Tracing the origins of legal practice in modern China


In the first years of the 20th century, thousands of Chinese students flocked to Japan, a significant portion of whom enrolled in law and government studies, including regular as well as short-track courses designed for holders of traditional Chinese titles.  Upon their return from Japan, many of these students came to play decisive roles in Chinese society. Imbued with both reformist and revolutionary ideas, many of them took over relevant political and bureaucratic positions in the late Empire and the early Republic, while others excelled as lawyers and judges.  In the new universities and law schools created in China as a part of the ‘reform of governance’ instituted in the last years of the Empire, instructors and advisors from Japan played a crucial role in transmitting legal knowledge. Graduates of the Imperial University and several colleges devoted to law and administration, too, came to occupy positions of high relevance in the legal universe of the Republic.

Being geographically and culturally closely related, and having metamorphosed from a peripheral and politically weak polity to a powerful nation-state in a matter of a few decades, Japan’s solutions to the challenges of modernity were watched in China with great attention. However, precisely because of the undoubtedly close relationship between China and Japan, Japanese influence is often turned into a black box, which obstructs rather than facilitates our understanding of the dynamics of intellectual exchanges in early 20th-century East Asia. The project, therefore, aims to take a closer look at the notion that Japan acted as a ‘shortcut to modernity’ for Chinese intellectuals and politicians by examining the transnational and transcultural connections in the development of the modern legal profession in China. 

Although many of the newly established norms and institutions — including, eg the 1912 provisional regulation on lawyers — were closely oriented on Japanese blueprints, the superficially similar regulations concealed significant differences in their interpretation and application. The project traces career trajectories of select Chinese lawyers of the Republican period, showing how networks which formed already among the Chinese student diaspora transfigured into a professional body of lawyers in China’s large cities. By analysing extant memoirs, school records and periodicals of the time, it elucidates (a) typical education and career paths of China’s first modern lawyers, (b) how these influenced their professional identities, (c) how the lawyers adapted their various experiences abroad with their Chinese upbringing and (d) how female lawyers navigated the male-dominated legal professional world of the Republic of China.

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