Tcheng Yu-hsiu: China's First Female Judge

August 6, 2013
By Liu DianEditor: Amanda Wu
Tcheng Yu-hsiu was the first female lawyer and judge of the Republic of China. [Nanjing Daily]

Tcheng Yu-hsiu was the first female lawyer and judge of the Republic of China. [Nanjing Daily]

Although her husband Wei Tao-ming (1899-1978) was a distinguished diplomat, Tcheng Yu-hsiu (1891-1959) made a name for herself by earning several first titles in Chinese history.

Tcheng's extraordinary life read more like a novel than anything else. Deeply revolutionary in her beliefs, she was the first woman assassin of the Republic of China (ROK) (1912-1949), who attempted to assassinate Yuan Shih-kai (1859-1916), then-Prime Minister of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Tcheng was also the first Chinese woman to earn a doctoral degree in law at the Sorbonne, the historic University of Paris, in France. She was also the first female lawyer and judge in Chinese history.

Born with a Rebellious Character

During the late Qing Dynasty, with the introduction of many Western social ideas, gender equality took root in China and the traditional social status of Chinese women began undergoing fundamental changes. Many women began to fight for their rights and freedom.

It was into this atmosphere of change that Tcheng was born in 1891. Her family was a feudal bureaucratic family from south China's Guangdong Province. Her father was an official of the Ministry of Revenue of the Qing Dynasty.

Born with a rebellious character, Tcheng disregarded the feudal discipline of 'three obediences and four virtues'. That is, a woman was supposed to obey her father before she got married, obey her husband while she was married and obey her son after being widowed. The four virtues included fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and efficiency in needlework.

At the time, foot binding was still prevalent and regarded as a status symbol. But Tcheng, who was only 5 or 6 years old at the time, refused adamantly to have her feet bound. In the end, her family had to give in and her feet were left to grow naturally.

Her rebelliousness continued, as she grew older. When Tcheng was 13 years old, her grandmother arranged for her to marry the son of the then-governor of Guangdong Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in south China.

Tcheng wrote to her fiancé on her own to declare the dissolution of the engagement, which immediately caused uproar among both families. She had to run away from home.

In 1907, Tcheng and her sister went to study in Japan, where she got to know the Tongmenghui, also known as the Chinese United League, a secret society and underground resistance movement founded by Chinese revolutionaries Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), Sung Chiao-jen (1882-1913) and others in Tokyo, Japan.

Tcheng identified with Sun's anti-Qing revolutionary beliefs and agreed with him that the current social order had to be broken and a new China built. 

The following year, thanks to an introduction by Chinese revolutionary democrat Liao Chung-kai (1877-1925), Tcheng became a member of the Tongmenghui. Shortly afterward, Tcheng returned to China to take part in revolutionary activities.

A Female Revolutionary

At the beginning, due to limited resources, the revolutionaries mainly organized armed uprisings in certain areas, with the assassination of government officials as a supplement to the fight against the late Qing government.

During the Xinhai Revolution (1911), a revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China, Tcheng secretly smuggled weapons and passed information on to revolutionaries. She also participated in the assassination of government officials.

Her first target was Yuan Shih-kai. At the time, the Xinhai Revolution had broken out and the rapid development of the anti-Qing revolutionary forces caused a panic among the Qing government, which appointed Yuan as Prime Minister so that he could repress the revolutionaries. Accordingly, Yuan became the top target of the assassination.

Tcheng divided the volunteer revolutionaries into several groups and planned to throw bombs on Yuan at the set site.

On January 15, 1912, Tcheng suddenly received an emergency order to give up the assassination attempt, because the latest information showed that the real force hindering peace talks between the revolutionaries and the Qing government was the Zongshe Party, headed by diehard Qing royalist Aixinjueluo Liangbi (1877-1912).

That very night, Tcheng immediately ran about to inform her revolutionary fellows of the change in plans. However, the assassination plan had already been set in motion. Tcheng had to rush to the scene.

