In 2011, the centennial of the 1911 Revolution, the Institute of Modern History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a set of publications that includes a narrative history of the Republic of China (Zhonghua minguo shi, 12 volumes), a chronology (Dashiji, 12 volumes), and a collection of Republican biographies (Renwuzhuan, 8 volumes). The result of decades of work since the founding of the Institute’s History of the Republic of China unit in 1956, this monumental set pays tribute to the foundational research of multiple cohorts of Chinese historians on the subject of the revolution. Now that many previously accepted “facts” have been more or less tamed, the moment has come, in China as well as elsewhere, for the field to take up the issue of how best to approach the history of the Republic of China from various perspectives.
To capture some sense of the changing dynamics in this historiography, in fall 2012 the Institute of Modern History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Institute of East Asian Studies of the University of California, Berkeley, jointly organized a workshop on the subject of “Law, Politics, and Society in Republican China.” Nine research papers were presented, in which participants considered the use of law as well as the dynamics of codification, whether as discourse or practice, in a variety of settings in Republican Chinese society.
It was not the purpose of the workshop, to be sure, to produce a history of law in Republican China. The objective was instead to generate new [End Page 303] insight on Republican history through an examination of law. With the latter goal in mind, workshop participants took the opportunity to raise questions that broadly concern issues in three areas: historical periodization, encounters between China and the West, and the tension between aspirations and practices. Is it the most productive approach, the participants asked, to rely upon a political chronology of regime shifts (1911, 1927, 1949) to examine the changes in Republican law? Or, conversely, how does a legal approach to Republican Chinese history shed new light on the nature of modern Chinese regime shifts, including their chronology? Modernity in Chinese law, as is well noted, has much to do with the Xinzheng (New Policies) reform of the late Qing in the 1900s and the state-sponsored wholesale adoption of Western legal reasoning and institutions. How do historians a century later make sense of the Western factor in the continuity and discontinuity of Chinese legal politics and culture? Were the Chinese, while duplicating non-Chinese texts and models, able to retain their subjectivity and subject position in the making of a Chinese legal system in the modern period? If so, then might a history of Chinese legal culture beyond the discourse of modernization and revolutions be possible? The Republican years, above all, saw many disappointments with regard to aspirations for constitutional governance and the implementation of a system of rule of law. What are the consequences of this long-standing tension between aspirations and realities? What, indeed, is the significance of a legal approach to Republican history? The three papers published in this issue of Cross-Currents represent a selection from the original workshop.
Joshua Hill, in “Voter Education: Provincial Autonomy and the Transformation of Chinese Election Law, 1920–1923,” offers a thoughtfully researched paper that zooms in on a paradigmatic shift in Republican ideas of representation: the move among the political elite away from the practices of indirect and selective representation toward a system that aspired to direct and universal voting. Hill shows that late Qing gentry traditions of public-mindedness in the civil sphere, so well documented in the works of Mary Rankin and others, proved vulnerable to violence and corruption in the Republican years. In response, a new discourse of universal voting emerged in the early 1920s that gained circulation among the provincial elite before it caught on with national leaders such as Sun Yat-sen. Hill’s paper highlights the role of the provincial elite and offers a new look at that group’s [End Page 304] quest for provincial autonomy. It cautions against a simple acceptance of the conventional wisdom...