• Ancient Chinese law = any Chinese laws used up until 1911 when the last -imperial dynasty ended.
  • Differs greatly from common and civil law of western countries.
  • Incorporates Legalist and Confucian aspects of governing and social structure/ order.
  • The word law is translated loosely into two terms: The first, lü (律), means primarily “norm” or “model”. The second, fa (法), is usually rendered as “statute”.
  • Ancient Chinese law was made principally maintain ranks and orders amongst nobles.
  • Was also used to control society.
  • First ever record of Chinese law is the Kang Gao (康誥), a set of instructions issued by King Wu of Zhou.
  • Laws were coded and inscribed on bronze cauldrons and bamboo.

Key Legal Issues

  • Judge (usually district magistrate) conducts a public investigation of the crime.
  • The Chinese people despised the role of an advocate, the magistrate/ judge saw himself as someone seeking the truth, and not a part of either side.
  • Legalism in the Qin dynasty was harsh and very penal. Punishments such as, death by boiling, beating, and permanent mutilation were common.
  • Legalism in the Tang and later dynasties took a turn and placed more value in confucianism rather than harsh punishments. Being a civilized person became a focus of Chinese law.
  • In the Tang dynasty, law became less of a punishment and more of a step into rehabilitating ones self to achieve becoming more civilized.


  • Could not find a specific case, however it seems the majority of cases followed the same proceedings. The following info focuses on the cruel Qin dynasty.
  • The court is open to the public, however they were so cruel that rarely any people showed up.
  • The trials and courts were conducted by torture.
  • In an ancient Chinese law case, the district rulers and officials would be present at trial as the chief justices and are appointed to preside in all cases which come before them.
  • The judge sits behind a large table, the prisoner kneels before the table.
  • The prisoner is regarded guilty until proven innocent.
  • The prisoner may plead guilty or not guilty.
  • The prisoner is asked many questions to try to incriminate him/ her.
  • If the answer to a question is evasive, immediate torture is called upon.
  • If the prisoner is assumed guilty and persists he is still innocent, the torture increases.
  • Rarely any witnesses came forward as they were also subject to the possibility of torture.
  • For a minor crime, the punishment would be public flogging.