Welcome back to another edition of Badass Ladies of China. Here at TWOC, we try to shed some light on the other “half of the sky”—women, both ancient and more recent, that have played huge roles in making China what it is today. Staying in 20th century, this week’s badass lady is another revolutionary warrior who wasn’t afraid of jumping into the fray to take the law into her own hands.
This week’s badass lady is Tcheng Yu-Hsiu (郑毓秀). Although she was married to a successful lawyer and diplomat, Tcheng did not remain in the shadow of her husband, instead creating a legacy of her own. She accomplished several firsts in Chinese history, including becoming modern China’s first female lawyer, judge, and assassin.
The late Qing dynasty was a time of immense social change in China, and it was in this period of change that Tcheng lived. Born in 1891 to a feudal bureaucratic family, Tcheng quickly showed signs of being a rebel. As a child, she refused to conform to the idea of the traditional female, rejecting the ideas of being obedient to the men in her life and the four virtues. Even more surprisingly, she refused to have her feet bound.
Foot binding was still a commonly practiced tradition, and though many women may have hated it, they still followed through. Even famous Chinese feminist Qiu Jin had bound feet. Yet Tcheng completely refused, and her family was forced to allow her feet to grow to full length.
In another show of rebellion, 13-year old Tcheng rejected an arranged marriage that her family had planned for her. However, she didn’t just stop at rejecting the alliance, but went so far as to hand write a letter to her fiancée, informing him of her decision. This obviously did not go over well with either family, and Tcheng ran away from home, prepared to start her own life.
In 1907, Tcheng moved to Japan to study, and quickly became acquainted with Sun Yat Sen and other members of the Tongmenghui, an anti-Qing revolutionary society. Tcheng began adopting the belief that the Qing government needed to be removed, and was officially inducted into the Tongmenghui in 1908.
Tcheng returned to China that same year, assisting the Tongmenghui in carrying out anti-Qing movements. She was instrumental in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, transporting weapons and intelligence to revolutionaries. She also served as an assassin for the Tongmenghui, leading assassination attempt on Qing leaders. While she failed to assassinate Prime Minister Yuan Shikai, she was successful in killing the Qing royalist Aixinjueluo Liangbai, who had been obstructing peace talks between the Qing government and the rebels.
However, Tcheng quickly realized that in order to advance her revolutionary ideas, and really make a difference, she would need to master advanced ideas and technologies. In order to do this, she decided to move to France to study law. In 1917, she graduated from the Sorbonne with a master’s degree and then earned her law degree from the University of Paris in 1924, becoming China’s first female lawyer.
During her time in Paris, Tcheng exerted great influence over Chinese history, by preventing the Chinese delegation from signing away their rights to reclaim Shandong. Tcheng had been selected to negotiate with Lou Tseng-Tsiang, and prevent him from signing the Treaty of Versailles. It is said that when it became clear that Lou was not willing to listen to her, Tcheng used a literal “trick up her sleeve”, which was a rosebush branch she had hidden in her sleeve. In front of Lou, Tcheng pretended that she had a gun in her sleeve, and threatened to shoot Lou if he signed the Treaty of Versailles.
Whether or not the story is true, it would seem that Lou convinced the rest of the Chinese delegation not to sign the Treaty of Versailles, thereby retaining China’s claims to Shandong.
Tcheng’s time in France was spent achieving many similar achievements, however in 1926, Tcheng returned to Shanghai where she established a law firm with her husband. The legal duo quickly rose to prominence in China’s legal, political and social circles. They were particularly well known for taking on foreign lawsuits, which other Chinese lawyers were too afraid to do.
On her own, Tcheng quickly developed a reputation for being a smart and fearless lawyer, rising to prominence in both China’s legal and political circles. In fact, Tcheng had significant influence of the legal development of the ROC. She served as the director for several legal offices in the ROC, and in 1929 joined a KMT committee designed to draft the legal code for the ROC. It was during this time that Tcheng advocated for women’s rights, such as the right to their own voices and choices, and used her influence on the committee to include those rights in the ROC legal code.
Tcheng Yu-hsiu had an important influence on China’s legal system, paving the way for women to become lawyers and judges. She also authored two books on legal practices, contributing to the development of China’s legal profession. She also had an important influence outside of China. In fact, she is credited as one of the influences of the development of Vietnam’s women’s rights movement. Tcheng Yu-hsiu was able to see her legacy come to life, enjoying several years in the legal and political spheres before passing away in 1959.
Cover image from Wikimedia / Public domain