Half a Century of 
Tzu Chi Work in Taitung

In the early years of Tzu Chi’s history, Master Cheng Yen herself led volunteers on home visits to the needy in Taitung, eastern Taiwan. In 1973, heavy rains brought by Typhoon Nora devastated eastern Taiwan, and Taitung was the hardest-hit area. Despite the limited resources and manpower back then, Tzu Chi volunteers went all out to help victims. After that, the number of volunteers in Taitung gradually increased, and Tzu Chi was able to take care of and bring love and warmth to more needy people in the area.

People in Taiwan in the 1960s  and 1970s were generally poor. At the end of every year, government and non-government sectors would mobilize to organize and provide winter aid for the destitute, calling on people to donate generously to help the needy. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association (now known as the Tzu Chi Foundation), founded in 1966, started holding winter distributions for the needy in 1969. A few months before the end of each year, Tzu Chi commissioners would be busily engaged in compiling recipient rosters and purchasing and packing aid supplies.

In 1973, Master Cheng Yen and the commissioners began their work one month earlier than usual, but they weren’t working for the annual winter distributions. They were instead working for disaster relief for victims of Typhoon Nora.

On October 8, 1973, Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau issued a land warning for Typhoon Nora. The following day, the storm tore across the sea southwest of Taiwan before eventually making landfall in China on October 10. Though Taiwan was not in the direct path of the storm, Nora brought torrential rains to the island for three days in a row, devastating an area from Yuli, Hualien County, down to Dawu, Taitung County, on Taiwan’s eastern seaboard. Sixty-eight people were killed or missing as a result, and 85 people were injured. A total of 1,251 houses were completely destroyed, with another 433 partially collapsed. In Taitung County alone, more than 26,000 people were affected. Taitung had never been so badly battered by a natural disaster before.

A map of Taitung from the 1980s, drawn by senior volunteer Zheng Yi-hui (鄭怡慧), shows the routes volunteers took when they visited the needy in the area back then. At the time, it took an entire month to visit all the families receiving care from Tzu Chi.


Master Cheng Yen was very concerned upon learning about the devastation caused by the typhoon. However, transportation to Taitung had been seriously disrupted in the disaster. To travel to Taitung from the Tzu Chi headquarters in northern Hualien, one needed to cross over more than ten large rivers. Many bridges were shared by trains and cars. With bridges damaged in the disaster, getting to Taitung became virtually impossible. As a result, the Master and Tzu Chi volunteers couldn’t quickly travel to disaster areas there to assess the damage.

At a Tzu Chi commissioners’ gathering ten days after the disaster, the Master, deeply worried, said that with communications disrupted, a detailed report of the devastation was unavailable. All they knew was that the situation was very bad. Fortunately, Hualien had emerged largely unscathed. People who were more fortunate should sympathize with those who were not. They needed to get themselves ready and set their relief work in motion as soon as the roads were restored.

Two weeks after the storm, traffic to Yuli, a hard-hit area in southern Hualien, was restored. On October 24, the Master and several Tzu Chi commissioners rushed to the town to assess the disaster. Accompanied by local volunteers, the team visited victims and learned that many of them were survivors of a flood that had devastated western Taiwan in 1959. After that, they had moved to eastern Taiwan to get a fresh start. They never expected that they would be hit again by another flood 14 years later. Some people were so devastated that they even fell ill. The Master comforted affected households one by one, and she enlisted the help of village and neighborhood heads to compile aid recipient rosters for Tzu Chi.

After that trip, the Master summoned all the Tzu Chi commissioners in Hualien—about two dozen in total—for a meeting. She told them the affected area was so large and so many people had been impacted that it was beyond the means of Tzu Chi to meet the need. “I hope you will all form a relief team and work hard to solicit donations for our aid mission,” she said.

Jiang Mu-huo (江木火), the husband of commissioner Qiu Lan-jiao (邱蘭嬌), took the minutes for the meeting. A bank manager, Jiang had become a consultant for Tzu Chi at the beginning of the year. When he heard the Master say that she had roughly estimated the need for 600,000 NT dollars (US$15,800), he put down his pen and said in a worried voice to Master De Rong (德融), a monastic disciple of Master Cheng Yen who was sitting next to him, “Where are we going to get so much money?”


