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Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Ti Ying

Writer and humanitarian, she petitioned an emperor for justice – and he listened.


Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Ti Ying

Writer and humanitarian, she petitioned an emperor for justice – and he listened.


“Badass Ladies” is back! From pioneering astronomers to freedom fightersTWOC”s been telling the untold stories of diverse heroines from history.

Today’s badass lady is more mythical than historical, but her story is unique in ancient Chinese history. Ti Ying (缇萦) is believed to have lived around 190 B.C.E. during the Han dynasty, and is considered one of the first women to write about ethics and justice. In an attempt to save her father’s life, Ti Ying wrote a brilliant and persuasive treatise addressed to the emperor himself on the ethics of punishment. To better understand this badass, we’ll have to start at the beginning.

Ti Ying was the youngest daughter of a well-renowned doctor named Chunyu Yi. Although Chunyu was high-ranking, he preferred to travel the countryside to treat common people, rather than only help the nobility. Ti Ying grew to be humble and generous after her father’s example; despite her father’s fame and wealth, he believed that people should be treated equally and receive the same care. From her father, Ti Ying also gained an inquiring and scientific mind, and was drawn to puzzles and logic.

While Ti Ying’s father was a talented physician, he wasn’t infallible. Several years into his practice, he failed to save the life of a sickly noblewoman. Her devastated husband claimed that Chunyu’s treatment actually caused her demise, and demanded that Chunyu be punished for his negligence. Since this nobleman was wealthy and influential, Chunyu Yi was charged and sent to the capital without an investigation, soon to face punishment.

Crime and punishment was an especially nasty matter during the Han Dynasty. Imperial officials were in charge of administering the Five Punishments (五刑, wǔ xíng.) Four of the Five Punishments were variations on maiming – a face tattoo to forever brand you as a criminal, cutting of an offender’s nose, cutting off one foot, or removing reproductive organs for men and forcing them to work as eunuchs. The fifth and most serious punishment was death.

When Chunyu Yi was taken to the capital, he was certain that he’d be subjected to one of these horrible fates. He felt that he had no family members who could appeal on his behalf; as he said, “Daughters are useless during an emergency.”

After catching wind of the “daughters are useless” comment, Ti Ying would perhaps have been within her right to ignore her father’s plight. However, her spirit of generosity, as well as her filial piety, moved her.

She decided that despite her sex, she would make an appeal on behalf of her father. While she could have written a letter to any imperial official, she decided to go right to the top and make her case to Emperor Wen. And she didn’t just testify to his sound medical practice and good character – she actually wrote a letter condemning the Five Punishments as unethical.

Her letter was groundbreaking; common people never told the Emperor what was and wasn’t fair. Her appeal was not only eloquently worded, but logically constructed in favor of rehabilitative justice. One passage of her letter read:

“Once a man is executed, he cannot come back to life. Once a man is mutilated, even if he proved to be innocent later, he would be disabled for life, and there is no way to reverse the suffering he experiences. Even if he wishes to start anew, he will be unable to do so.”

Her conclusion was especially powerful. Referencing an old tradition that “a son can redeem a father’s guilt,” Ti Ying offered to work as a servant in the palace for the rest of her life, if her father was allowed to go free.

The Emperor was so moved and impressed by her words, he refused her offer to work as a servant, but still let her father go free. The Five Punishments were modified during Emperor Wen’s reign to emphasize lashes instead of maiming, and labor and jail sentences instead of the death penalty.

Ti Ying’s courageous act resulted in fairer punishments for many dynasties after the Han. The Five Punishments were never again as harsh as in ancient times, due to Yi Ting’s dedication to her father and brilliant way with words.

Image courtesy of  Love Doghouse Wallpapers (X)