Chinese legal pioneers

新加坡调解公约 |《商法》

This issue of the China Business Law Journal is a significant milestone as it marks the 10th anniversary of the journal. Similarly, this column is a significant milestone as it is the 100th column of Lexicon. I am sincerely grateful to readers for their support and interest over the past decade.

The issue also comes just after the end of 2019, which was the year that marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. As reported by Xinhua News on 1 October 2019: “Today enables us to pay tribute to the heroes and pioneers of the Republic”.

In a similar vein, this column pays tribute to Chinese legal pioneers in common law jurisdictions; namely, Chinese people who have been pioneers of the legal profession in the common law jurisdictions of Australia, the UK, the US and Canada. The column commences by outlining the meaning of “pioneer” in Chinese and English, and how the term might be applied to legal pioneers. It then discusses some of the most famous Chinese legal pioneers by highlighting their pioneering achievements and characteristics.

Meaning of pioneer

The Chinese term for “pioneer” (先锋) consists of the character xian (先), meaning “first” or “front”, and feng (锋), meaning the point or sharp edge of a tool such as a sword or knife. When feng is combined with the character qian (前), meaning “front”, the resulting compound qianfeng (前锋) refers to the spearhead or vanguard of an army.

Similarly, the English word “pioneer” is derived from the Old French word “peonier”, which means a foot soldier. A synonym of “pioneer” is “vanguard”, which is also based on Old French and literally means “before guard”. It was first used to refer to the “advance guard”; namely, the leading unit at the front of an army.

The term “pioneer” was subsequently used to refer to a person who was a member of a group of people who were the first to enter a region and open it up for settlement. Similarly, both the terms “pioneer” and “vanguard” subsequently came to be used generally to refer to a person who was the first to do or achieve something.

In the case of Chinese legal pioneers in common law jurisdictions, the origin of the Chinese and English words is particularly apt, as many of them had to struggle against discrimination and other obstacles in order to become members of the legal profession in common law jurisdictions.

There are several other characteristics of Chinese legal pioneers that are interesting to note. First, many of them worked as advocates for fellow Chinese people against racial discrimination generally. Second, many of them had careers in areas other than law, particularly diplomacy and politics. Third, all of them appear to have embraced Western culture and to have successfully maintained their Chinese cultural identity within a Western context.


You must be a subscribersubscribersubscribersubscriber to read this content, please subscribesubscribesubscribesubscribe today.

For group subscribers, please click here to access.
Interested in group subscription? Please contact us.



Commercial courts
Andrew Godwin

A former partner of Linklaters Shanghai, Andrew Godwin teaches law at Melbourne Law School in Australia, where he is an associate director of its Asian Law Centre. Andrew’s new book is a compilation of China Business Law Journal’s popular Lexicon series, entitled China Lexicon: Defining and translating legal terms. The book is published by Vantage Asia and available at