From the Archives: The Remarkable Life of Queen Mary Alumnus Pao Swen Tseng

Pao Swen Tseng (also known by Zeng Baosun) was a student of botany at Westfield College in the 1910s who became the first Chinese woman to graduate from the University of London. Read her story.


Pao Swen Tseng (also known by Zeng Baosun) was a student of botany at Westfield College in the 1910s who became the first Chinese woman to graduate from the University of London. After graduating in 1916, she went on to establish the I Fang School for girls in Changsha, China and served as the Headmistress until the school’s closure.

Early Life  

Pao Swen Tseng, born in the Hunan province in China, came from a prominent and elite Chinese family. Her great-grandfather was Tseng Kuo-fan (also known by Zeng Guofan), a military general of the Qing dynasty who led a victory against the Taiping Rebellion. Identified as a bright student early on, Tseng was sent to Mary Vaughan High School in Hangchow where she developed an interest in Christianity. In an excerpt from an I Fang college report Tseng felt; “...that the character of Jesus offered leadership and direction to her passionate desire for service.” As is evident by her later work, Tseng’s mission was to promote the spread of Christian education and leadership opportunities for women.

Establishing a school for girls in her province of Hunan was always Tseng’s dream. She set off for England with the hope of making this dream a reality. Tseng’s former Headmistress, Louise Barnes who was very fond of her impressive student, resigned from her post to eagerly accompany her on the journey to England. W. J. Hail, the Dean of the College of Yale in Changsha notes; “...From the very first it was apparent to Miss Barnes that [Tseng] was no ordinary school girl, but one who combined many sterling qualities with brilliance of mind.” After moving to England, Tseng studied for one year at Blackheath High School before commencing her studies at Westfield College, the University of London’s first women’s college.

Life at Westfield College 

At Westfield College, Tseng pursued a Bachelor of Science in Botany. She studied mathematics under Miss Lilian Janie Whitby and botany under Dr. Ellen Delf-Smith (founder of the Westfield Botany department). Tseng proved to be an active student, often gaining recognition for her school leadership roles. In 1916, Tseng formed a Science Club for the purpose of promoting interest in ‘things scientific’ among members of the Arts Schools. Reflecting on this new society, Ellen Delf-Smith writes; “I was told that this was due to the initiative of Miss P.S. Tseng, and her desire ‘to educate the college’”. Tseng served as the Secretary of the Science Club and delivered the opening lecture on ‘Material Benefits derived from a Study of the Mathematical Sciences’. She graduated in 1916 with a B.Sc. Honours in Botany, becoming the first Chinese woman graduate of the University of London.

In a letter addressed to Principal Dr. B. Thwaites in December 1971, Tseng expressed her gratitude for former Westfield Principal Constance Maynard and Westfield’s teaching; “Though I was not exactly a student of Miss Maynard's, it was Miss Maynard who was instrumental in taking me to Westfield. Westfield not only equipped me with modern knowledge (in science and philosophy, etc.), it also guided me in how to develop personality.” 

I Fang School for Girls 

After finishing her studies at Westfield, Tseng returned to Hunan. By 1918, she set her plan in motion and with the help of her cousin Beauson Tseng and Louise Barnes, she established the I Fang Girls' Collegiate School in Changsha. The school was named in memoriam of Tseng’s grandmother who looked after her early education. In her 1971 letter, Tseng explains; “My grandmother called her studio I-Fang and also used it as her pseudonym; and so we incorporated these two words in the new school's name.”  

 The school had humble beginnings; initially opening in a rented house with 8 pupils enrolled. Eventually, the school moved to a large property which was formerly a temple. Despite the growing demand of students and financial restraints, Tseng was committed to running the school to the highest standard and offering a rigorous education to her pupils. Tseng was joined by Winifred Galbraith and Violet Grubbs, Westfield alumni who taught English and science respectively.

Tseng described the campus in her autobiography, Confucian Feminist: Memoirs of Zeng Baosun (1893-1978) (translated by Thomas L. Kennedy); "...the campus was known as the most beautiful spot in Changsha. We planted flowers and trees and even had two small rowboats for the students to practise rowing on the lake.” The school proved to be successful, with one hundred percent of its students passing the national examinations for university admissions. One hundred percent of the students who applied to study abroad were also successful in their university examinations. 

Tseng was proud of her pupils; “The best feature, however, was the spirit in which the students undertook their studies. In the evening they studied by themselves without faculty supervision. There were no proctors during examinations and never any crib notes, having a substitute take the examination, or illicit passing of wasn't necessary to lock up our drawers; flowers and fruit were not taken from the garden and people didn't use other people's things without asking permission.”

The I Fang school was largely deemed a success both domestically and abroad. The school received tremendous support from international donors, including members of Westfield College. In a letter written by Tseng in August 1921, she acknowledges these contributions; “To all the friends in England we owe a deep debt of gratitude for kind sympathy and generous gifts, and particularly to Miss Richardson, Westfield College, Hampstead, who has been the kindest and greatest supporter of the School. Without her the School could not be what it is now. At present she is endeavouring to secure an English worker for us...” 

