Shi Liang: China's First Minister of Justice

July 26, 2013
By Zhu QihongEditor: Zhao Liangfeng
Shi Liang was China's Minister of Justice in the 1950s. []

Shi Liang was China's Minister of Justice in the 1950s. []

The Chinese people have experienced great changes in marriage since the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded over 60 years ago. However, no matter how tremendous the changes have been, one fact remains the same, which is that they are still governed by China's Marriage Law, which Chairman Mao considered as fundamental to families as constitutions are to countries.

It was the first law ever made in the PRC and then-Minister of Justice Shi Liang presided over its creation, granting Chinese women equal rights as men and freedom to love and be loved.

Shi was also China's first Minister of Justice, in addition to being a famous lawyer and social activist.

Fight for Justice

Shi was born in 1900 in Changzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province, to an impoverished but well-educated family. She began her formal education at a local girls' school, where she became equally well-known for her rebelliousness as she was for her academic achievements.

She led her classmates in boycotting their mathematics teacher, as they felt that he was unqualified to teach the subject. Further investigation by the school proved the students' claims to be true and the teacher was fired. However, Shi was also punished by the school authorities for her rebelliousness.

The May Fourth Movement broke out in Beijing on May 4, 1919, protesting the Chinese government's weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, especially in allowing Japan to retain territories in Shandong which had been surrendered by Germany following World War I. Soon the movement became a nation-wide protest.

Shi and her classmates were active in the movement, calling on businesses to stop selling goods made in Japan and giving speeches to workers and businessmen to persuade them to protest by going on strike. Their activities were opposed by the local government, which threatened to shut down their school.

In order to protect the school, Shi led her classmates to demonstrate and negotiate with the government. Finally, the Jiangsu provincial government capitulated and the school was allowed to continue.

In 1922, Shi graduated and was accepted into the Shanghai Women's University of Political Science and Law. Later, she went to Shanghai University of Law.

After graduating from university, Shi worked as a lawyer in Shanghai. In 1931, she opened her own law firm. Every month, she dealt with 40-50 cases.

One day, Shi found out that one of her servants had been abandoned after giving birth to a married man's baby. She helped her servant file a lawsuit against the man and won the case. The man was ordered by the court to support the servant and her child.

The case soon became known among the poorer classes, who began to turn to Shi for help. As a result, she had a silver badge made with the words 'protect human rights' placed on her office desk.

Saving China Association

In the early 1930s, China was facing Japanese invasion and civil war. In 1935, Shi established the Women's Association to Save China. The next year, she was elected to one of the 14 committees of a national association to save China.

The association soon issued a statement, asking the then-Chinese government to stop fighting the civil war and unite all parties across the country to fight Japan.

At the end of that year, the government arrested seven people from the association, including Shi, and charged them with the crime of endangering the country. The incident soon sparked outrage across the country.

During the court hearing, Shi defended herself and the other six people charged. Her outstanding defense left the prosecutor speechless and they were found to be not guilty. When Chairman Mao learned about her story, he praised her as an 'outstanding woman'.

Minister of Justice

In 1948, Shi made a survey of land reform in rural areas. She was shocked by the unfair treatment rural women faced during the reform. For example, in some places, women were barred from leaving their villages and some widowed women were forced to marry poor single men.

After the PRC was founded, Shi was appointed as Minister of Justice, making her one of only two female ministers at that time. Her priority was to create a marriage law.

In 1950, China's Marriage Law became the first law ever to be made in the PRC. The law ruled out forced marriage and unfair treatment of women. Concepts such as free marriage, gender equality, monogamy, and protection of women, children and the elderly people were advocated by the law.

In order to ensure that the law was carried out, Shi visited grassroots governments and courts to assess the law's implementation.

In 1959, the state's justice department was dissolved. Shi was unable to understand the decision. "How can a country not have a ministry of justice?" Shi wondered.

"She was at a loss as to what to do. She stayed at home all the time to read newspapers," said Shi's adopted daughter, Shi Xiaohong.

China's Ministry of Justice was re-established after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

In 1977, Shi was invited to work again. She was 77 years old at the time. The next year, she was elected vice chairperson of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top political advisory body.

In 1985, Shi passed away in Beijing. She had never had a child and she left behind less than 3,000 yuan (US$ 489) worth of assets. But every time someone gets married or does anything related to marriage in China, they are continuing her legacy.

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