Print Media and Legal Knowledge in Qing China

Chenxi Luo

Law as a modern discipline is highly sophisticated and specialized, and practicing law requires much-needed years of training. It might come as a surprise that, in early modern China, various members of society, like petty officials, lower-class litigants, and less literate commoners, were capable of citing the code during their judicial processes. Historians of Qing China have discovered a vigorously litigious society from reading local- and imperial-level archives since the 1990s. Through those legal archives, they recognized that many ordinary people employed legal knowledge for their own interests. This acknowledgment raises an important question: to what extent did commoners have access to legal information in the Qing dynasty? Ting Zhang’s 2020 book, Circulating the Code: Print Media and Legal Knowledge in Qing China, deals with this issue and offers a positive perspective that ordinary subjects were able to acquire legal information through multiple channels. Rather than the state monopoly of legal knowledge, she affirms that private and commercial sectors in the Qing period were actively involved in producing and circulating legal knowledge. This is a must-read book for students whose interests lie in legal history and book history in early modern China.

The book begins with a fraud case in which a Qing-era male commoner used a legal loophole, killing adulterous couples on the spot without legal responsibility, as a cover-up of the murder of his wife and his lover’s husband. This opening case is only the tip of the iceberg of a wide circulation of legal knowledge throughout the Qing society. Following the chapter sequence, legal knowledge goes from the top bureaucracy at the imperial court, down to the field administration, and finally reaches illiterate people in villages and non-Han Chinese on the frontiers. Chapter One is a chronology of how the printing of the Code worked at the imperial level. Besides the printing condition at court, the author enumerates several main legal editions issued by the regime, an overview that might be useful to future legal scholars interested in searching the Qing editions of the Code. The imperially authorized publishing, however, did not dominate the code circulation. It was the commercial printing that facilitated the downward movement of legal knowledge into middle- and lower-echelons of the society. Chapter Two goes on to reveal how commercial publishing operated throughout the Qing dynasty. The author foregrounds the compilation, revision, and publication processes of several commercial legal collections and highlights the cooperation among private legal advisors, book merchants, and provincial judicial officials. Commercial editions – the result of those collaborations – were main sources of acquiring legal knowledge for the Qing officials and commoners.

Chapter Three focuses on reading methods and legal education for judicial officials. The scholar-officials agreed that learning law was important for local governance and that reading the code was essential to their duties. In Chapters Four and Five, the author shifts her attention to the lower rungs of society by examining another two vehicles of expanding legal information: popular handbooks and community lectures. The popular handbooks with easy-to-read formats and timely information encouraged ordinary people to use legal sleights of hand in a courtroom. The community lectures sponsored by the state, on the other hand, orally imparted legal knowledge to illiterate people. Legal knowledge was no longer off-limits to commoners but became an integral part of village life. In the end, the book returns to the opening fraud case and locates the man’s aforementioned ruse in a social context: it was because of the various media conveying legal information that an ordinary man like him knew and was able to take advantage of the statute. Overall, the book spotlights the free flow of legal knowledge as one key feature of China’s legal modernity.

The book lies at the intersection of legal history and book history. To China’s legal history, it contributes to the state of the field in two ways. First, the book speaks to the question of what constitutes a valid legal source in Qing China. Throughout the book, the author identifies different types of legal texts such as statutes, sub-statutes, administrative rules, case precedents, private commentaries, and the like. In Chapters Two and Three, the analysis of textual components in commercial legal collections shows that unofficial legal texts, such as private commentaries and case precedents, were added along with the authorized code. Such inclusive compilation lent some credibility to unofficial legal texts during judicial practice (p.61-4, 104-8). Second, previous scholarship pointed out that Qing China had a lively legal culture with a high litigation rate and the presence of litigation masters. The author substantiates this point from a new angle: the accessibility of legal texts was another element showing the robust legal culture in the Qing. Due to the commercial publishing boom, ordinary people could freely purchase legal texts from book markets and thus empower themselves during their litigation procedures. By tracing the production and circulation of legal information, the book breathes some fresh air into the issues of judicial practice and legal culture in Qing China.

With an interdisciplinary approach, the author introduces the methods from book history to legal history. Particularly, the author pays attention to the visuality of different textual editions, including the quality of woodblocks and printing, page decorations, physical sizes, character shapes, ink, etc. Those details give us some clues of how the printing press operated. For instance, the author’s meticulous examination of an identical crack shown in the two editions of the Qing Code printed in 1825 and 1860 (p.34-5) convincingly indicates that the imperial publishing reused the same woodblock almost 40 years later. The evidence suggests the decline of the imperial publishing activities after the mid-Qing period. Not only the printing quality but also the textual organization is crucial in Zhang’s analysis. Beyond a simply textual examination, the author brings the structure of legal texts to the forefront, that is, the two-register and three-register formats used in Qing-era legal texts. Take the three-register format as an example. Each page was arranged into three horizontal parts, i.e., a cross-index in the upper, explanations of the Code in the middle, and the Code at the bottom. Those well-structured formats were easily understandable to mediocre readers and convenient to legal practitioners (p.102-8). Indeed, the issues of how legal texts were printed and organized impacted the popularization of legal knowledge in Qing China.

The book, in passing, identifies some features that make the Qing publications distinct from their Ming precedents. At the imperial court level, regardless of several publication bans, the Qing rulers were relatively lenient in the control of the code publication compared to the Ming. The loosening of the publication policy encouraged editors and publishers to publish the code without official authorization. Another policy change occurred in the civil service examination: legal tests known as pan were eliminated from the examinations in the Qianlong reign. According to the author, the abolition of legal tests actually set a higher bar for students learning legal knowledge. Only by passing civil service examinations could they be able to receive legal education (p.89). Speaking of the intellectual climate under the Qing, the author emphasizes the impact of substantive learning (shixue) and statecraft thoughts (jingshi) on legal learning. In the eyes of the Qing literati, learning how to adjudicate disputes matched their aspiration of benefitting the world, one goal of the intellectual movement (p.70-3, 94). Those conditions together make the Qing dynasty stand out in its own right.

A successful book does not exhaust a topic but sparks further intellectual curiosities. Ting Zhang’s book is one with such potential. Closing the book, readers might be interested in where ordinary women could obtain legal knowledge. Given that women actively participated in lawsuits in the Qing dynasty, yet with a low literacy rate and with no chances of participating in community lectures, what channels would be available for them to know the code? Readers might also wonder how commoners received the Code in reality. Did they understand the difference between statutes and sub-statutes? Last but not least, if we consider practice as one prerequisite of gaining legal knowledge, then how did judicial practice or litigation activity figure into one’s acquisition process? Ting Zhang’s welcome book will certainly broach more discussions that redefine Chinese legal and book histories in the future.