The Pingtung Five

Aged school buildings, some listed as unfit for occupancy, continue to be used. This is an age-old problem in Taiwan. Happily, the government and private sector have picked up their pace to address this issue. Tzu Chi, for example, has pledged to construct new buildings for 21 schools. New buildings in five of those schools were inaugurated in March 2016.

New buildings constructed by Tzu Chi greet students at Gaotai Junior High School.



A major earthquake in September 1999 damaged or toppled almost 300 schools in Taiwan, sounding an alarm for the safety of school buildings. On February 6, 2016, a 6.4 magnitude tremor in southern Taiwan damaged 481 schools, causing NT$270 million (US$8.4 million) in damage. Of that total, NT$150 million occurred in Tainan and NT$70 million in Pingtung. The disaster highlighted once more the problem of dangerously outdated school buildings on the island.

Lying on the circum-Pacific seismic belt (the Ring of Fire), Taiwan is prone to earthquakes. For the safety of schoolchildren, the Ministry of Education initiated a project in 2009 to speed up the reinforcement or reconstruction of dangerous or old school buildings. They first examined public elementary and junior high schools to identify structures that would not likely withstand potential earthquakes. Over 8,000 buildings failed the inspections.

Next, the ministry disbursed billions of Taiwanese dollars each year to repair or rebuild those old buildings. Seven years have passed now, yet some 5,000 buildings still wait for funds to be reinforced or rebuilt, even at schools in Taipei. If the riches of the capital city have not been able to bring all its schoolhouses up to par, it stands to reason that other localities have even bigger hurdles to overcome before they can totally upgrade their school buildings.

The main reason the school improvement project has not progressed fast enough is tight budgets at both national and local levels. The exceedingly large number of schools that need help has also spread the government assistance too thin.

Compulsory education in Taiwan was extended from six years to nine in 1968. Many new school buildings were built at that time to accommodate the influx of students. Most of these buildings featured exterior corridors without pillars for support. To make matters worse, schools were often forced to add floors on top of existing buildings when they needed more rooms because there were not sufficient funds to erect new structures from the ground up. This practice was less than ideal and might have compromised the structural integrity of the buildings, making them more vulnerable to major quakes.

After the disastrous earthquake of 1999, Tzu Chi launched Project Hope and rebuilt 51 damaged schools. All the new buildings used steel-reinforced concrete for strength and had slanted roofs to preempt subsequent add-on floors. But this did not change the fact that many existing old and dangerous school buildings were still in use. To help solve the problem, the foundation started in 2014 to help rebuild dangerous school buildings under an initiative called Project Disaster Reduction. The 21 schools in the project are located in Pingtung, Kaohsiung, Taitung, and Hualien. These areas are all in southern or eastern Taiwan, districts which the Committee of Taiwan Earthquake Model pointed out in 2015 as most likely to be struck by major earthquakes in the next 30 years.

The work for five of those schools, all in Pingtung, has been completed. The new buildings were inaugurated in a joint ceremony on March 12, 2016.

At Kung Cheng Junior High School, principals and guests unveiled a new building on March 12, 2016, in a joint inauguration ceremony for the five schools that Tzu Chi helped rebuild in Pingtung County.

Queues for public money

Tsao Chi-hung (曹啟鴻), who stepped down as the Pingtung County magistrate just over a year ago, commented that the problem of using old, unfit classrooms in Pingtung had been around for a long time. Despite censure from government accountability officials, Pingtung simply could not secure enough funds to strengthen or replace its dangerous school buildings. Things were fine in the absence of an earthquake, but once one hit, the problem would be exposed.

He expressed his concerns to Master Cheng Yen in 2012, when he talked to her about reconstruction after Typhoon Morakot, which had seriously damaged his county. The foundation subsequently sent people to survey schools in the areas damaged by the typhoon, and they discovered that the schools in Pingtung indeed needed help most urgently.

Tsao explained that Pingtung has had a history of low tax revenues. The county is predominately an agricultural economy, but farm incomes are exempt from taxation. Taxes from other sources such as real estate and sales are simply not enough to meet the county’s financial needs. The county has a yearly budget deficit of nearly a billion dollars (US$31 million).

Despite such tight budgetary constraints, the county government under Tsao did its best to allocate funds for education. “It’s the duty of a government to fund education, so we tried to do it, though our best efforts fell short,” Tsao said.

The national government also allocated funds for the rebuilding of at-risk school buildings, but that was just enough for Pingtung County to cross off three schools per year from its to-do list. At that snail’s pace, some schools would have to wait years for improvement. “For those schools, the best we could do was pray.”

Against that backdrop, Tsao was most grateful to Tzu Chi for helping rebuild five schools in his county.


