50 years – possibly victim of the longest house arrest on record2, Chang is certainly a compelling figure.  

Scattered around the memorial residence are objects associated with Chang’s life: cameras and radios, which he apparently collected, a Kawasaki Hard Shot tennis racquet, a pair china tea cups and saucers, that sit on a table by the open window and – but for the slight discolouring – give the impression that Chang and his missus Edith Chao have just popped out for a stroll.    

Bookish: Chang immersed himself in Ming Dynasty literature during his captivity

Perhaps most interesting are the panel doors in the inset living room area, presided over by a bronze statue of a sunken-eyed Middle-aged Marshall reading a book. They are inscribed with poetry and ruminations taken from Chang’s diary.  

The first – a series of four verses taken from Chang’s diary entry for New Year’s Day 1948 – is fairly straightforward. F-in-L relayed the general mood fairly well and several friends have helped me with a more detailed translation and interpretation.  

A duality pervades the verses, with Chang seemingly ambivalent as to his feelings about being here while his people suffer back in China’s northeast. This is expressed first in terms of the climate and geography, with Chang racked with regret for the woes of the Manchu masses (the repeated大眾那塊) he was forced to abandon to “a world of ice and snow” (冰天雪地) while he is here enjoying warm winds and blooming flowers (風暖花開) in Taiwan.  

Shoji screens with verses and comments from three separate diary entries written by Chang

Then there is the desperate poverty, or literally cold and hunger (饑寒交迫) of his homeland, juxtaposed with this land of plenty where he guiltily wants for nothing (豐衣足食).  

Meanwhile, Chang knows the war is still raging as it has been for years on end (砲火連天 – literally “cannon fire reaching to the heavens”). He writes this just months ahead of the Communist’s decisive Liaoshen Campaign (遼瀋戰役)and on the back of years of occupation by the Japanese and catastrophic raping and pillaging by the “liberating” Russians. His countrymen know no peace, as he lies comfortable and undisturbed, a man of leisure (悠然高臥).3  

The second panel has an entry dating from November 1946, which speaks appreciatively of old friends. Chang gives thanks for the decent health he has enjoyed during his 10 years as a captive (十載無多病) and to those who have stood by him (故人亦未疏).      

The explanatory note on the side expresses his gratitude to his old Manchu mucker Mo Teh-hui (莫德惠) 4  for showing his concern (關愛) over his plight.  

The high suspension bridge at Chingchuan

Atayal aborigines cook up mountain boar, served with lemon-drenched peppercorns. Another mainstay of the cuisine in these parts is "little bird." (小鳥) I've always heard it called by this name and so assumed it was the same bird from which we get those tasty nightmarket eggs (which I'm almost certain is quail). A couple of rather pleased-with-themselves customers told me it is actually a bird known as "bamboo chicken" (竹雞), so there you go. Still not sure what the English name is.

Persimmons are the only fruit

What I’m unclear about is whether or not Mo visited Chang in Taiwan. He was certainly over by 1949, with the rest of the rabble, and served as the president of the Examination Yuan from 1954-66; but I can’t ascertain whether he might have stopped by to reminisce on past glories in ’46.  

For a while I thought that the entry was written while Chang was confined in China but it appears to have been penned a month after he arrived in Taiwan. Was it perhaps referring to recent events before he left China?5  

Chang also appears to lament that his remaining years (餘生) will be spent doing nothing more than reading. I haven’t figured out what the “after the beacon” (烽火後) part means but get the feeling that he alluding to the shining light, that he once was, being dulled in this latter period of his life.  

Restaurant on the hot springs side of the river, near San Mao's former residence

View from the high bridge

Perhaps the bitterest expression of his frustration comes on the final panel, a diary entry from 1958, by which time Chang had been in Chingchuan for 12 years, punctuated by a couple of breaks in Kaohsiung. Here Chang refers to the 40 years he enjoyed as a man of high rank and unconstrained power (賓士豪放).  

He regrets drifting away from the principles that made him who he was (錯把方寸任漂流). (Does this refer to his opium addiction or possibly the realization that he should have acted differently at the pivotal moment that came to define his place in history?)  

Once he had the whole world (自家本有乾坤在). Why, then, should he now have to languish here like a beggar in a doorway (何必沿門遍乞求)?     

In the accompanying note on this last panel Chang says he has been reading poetry by “Mr. Yang-ming.” A friend has suggested he might be referring to the Ming scholar and philosopher Wang Yang-ming (王陽明).  

While Wang doesn’t seem to be known for his verse, it fits with Chang’s passion for Ming Dynasty literature. If anyone could fill in the gaps for panels two and three, I’d be greatly obliged.  

This guy wasn't moving for the life of him. That's because he was dead. My cousin says he was faking.

Suspension of disbelief

The restored residence isn’t particularly evocative of Chang’s days here but the surrounding landscape gives you an idea of how things must have been. There are three suspension bridges, the lower couple helmed at each end by a pair of Atayal braves, and the one furthest from Chang’s abode high enough to have jelly-kneed traversers clutching the handrails fearfully.  

A sign warns that no more than 20 people should be on the bridge at one time but – surprise, surprise – no one pays a blind bit of notice.    