In October 1973, Typhoon Nora brought torrential rains to eastern Taiwan, resulting in severe devastation in the area from Yuli, Hualien County, south to Dawu, Taitung County. Back then, many bridges in Hualien and Taitung were shared by trains and cars. With bridges damaged in the disaster, travel became virtually impossible, hindering the delivery of aid. The photos above show buildings next to Zhiben River and Binlang Bridge badly damaged in the disaster. Photos courtesy of Fifth Engineering Office, Soil and Water Conservation Bureau, Council of Agriculture

His concern was reasonable. The winter aid distributions were coming up and Tzu Chi had just over 200,000 NT dollars (US$5,270) available. Furthermore, the Master hoped to complete the distributions for typhoon victims by the end of the year—meaning they had a window of less than two months. “How can we possibly pull this off?” Jiang asked. He wasn’t alone in his worry; every commissioner that was present at the meeting shared his concern. Master Cheng Yen, however, was undaunted. Instead of the difficulties ahead, all she could think of was the victims’ pressing needs.

The Master decided not to dip into Tzu Chi’s current funds in order to avoid impacting the upcoming winter distributions. She also made another important decision: None of the money donated to the cause of helping victims of Typhoon Nora would be used for any other purpose. That is, every penny raised for survivors of Typhoon Nora would be used to help them. This decision—that no funds donated for a stated purpose would be used for another purpose—became a guideline for Tzu Chi’s future large-scale emergency relief work.


“Despite our lack of funds, I simply can’t stand by and see the victims suffer.” Because of Master Cheng Yen’s resolute and compassionate words, all Tzu Chi commissioners in eastern Taiwan mobilized and did their best to solicit donations for the mission. However, it wasn’t easy to raise 600,000 NT dollars in such a short time. Given the urgency of the situation, the Master decided to expand the fundraising effort to include western Taiwan.

When the commissioners in Taipei learned that they had been called on to support the fundraising effort, they told the Master, “The disaster was not covered in the news. People in the west do not know about it. It will be hard to get them to donate.” To muster support, the Master composed a description of the devastation caused by the typhoon and Tzu Chi’s relief plan, had more than 4,000 copies made, and then had them mailed to all Tzu Chi donating members around Taiwan.

Tzu Chi’s relief plan included a donation drive for second-hand clothing. People responded warmly to the drive and donated whatever clothes they could contribute. Every garment represented the donor’s care for the victims. However, because Taiwanese society was generally poor at the time, many donated garments were not in the best condition. Some had patches, some were missing buttons or had broken zippers, and some had not even been washed clean. The Master examined each item of clothing one by one and instructed commissioners to mend those with holes in them, wash those that were dirty, and weed out those that were too old and tattered to give to the needy. Then everything was sorted by gender and age, ironed, and folded up neatly before they could be given to victims.

With love and help from everyone, Tzu Chi garnered enough resources in due course for its relief effort. On November 4, over 50 people took a southbound train to Yuli to conduct a distribution and provide free medical services for typhoon victims. On board were Master Cheng Yen, commissioners, and volunteer doctors and nurses from a Tzu Chi free clinic which was held twice a week in Hualien.

Cash was distributed during the event to nearly a hundred families based on how badly damaged their houses were and the sizes of the households. A total of 71,340 NT dollars (US$1,877) were given out. In addition, a hundred comforters and a thousand articles of clothing were distributed.

After the Yuli distribution, Tzu Chi moved on to help Taitung County, which had suffered even more damage. Over 20,000 people there were affected by the disaster, spread over a large area. The Master pondered how best to help to make a real difference. After all, a lot of work had gone into the fundraising; if the donated money was improperly used, the relief work would lose its meaning and Tzu Chi would be letting the donors down. She reasoned that if the available funds were distributed to each and every affected household, each family could receive only a little aid and it wouldn’t help them much. The funds had to be used in a way that would truly benefit the aid recipients and not cause the donors’ kindness to be wasted.

That’s how the Master developed the “priority” principle: the dedication of aid to those most in need—that is, those who would have the most difficulty getting back on their feet. This “priority” principle became another guideline established for Tzu Chi’s future disaster relief work.

To determine which people needed help the most, Master Cheng Yen instructed commissioners to visit affected households one by one to understand the composition of each family, their situation, and their living conditions. The preliminary screening would be reviewed before recipient lists were finalized.

On December 5, when the road to Taitung was finally passable, the Master led a team of commissioners south to start days of home visits. After a train ride of over five hours, they arrived in Taitung.

