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1 - The Conception of Law in Traditional China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2022

Weidong Ji
Affiliation:
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China
Xi Lin
Affiliation:
Fudan University, Shanghai
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Summary

It has been argued that during the Western Zhou, Chinese monarchs adopted a multicentric governance model (Wu 2013, pp.137–57). The successive Spring and Autumn Period was a time marked by a collapse of rites and corruption of norms (礼崩乐坏), while the Warring States Period by great chaos of competing to be the hegemon. Both periods were characterized by a disruption of sociopolitical order en masse – a disruption so unsettling that Chinese history moved again toward the concentration of power and a unipolar model of political governance. Qinshi Huangdi, the emperor of Qin, unified China, ended its disunity, and created a highly centralized structure of political power. Lord Shang, a well-known minister in the unified Qin Empire, once suggested that “[o]nly when a sage rules the country will he strive for singleness of purpose.” The means to achieve this goal is by the law, with its guideline being a draconian legal system that is founded on strict reward and punishment. This effective control serves the purpose of building a sense of authority among the people. In the eyes of a legalist in ancient China, inasmuch as the monarch monopolizes power and uses it as an instrument for state governance, this can easily achieve its effectiveness. As Guanzi argued, “[m]ajesty cannot be wielded by two persons; government cannot have two gates. When a ruler uses laws to govern his country, he need only put them in place and that is all.” This practice of subjugating the law to political power has one archetype – Li Kui’s The Canon of Law (法经).

Type
Chapter
Information
Towards the Rule of Law in China
Social Diversification and the Power System
, pp. 15 - 33
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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