The waters below are swimmable even at this time of year. Well, they certainly were for me. People filmed, waved to, and cackled at the foreigner from the lower bridges. The braver souls at least joined me for a paddle with their kids.  

Across the river is the former residence of the writer San Mao (三毛), who went by the name of Echo Chan in English. I have to admit to being pretty ignorant about her, apart from the fact that she wrote about North Africa and was married to a Spaniard.

Sanmao in Sahara gear, next to her former residence

An old girlfriend, the literary critic Coral Wilt-Picks, is a bit of a San Mao aficionado. She filled me in a little bit, saying the writer is a bit of an icon to many 30-something women in Taiwan. Sadly, after years of battling depression, one heartbreak too many led her to take her life in 1991 at the age of 48.  

Cheapskate that I am, I didn’t stump up for the NT$20 entrance fee to the place she rented during the Chingchuan years (1983-6), as there didn’t appear to be much to see.  

As well as her own writings, San Mao translated Father Barry Martinson’s Chingchuan Story into Chinese while she was here. In fact, I think the original English version of the Jesuit priest’s first few years in Chingchuan remained unpublished until a few years ago.  

Martinson, who has been here for 35 years, works out of the distinctive blue-windowed Holy Cross Church that sits above Chang’s place and overlooks the whole of the area. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to check out the church and the attached hostel or to meet Martinson.  

Crossing back over the river, at the other end of the high bridge, opposite a small camping platform there’s a tiny police station on a rise. The sign on the wall, before you ascend the stairs, claims “the old wooden houses have been renovated several times,” implying some of the building and the attached dormitories date from the original 1924 construction. But as everything is concrete and the people I asked gave conflicting accounts, I’m not really sure what to make of this.  

Cop shop

Nestled in the hillside foliage, the Church of the Holy Cross looks down over Chingchuan.

More interesting is the tale related on the same sign, which says the station was the site of a truce between feuding Atayal and Saisiyat clans back in the day. The Japanese, so the story goes, brought them to this spot to bury a stele – like literally burying the hatchet I suppose. The stele, if it ever existed, has since been lost to posterity.  

Local historians are apparently sceptical as to whether this truce was achieved solely through such uncommonly diplomatic means or whether the Japanese employed some standard brutality.      

Before we make our way back down Wuzhishan, with a brief stop-off at the small community of Liangshan (涼山), I take a last look at this beautiful little spot that occupies a curious place in modern Chinese and Taiwanese history.  

If Chang had just done away with Old Peanut, perhaps the KMT would not have ended up in Taiwan. “Look at this place,” says F-in-L with a flick of the hand and an approving nod. “Chang didn’t do too badly here.”  

To get to Chang Hsueh-liang’s Former Residence  

Driving: Take Hsinchu County Road No. 122 to the Chingchuan Recreational Area.  

Public Transport: Take Buses No. 1039 or 3039 from Jhudong. The earliest one to stop at Chingchuan appears to be at 7 a.m. and the last one back is 17:35. Check here for a full timetable (in Chinese).  

NB: Note on Romanization, which applies to all my posts  

It may seem that my blog is a mishmash of competing systems but I try to be as consistent as possible.   

I generally go with Hanyu for PRC places and peeps, and Wade-Giles for Taiwan, except where the Hanyu might have become prevalent as is the case in Taipei (post Ma’s rejig during his time as mayor, I think).   

Bollocks to Tongyong, not because it’s shit (which it probably is) but because it has never really established itself with any degree of credibility.    

In the case of the protagonist here, I initially considered Zhang but eventually plumped for Chang, as he left before the establishment of the PRC and was known under the Wade-Giles spelling in the West while alive.   

 If I’ve made any glaring balls-ups that don’t conform to the loose rules I’ve just outlined, be sure to let me know and I’ll fix them pronto.

  1. My favourite account of the affair is in good old Sterling Seagrave’s The Soong Dynasty. Seagrave comes in for a bit of stick these days and, admittedly, you probably do have to take some of his claims with a pinch of salt; but the image of Old Peanut fleeing out the back door, in such a panic that he didn’t have time to put his false teeth in, spraining his ankle, hobbling up a hill to a cave where he shivered away for hours, and then being humiliatingly piggy-backed down by the Manchurian soldier who found him, well, it’s just great.
  2. It’s well-documented that restrictions on Chang’s movements were relatively loose and that he was allowed out in select company but I’ll save that for the next installment.
  3. Perhaps the alternative meaning of gāowò (高卧), i.e. “in seclusion” is what is intended here, though the helpful chap C-Jizzay who assisted me with the translation (read: did it for me) thinks this sense, with its more negative connotations, is less likely.
  4. In 1928, Mo was actually on the same train as Chang’s old man, the powerful warlord Chang Tso-lin, when the Japanese blew it up, killing Chang Snr. Mo got away with light injuries.
  5. English-language wiki and some other sources seem to be all over there place with their dates. As well as having Chang move here in 1949, they claim he was freed on Chiang Kai-shek’s death, rather than a couple of years after Chiang Ching-Kuo’s passing.

About the Author