Ancient China Laws

Just like in other parts of the world, laws were created with the purpose of establishing order and making China a better place. Chinese laws changed over time, along with the elites that established them.

Early China Laws

  • Early Chinese society was divided into distinct classes. The difference between the aristocratic class and common people was reflected in contemporary laws.

    The focus was on keeping the separate ranks among the elites as well as governing the general population. So there were two different law systems for two different groups.

    The nobles only had to follow rituals and etiquette, while ordinary people were subject to rules of punishment, just like slaves.

  • The most important laws that were brought during the Zhou dynasty were based on rules that already existed in ancient Chinese society.

    The essential values were filial piety – the virtue of respecting the parents, ancestors, and the elderly in general – and primogeniture, which meant that the first-born child (usually a son) had the right to inherit the entire estate of the parents.

  • The earliest surviving written law in ancient China was the Kang Gao, which later became a chapter of the Book of Documents.

    The Kang Gao contained a number of instructions that King Wu of Zhou gave to a younger prince.

  • When the Zhou kingdom fragmented, in the 6th century BC, some of the independent states, including the states of Zheng and Wei, established their own punitive laws and regulations and inscribed them on bronze cauldrons and bamboo.

    The rulers changed ancient laws because they tried to establish effective administration, but they were criticized by traditional statesmen, such as Confucius because they diminished the difference between the “base” and the “noble.”

Court room in the People's Republic of China

Legalism in the Qin and Han Dynasties

While the Confucian school insisted on moral values, others glorified legalism and a far-reaching system of norms and punishments that everyone had to submit to.

The Qin dynasty established such legalist rules in their state, and it helped them win the war against other Chinese states in 221 BCE. As a result, this system spread like fire throughout the Chinese realm.

The Legalist school of thought replaced older philosophy and religion. The main idea was that penal law and heavy punishments are the key instrument of government that the ruler can rely on.

In this worldview, people are spoiled in their core, and they need to be forced to act well.On the other hand, the legalists introduced the idea of equality before the law.

Everyone needed to act according to the law, and everyone was responsible for their deeds. Moreover, the rules had to be conveyed clearly, so that ordinary people could understand them.

Corporal punishments were severe during the Qin dynasty, and they included various forms of mutilation and violent death.

The Han dynasty kept the idea of legalism, but their lawmakers also considered Confucian values and made the system of punishment less severe.

New laws were more refined and complex, and they helped the ruler to manage the country through a chain of command that included various officials and ministers that were ultimately responsible to him.

Tang Code

This process of the “Confucianisation” of Chinese law continued until the Tang dynasty. The result was the Tang Code of 624 CE – the law code that was intermingled with the Confucian views on society. It was also very clear and precise.

The Tang Code was introduced by Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Tang Dynasty. The text of the Code, unlike the previous laws, is fully preserved and can be read in a number of languages.

The law systems that served as the basis for the Tang Code were the Code of Northern Zhou, Code of Cao Wei, and the Code of Western Jin.

At the same time, Confucian moral views reduced the dependence on punishment for sustaining social order. Instead of the law, the Confucian Code of Rites became the regulatory document on civilized behavior.

The force of law would only be applied to those whose acts were far beyond the limits of civilized behavior.

Q&A

What was the name of the earliest surviving written law in ancient China?

It was the Kang Gao.

What did the Qin dynasty rulers think about Confucianism?

They rejected it and relied on harsh laws instead.

What was the name of the Code that was based on a compromise between legalism and Confucianism?

It was the Tang Code.

Which regulatory document served as guidelines to “civilized” people during the Tang Dynasty?

It was the Confucian Code of Rites.