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  • Chinese Law in Imperial Eyes: Sovereignty, Justice, and Transcultural Politics by Li Chen
  • Guanhong Chen
Chinese Law in Imperial Eyes: Sovereignty, Justice, and Transcultural Politics, by Li Chen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 416 pp. US$60 (hardcover). ISBN: 9780231173742.

At the time of the First Opium War, Chinese law, to some degree China itself, was depicted in popular Western discourses as representative of barbarity, despotism, backwardness, and uncivilization. Such images of Chinese law, according to Li Chen, were so influential that they still exert an impact on contemporary Western representations of China-related issues (pp. 1–2). Inspired by that supposition, Chen’s award-winning book on Chinese legal history addresses two questions. First, how were such images of China and Chinese law gradually created prior to the First Opium War (p. 2)? Second, how and why did they acquire such extraordinary and lasting power in the context of Sino–Western encounters from approximately the 1740s to the 1840s (p. 2)? After roughly 250 pages of investigation into a large body of unexplored archival materials, Chen argues that the First Opium War and all subsequent Sino–Western conflicts were neither necessary consequences of cultural clashes nor imperial domination arising purely out of the colonial interests of the treaty powers. Rather, the so-called “cultural incommensurabilities” between the Orient and the West, which are said to be the roots of cultural clashes, were to a large extent invented, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and the resulting Western discourses of China and Chinese law actually played more an important role in the series of Sino– Western disputes and conflicts occurring before and after the First Opium War than many had thought.

In addition to an introduction and conclusion, the book comprises five chapters that can be divided into three interrelated parts. The first and second chapters address the production of knowledge concerning Chinese law and society in the Western context, whereas the third and fourth discuss the distribution of such knowledge and its influence on the Western intellectual discourses of legal modernity and civilization. Finally, the fifth chapter, which reviews the decision-making process preceding the First Opium War, illustrates how such discourses and knowledge were both institutionalized in, and influenced, British diplomacy and policy toward China. Different from pre-existing research on the history of Sino–Western relations, which focuses primarily on a single dimension, such as diplomatic contacts or intellectual evolution, Chen’s work approaches the topic in a more comprehensive manner. To do so, [End Page 172] he relies not only on official archives and academic works but also on personal letters and popular press records.

Chen, in the first two chapters, re-examines several events occurring in the Sino–Western contact zone and demonstrates their significant impact on the formation of Western discourses asserting the irrationality and barbarity of Chinese law, as well as of China itself. As a landmark event in the history of Sino–Western relations, the Lady Hughes case is subjected to detailed scrutiny. In re-analyzing the legal nature of the case, as well as related legal terms, Chen argues that traditional Chinese law, at least as it pertained to homicide, was not as irrational as many believed (pp. 35–37). Following normative legal analysis of the case itself is a critical investigation of the respective reactions of the British and Chinese authorities, on the basis of which Chen concludes that the Western powers’ claims of extraterritoriality, which were said to be grounded in Sino–Western incommensurabilities, were actually driven by those powers’ demand for cultural and racial boundaries (p. 68).

The second chapter sheds light on Staunton’s translation of the Great Qing Code, which is of great significance in the history of Sino–Western relations. For one thing, it contributed tremendously to the production of Western knowledge on Chinese law, becoming the earliest resource on oriental law available to comparative legal researchers. For another, it actually accelerated the building of cultural boundaries because the Great Qing Code, although reorganized by Staunton, differed from Western rational law in so many ways. Following the translation’s publication, Sinology became an indispensable part of the Western-dominated global network of knowledge production...


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pp. 172-175
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