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  • Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949–1989 by Jennifer Altehenger
Jennifer Altehenger. Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949–1989. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. 388 pp. $49.95 (cloth).

In her account of "law propaganda" (法制宣传 fazhi xuanchuan; 法律宣传 falü xuanchuan) during the Mao and early post-Mao eras, Jennifer Altehenger identifies efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to popularize (and thereby control) knowledge of the law as a significant, yet understudied, "technique of CCP governance" (9). To fill the gap, Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China explores the use of law propaganda campaigns to transform popular mindsets and attitudes during the first 40 years of Communist rule. Part 1 surveys the problems inherent in aligning general Marxist ideals with the specific legacy of revolutionary-era CCP practice and the inheritance of earlier Chinese legal traditions. The strategy that emerged out of these competing tensions—a series of mass political campaigns designed to disseminate information about the law throughout the population—proved durable for decades (256–57). In part 2, Altehenger examines the two most elaborate law propaganda campaigns of the Maoist era: the 1953 popularization campaign for the 1950 Marriage Law (chapter 3) and the 1954 "discussion" of a draft constitution for the new state (chapter 4). These two chapters provide striking evidence of the logistical difficulties and ideological complexities (from the party-state's perspective) entailed by mass campaigns. Part 3 explores the reimplementation of law popularization campaigns after the disruptions of the high Maoist era, with a particular emphasis on the 1980s.

Altehenger's work makes several important historiographical interventions. Two of these are issues of framing. First, she highlights the extent to which "law" as a broad phenomenon served as an important political tool in the early People's Republic of China (PRC), thus providing a foundation for thinking about the legal culture of this era in relation to those of the preceding imperial and Republican periods and the subsequent reform era. Second, Altehenger firmly situates PRC practice within the context of the broader socialist world, emphasizing moments in which the CCP's concept of law popularization differed from those of communist parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern European states (55–56) and periods when CCP views generally aligned with trends in those countries (243–46). This emphasis on transnational comparisons between China and Eastern bloc countries during the Cold War era is particularly innovative and, one hopes, will inspire other historians with the relevant language skills to make similar comparisons.

Altehenger's most striking contribution grows directly from her meticulous and compelling reconstruction, based on archival findings in Beijing and Shanghai, of two early 1950s "law propaganda" mass campaigns. Altehenger's account reminds us that, no matter how monolithic the party-led mass campaigns of this era appeared, authorities never fully dominated them. She uncovers countless examples of friction, contradiction, [End Page E-13] and defiance in her source materials, including accounts of people pointedly questioning the nature of the "citizenship" articulated in the 1954 draft constitution (140), evidence of the surprising dependence of the state on private publishers in the early 1950s (62–64), and records of public discussions about the 1982 constitution's failure to guarantee workers the right to strike (200–201). Altehenger's deft use of previously untapped materials to tell complex stories about the early PRC places her within a growing cohort of scholars—including historians associated with East China Normal University as well as the various contributors to Dilemmas of Victory and Maoism at the Grassroots—seeking to historicize the 1950s through the rigorous examination of archival sources.1

Other historical periods covered in Legal Lessons receive less detailed treatment than the early 1950s. Altehenger's focus on two major law propaganda campaigns in 1953–1954 is followed by a substantially briefer coverage of the years between 1955 and 1970. One effect is that readers are left with the implication that authorities began to lose interest in law popularization campaigns even before the 1957 Anti-Rightist campaign or the 1958 onset of the Great Leap Forward (periods in which one might reasonably expect "law education" to have a low priority), thus suggesting that such campaigns were characteristic of only a brief period of time. Greater discussion of what the author suggests were efforts by local governments in the 1950s and 1960s to emulate these campaigns could clarify this issue (21). Despite an intriguing attempt to frame the various constitutions promulgated in the 1970s as a continuation of the party-state's interest in law popularization (174–77), coverage of the Cultural Revolution era is brief, and Mao, who ruled China for nearly three-quarters of the period covered in the book, is also a smaller-than-expected presence. Altehenger's account of law popularization efforts in the 1980s ends without detailing the linkage between the 1989 protests and the party-state's tradition of law popularization, although she suggests that a connection does exist (18–19, for example). These topics all remain avenues for future study.

Legal Lessons is an important work for scholars interested in the cultural dimensions of the law, Maoist-era mass political campaigns, and the comparative study of socialist states. Additionally, the sections of the book based on 1950s archival materials (chapters 2–4, in particular) should serve as a model for scholars seeking to integrate such sources into their own work. [End Page E-14]

Joshua Hill
Ohio University


1. Representative samples of English-language work done at East China Normal University include Feng Xiaocai, "Rushing toward Socialism: The Transformation and Death of Private Business Enterprise in Shanghai, 1949–56," in William Kirby, ed., The People's Republic of China at 60: An International Assessment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center, 2011), 240–58; Zhang Jishun, "Creating 'Masters of the Country' in Shanghai and Beijing: Discourse and the 1953–54 Local People's Congress Election," China Quarterly 220 (December 2013): 1071–91. For several other major works in this vein, see Jeremy Brown and Paul G. Pickowicz, eds., Dilemmas of Victory: The Early Years of the People's Republic of China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Jeremy Brown and Matthew D. Johnson, eds., Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China's Era of High Socialism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

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