Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Legal Process Unearthed: A New Source of Legal History of Early Imperial China

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Legal Process Unearthed: A New Source of Legal History of Early Imperial China

Article excerpt

A group of Qin documents inscribed on bamboo slips was acquired by the Yuelu Academy on the antique market in Hong Kong in 2007. Four of these manuscripts are criminal case records dated from the final decades before the unification of China by the state of Qin in 221 B.C. These texts shed light not only on the administration of justice on the eve of imperial unification but also on various aspects of social, economic, and cultural history and historical geography. The present article reviews the recently published English translation of the Yuelu case records by Ulrich Lau and Thies Staack and discusses the value of these texts as historical source material.

Starting from the 1970s, archaeological discoveries of legal manuscripts dated to the third and second centuries B.C.E. have thrown light on the world of early Chinese legal culture--the world of constables and judiciary scribes, robbers and absconding slaves, conscripted soldiers and common peasants venturing into the mountains in the hope of claiming the generous rewards promised by the government for capturing bandits in their hideouts. This was also a world of writing where officials of all ranks were required to master formulaic language and a variety of "models" to correctly draft investigation reports, submit dubious cases for revision, and compose letters of recommendation for competent subordinates. New genres of official and private writing on judiciary matters proliferated, making it all the more difficult for a modern researcher to identify what he or she is looking at--a credible case record or a legal mini novel, a manual carefully prepared by judiciary authorities in the capital to instruct their subordinates in the intricacies of criminal procedure or a product of leisure-time compilation by a local scribe exchanging the latest courtroom news with his colleagues.

Manuscripts dealing with legal practices have often enjoyed greater scholarly attention than the more voluminous collections of statutory law recovered from the same ancient tombs. At least this seems to be the case with the academic translations of ancient Chinese legal manuscripts into Western languages. After the first major discovery of Qin legal documents on bamboo slips in tomb no. 11 at Shuihudi (Hubei) in 1975, the first text to be translated in English was the collection of twenty-five model records for conducting criminal proceedings rather than any of the three collections of statutes originating from the same burial. (1) The next important discovery of early imperial legal lore, from an early Western Han tomb at Zhangjiashan excavated in late 1983, yielded a collection of twenty-seven statutes and one group of ordinances along with the "Book of Submitted Doubtful Cases" (Zouyan shu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Again, the number of translations suggests that the case collection enjoyed greater attention than the statutes. (2)

This book by two German researchers of early Chinese law and legal manuscripts, Ulrich Lau and Thies Staack, is yet another major contribution to the growing body of Western-language translations and studies of criminal case records from early imperial China. The collection of fifteen cases is part of a cache of Qin manuscripts that includes 2,176 bamboo and wooden slips and fragments thereof. It was acquired by the Yuelu Academy (Changsha, Hunan) on the antique market in Hong Kong in December 2007. Some three-fourths of these slips are legal manuscripts that consist of several collections of statutes on ca. 1,400 slips and four manuscripts of criminal case records. The latter were dubbed the "Four Types of Documents for Trying Criminal Cases and Other (Procedures)" (Wei yu deng zhuang si zhong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by the Yuelu Academy editors. These four manuscripts include 257 bamboo and wooden slips, with the length of slips, the nature of the writing support (bamboo or wood), and scribal hands varying from manuscript to manuscript. …

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