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.
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.
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.
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.