Ligang Junior High


Kung Cheng Junior High


Gaotai Junior High


Neipu Junior High


Fangliao High

Private funds

Out of a list of 12 schools that Tsao provided, Tzu Chi carefully weighed all factors and chose five that most urgently needed an overhaul. “Those five schools needed the most money to rebuild,” observed Tsao. “Other aid organizations took care of the needs of the other schools, and we at the county handled minor repairs.” In addition to Tzu Chi, Tsao thanked the Evergreen Group, the AU Optronics Corporation, the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families, the Taiwan Red Cross, World Vision Taiwan, E.Sun Bank, and Rotary International Taiwan for their aid.

Tsao commended Tzu Chi’s careful review process. “If examined objectively, certain aid items that some schools had requested were not really necessary because they addressed needs that may vanish in two to three years.” For instance, some schools requested dedicated buildings for sports that were currently popular. But if the enthusiasm for those sports were to cool, then the purported need would dissipate. Another example was that some schools were experiencing dwindling enrollment because of declining birth rates. In these cases, reallocating existing safe building space was enough to accommodate the needs for those schools.

The five schools that Tzu Chi selected were all in very bad shape. At Gaotai Junior High School, floors had been added to original structures over the years, so pillars had shifted out of place, beams and walls had warped, and shear stress had created cracks. At Ligang Junior High School, buildings had fallen into disrepair and had insufficient earthquake resistance. At Neipu Junior High, trees growing next to a building had put so much pressure on the structure that the floor had buckled and become too uneven for desks and chairs to be placed flat.

Li Da-ping (李達平) is a Pingtung County education official who accompanied Tzu Chi personnel on their site visits during the review and selection process. He commented on what had impressed him the most during the process: “Tzu Chi sought to build structures that were not only safe and sturdy but also satisfied the developmental needs of both the students and the schools. The foundation was very thoughtful.”

He gave some examples. At Gaotai Junior High, some of the students live far away. Jiang Zi-chao (江子超), a member of the Tzu Chi selection team, saw a need here and proposed to add a dormitory to the school’s original list of needs. Ligang Junior High’s sports program was especially good in boxing. The room originally used for boxing and judo had been declared unsafe, so Tzu Chi added a gym for martial arts.

Those were not the only items added to the original lists. At the end of the evaluation process, ten classrooms were added to the 12 originally requested by Gaotai Junior High School to accommodate its current and projected needs. Likewise, Kung Cheng Junior High School requested two buildings but got four instead. The other schools also got more than they had requested.

The additions raised the total project budget from 9.2 million U.S. dollars to 15.4 million, greatly exceeding the county government’s original estimates. “Magistrate Tsao thought that I’d asked for too much from Tzu Chi,” Li Da-ping said.

Li pointed out that everyone agrees that all people should have equal right to education. However, in reality that purported equality has always been illusive for students in disadvantaged districts, such as the towns where the schools Tzu Chi helped rebuild are located. Besides new classrooms, the foundation also built those specialized facilities for the schools, such as the martial arts gym and special function rooms, because the foundation hoped to help students develop their talents and expand their horizons. Li really appreciated Tzu Chi’s efforts in this respect.

Li has seen students in rural locales display diffidence and self-doubt, even on occasions when they had every reason to be proud of themselves. He was once in charge of a talent competition for students in the county. Some students excelled and won awards, but instead of keeping their heads high, they hung their heads low as they went on stage to receive their prizes. To boost their confidence, Magistrate Tsao called out their names one by one as he handed them their awards, and he said to them, “Great job, keep up the good work!”

That scene moved Li, in the audience, to tears. “These children may not have been stellar students, so they lacked confidence. When they got up in front of their class, it was often to be scolded for making mistakes,” Li said. “But now they go up there to be honored for their talents. They were being publicly acknowledged. That helped boost their self-esteem, which will go a long way toward building up their confidence and their hope for a better tomorrow.”

Boarding students at Fangliao High School work with Tzu Chi volunteers to lay paving bricks on the path leading to a new dormitory built by Tzu Chi.


New energy in rural schools

Once Tzu Chi had committed to the rebuilding project in Pingtung, it signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education and the Pingtung County government. The county government then started to sort out the thorny school land ownership issues.

When those schools were built years ago, some of their land was donated—but never deeded—to the schools. Now, so many years later, transferring ownership to the schools posed quite a challenge. Some of the land was public land reserved for water management, which could not be deeded to the schools. The maps of some donated land showed boundaries different from the actual surveys, making it necessary to involve additional landowners. Some land had been properly donated to the schools, but descendants of the original owners disputed the donations. And then there was land that had been properly obtained via eminent domain but never properly deeded, making land ownership murky.

“The laws and regulations were rather inadequate in the early days,” Tsao said. “We were all right when it involved public land, but the problem became quite tricky when it came to private land.”

With a good dose of patience and persistence, the county government resolved all these issues one by one. The designs and blueprints for the project were reviewed and approved in 2013, and all necessary land ownerships were legally obtained in 2014. Then to accommodate students during construction, temporary classrooms were built so class instruction would not be disrupted. Construction for the five schools finally started in October 2014 and was completed in late 2015. The new facilities began to open for occupancy in March 2016.

