Faculty of East Asian Studies

Education as the Engine of Modernity:
Pioneers in Schooling

Hung-yi Chien

Modernity in Taiwan

Until the sixteenth century, the island of Taiwan was the homeland of Austronesian peoples.1  The indigenous people of Taiwan do not have a native writing system, and the neighboring civilizations paid little attention to the island. In the critical era when the world had already entered the early modern period, most parts of the globe were linked by an expanding network of communication. The Chinese, the Japanese, and the Europeans on the Asian seas began to write their observations about isolated island of Taiwan and even colonized it. Taiwan’s entry into history is a phenomenon of globalization in the early modern era.

Modernity as such is a complex phenomenon, incorporating different concepts in different eras and places. If the colonization that the Europeans instituted in the Americas is a feature of early modernity, then the Hokkien and the Hakka from China colonized Taiwan. These groups arrived in Taiwan between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century, and their descendants form the majority of the population in contemporary Taiwan. However, if modernity is defined as Western lifestyle, technology, and institutions, this did not fully begin in Taiwan until the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895. The modernity introduced by colonialism is called colonial modernity.2

The Normal School at Taihoku (Taipei)

In Taiwan, Western-style education is a phenomenon of colonial modernity. Modern schools and teachers changed Taiwan, altering it from the Qing Empire’s island frontier into a modern community that could assert its unique identity in the global society. The story of this century-long transformation begins with the Normal School 國語學校, the first modern school in Taiwan.

To assimilate the Taiwanese into the Japanese Empire by means of the Japanese language, the colonial government established primary schools across Taiwan and instituted the Normal School in Taihoku (today’s Taipei).3 Established in 1896, the Normal School was one of a few secondary schools in the early colonial era. It was a pioneering educational institution in many aspects. It offered Taiwanese students a multidisciplinary education at a modern standard and frequently held extra-curricular activities, such as excursions, exhibitions, and sports.4 These were all new to Taiwanese students. The Normal School also recruited Japanese teachers to teach Taiwanese children. To orient them toward Taiwan, the Normal School also taught these Japanese teachers essential Taiwanese Hokkien. This marks the first time that Taiwanese Hokkien was taught in a modern curriculum, and it was a crucial starting point in the history of the Taiwanese Hokkien language.5

A classroom of the Normal School at Taihoku (1908)

A classroom of the Normal School in Taihoku (1908).
Source: Ide (1997 [1937]), Front matters.

The Taiwanese students at the Normal School were also pioneers. They were the first generation to adopt modern education and to reconcile the traditional and modern education systems in Taiwan. They usually entered tsu-pang書房, or private traditional basic writing schools, to learn to read Chinese characters, to read the classical China’s elementary texts, and to write correspondences. These were essential skills for carrying on trade in pre-modern Taiwanese society. However, these students were also aware that learning Japanese in a modern school was the only way to succeed in colonial Taiwan. After acquiring sufficient Chinese skills in tsu-pang, they transferred to Japanese-taught primary schools before the age of 15 to continue their education under the modern curriculum. The best performing students would then enter the Normal School, one of the highest educational institutions available to Taiwanese youths in the early colonial era.6

Many graduates of the Normal School went on to become teachers in primary schools and spread modern ideas through their teaching. Some of them advanced into social elites who manifested a strong influence on Taiwanese society and struggled for civil rights in the colonial era. Some even extended their influence into the post-war era.7 These were the pioneering meritocratic elites in the modern Taiwanese society.

The Normal School was exclusively a boys’ school, but its affiliated schools enrolled girls as well. One of these affiliated schools later developed into the most prominent secondary school for girls in colonial Taiwan. Some of its graduates also devoted themselves to work in primary education, thus becoming the pioneering female professionals in Taiwan. 8

2 A girls’ classroom of the Affiliated School of the Normal School (1908)

A girls’ classroom of the Affiliated School of the Normal School (1908)
Source: Ide (1997 [1937]), Front matters.

The Institutionalization of the Normal Education in Taiwan

The Normal School was renamed the Taihoku Normal School 臺北師範學校 in 1919. Over the course of the following nine decades, the name of the Taihoku/Taipei Normal (School/College) had a renowned place in Taiwan’s education system. Hundreds of teachers were trained there to eventually work in primary schools from the Japanese colonial era to the post-war era. At the end of World War II, Taiwan changed hands from the Japanese to the Chinese, which also meant a change of language, and Taihoku became Taipei. The students and graduates of Taihoku Normal adapted themselves to the post-war situation by learning Mandarin Chinese. The post-war Taipei Normal was also transformed into a center to promote this new official language. 9

Students of Taipei Normal observing model teaching in a primary school (ca. 1950s)
Students of Taipei Normal observing model teaching in a primary school (ca. 1950s) Source: National Taipei University of Education

Despite the change in language, the strict discipline of Taipei Normal did not change much in the post-war era. All students were required to live in the dormitory, which was under militarized control until the late 1980s. The influence of this discipline on the Taiwanese society requires further investigation. Moreover, Taipei Normal contributed to an increase in female teachers in primary schools. The number of female students and graduates increased steadily throughout the post-war era, and this had large effects on the gender distribution of teachers in primary education by the late twentieth century.

Test of basic competences: storytelling
Test of basic competences: storytelling
Source: National Taipei University of Education

Educational reform in the 1990s significantly changed Taipei Normal. Normal institutes were no longer dominant in the training of teachers, and they all struggled to transform into comprehensive universities to maintain their competitiveness in the higher-education market. Thus, National Taipei Normal College 國立臺北師範學院 became a comprehensive institute with emphasis on education and renamed itself National Taipei University of Education 國立臺北教育大學 in 2005.

A Longitudinal History of Taipei Normal

The flourishing discipline of Taiwan studies has, since the 1980s, produced much scholarship on Taipei Normal, its graduates, and other issues relevant to this institution. However, a longitudinal history of Taipei Normal that incorporates the state-of-the-art of Taiwan studies has not yet appeared. Professor Ho I-lin 何義麟 and I published an illustrated history of Taipei Normal in 2013, but this is far from a complete treatment.10 Although Patricia Tsurumi introduced the topic of education in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, she paid little attention to the importance of individual schools.11 The international academic community is not yet fully aware of the importance of Taipei Normal in modern Taiwan.

My planned work is to fill this gap. Taking account of the Normal School/Taipei Normal as an apparatus of Taiwan’s modernization, I will trace how the development of this educational institution and its graduates established the education system of modern Taiwan, which transformed the island into a meritocratic society in the modern sense. In this new society, the Taiwanese sought to develop an education for promotion in the social hierarchy, for mobility in the modernizing world, and even for the struggle for cultural enlightenment, liberation, and civil rights. Scientific concepts, such as hygiene, modern agriculture, and precise time-keeping, entered ordinary Taiwanese minds through this school.12 These transformations had led Taiwan to become a society distinct from its Chinese neighbor by 1945.

After World War II, the Nationalist government inherited the existing education system and utilized it to control bodies, languages, and thoughts. Taipei Normal became a model to perform such holistic control. Beyond the militarized dormitory life, the administration of education also included authoritarian agendas, such as developing a national spirit and bringing civil-military integration into the other normal schools’ disciplinary education.13 Students at Taipei Normal internalized these disciplinary tactics as habits, and when they became primary school teachers, they passed down this harsh discipline to the next generation. This phenomenon created docile bodies to serve an authoritarian regime. Although militarized discipline is a dark side in the history of Taipei Normal, it is a feature of modernity particular to the Cold War era. An investigation of its legacy in the democratized Taiwan is worth further consideration.

The parade of Taipei Normal’s students (ca. 1950s)
The parade of Taipei Normal’s students (ca. 1950s).
Source: National Taipei University of Education

In short, the history of Taipei Normal embodies changes of the Taiwanese society in the course of nation-building after Taiwan’s separation from the Qing Empire. Due to its relationship to Taiwan’s modern history, a detailed longitudinal history of Taipei Normal will be a gateway to understanding the modernization of the island state.

Pioneers in Schooling

To the joint project “Taiwan als Pionier,” the history of Taipei Normal will supplement a historical background to each postdoctoral researcher’s topic. With the curricula, graduates were trained to lay down the foundation of Taiwan’s scientific notions, and they contributed to the formation of a modern society during the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, the experiences of switching twice to new rulers’ languages also left a strong impression on these intellectuals’ minds, and their literary creations represented these impressions. Nevertheless, because language education has always been at the core of Taipei Normal’s curriculum, the transformed National Taipei University of Education is adapting this legacy to fulfill the demands of teaching languages to different target groups in Taiwan. The challenges include instruction in national languages (such as Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, and Formosan indigenous languages) and teaching new immigrants’ mother tongues to students. Such transformations echo the agenda to incorporate Taiwan into the developing new order in the Indo-Pacific region. Now is the time to reflect on the history of Taiwan’s modernization, and Taipei Normal is its embodiment.


[1] Bellwood / Fox / Tryon (1995), 1.
[2] Chang (2014), 133 ‒ 164. [3] Chen (2006), 69‒104.
[4] Hsieh (2007), 175‒239.
[5] Chen (1995), 1‒21.
[6] Chien (2019), 6‒15; Chien (2021).
[7] Wu (1983), 204‒225; Wu (2008), 83‒139.
[8] Yu (1992), 1‒61.
[9] Yeh (1993), 75‒98.
[10] Ho / Chien (2013, 2016).
[11] Tsurumi (1977).
[12] Lu (1998), 67‒81.
[13] Kuo (2010), 69‒87; Hwang (2009), 121‒163.


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