Chinese law is one of the oldest legal traditions in the world. The core of modern Chinese law is based on Germanic-style civil law, socialist law, and traditional Chinese approaches.
Law in the People's Republic of China is currently undergoing gradual reform, as many elements inside and outside the country emphasize the need to strengthen the rule of law in China, and international trade and globalization spur transformations in various areas of Chinese domestic law.
The two major Chinese philosophical schools discussed below, Confucianism and Legalism, strongly influenced the idea of law in China. Briefly, under Confucianism, the state should lead the people with virtue and thus create a sense of shame which will prevent bad conduct. Under Legalism, law is to be publicly promulgated standards of conduct backed by state coercion. The tension between these two systems is that Confucianism relies on tradition to make the leader the head of household of all China, while Legalism makes standard law that even the emperor should be bound by. The common factor is that both endorse to different degrees a paternalistic conception of the state, which knows better than its citizens and makes laws to protect them. This concept persisted throughout the imperial period, into the republican period, and can still be seen acting today.
The current constitution, created in 1982, states in Article V that no organization or individual is above the law and in Article III makes the People’s Congresses and state administration responsible to the people, paving the way for later efforts to allow enforcement of individual rights. Passage of the Administrative Litigation Law of 1987 created legal recourse for individuals from arbitrary government action, an avenue previously unavailable. Despite the deep-seated norm against legal proceedings, litigation in the Chinese courts has increased dramatically, especially in recent years. The continuing weakness of courts resulting from their dependence on the local government for financial support and enforcement undermines the effectiveness of these remedies but this has also begun to change with China’s initiatives to increase legal training and the professionalism of the judiciary.
Confucianism and Legalism are two major Classical legal theories or philosophies developed during the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, a time that saw the most impressive proliferation of new ideas and philosophies in Chinese history. While both theories call for governmental hierarchy, they differ drastically in their views of human potential and the preferred means to achieve political order. Nevertheless, both theories have influenced and continue to influence the development of cultural, social, and legal norms in China.
Notwithstanding such an understanding, the ruler, like in Confucianism, has the ultimate authority to decide what the law should be. Therefore, like Confucianism, Legalism is subject to abuse as well. In fact, the Qin emperor implemented strict laws and extremely harsh punishments without taking into account mitigating circumstances even for insignificant crimes. For example, books were burned and people holding different ideals were buried alive. While the Qin emperor successfully instilled fear and respect for law into the minds of his people, the harshness of the law led to his quick demise after only 14 years of reigning over China.
The significant influence of the Legalist tradition in Chinese law has historically been overlooked. Although the Confucian ideology provided the fundamentals for the substance of traditional law, the Legalist school constructed the important framework of the traditional legal system. The Han dynasty retained the basic legal system established under the Qin but modified some of the harsher aspects in line with the Confucian philosophy of social control.
The Confucian notion that morality and self-discipline was more important than legal codes caused many historians, such as Max Weber, until the mid-20th century to conclude that law was not an important part of Imperial Chinese society. This notion, however, has come under extreme criticism and is no longer the conventional wisdom among Sinologists, who have concluded that Imperial China had an elaborate system of both criminal and civil law which was comparable to anything found in Europe.
The introduction and translation of Western legal texts into Chinese is believed to have been started under the auspices of Lin Zexu in 1839. More systematic introduction of Western law together with other Western sciences started with the establishment of Tongwen Guan in 1862. The major efforts in translation of Western law that continued until the 1920s prepared the building blocks for modern Chinese legal language and Chinese law. Legal translation was very important from 1896 to 1936 during which period the Chinese absorbed and codified their version of Western laws. These efforts were assisted by the medium of the Japanese legal language and law developed in Japan during the Meiji period which involved in large part Japanese translation of European Continental laws.
With the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms (ca 1979), the need for reconstructing a legal system to restrain abuses of official authority and revolutionary excesses was seen. In 1982 the National People's Congress adopted a new state constitution that emphasized the rule of law under which even party leaders are theoretically held accountable. Legal reconstruction occurred in piece-meal fashion. Typically, temporary or local regulations would be established; after a few years of experimentation, conflicting regulations and laws would be standardized.