“Tzu Chi did a great job of building those new facilities,” Tsao said. “The teams responsible for the project were conscientious and mindful, and the materials, construction techniques, and contractors that they used were all excellent.” Even though he was no longer the magistrate, he was really happy to see the completion of the new buildings. “I take comfort in seeing that children at these five schools now have brand-new classrooms and dormitories to serve them. I can’t imagine how much longer they’d have to wait if we’d depended on the national government for the funds.”

It was up to the county to furnish the new buildings. When he was still in office, Tsao requested that the schools save serviceable equipment so that they could be used in the new facilities. The county budgeted an additional US$615,000 for the schools to purchase new equipment.

The joint groundbreaking ceremony for six schools in Hualien County was held at Mingyi Elementary School on February 19, 2016.

Solid buildings

Lin Shou-yi (林守義) is director of construction for southern Taiwan at Tzu Chi. He supervised the Project Disaster Reduction work at these five schools. “Our buildings at the schools were designed to be easy to clean; they allow water to drain well, and they have good natural lighting and airflow.” These are traits shared by all school structures that the foundation builds.

Lin frequented the five schools in the course of construction to ensure that things went well. Soon after the construction was completed, the new buildings were unexpectedly put to a frightening test: A major earthquake hit southern Taiwan. The epicenter was not far from Pingtung, and yet all the buildings Tzu Chi had built sailed through with flying colors.

Lin was relieved, but then he had always been confident in the structures. “Our buildings are not very tall, and the steel reinforced concrete construction can withstand magnitude 7 temblors.” One key factor that ensured the structural strength of the buildings was that the steel bars in the beams and columns had been securely tied together before concrete was poured. He likened the steel bars and concrete in the structures to human bones and muscles. The steel bars provide tensile strength while the concrete contributes to compressive strength. The combination of these two make the end product strong under either compressive or tensile loads.

Tzu Chi’s contractors were well aware of the foundation’s insistence on quality, and so they were conscientious in carrying out their work. “It’s our shared goal to make these buildings stand strong for at least a hundred years,” Lin said. “We want them to provide an environment in which students today and tomorrow can learn in safety.”

The new buildings were inaugurated in a joint ceremony under a warm sun on March 12, 2016. Students from the five schools put on splendid shows, featuring a wind ensemble, drum performance, ethnic dance, singing, and a recorder band that has won first prize in a county-wide competition seven years in a row.

Lin Bi-yu (林碧玉), a Tzu Chi vice president speaking on behalf of the foundation, remarked that the hope of a country lies in talent, and education can help cultivate talent. She reiterated the foundation’s long-standing commitment to helping provide a safer learning environment for schoolchildren, and she stressed the energy-conserving and eco-friendly quality of the Tzu Chi buildings. Cheng Lai-chang (鄭來長), a Ministry of Education official, thanked the foundation for its support of those schools. “The government has a limited budget, but the love of the private sector is boundless,” he said. When Pan Men-an (潘孟安), current Pingtung County magistrate, handed models of the schools to their respective principals, cheers erupted in the audience.

Students from Neipu Junior High School put on a drum performance during the joint inauguration ceremony.

As soon as the construction for the five schools in Pingtung was completed, Tzu Chi moved on to help rebuild the remaining 16 schools in Hualien, Taitung, and Kaohsiung that were included in Project Disaster Reduction. Work on those schools started in February 2016.

Hualien and Taitung Counties often experience earthquakes, and both are short on funds to rebuild dangerous school buildings. Huang Wei-zhi (黃偉智), a Taitung county education official, pointed out that Taitung had money to help just one school rebuild a year, and 20 schools were waiting. They could not possibly wait that long without another earthquake striking.

Huang Chi-teng (黃子騰), a Ministry of Education official, remarked that the funds that his ministry could get from the national government had always been spread too thin—the money had to be shared among 22 counties and cities. Thanks to the help of Tzu Chi, Taitung would now be able to speed up the county’s pace for rebuilding dangerous buildings by at least six years.

The construction at the remaining 16 schools is scheduled to be completed by early 2017. Let us look forward to the new look of these schools.



Many old school buildings in Taiwan pose risks to students’ safety in the event of a major earthquake. Under Project Disaster Reduction, Tzu Chi, working with local and national governments, committed itself to rebuilding dangerous buildings at 21 schools.



Gaotai Junior High School

Founded: 1968

Enrollment: 260

New buildings: administrative building, multipurpose building, dormitory

Ligang Junior High School

Founded: 1947

Enrollment: 870

New buildings: 21 classrooms, multipurpose building, martial arts gym


Kung Cheng Junior High School

Founded: 1965

Enrollment: 400

New buildings: administrative offices and general or special function classrooms in four buildings



Neipu Junior High School

Founded: 1936

Enrollment: 833

New buildings: classroom building, multipurpose building



Fangliao High School

Founded: 1966

Enrollment: 1195

New building: dormitory




Summer 2016