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Lecture Eight: The Prosperity and Legal System of Ancient China

(english.legalinfo.gov.cn) Updated : 2017-11-30

Lecture Eight: The Prosperity and Legal System of Ancient China

China is an ancient civilization with more than 4000 years’ history. It has gone through the flourishing age for many times. For example, the Benign Administration of the Cheng-Kang Reign Period (Cheng Kang Zhi Zhi) in the Western Zhou Dynasty, the Benign Administration of Wenjing Reign Period (Wen Jing Zhi Zhi) in Western Han Dynasty, the Benign Administration of Zhenguan Reign Period (Zhen Guan Zhi Zhi) in Tang Dynasty, the Benign Administration of the Kang-Qian Reign Period (Kang Qian Zhi Zhi) in Qing Dynasty. The standards of a flourishing age are national unity, national harmony, economic prosperity, people's prosperity, political openness, rule of law, cultural prosperity, academic progress and so on.

However, the emergence and the maintenance of a flourishing age are inseparable from the legal system. Therefore, the legal system is important to a flourishing age and a flourishing age can not take shape without the legal system. We take the Benign Administration of Zhenguan Reign Period (Zhen Guan Zhi Zhi) as an example, which is the result of the implementation of equal-field system (Jun Tian Zhi)(the image of equal-field system). The so-called equal-field system is to distribute land to peasants so that peasants have a material basis to produce crops for self-supply and taxes. Due to the great turmoil in the Sui Dynasty, the state had a lot of unclaimed land in Tang dynasty so it was possible to distribute the land to the peasants. What did the peasants get? How much land? The peasants got about 100 mu land, includes Kou Fen land (Kou Fen Tian) (80 mu, which has to be returned to the state after the owner’s death) and YongYe land (Yong Ye Tian) (20 mu, permanently owned land).

The YongYe Land can be passed down to the offspring and the Koufen Land has to be returned to the government. The peasants can develop their own business after they get the land and be rich, which leads to economic prosperity and social stability. All these can not be separated from the law of equalized field (Juntian Law) which is issued in the early Tang Dynasty and revised constantly until the Zhenguan period. The Juntian Law brings the equal-field system, the latter one brings prosperity to the people and the whole country. So, the emergence and the maintenance of a flourishing age are inseparable from the legal system.

Due to the important significance of law system in maintaining the stability of a country, all the dynasties positively take effort in legislation after their foundation. Even those national regimes in region or minority regimes, for instance, Liao, Jin and XiXia of the Northern Dynasties. Those minority regimes are all anxious to enact the law at the beginning of their foundation. Enactment of law makes the policy legalized and make a yardstick for national governance. So, the law is a national standard and yardstick.

In a flourishing age with legal system, there is an important point that is maintaining the legal system. That is to say, people from all the levels obey the law, whether the emperor or the officials. In the early Zhen Guan period, Emperor Taizong of Tang often gather the officials to discuss the reason of the destruction of the Sui Dynasty. During the period of Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty, the country is powerful. Why does Sui Dynasty come to the demise under the governance of Emperor Yang of Sui(the second generation)? They finally work out a conclusion, that is, the emperor and the officials all abandon the law and throw it far away (Xian Zhang Xia Qi). So Emperor Taizong of Tang and his officials prove that maintain legal order, obey the legal system and law are important ways of governing the country.

Emperor Taizong of Tang take the lead in some things. For example, he finds that many officials fake the resume in the early Tang Dynasty. He was angry and enacted an edict that those officials who has faked the resume shall be sentenced to death. Shortly after his edict, Dai Zhou, Shaoqing of Dali Temple(a judiciary ), tries a case of faking the resume and does not sentence the official who faked the resume to sentence but exiling him. Emperor Taizong of Tang get angry and blame Dai Wei for his trial. What is Dai Wei’ s response? He says “What is the law? It is “ national credit for its people” [ quoted from Old Book of Tang•Dai Zhou (Jiu Tang Shu•Dai Zhou Zhuan)], which means the law declare the utmost good faith to people. However, Your Majesty enacted the edict according to your sudden anger. I am an enforcement official and I should not do that. If I do so, the law will lose its credit.” So he suggest Emperor Taizong of Tang to “ be patience with small anger and preserve great credit”, Dai Zhou’ s argument does not anger Emperor Taizong of Tang, but has been appreciated, then Emperor Taizong of Tang says: “ My behavior in law enforcement is not rigorous, you have the courage to correct me, I have nothing to worry about”[ quoted from Zhen Guan Zheng Yao•Lun Gongping]. (original text). So upper class and underclass all respect and fear the law, which maintains legal order and brings a flourishing age. The reason of a country transit from a flourishing age to the decline and fall is tied to the destruction of the legal system. Hanfeizi is a legalist in the period of Qin Dynasty, he once said a words: if people all obey the law and do things in accordance with the law, then a country will be powerful, otherwise, it will get weaker and perish. “obey the law” means people from different levels all observe law and discipline, then the country will be strong. All the flourishing ages go in this way. Otherwise, the country will be lead to the demise.

When we talk about the flourishing age, it is easier to find the effect of the law. Of course, the law should be just and the officials should be upright. The combination of the just law and upright officials can lead people to obey the law and give full play to the effect of the law and bring about a flourishing age. The flourishing age is related closely to the legal system.