Course Code


Course Name

Justice and Law in Modern China


Monday 09:30 am - 12:15 pm




Dr. YAO Wuyutong

Teaching Assistant

Wu Ka Wai

Course Description

This course is a historical exploration of law and justice concepts, institutions, practices, and cultures in China mainly from the Qing Empire through the twentieth century. The course is structured in a chronological manner to follow the evolution of justice and law in China, while also incorporating recent research on specific themes in China’s legal history. The aim is to investigate the changing and enduring patterns and practices of law and justice in China’s past as a means to enriching our reflections on these realms in our present and our understandings of modern Chinese history.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the term, students should:

  • be familiar with a range of concepts, institutions, practices and cultures of law and justice in modern Chinese history.
  • be able to learn through case study analysis.
  • be able to learn from major scholarly interventions and debates.
  • be able to appreciate changing and enduring historical patterns of law and justice and their relevance to the present and understanding the complexity of the past.

Course Outline

Week 1 – September 4: Introduction: Qing情, Li 理, Fa法
Secondary Source Reading 

  • “Chapter 2: Keywords of Law”, in Deborah Cao, Chinese Language in Law: Code Red (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018), 13-36.

Week 2 – September 11th: Mentalities of Justice and the Legal System
Document Reading 

  • Excerpts from Analects, Great Learning, Writings of Lord Shang, Han Fei Zi, Laws of Qin, in Hawaii Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, ed. Mair, Victor H., Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 46-50, 64-69, 139-141, 148-149.

Secondary Source Reading

  • William P. Alford and Eric T. Schluessel, “Legal History,” in A Companion to Chinese History, ed. Michael Szonyi (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2017), 277–89.
  • Faure David, “Commercial Institutions and Practices in Imperial China as Seen by Weber and in terms of More Recent Research,” Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies 10, no. 2 (December 2013): 71–98.

Week 3 – September 18th: Imperial Codes and Judicial Administration amid the Ideology of Ritual
Document Reading 

  • Song Dynasty Case Judgements in Brian E. McKnight ed., The Enlightened Judgments: Ch’ing-ming Chi, 481-485.

Secondary Source Reading 

  • Paul R. Katz, “Ritual? What Ritual? Secularization in the Study of Chinese Legal History, from Colonial Encounters to Modern Scholarship,” Social Compass 56, no. 3 (September 1, 2009): 328–44.

Tutorial/Report: Ritual and Law 

  • Keliher, Macabe. The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2020.

Week 4 – September 25th: The High Qing Legal System in Practice
Document Reading 

  • Social Mobility and Crime (2 Cases) in Robert E. Hegel et al., eds., True Crimes in Eighteenth- Century China: Twenty Case Histories (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 205-225.

Secondary Source Reading 

  • Joanna Waley-Cohen, “Politics and the Supernatural in Mid-Qing Legal Culture,” Modern China 19, no. 3 (1993): 330–53. 
  • Yasuhiko Karasawa, “From Oral Testimony to Written Records in Qing Legal Cases,” in Thinking with Cases (University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 101–22.

Tutorial/Report: Law in the High Qing 

  • Kuhn, Philip A. Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992. 
  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Death of Woman Wang. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Week 5 – Oct 2nd: Public Holiday

Week 6 – Oct 9th: Late Qing Justice Cultures and the Revolutionary Reforms of Legal Modernity
Document Reading

  • “The Commissioner for the Revision of the Laws, Shen Chia-Pen, c.s. Present by Memorial the Draft of the Criminal Code (1909),” in The Introduction of Modern Criminal Law in China, by Marinus Johan Meijer (Lung Men Bookstore, 1967), 190–98.

Secondary Source Reading

  • Margaret B. Wan, “Court Case Ballads: Popular Ideals of Justice in Late Qing and Republican China,” in Chinese Law: Knowledge, Practice and Transformation, 1530s to 1950s, ed. Li Chen and Madeleine Zelin, (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015), 287–320.

Tutorial/Report: Gender and Law

  • Sommer, Matthew H. Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Ma, Zhao. Runaway Wives, Urban Crimes, and Survival Tactics in Wartime Beijing, 1937-1949. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Distributed by Harvard University Press: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015.

    ** Discuss your research paper topic with the Instructor before the end ofWeek 6. **

Week 7 – Oct 16th: A “Modern” Legal System Imposed and Negotiated
Document Reading

  • Shen Congwen, “The New and the Old,” in Selected Stories of Shen Congwen, translated by Jeffrey C. Kinkley, pp.2-29.

Secondary Source Reading

  • Margaret Kuo, “Spousal Abuse: Divorce Litigation and the Emergence of Rights Consciousness in Republican China,” in Research from Archival Case Records: Law, Society and Culture in China, ed. Philip C.C. Huang and Kathryn Bernhardt (Brill, 2014), 374–407.

Tutorial/Report: Legal Modernity

  • Chen, Li. Chinese Law in Imperial Eyes: Sovereignty, Justice, and Transcultural Politics. Columbia University Press, 2015.

** Book Report Due by Sunday Oct 22nd, 5pm **

Week 8 – Oct 23rd: Public Holiday

Week 9 – Oct 30th: Components of the Legal System
Secondary Source Reading 

  • Jan Kiely, The Compelling Ideal: Thought Reform and the Prison in China, 1901-1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), Introduction, Chapter 1-2. 
  • Bradly W. Reed, “Money and Justice: Clerks, Runners, and the Magistrate’s Court in Late Imperial Sichuan,” Modern China 21, no. 3 (1995): 345–82. 
  • He Bian, “Too Sick to Serve: The Politics of Illness in the Qing Civil Bureaucracy,” Late Imperial China 33, no. 2 (2012): 40–75.

Tutorial/Report: Dark Side of the Legal Modernity 

  • Ransmeier, Johanna S. Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. 
  • Kuo, Margaret. Intolerable Cruelty: Marriage, Law, and Society in Early Twentieth-Century China. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2012.

Week 10 – Nov 6th: The Justice of Nation-State Making,War and Revolution
Document Reading 

  • Excerpts from Mao Dun, ed., One Day in China (May 21, 1936), translated by Sherman Cochran and Andrew C.K. Hsieh with Janis Cochran, 22-30, 127-137.

Secondary Source Reading 

  • “Chapter 4: Company Law and the Emergence of the Modern Firm,” in China and Capitalism: A History of Business Enterprise in Modern China, by David Faure (Hong Kong University Press, 2006), 45–64. 
  • Eugenia Y. Lean, “The Making of a Chinese Copycat: Trademarks and Recipes in Early Twentieth-Century Global Science and Capitalism” Osiris 33, no. 1 (2018): 271–93.

Tutorial/Report: Law in Republican China 

  • Lean, Eugenia. Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 
  • Hill, Joshua. Voting as a Rite: A History of Elections in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. 
  • Chen, Janet Y. Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953. Princeton [N.J.]: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Week 11 – Nov 13th: Versions of Mao Era Revolutionary Justice
Document Reading 

  • Bao Ruowang (Jean Pasqualini) and Rudolph Chelminski, “Three Scenes from a Labour Camp,” and Chen Baichen, “‘Oracle Bones’: Memories of a Cadre School,” in Geremie Barme and John Minford, eds., Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, 70-78, 88-101.

Secondary Source Reading 

  • Michael Schoenhals, “The Intelligence Sleeper Who Never Was: Han Fuying and Case 5004,” in Victims, Perpetrators, and the Role of Law in Maoist China, ed. Daniel Leese and Puck Engman (De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018), 52–74. 
  • Chunying Wang and Y. Yvon Wang, “Gray Markets in the Great Leap: Prosecuting ‘Profiteering’ in Liangshan County, Shandong, 1958–1960,” Modern China 48, no. 5 (September 1, 2022): 948–81.

Tutorial/Report: Law in the PRC 

  • Altehenger, Jennifer. Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1989. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Week 12 – Nov 20th: Quests for Order and Justice amid Economic Rise
Document Reading 

  • Selected interview transcripts in Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker: Real-life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, translated by Wen Huang, 13-19, 203-213, 254-266.

Secondary Source Reading 

  • Thomas B. Gold, “Just in Time!: China Battles Spiritual Pollution on the Eve of 1984,” Asian Survey 24, no. 9 (September 1, 1955): 947–74.

Tutorial/Report: No monograph for this period.

Week 13 – Nov 27th: Workshop I: What can we do with legal documents?
Secondary Source Reading 

  • Tristan G. Brown, “The Deeds of the Dead in the Courts of the Living: Graves in Qing Law,” Late Imperial China 39, no. 2 (2018): 109–55. 
  • Weiting Guo, “Social Practice and Judicial Politics in ‘Grave Destruction’ Cases in Qing Taiwan, 1683–1895,” in Chinese Law: Knowledge, Practice and Transformation, 1530s to 1950s, ed. Li Chen and Madeleine Zelin (Brill, 2015), 84–123.
  • Eric Schluessel, “Water, Justice, and Local Government in Turn-of-the-Century Xinjiang,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 62, no. 4 (May 16, 2019): 599–625. 
  • Madeleine Zelin, The Merchants of Zigong: Industrial Entrepreneurship in Early Modern China (New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2008).


  • Szonyi, Michael. The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. 
  • Lawson, Joseph. A Frontier Made Lawless: Violence in Upland Southwest China, 1800- 1956. University of British Columbia Press, 2019.

Week 14 (Make-up class) – Dec 4th: Workshop II: Reflection: Marginality and Agency in Law

Secondary Source Reading 

  • Eric T. Schluessel, “Muslims at the Yamen Gate: Translating Justice in Late-Qing Xinjiang,” in Kashgar Revisited: Uyghur Studies in Memory of Ambassador Gunnar Jarring, ed. Ildik´o Bell´er-Hann, Birgit N. Schlyter, and Jun Sugawara (Brill, 2017), 116–38. 
  • Y. Yvon Wang, “Shame, Survival, Satisfaction: Legal Representations of Sex between Men in Early Twentieth-Century Beijing,” The Journal of Asian Studies 75, no. 3 (2016): 703–24.

** Research paper due by midnight, December 8th **

Assessment & Assignments

Class Participation (10%)
Students are expected to read all the assigned reading before coming to class and participate in the discussion.

Group Storytelling Club (20%)
On a first-come, first-served basis, students will sign up for a group storytelling club. Based on the weekly readings, you can choose a topic or a legal case that interests you. Group members should select either primary or secondary sources for the week of their choice and inform all of their classmates: What happened, when, and where? Why? What are your thoughts on the cases? What social and historical implications do the cases have? The method of telling the story could be as simple as standing in front of the class and beginning to tell the story; however, you are encouraged to act out the story you select. ForWeek 5, for example, you could choose the following document: Draft of the Criminal Code by Shen Jiaben. One of the group members could take on the role of Shen Jiaben. One member of the group could play the role of another Qing official who takes a more conservative stance when drafting the criminal code. One member could assume the role of Emperor. You may use slides, but only minimal text should be included, and you are encouraged to tell the story in a sensational and visual rather than textual manner. The whole performance or storytelling should be within 15 minutes.

Book Report and Individual Presentation (30%)
Students are required to write a book report on a recent monograph in Chinese legal history, broadly defined. The report should summarizes the main arguments, evaluate the author’s use of primary sources and secondary sources, pay attention to the author’s analytical framework, and contextualize the work in the broad historiography of legal history in China. The written report should not exceed 1000 words. Meanwhile, students should use slides to introduce the book to all of their classmates within 15 minutes. Each week’s schedule includes a list of potential monographs. The written report should be submitted by the end ofWeek 7, though the presentation can be done earlier or later.

Research Paper (40%)
Students are expected to choose a legal history topic and write a 3000-4000 word research paper using both primary and secondary sources. For example, you could select several cases involving ”fraud medicines” (using fake ingredients to make valuable drugs such as musk) and contextualize and critically analyze these cases in the context of their historical moment. This could include the commodification of medicines in the 18th and 19th centuries, market regulation by the Qing court, and the mobility of ordinary people. Students should have a discussion with the instructor about a potential topic by the end of Week 6.

Honesty in Academic Work

Attention is drawn to University policy and regulations on honesty in academic work, and to the disciplinary guidelines and procedures applicable to breaches of such policy and regulations. Details may be found at With each assignment, students will be required to submit a signed VeriGuide declaration that they are aware of the policies, regulations and procedures.