Sun, Dec 13, 2015 - Page 12 News List

The frail assassin

After a failed attempt at assassinating Yuan Shikai, Tu Tsung-ming went on to become the first Taiwanese to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Tu Tsung-ming founded Kaohsiung Medical University in 1955. It was the first private medical school in Taiwan.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan in Time: Dec. 14 to Dec. 20

With incubators, test tubes and bottles of cholera bacteria in their luggage, two 20-year-old medical students set out for Osaka from the port of Kirun (today’s Keelung) in July, 1913.

Their mission: enter China through Japan and assassinate Chinese provisional president Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) by contaminating Beijing’s water supply.

The men who agreed to carry out such a far-fetched plan would prove to be no ordinary people. Weng Chun-ming (翁俊明) would become a notable anti-Japanese resistance figure, while Tu Tsung-ming (杜聰明, 1893-1986) would graduate on Dec. 16, 1922 from Kyoto Imperial University as the first Taiwanese to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree.

During Japanese colonial rule, many Taiwanese youth identified with their Han-Chinese brethren in China. Both Tu and Weng were members of the Tongmenghui (同盟會, “united league”), revolutionary alliance-turned-political party founded by Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙).

Tu writes in his memoir that he and other Taiwanese students were “furious” when they heard of Yuan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and ambitions to become emperor.

A fellow medical student proposed using cholera bacteria to assassinate Yuan, which was considered a viable plan. Tu, who specialized in bacteriology, and Weng were recommended for the job by Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), who would go on to form Taiwan’s first political party.

Tu told his mother that he was going sightseeing in Japan, where a visa wasn’t required to enter China. The pair reportedly met with Sun in Kobe and told him about their plans. Sun praised their intentions, but not wanting them to risk their lives, tried to stop them, but to no avail.

Several days later, they arrived in Beijing by train, but after studying the city’s water system they realized that unlike Taiwan, the water source was enclosed and also heavily guarded.

Having no way to poison Yuan and feeling that they were being watched, the duo slipped back to Taiwan and went back to being regular students.

Tu grew up in a farming family in what is today New Taipei City’s Sanjhih District (三芝) as a frail but intellectually-gifted boy. Despite earning first place in the medical school entrance exam, he earned poor marks for his physical and was only admitted because interim principal Nagano Junzo insisted that it would be a shame not to admit the top student.

Tu writes that most Taiwanese medical students went on to pursue the more lucrative trade of being a doctor. But he was inspired by the likes of Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur and wanted to be a researcher.

He worked as a research assistant for a while, but it wasn’t enough for his ambition.

“My supervisors took great care of me, but I felt that I needed more education to conduct independent research and do greater things,” he writes in his memoir.

Tu had extra motivation because getting a medical degree was one of the stipulations for marrying his future wife, as she came from a higher social class.


After earning his diploma, Tu specialized in pharmacological research, and his accomplishments include creating a painkiller from snake venom and a cure for dysentery from papaya leaves. But he’s probably best known for his research on the treatment of opium addiction.

Sources show that opium first entered Taiwan from Indonesia during the 17th century. By 1901, official records show that there were almost 170,000 addicts in the country.

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