Tcheng Soumay (also known as Tcheng Yu-hsiu and Madame Wei Tao-ming) was a lawyer and campaigner for democracy and women’s rights. She was active in China in the first half of the twentieth century when the ancient empire was toppled and competing factions fought for the soul of the new republic.
Soumay (to use her first name) was born to a wealthy family in Canton. Her father was a government official, her mother was the daughter of a general. It was usual to bind the feet of upper class girls, so their gait was ‘dainty.’ Always a rebellious child, Soumay refused to have her feet bound, ripping off the bandages. Her father was sympathetic, he encouraged her inquiring intellect and, wanting to take her around in public with him, dressed her as a boy.
Her grandfather arranged a marriage for her but she gave huge offence to her family and that of her fiancé (whom she had not met) when she wrote to this indolent young man telling him he should marry someone more to his taste, as she intended to go abroad to finish her studies. Her family had to be rid of her after this disgrace, and her punishment was just what she wanted—to be sent to a boarding school run by American missionaries. She started to wear her hair and clothes in an imitation of western styles.
Hearing of the revolutionary and pro-democracy ideas of students who had studied abroad, she persuaded her father to allow her to study in Tokyo which was the centre of radical expatriate Chinese activity. As she put it in her autobiography, ‘I became an active revolutionary at the age of fifteen.’
She was moved by the vision of a modern China, a democracy with the strength to resist its foreign enemies. She wanted a land where girls would not be intentionally crippled and forced into marriages, where men and women would be equals. She joined the revolutionary Koumintang, met its leader Sun Yat-sen and swore an oath to establish a democratic regime in China or die fighting for it.
Returning to China, she was able to use her inconspicuous appearance to good purpose, receiving messages for the rebels. She writes thrillingly of transporting explosives in a heavy suitcase and fearing they will go off: ‘I was really frozen with fear, but in a few moments my chaotic thoughts began to resolve themselves in heroic form. I had wonderful, tragic visions of my friends and family grieving for me (‘she was so young to die’) and of the Koumintang in the South hearing the news of my sacrifice; in my mind there was a vivid picture of Dr Sun Yat-sen commemorating a memorial to Soumay Tcheng, Girl Patriot of Peking.’
She survived this ordeal, but was so distraught when she arrived home that her mother was suspicious and Soumay felt obliged to tell her about her revolutionary activities. The older woman was horrified, but Soumay talked to her about the ideals of the new China, and far from betraying her to older members of the family, her mother agreed to help her daughter and her fellow revolutionaries in any way she could.
Soumay went to study law in France; she felt an empathy with the country because of its revolutionary heritage. In 1919, she put her French language skills to work as attachė to the Chinese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. She received her law doctorate from University of Paris in 1926.
Soumay returned to Shanghai to practice law, becoming the first woman lawyer in China. She was to be appointed President of the District Court in Shanghai, making her the country’s first woman judge. She was involved in drafting the nationalist government’s new Civil Code that permitted divorce for both men and women, and equality in civil and property rights. The commission on which she sat was charged with the delicate task of providing for the rights of women, while preserving the customs and traditions of China.
She married a fellow lawyer and activist who became Chinese ambassador to the US. She wrote a memoir, My Revolutionary Years, which was widely translated. She died in Los Angeles in 1959.
Written for Sheroes of History by Jad Adams, author of Women and the Vote: A World History. www.jadadams.co.uk @JadAdamsAuthor
Find out more…
Tcheng Soumay’s story is told in Jad Adams’ Women and the Vote: A World History. and in her memoir which was published in 1943 under her married name of Madame Wei Tao-ming.
Read this article about Tcheng.
You can also listen to Jad Adams talking about Tcheng Soumay and other lesserr known activists in the fight for women’s suffrage in this video: