The Evolution of Law in the Early Chinese Empires from the First Emperor of Qin to Han Wendi (6/2023)

Mr. Simon Suen and Mrs. Mary Suen Sino-Humanitas Institute is very glad to jointly organise the “Sharing from Distinguished Scholars in History and Literature”, together with the Department of History and the Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology of Hong Kong Baptist University.

The four lectures of the “Sharing from Distinguished Scholars in History and Literature” were held on 26 June, and attracted nearly 400 participants at the venue and online. Please find below summary of one of the lectures:

The Evolution of Law in the Early Chinese Empires from the First Emperor of Qin to Han Wendi

Speaker: Robin D. S. Yates (Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies, Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University)
Date: 26 June 2023 (Monday)
Time: 9:30–11:00 am
Language: English
Moderator: Kin-sum Li (Associate Professor, Department of History, Hong Kong Baptist University)

In-person venue: SWT 702, Level 7, Shaw Tower, Hong Kong Baptist University
On-line platform: Zoom
Meeting ID: 995 7337 5618

Abstract: Until the discovery in 1975 of legal documents in tomb #11, Shuihudi, Hubei, belonging to a Qin scribe who died in about 217 BCE, virtually nothing was known of actual Qin legal practice or how it was transformed in the early Han dynasty. Scholars had to rely on the descriptions presented in transmitted historical texts such as the Shi ji (Historical Records) composed by Sima Qian (died ca. 86 BCE), and other works. The legal reality of the Qin and early Han was vague in the extreme. This paper will focus on the types of legislation, the ways in which legislation was created, how it was applied in practice, and some fundamental legal concepts, based on recently excavated documents including the Qin materials excavated at Shuihudi and those from the archives of the Qin County of Qianling, found in Well no. 1, Liye, Hunan Province. Materials retrieved from other scientifically excavated tombs and the looted Qin documents held by the Yuelu Academy, Hunan University will also be reviewed. How Qin law was transformed by the Han government will be analyzed through a discussion of the legal documents found in Tomb 247, Zhangjiashan, Hubei, dating to approximately 186 BCE, from the legal documents published this spring (2023) retrieved from Tomb no. 336 in the same cemetery, dating to Han Wendi’s reign, and other legal materials of comparable date.

First lecture of the series was led by Prof. Robin D. S. Yates of the Department of History and Classical Studies, McGill University. His talk explored the types, origins, practical applications and basic concepts of legislation through historical sources. The Q&A session was chaired by Dr. Kin-sum Sammy Li from the Department of History.