In the confusion, the assassination failed and more than 10 people involved were arrested. Tcheng escaped arrest and appealed to her foreign friends for help, under whose names seven people were released on bail.

Later, when working out the plan to assassinate Liangbi, Tcheng learned from her previous attempt and successfully pulled it off.

Preventing the Signing of the Treaty of Versailles

Meanwhile, having been engaged in the revolutionary cause for years, Tcheng suddenly realized that passion was not enough for a revolutionary and that she must master advanced ideas and technology in order to make a real difference. She decided to go to France to study law.

Tcheng was accepted into the Sorbonne and in 1917 she obtained her master's degree. In 1924, she earned her doctorate degree in law from the University of Paris and became the first female lawyer in Chinese history.

While in France, Tcheng's actions during the Paris Peace Conference (1919) left an indelible mark on her life.
According to the treaty, Germany's concessions in east China's Shandong were transferred to Japan, which caused a stir among the Chinese in France.

At that moment, Tcheng was selected to negotiate with Lou Tseng-Tsiang (1871-1949), head of the Chinese delegation.

On June 27, 1919, more than 300 Chinese students and workers surrounded the place where Luo stayed in Paris and urged him not to sign the treaty. In actual fact, Luo had received the order from Beijing to sign the treaty.

Tcheng suddenly thought of a way to convince Luo not to sign the treaty. In the garden of Luo's residence, she found a rosebush branch and hid it in her sleeve. Then she looked for Luo and pointed the hidden stick at him, threatening to shoot him with her 'gun' if he signed it.
Eventually, the Chinese delegation did not sign the Treaty of Versailles and China's rights to reclaim Germany's concessions in Shandong were preserved.

Later, Tcheng took the rosebush branch back to China and hung it in her sitting room for years.

Becoming China's First Female Lawyer

Tcheng's life in France also saw her romantic life flowering. It was there that she met her future husband, Wei Tao-ming, who was nearly 10 years younger than her.

Wei was also a law student at the University of Paris and the two often discussed their homework together.

In 1926, Wei gained his doctorate in law and returned to China that autumn. Shortly afterward, Tcheng also went back. At the end of the year, the two jointly opened a law office in Shanghai, east China.

At the time, foreigners exercised the consular jurisdiction and the Chinese were often placed at a disadvantage when they engaged in a lawsuit with foreigners. As a result, few lawyers were willing to take on such cases.

However, Tcheng and Wei were fearless in this regard, and soon made a name for themselves in China's law circles.

In 1927, the couple got married in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province.

As she handled more and more cases, Tcheng rose to fame in the legal profession. For example, in the divorce case between Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) and Meng Xiaodong (1907-1977), two famous Peking Opera stars of the time, Tcheng worked as Meng's agent to mediate between the two. In the case, Mei ended up paying Meng 40,000 silver dollars, the currency in circulation at the time.

In 1926, a famed democrat Yang Xingfo (1893-1933) was arrested. As Yang's defense lawyer, Tcheng took advantage of her social network to put pressure on the local government. Through the efforts of Tcheng and other people, Yang was successfully saved.

Alongside her legal career, Tcheng also took up important positions in the Nanjing-based ROK Nationalist Government, the ruling governmental authority of China between 1927 and 1948.

Tcheng served as the director of the Shanghai Trial Office, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT) party committee in Shanghai, a member of the Jiangsu Political Committee and the director of the Jiangsu Prosecutors Office in east China's Jiangsu Province and other posts.

As the ROK Nationalist Government established the legislature in 1928, Tcheng was appointed as a KMT legislator and a member of the construction commission. In January 1929, Tcheng joined the committee to draft the civil law.

In addition, she also acted as president of the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law for seven years. During her time as president, she also published two books, contributing to China's legal profession.

In 1948, Tcheng and her husband retired from the political arena and moved to the United States.

On December 16, 1959, Tcheng passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 68.


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