In terms of jurisdiction and punishment, the border between civil and criminal laws in imperial China is not clear cut. The same officials can handle both civil and criminal cases, and lawfully impose the same punishment, such as the death penalty, on unfilial sons and traitors alike. In terms of the sphere of interests, however, the officials know very well that some violations are more concerned with private interests than public interests. For example, they will settle loan disputes in accordance with the original private contract between the money lenders and borrowers, unless the interest rate is so exorbitant that it necessitates government intervention. Consequently, the imperial Chinese and modern Western civil laws are roughly common in their coverage of marriage, divorce, succession, disinheritance, property matters, and so on. And, like the Western laws, the Chinese laws have experienced historical changes, many of the most important of which occurred during the Song dynasty (960–1279) or the “Tang-Song transformation,” so called to highlight the tremendous progress of China from the medieval to the early modern stages. Against the principle of filial piety, both sons and daughters are now allowed to sue their parents without fear of the death penalty if their accusations are true. Against the principle of communal family, both sons and daughters can possess privately earned properties not to be shared by their parents and siblings. Against the principle of patrilineal succession, unmarried daughters have their inheritance rights increased at the expense of the sons, reaching the ratio of two shares for a son and one share for a daughter. Against the principle of different rights according to different status, a formal concubine can inherit the spousal patrimony and establish an heir when the wife is absent. These changes reflect that the legislative principles, though still far from enshrining equality before the law, are paying increasing attention to the balance of duties and rights with decreasing regard to family relation, gender, or status. As to the judicial practices, they are nearing the rule of law and becoming more predictable instead of inconsistent. These are the less-known or even misunderstood aspects of the civil law in imperial China.
Chang Woei Ong
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
In a letter to his friend Wang Hui 王回 (1023–1065), the great Song dynasty (960–1279) politician, scholar, thinker, and writer Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021–1086) made a distinction between the Golden Age of the ancients and the less then desirable world of the present. More important, he claimed that the golden era was marked by a commitment to unity. Not only were morality and customs of the world made the same, the learned were united in their learnings and opinions. The periods after the Golden Age, on the other hand, were marked by diversity and confusion arising from how the truth is understood. Wang believed that he had found the truth about unity and how it could be achieved from reading the Classics. His ambitious political reform (called New Policies) was a grand program that sought to bring the ideal of unity to the world through government.
Wang Anshi, of course, was not the only major thinker in Chinese history to ponder the question of unity. In fact, a dominant and enduring theme in the history of Chinese thought is the search for unity. Faced with uncertainties arising from a diverse and complex world, thinkers in different periods, and with different intellectual orientations, saw it as their main mission to discover the true nature of unity and ways of realizing it for attaining a harmonious world. The process began when Confucius (551–479
From the consolidation of the Han empire (206
The Uyghurs (Chinese Huihe迴 紇, Huihu回鶻) were a pastoral nomadic people living in the region of the Selenga and Orkhon river valleys in modern Mongolia; they spoke a Turkic language. The empire that they created on the steppe lasted for nearly a century (744–840) and played an important role, both politically and culturally, in East Asia. Centered on the Mongolian Plateau, the Uyghur Empire at its height controlled numerous other peoples within a territory that included lands to the north in the modern regions of Tuva and Buryatia, as well as some parts of the northern Tarim Basin and eastern Inner Mongolia.1 During its eventful history, the Uyghur Empire sent cavalry to help the Tang Dynasty put down the An Lushan rebellion, maintained strong political and economic ties with China, fought with the Tibetan Empire for control of important international trade routes, built cities on the steppe, celebrated its rulers’ achievements in stone stelae, and—uniquely in the world—adopted Manichaeism as its state religion. After their empire collapsed, the Uyghurs developed new polities in Gansu and the Tarim Basin that continued to exercise influence in Inner Asia.