Dr. Han Chih Tang, 79, a native of China and a physician at St. Elizabeths Hospital here for about 20 years before her retirement six months ago, died of cancer Thursday at George Washington University Hospital. She lived in Arlington.

Dr. Tang, who was born in Hunan, China, the eldest of 12 children, was said to be the first Chinese woman to earn a medical degree from Peking Union Medical College. After graduating in 1928, she came to the United States with her husband, Prof. Chen Pien Li, a research scientist recognized for his work on the Salk vaccine at the National Institutes of Health.

She was an intern at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia before returning to China in 1931 to begin her medical career.

In the 1930s, during the Sino-Japanese war, Dr. Tang traveled to the mountain area of Ann Shun, where she treated residents and soldiers and served as an obstetrician.

After returning to this country in 1949, she was a general practitioner at Hadley Memorial Hospital here and at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Montgomery, Ala., before joining the staff at St. Elizabeths, where she specialized in geriatrics.

Dr. Tang and her husband had made several visits to the People's Republic of China in the 1970s. The first trip, in 1973, was at the personal invitation of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who had attended school with Prof. Li in Peking. At that time, Dr. Tang had expressed surprise and pleasure at being included in the invitation because women generally were not invited.

She and her husband made two subsequent trips to their native land, in 1975 and again in 1978, to meet with Mao's successors, Chou En-lai and Deng Ziaoping.

Besides her husband, survivors include a son, Raymond Li, and a daughter, Lotta Chi, all of Arlington; three sisters and four grandchildren. d

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the American Cancer Society.