Wang Tian-ding (王添丁), an elementary school principal, and his wife, Huang Yu-nu (黃玉女), were residents of Taitung who had joined Tzu Chi as volunteers more than a year earlier. Before the Master arrived, the two of them had conducted a preliminary investigation and selected more than 6,000 typhoon victims out of nearly 10,000 as potential aid recipients. This saved the Master and the commissioners from Hualien a lot of work. They could now conduct further screening based on Wang’s list.


On November 4, 1973, over 50 people took a southbound train to Yuli to conduct a distribution and provide free medical services for victims of Typhoon Nora. On board were Master Cheng Yen, Tzu Chi commissioners, and volunteer doctors and nurses from a regular Tzu Chi free clinic in Hualien. Aid was distributed during the event to nearly a hundred families based on how badly damaged their houses were and the sizes of the households (above). Over a month later, another distribution was held, on December 25 and 26, for survivors in Taitung. The events and a detailed account of money raised were reported in the Tzu Chi Monthly magazine (below).

Several principles of Tzu Chi relief work were established during the relief operations: directness, priority, and respect. A standard operating procedure took shape too: assessing damage in the disaster area, compiling recipient rosters, raising relief funds, and putting aid directly into the hands of victims.


With the recipient rosters duly finalized, brand-new comforters and neatly sorted second-hand clothes were transported on 15 cargo railway cars later in December from Hualien to Taitung. When they arrived, the items were loaded onto trucks and delivered to the disaster areas. With the goods in place and ready to be distributed, Master Cheng Yen and the commissioners set off down south again for a two-day distribution, which was scheduled for December 25 and 26.

This was the largest relief operation in the seven years since Tzu Chi had been founded. Recipients were spread across towns and villages in Taitung, including Chishang, Luye, Beinan, Taimali, Donghe, and Guanshan. Aid was distributed to 554 families, which included 2,631 people, according to household size and the extent of damage to each home. People could also receive free medical services at the venue. Out of consideration for recipients who lived in more remote areas, a tour bus was sent out to ferry them to and from the venue. Other attending families received reimbursements for their transportation fees.

All told, Tzu Chi aided 671 households in Yuli, Hualien, and Taitung in the aftermath of Typhoon Nora. Total relief expenditures were in excess of 600,000 NT dollars (US$15,800). Several principles of Tzu Chi disaster relief work were developed in the process: directness (the organization and provision of aid without going through some other organization), priority, and respect. A standard operating procedure took shape too: assessing damage in the disaster area, compiling recipient rosters, raising relief funds, and putting aid directly in the hands of victims.

Taitung is spread across a large, mountainous area with many rivers. Without the help and guidance of the local people, it would have been hard for the Master and commissioners from Hualien to go deep into the different areas, visit affected families, and eventually pull off this mission. Because of that, the Master was very grateful for the help of Principal Wang Tian-ding and his wife, Huang Yu-nu.

Huang had come to know the Master 12 years earlier, in 1961. She had met her at a Buddhist society in Taitung. Huang, an elementary schoolteacher at that time, often went to the society to listen to lectures on Buddhist teachings. At the time, a nun with the Dharma name of Xiu Dao (修道) was expounding the Buddha’s teachings at the society. When she gave lectures, a young woman named Jing Si (靜思) would assist at her side. Sometimes Jing Si went up on stage to tell stories from Buddhist sutras too. Huang eventually took refugee with Master Xiu Dao and became her lay disciple. However, Master Xiu Dao and Jing Si only stayed at the society for over a year. After they left, Huang never heard anything about them again.

About a decade later, an old acquaintance of Huang’s, Li Shi (李時), came from Hualien to Taitung for a business trip. Li had joined Tzu Chi as a volunteer. At her invitation, Huang became a Tzu Chi donating member. A few months later, Huang also began soliciting donations for the charity organization. She later paid a visit to Tzu Chi in Hualien and found to her amazement that the founder of the organization, Master Cheng Yen, was Jing Si!

Huang’s husband, Wang, was very supportive of Huang’s volunteer work for Tzu Chi, and he even joined her in enlisting donating members for the organization. They both started with their colleagues at their respective schools. When they found students at their schools who needed help, they also brought them to the attention of Tzu Chi. In March 1972, the couple became Tzu Chi commissioners and began helping the organization care for the needy in Taitung.

Principal Wang Tian-ding (center) guides aid recipients to receive their financial aid at a Tzu Chi winter distribution held in Taitung in 1981.


Tzu Chi’s care for the needy first reached Taitung over a year after the organization was established.