In 1921, with the help of Beauson Tseng, the I Fang School developed through the addition of a new building containing lecture halls and several new dormitories.  By 1922, the school’s population grew to fifty pupils. The school was commended for its excellence in teaching Chinese and Mathematics. Tseng led the institution with a progressive self-governing model whereby students and staff collaborated to settle school matters. Galbraith describes Tseng's approach; “Often Miss Tseng and her cousin take opposite sides of a discussion, sometimes from conviction, sometimes in order to show the girls two points of view and let them form their own judgments. Everyone is free to make any proposal or suggestion and after debate a vote is taken, so strikes and demands are unknown and the students enforce their own rules with inflexible justice. These meetings and decisions provide valuable training in public speaking, good temper, and for the foreigner at least, patience...” This progressive approach was seen in all aspects of the institution. Despite being a Christian missionary school, Tseng’s pupils were not required to attend chapel or engage in Bible study. It was her wish that students make informed decisions about their spirituality without the pressure to convert.

Pao Swen Tseng (seated left) with delegates of the Madras Conference being blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (1939) 

Tseng soon became an icon for women’s rights and education. As her profile grew, she received invitations to numerous conferences and events, including the World Peace Conference convened by Mahatma Gandhi. In a letter by Winifred Galbraith, she recounts; “[Pao] was away 6 weeks last term at Conferences & now she has just been to Mukden to a preliminary Conference of Chinese delegates to the Pan-Pacific conf. in Oct. (she is one of the 2 women delegates) & now she is at a conference for Christian teachers with Canon Streeter at Kuling. 

I Fang’s Challenges 

Despite the successes of the I Fang school and growing profile of its headmistress Pao Swen Tseng, the various political events and uprisings of the time led to many challenges for the school. In a ‘letter from China’ written in March 1926, Galbraith reflects on her time at the I Fang school, describing Tseng as having become depressed due to the hardships of running the school and questioned whether it was worth continuing. 

The school had been shut down numerous times due to “internal revolts and foreign invasions”. This was a time when the Chinese Communist uprising was just beginning – with supporters opposing I-Fang for its private operation and Christian outlook. In April 1927, the school was seized by the Farmers’ Union and Tseng along with her students and staff were forced to evacuate the school. 

In her autobiography, Tseng recounts of her students’ bravery during this period; “While Yifang was still occupied by troops, our students remembered where the school documents were kept, and every night three students crept over the wall near where the troops were billeted and sneaked out with the files. These included the registration and assignment of land and other important documents as well as the lists of students for each session. If we didn't have these things, it would be impossible to reopen. Thanks to their courage and ingenuity, we were able to start over.”

It was not long after reopening in 1928, that I-Fang was forced to close again due to continued political turmoil including the Second Sino-Japanese War. In 1948, Pao Swen Tseng was elected to the National Assembly. Shortly after, in 1949, Tseng fled to Hong Kong with her family due to the growing control and power of the communist armies.  

Life in Taiwan 

In 1950, Pao Swen Tseng was invited to live in Taiwan and permanently relocated to Taipei by 1951. Tseng continued to be an advocate for women’s causes. In 1952, Tseng was named to head the delegation for the Republic of China and Taiwan at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. In her autobiography, she reflects; “Representing the Republic of China on the UN Status of Women in 1952 afforded me the opportunity to speak out on important issues affecting women worldwide. I derived a great sense of personal accomplishment from this..."

Despite her exile to Taiwan, Tseng continued to make waves. She was involved in the establishment of Donghai University in Taizhong and served as a Board of Directors member. She continued to be highly involved in women's rights and causes until her death in 1978 at the age of 85. 


Pao Swen Tseng lived an extraordinary life dedicated to supporting those in her community, empowering women and championing the causes she believed in. Throughout her remarkable life, Tseng kept in touch with Westfield college through personal letters and reports from the I Fang School. Westfield and its alumni supported the school until its closure.

Pao Swen Tseng celebrating her 80th birthday with Beauson Tseng 

In one of her final communications with Westfield College, in 1971, Pao Swen Tseng expresses gratitude for her Westfield education; “Dr. Violet Grubb and Miss Winifred Galbraith who later worked with me in I-Fang as teachers were most helpful and further strengthened the influence of Westfield on me. It is not too much to say that for what I have achieved in life I owe most of it to Westfield.” 


To learn more about the inspiring people that attended Queen Mary University throughout its history, drop by the Asian Heritage Month Archives Event on Tuesday March 12th from 12:30pm-4:30pm at the Mile End Library. 


This article would not have been possible without the Queen Mary Archives and Special Collections, dedicated to preserving the unique and significant history of Queen Mary and East London. A special thank you to Florence Dall, QMUL Archives Officer for once again supporting me during the archive retrieval and research process. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to delve into the history of Queen Mary and share these notable figures with the wider student community. 


Bond, Jennifer. “‘The One for the Many’: Zeng Baosun, Louise Barnes and the Yifang School for Girls at Changsha, 1893–1927.” Studies in Church History 55 (2019): 441–62.  

Zeng, Baosun, and Thomas L. Kennedy. Confucian feminist: Memoirs of Zeng Baosun (1893-1978). Philadelphia: American philosophical Society, 2002. 

“Zeng Baosun.” BDCC. Accessed March 12, 2024. 


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