Wu Tingfang

  • 11th January 2016
  • Evelyn Ch'ien
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Wu Tingfang (1842-1922)
Translated from the Chinese by Evelyn Ch’ien

Wu Tingfang’s original name was Xu and he was of noble rank. He used the penname Zhiyong (shipshape and ordinary) while in later life he referred to himself as the Old Man at the Cottage River Crossing. He was born in 1842 in what is now modern day Malacca but his family’s ancestral home was in Xinhui, Guangdong. When he was three years old he returned with his parents to Guangzhou, settling in Fragrant Village (fangcun), Guangdong. Early on in his private school, he allegedly read ten or so lines per glance and was gifted with an extraordinarily retentive memory, making it possible for him to consume many historical works and novels. In Fragrant Village he attended religious schools established by foreigners where priests taught English. Teachers appreciated Wu Tingfang’s talent and recommended that he study in Hong Kong.

In 1855, Wu Tingfang encountered and was kidnapped by bandits. While in their den, he persuaded the mess cooks to escape with him. The next year, accompanied by his relative Chenyan 陈言 (蔼亭Aiting), he arrived in Hong Kong to attend St. Paul’s College. There he began to learn about western civilization and education, with impressive academic results. Moreover, together with fellow students Wu Tingfang and Huang Sheng he founded China’s first daily newspaper about foreign relations and China; and due to this Wu Tingfang has been considered the founder of Chinese newspaper industry.

In 1861, Wu Tingfang graduated from St. Paul’s College with honors, and was appointed member to the Hong Kong High Court of Justice; in his spare time, he translated documents for the newspaper. In 1864, Wu Tingfang helped Chen Yan create and found the China Daily. That same year he married He Miaoling, the eldest daughter of the Hong Kong pastor He Jinshan. He Jinshan hailed from Nanhai, Guangdong and became China’s second Chinese-born pastor. He Miaoling’s younger brother was a famous Christian doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, and politician in Hong Kong.

In 1871 Wu Tingfang was transferred to a government branch for interpreters because of his excellent work. Three years later, using his own funds he went to study in the United Kingdom at the London Institute of Law (Lincoln’s Inn). January 1877 he became the first Chinese native to obtain the diploma to pass the qualifications required for an English barrister. Around the same time, Guo Songtao, the first English Minister appointed by the Qing government arrived in London. Wu Ting Fang visited to the state law, foreign language, newspaper office, personnel training is of great importance. His talent made him a sought after employee from foreign institutions but his father passed away and due to this sad event he returned to Hong Kong.

In May 1877, he officially became a lawyer in the Hong Kong Justice Department. During his tenure, Wu Tingfang fought to protect his compatriots against racial discrimination and successfully pressured Hong Kong authorities to abolish the practice of caning. In December 1878, Mr. Wu was the first Hong Kong Chinese to be appointed Justice of the Peace. In 1879, the Hong Kong Chinese population petitioned the governor to elect him as a representative in the legislative council. The government of Hong Kong complied with the community’s wishes and appointed him a member of the legislature. Thus Wu Tingfang became the first Chinese member of the Hong Kong legislature. In 1882, Wu Tingfang was elected vice chairman of the Hong Kong security bureau. In October that same year, Wu Tingfang went to Gangbei (Guangdong) to join Chinese ambassador Li Hongzhang (1823-1901 Qing Dynasty ambassador). Thus Wu Tingfang embarked on what became a fourteen-year stint as a top aide in Li’s staff.

After the Sino-French war of 1885, Wu Ting Fang served as Li Hongzhang’s legal adviser, participating in the Sino-French negotiations and the signing of the Sino-Vietnamese border trade regulations. In 1895, after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Wu Tingfang accompanied Li Hongzhang for the negotiations, serving as an “exchange minister,” exchanging and negotiating the text of the Treaty of Shimonoseki from the city of Yantai (Shangdong Province) to the representatives of Japan.

Between 1896 and 1910, the Qing government appointed Wu Tingfang twice to serve as ambassador to the United States, Spain, Peru, and as the Cuban Minister. During his tenure, he leveraged his familiarity with foreign law to protect the local Chinese population and Chinese interests, assuring some presence of respect for the Chinese people. At the same time he published an article on Confucius and Mencius in an American newspaper article meant to introduce and publicize Chinese thought and Confucianism to American society and households. In 1903, Wu Tingfang served as the Minister of Law Reform, and Shen Jiaben presided over the legal reform of the late Qing dynasty.

In August 1910, Wu Tingfang lived in Shanghai and immersed himself in the study of parapsychology. In September he wrote the essay “Losing all your clothes is easier than petitioning for a haircut,” which criticized the Qing Dynasty for being an anachronism. When the 1911 revolution broke out, he was minister of foreign affairs in the cabinet of Shanghai Military government. In that role, he oversaw the letter to the Imperial court that advised the emperor to abdicate. He served as the south peace negotiations with representatives, representatives of the Qing government in Shanghai Tang Shaoyi.