At the time, a 65-year-old man named Wu was living in a hut in a cemetery in Taitung. He had lived there for years. When he felt up to it, he tended a vegetable patch near where he lived. With what he could harvest, and with offerings of food left behind by people who visited graves in the cemetery, he was just barely able to scrape by. But as he grew older, he became weaker. He fully lost the ability to support himself when his vision deteriorated so much that he became almost completely blind.

Master Cheng Yen learned about Wu’s situation through a newspaper article in January 1968. She immediately sent 300 NT dollars (US$8) to the news outlet and asked them to forward the money to Wu. Then, on March 23, she took a train to Taitung to pay a visit to the old man. After more than five hours on the road, she found him in a cemetery near the sea. The old man was nothing but a bag of bones.

The Master took his hand, gave him 200 NT dollars (US$5), and said to him, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you from now on. We’ll also take you to have your eyes treated. We’ll pay for the medical costs.”

After she returned to Hualien, the Master asked around for a good doctor who could treat Wu’s eye condition. Then, ten days after her first visit, she returned to Taitung to take the old man to the doctor. They traveled half the length of Taiwan before arriving in Shalu, central Taiwan.

The doctor examined the old man. “Doctor, will he be able to see again?” Master Cheng Yen asked. “Can he still be operated on?” She posed the questions full of hope, but the doctor replied, “His condition is too far along to be treated. Besides, he is old and weak. Surgery would not do him any good.”

Disappointed, the Master escorted Wu back to Taitung. Before leaving, she gave him 600 NT dollars (US$16) and told him that Tzu Chi would support him from then on by giving him a monthly subsidy of 300 NT dollars.

Wu thus became Tzu Chi’s first long-term aid recipient in Taitung, back when the organization was still very financially constrained. Three months later, Master Cheng Yen heard that two poor patients in Taitung Hospital couldn’t afford their medical bills. She traveled south again and gave them financial aid.

The following year, in September 1969, Typhoon Elsie hit Taiwan and caused a big fire in Da’nan Village, Beinan Township, Taitung. The conflagration reduced 148 households to ashes. The Master and commissioners made trip after trip to the disaster area before finally finishing their relief work for that disaster.

Master Cheng Yen and a team of Tzu Chi commissioners visit a needy household in Luye, Taitung, in the 1970s.


Due to distance and a lack of manpower, Tzu Chi wasn’t able to carry out much charity work in Taitung in the beginning. It wasn’t until Wang and Huang joined the organization that Tzu Chi’s charity work finally took a big step forward in the region.

Since they were new volunteers, the couple wasn’t sure how to go about their work, including assessing people’s needs and how much aid to give. About a year after she joined, on March 23, 1973, Huang wrote a letter to Master Cheng Yen.

Dear Master:

I had some free time this afternoon and was able to visit three needy people. One was Lin, 67, who lives alone and has no one to depend on. He has a son, but the son left home three or four years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Lin is disabled (he only has one hand), and he has liver and kidney problems. He was badly swollen when I saw him. Someone had sent him to a doctor before, but the doctor refused to treat him—probably because he had no money to pay the medical bill. Lin lives in a cramped, poorly arranged space off a corner of someone’s house. He conducts all his daily activities in that extremely confined space. I feel so bad for him.

Another person I visited was Wu A-yun [吳阿雲, 43]. He has been laid up in bed with rheumatism for four months and can’t even relieve himself without help. His wife used to be a manual laborer, but she can’t go out to work anymore because she has to take care of him. They have five children; the oldest is 17, the youngest six. They now live in a place for the poor provided by the Rotary Club.

Yet another person I visited was Zhao Yun-peng
 [趙雲鵬, 56]. He has liver disease and was once operated on at Taitung Hospital and Veterans Hospital. His medical costs were paid by Qing Jue Temple. Zhao has had a relapse, but he wouldn’t go to the hospital because his family can’t afford it. The abbot of Qing Jue Temple, defying his wish, sent him to the hospital again. The resulting medical bills came to over 2,000 NT dollars [US$53]. Could Tzu Chi pay the bills for him? Also, could our organization help provide for him and his family for a while? He has seven children. The oldest, 15, has dropped out of school because the family is too poor.

There are many more people in need of help here. I’m not good at letter writing, so I can’t give detailed accounts of them all. I hope you can come personally to Taitung for a visit and bring them warmth and aid.

Yours respectfully,

Huang Yu-nu

At a winter distribution that took place in Taitung in 1979, supplies were distributed (top left), free medical services (bottom left) and haircuts (top right) were offered, and transportation was provided for the needy (bottom right).

