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Film reveals how librarian Tsao Yung-ho shattered assumptions that Taiwanese history should be viewed through Chinese lens

The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao Yung-ho tells the story of a librarian and scholar who changed the way many Taiwanese think about their country.

In a documentary screening at TAIWANfest in Toronto and Vancouver, a historian speaks of two exceptional seniors from Shilin District in Taipei. According to Wu Rwei Ren, these two old men—Su Beng and Tsao Yung-ho—took sharply different paths in the 20th century.

Su Beng embraced the discourse of resistance, becoming an anti-authoritarian rebel when Taiwan was a Japanese colony. Su Beng worked undercover with Chinese Communists prior to 1949. Later, Su Beng joined an armed Taiwanese resistance group that plotted the assassination of Taiwan’s dictator, Chiang Kai-shek. Then this rabble rouser went into exile and wrote Taiwan’s 400 Year History before returning home to fire up the independence movement.

Su Beng’s lifelong friend, Tsao Yung-ho, on the other hand, became a studious librarian at National Taiwan University. He started in 1947 in the midst of ruthless repression by Chiang’s Kuomintang government.

In contrast to Su Beng, Tsao avoided trouble. He made his mark transcribing diaries written in Dutch by 17th-century colonists, which he discovered in the library. Tsao worked incredibly hard to master the Dutch language, relying on index cards to improve his vocabulary.

Su Beng
Su Beng and Tsao Yung-ho in their younger days.

When Tsao died in 2014, he didn’t receive a glowing obituary in the New York Times, unlike Su Beng. Yet according to Wu in The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao Yung-ho, this librarian’s contribution to Taiwanese identity cannot be understated.

Importantly, as a historian, Tsao “completely shattered” any assumption that Taiwan was always a part of China. Wu, an Academia Sinica Institute of Taiwan History associate research fellow, maintains that Tsao accomplished this through his rigorous empirical research.

“His topics look like they’re about economic history, marine transportation history,” Wu says in documentary. “They don’t seem very political at all. But in the context of knowledge in Taiwan at that time, it was highly political.”

Tsao attracted many academic admirers

As a result, Wu insists that Tsao played a pivotal role in the evolution of Taiwanese discourse of resistance into a common value—a deep respect for democracy. And Tsao did this in a quiet voice in lectures at the university after becoming an instructor in 1985.

“Perk up your ears everybody,” Wu tells a crowd of activists through a loudspeaker in the documentary. “A free and democratic history. That’s the core of Taiwanese history and the final destination of Taiwanese history. We will not allow it to be overturned.”

Because Tsao spoke many languages, including German and Japanese, he helped scholars in other countries better understand his country.

Wu Rwei Ren
Historian Wu Rwei Ren greatly admires Tsao’s work.

Wu is one of several historians offering insights into Tsao in this remarkable and often emotional film. Another historian, Chiang Shu Sheng, recalls how Tsao focused his research on the “Island of Taiwan” rather than viewing the expansion of China as the lens through which Taiwanese history should be seen.

In doing this, Tsao had a profound impact on later historians even though he never attended university after failing high school math.

Meanwhile, historians Chung Shu-Ming and Chen Tsuilien, share stories about how Tsao made research of historians outside the country available when it was forbidden within Taiwan. That included works by radical thinkers such as Koh Se-kai, Ong log-tek, Su Beng, and Ng Chiau-tong.

Then there are the film’s warm recollections of high-profile Dutch historian Leonard Blussé, who specializes in Asian-European relations and speaks fluent Mandarin. Blussé relied on Tsao’s efforts to shed light on the Dutch East India Company’s activities in East Asia.

Watch the trailer for The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao.

Animation sets stage for Tsao’s life story

The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao (2020) is the final installment in director Chen Lih-kuei’s “Taiwanese Trilogy”. A former journalist in Houston and Chicago, she also made Dear Taiwan (2011) and Su Beng: The Revolutionist (2017).

After returning to Taiwan in 1989, Chen also directed other films, including Taiwan’s First Female Physician Chhoà A-sìn (1999).

With her at the helm, The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao has a vivid opening scene.

A two-minute animated sequence begins with the blaring sound of a ship’s horn and an image of the Rising Sun Imperial flag of Japan. Suddenly, a small boat appears in a narrow channel, flying the flag of the Republic of China. Next, a ship docks to cheers of people onshore. It’s escorted by a smaller boat with the same flag. As bedraggled soldiers disembark, the music turns somber and dockside cheers come to a halt.

Next, animated soldiers fire on unarmed civilians. Any student of Taiwanese history will recognize this as the 228 massacre, in which Chinese Nationalist government troops murdered many thousands of anti-government activists and apolitical Taiwanese. The carnage began at the end of February in 1947.

In the animated sequence, music quickens as a bespectacled man peddles a bicycle furiously across a field with a young woman riding on the rack. When the bespectacled man later shows up at a university library, he encounters more soldiers.

The rest of the documentary is devoted to telling the story of Tsao, who toiled in obscurity for decades. His son, Tsao Chang Ping, points out that his dad was politically reserved because many of his colleagues at the university “disappeared” under martial law.

“So, he saw scholars being arrested back then during the period of the White Terror,” the son says.

Superb animation and an emotional score add texture to Chen Lih-kuei’s documentary.

Island history is distinct from mainland

Meanwhile, Tsao’s sister, Tsao Yu Mei, explains the cycling scene later in the film. During the 228 incident, she was studying at school.

“My brother picked me up and took me home,” she reveals.

Wu emphasizes that the 228 massacre destroyed any illusions that Taiwanese people had about China.

Fortunately, this film has a happy ending. Tsao is eventually recognized for his scholarship with the teaching job, becoming an academician. He also received a Royal Medal of the Netherlands, an honorary doctorate from National Taiwan University, and an Order of the Rising Son from the emperor of Japan.

Chen Lih-kuei
Chen Lih-kuei lets the interview subjects tell the story in The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao.

For anyone wondering why TAIWANfest in Toronto and Vancouver is exploring historic ties between the East Asian island nation and the Netherlands, The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao provides the answer. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the Netherlands’ colonization of Taiwan.

As the documentary subjects point out, his research into “island history of Taiwan” wasn’t centred around regimes or rulers. Rather, he examined his country through the land and marine trading routes, including to Japan and the Netherlands. And he did this when the dictatorial Kuomintang government was still claiming that Taiwan was part of China.

“The KMT was still arresting and killing people when I came to NTU,” Tsao recalls in the documentary, “So the guards were stationed at the gate.”

TAIWANfest Toronto will present The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao at 7 p.m. on August 26 at the Studio Theatre at Harbourfront Centre. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session with one of Tsao’s former students, Professor Chung Shu-Ming.

Vancouver TAIWANfest will present The Hidden Transcript of Academician Ts’ao at the Annex (823 Seymour Street) at 3:15 p.m. on September 2. Prof. Chung will deliver a “Hope Talk” on the same day at the same location, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Learn more about underrepresented artists on the Toronto Spark website.


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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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