After the establishment of the provisional government of the Republic of China in Nanjing, he served as the chief justice. In March 1912 Wu Tingfang and Chen Qimei launched the concept of the “authority of law” through the “Yao Rongze case” and “Song Hanzhang case.” (Wu favored following the law while other revolutionaries believed that revolution necessitated departing from the right of law). Because of this he became alienated with the revolutionary party. In April, Wu Tingfang resigned as from the justice administration and his cabinet position and retired to a cottage.

In 1913, Wu Tingfang lived a secluded life in Shanghai, intoxicated by his parapsychology research, but maintaining ideas of reform and improvement. He expressed disapproval for Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary party “second revolution.” In 1914, he wrote The Secret to Longevity. The following year, he served as head representative for domestic industry at the Philippines Expo to promote Chinese products. In October 1915, he refused an invitation of Yuan Shikai, and also strongly denounced the restoration of a constitutional monarchy which was supported in an essay by Frank Johnson Goodnow (Peking Daily News, August 1915). This same year Wu Tingfang published the “Republic of China” and “Reflections on America.”

December 1916, Wu Tingfang took the oath of office in Shanghai for the Republic of China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1917 during the “battle for government,” Wu Tingfang allied himself with Li Yuanhong, against Duan Qirui. On May 25th, Wu Tingfang was appointed acting Premier of the Republic of China. In May 31st, respectfully received President Li Yuanhong and invited Zhang Xun to Beijing to be a mediator during this period of debate about what government was best for the country (the so-called “battle for government”). Zhang Xun proposed in the conditions of his mediation that there be the deadline for the dissolution of Parliament. Li Yuanhong felt compelled to agree to the request so he signed the act for the dissolution of Parliament, but Wu Tingfang could not bring himself to countersign and so he left Beijing and traveled through the Shanhai pass to Tianjin, then sailed south to Shanghai. While in Shanghai, he exposed and criticized the Zhang Xun Restoration Act to both Chinese and foreign audiences, and called on other countries to deny the validity of the government in Beijing.

In September 1917, to secure the maintenance of the provisional constitution and the Parliament, Sun Yatsen in Guangzhou established a military government and appointed Wu Tingfang the foreign policy chief of the Chinese Republic. In November, Wu Tingfang traveled through Shanghai to Guangdong to uphold the government. The following year in February, Wu Tingfang published restructuring of the military government, and devised a plan for the generalissmo on how to create a system for the chief executive officer of the court “collegiate” system (a system in which justice is administered by a collegiate bench of justices). Due to his dissatisfaction with the restructuring, Sun Zhongshan left Guangdong in May. Wu Tingfang accused Sun Zhongshan of not taking into account the overall situation but acting on individual heroism, and urged him to return as soon as possible to assume office. In July, Wu Tingfang was sworn in as chief executive, and in October he served as the Army of Law Protection (hufajun) government minister of finance. In 1919 he also served as the governor of Guangdong.

March 1920, Wu Tingfang left Hong Kong and in April went to Shanghai, he revealed to Cen Chunxuan (politician) and Lu Rongting as well as the other parliamentary members the autocratic nature of the government, and expressed his determination to help Sun Yat Sen in governing the country. In June, Sun Zhongshan and other key comrades declared that the Southwest Military Government was, in their eyes, illegal. In November, Wu Tingfang left Shanghai for Guangdong.

In 1921, Sun Zhongshan again went to Guangzhou to establish the government of the Republic of China, and on May 5th he took personal command as President. May 7th, Wu Tingfang took office as Minister of foreign affairs and simultaneously the finance minister of the Republic of China. His son Wu Zhaoshu served as a foreign minister. Sun Zhongshan prepared at this time for the massive Northern Expedition and meanwhile Wu Tingfang took presidential authority in Guangzhou and presided over the administration of public affairs.

June 16, 1922, Chen Jiongming launched a mutiny and Sun Yatsen sought refuge in a ship in Yongfeng County, Ji’an, Jiangxi Province. On the following day Wu Ting Fang went to inspect the situation; there he met Sun Yatsen and implored him to take care of himself. On June 18th, Wu Tingfang fell ill and was hospitalized; soon after his condition became serious. In June 23rd, Wu Tingfang passed away. To commemorate Wu Tingfang, Sun Zhongshan personally composed the inscription for Wu Tingfang’s tombstone.

(the main reference: Zhang Liheng: “Wu Tingfang Biography,” Shijiazhuang: Hebei people’s publishing house, 1999)

Wu-Tingfang-1908
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