Taitung was located in a relatively remote, difficult-to-access region, and it was developed later than many other areas in Taiwan. Many young people there had had no choice but to leave for the much more prosperous region of western Taiwan to make a living, leaving behind many old and weak folks to hold down the fort. When she was younger, Master Cheng Yen had visited many poor, outlying villages in eastern Taiwan in search of an ideal place to carry out her spiritual cultivation. During her journey, she had seen many impoverished, sick people with no one to rely on. She had always felt for those defenseless people, and what Huang had described in her letter did not surprise her. Ten days after the Master received Huang’s letter, she led several commissioners from Hualien to Taitung to conduct some home visits herself.

After the visits, it was decided that Tzu Chi would donate 3,000 NT dollars (US$80) to Zhao Yun-peng to help him pay his medical bills. In addition, the Zhao family was included on the list of Tzu Chi’s long-term aid recipients and would begin to receive 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of rice every month from the organization. Wu A-yun, who couldn’t move from the waist down, and his family also became long-term aid recipients. A monthly contribution of 300 NT dollars and 28 kilograms of rice would be given to the family.

In order to find more people in need of help, the Master traveled to Taitung again half a month later, on April 17.

Zhou Ren-lai (周仁來), a 72-year-old aborigine, lived in a dark, squat, rundown house. As soon as the Master and the others stepped into his home, they were assailed by a terrible stench. Zhou’s legs had developed necrosis and had festered, with maggots crawling over the sores and flies hovering above. Overwhelmed by the sight and stench, several commissioners ran outside and vomited. The Master, on the other hand, acted as if she hadn’t smelled the repellant odor. She calmly approached Zhou’s bed and expressed her care for him.

Like Zhou, there were many poor, sick people in Taitung who were unable to afford visits to the hospital and could only waste away at home. Master Cheng Yen decided to provide free clinics for them as soon as possible.


On May 6, 1973, a team of people joined Wang Tian-ding and Huang Yu-nu in Taitung to hold a free clinic at Hai Shan Temple for local needy people. The team included Drs. Zhang You-chuan (張有傳) and Zhang Cheng-weng (張澄溫), who were father and son, Dr. Huang Bo-shi (黃博施), and nurses Lin Bi-qi (林碧芑) and Deng Shu-qing (鄧淑卿). The medical professionals were from the regular Tzu Chi free clinic in Hualien.

Su Wan-gui (蘇萬貴) was a Taitung resident. The nerves in his eyelids were dead, so he had to prop open his eyelids in order to see anything. He uttered a long string of words when he went into the clinic, but his speech was so slurred no one could understand him. A neighbor of his was eventually fetched to interpret for him. Only then did those at the clinic realize that Su was asking a doctor from the clinic to go to his home and check on his father, who was too sick to come to the venue. Dr. Zhang Cheng-wen immediately stood up and said to him, “I’ll go with you.” This was the first-ever Tzu Chi medical home visit.

The free clinic that day served 160 patients. At the same time, Master Cheng Yen and some commissioners went deep into local villages to visit the needy. Quite a few people became Tzu Chi long-term aid recipients as a result of those visits. In that month, a record-breaking 15 families were added to the organization’s long-term aid recipient list; eight of those families were in Taitung.

From April to September 1973, the Master and commissioners, undaunted by the distance between Hualien and Taitung, traveled repeatedly between the two places to visit the poor. The number of families in Taitung included in Tzu Chi’s long-term aid recipient list thus took a big jump. At the same time, three free clinics served nearly 600 people. The events also inspired many local medical professionals and non-medical volunteers to join Tzu Chi in helping the underserved.

One week after the third free clinic ended, Typhoon Nora devastated Taitung, which led to the most challenging relief operation that Tzu Chi had undertaken since its founding. The people who had become Tzu Chi volunteers because of the three free clinics turned out to be a big help as the organization went about organizing and providing aid for typhoon victims. The number of Tzu Chi commissioners in Taitung gradually increased after that, including Wu Wei (吳尾), Wang Song-e (王松峨), and Guo Heng-min (郭恆敏). As a result, more and more local needy people were able to receive care from Tzu Chi.

The first four Tzu Chi commissioners in Taitung: Guo Heng-min (first from right), his wife, Wang Song-e (second from left), Wang Tian-ding (second from right), and his wife, Huang Yu-nu (middle). Fang Chun-mei (范春梅, first from left) became a commissioner in 1987.


July 2019