In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Law in Late Imperial China

  • Introduction
  • Translations of Late Imperial Legal Codes and Related Predecessors
  • General Histories of Ming and Qing Legal Institutions
  • Reform of the Qing Code in the New Policies Era
  • Administrative Manuals and Statecraft Writings
  • Published County, Prefectural, and Provincial Archival Collections
  • Reference Works

Chinese Studies Law in Late Imperial China
Maura Dykstra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0205


This bibliography builds on the scholarship and historiographical trends summarized in Geoffrey MacCormack’s overview of Western-language scholarship, in the Oxford Bibliographies article “Traditional Chinese Law,” by focusing on the sources used to study late imperial law, rather than scholarship about the law. As such, it is designed for the intermediate or advanced student interested in using historical sources to study Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) legal institutions. It provides some points of entry to a field that has expanded rapidly since the turn of the twenty-first century. Beyond the boom of interest in local archives, the field has benefitted from a serious increase in the collection and cataloging of a variety of materials, ranging from magistrate manuals to local caches of contracts and other legal sources. The rapid expansion and discovery of available sources has spurred a renewed interest in the institutions, documents, practices, and nuances of late imperial law. These fields of scholarship and the sources that support them are the main focus of this bibliography, which assumes that readers will be most comfortable reading in English but are capable of tackling both primary sources and scholarship in Chinese. Where available, digital versions of texts are provided for ease of access. Many of these digital versions are scans of original materials or carefully checked scholarly transcriptions. Scholars using these digital sources should be aware, when they are using transcribed texts, that, unless otherwise stated, they may have been generated using optical character recognition (OCR) technology and therefore may contain errors. Checking transcribed texts against images of original prints is, therefore, recommended. For the purposes of this bibliography, “Late Imperial Law” refers to the legal statutes, sub-statutes, regulations, and administrative conventions governing the administration of the Ming and Qing empires and the lives of the commoners living within their boundaries. For these reasons, although legal texts and institutions for ruling non-commoner populations (such as non-Han in tusi jurisdictions, subjects in colonial jurisdictions, members of the imperial house, or members of the massive military apparatus, etc.) exist in abundance, these types of law have been excluded from discussion because they were, in the Ming and Qing, distinct from governing the commoner population and deserve their own specialized treatment.

Translations of Late Imperial Legal Codes and Related Predecessors

The entry point for most scholars into the world of late imperial law are the Ming Code and the Qing Code: the body of imperially endorsed laws governing punishment and sentencing that circulated in multiple formats throughout the empire. Jiang 2014 contains a full translation of the 1397 Ming Code, which was not again revised for the duration of that dynasty (on the process of compiling the Ming and Qing legal codes, see the sections on the Ming Code and the Qing Code). Staunton 1810 and Jones 1994 are, on the other hand, the only translations that exist of the Qing Code, and they are only partial, largely owing to the fact that it accrued thousands of sub-statutes over time, presenting a much more challenging subject of study. Philastre 1876 provides the most complete and accurate translation of the Qing Code as promulgated in 1812 by the Annam dynasty of the Nguyen, under the title of “Code annamite.” Because both the Ming and Qing legal codes drew upon earlier legal traditions, reference to these may be particularly useful for scholars curious about the evolution of legal institutions. Citations to Ch’en 1979, Birge 2017, and Ratchnevsky 1937, which translate and discuss portions of Yuan law, as well as Balazs 1954, Bünger 1946, and Johnson 1979 on the Tang, are therefore also included.

  • Balazs, Etienne. Le Traité juridique du “Souei-chou.” Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1954.

    This classic study focuses on the history of the Tang Code as it pertains to previous legal writings. This allows Balazs to enter in fascinating and pioneering discussion over the origins of written law, the reforms of the punishments, the regulation of interrogation under torture, etc. Balazs also translated the Monograph on Staples and Goods (shi huo zhi 食貨誌) under the title “Traité économique du Souei-shou.”

  • Birge, Bettine. Marriage and the Law in the Age of Khubilai Khan: Cases from the Yuan Dianzhang. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674978164

    Birge’s book includes a translation of the section the Yuan dianzhang that pertains to marriage. The book includes a discussion on the nature of the dianzhang, arguing that it is more of a case compilation than a “code.” This form of compilation would have a major influence on later administrative compendia, such as the Ming and Qing huidian (see sections on the Collected Institutions of the Ming and the Collected Institutions of the Qing).

  • Bünger, Karl. Quellen zur Rechtsgeschichte der T’ang-Zeit. Peiping (Beijing): Catholic University, 1946.

    A pioneer work in Western scholarship on the foundational Tang legal system, this book remains a basic reference in China legal history.

  • Ch’en, Paul Heng-chao. Chinese Legal Tradition under the Mongols: The Code of 1291 as Reconstructed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

    This translation was an early attempt to reconstruct and translate the Yuan dianzhang (元典章), the central text of Yuan law. Although the monograph and translation were written before later studies of Yuan law changed the field, it will serve as a useful introduction to the history of the study of Yuan legal institutions for researchers curious about comparisons and contrasts between this legal tradition and the others out of which Ming and Qing law emerged. Reprint, 2016.

  • Jiang, Yonglin, trans. The Great Ming Code: Da Ming lü. Seattle: University of Washington, 2014.

    This scholarly translation presents the Ming Code as it existed in 1397, excluding the original preface, tables, introductory material, and regulations from the Wanli-era (1573–1619) edition of the text. For students new to using primary sources to work with late imperial law, Jiang’s clear and accessible translation and his presentation of the prefatory tables and treatises are an excellent starting point.

  • Johnson, Wallace. The T’ang Code, Vol. I: General Principles and The T’ang Code, Vol. II: Specific Articles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979 and 1997.

    This translation of the 653 CE iteration of the laws of the Tang dynasty (618–907) falls outside of the temporal parameters of late imperial law. But since the Tang Code served as a model for Ming and Qing law, Tang legal texts are often referred to by scholars of late imperial law. Wallace Johnson’s translation is a quick route into this earlier legal code for those not yet ready to work in the original Chinese.

  • Jones, William C., with Tianquan Chen and Yonglin Jiang, trans. The Great Qing Code. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

    This translation of the 1740 Qing Code contains only the statutes ( 律) of the text. The prefaces, tables, introductory essays, sub-statutes, and historical precedents that make up the bulk of the code are excluded. As such, this translation adequately conveys the highest level of the structure of Qing law, but cannot convey much about what the body of circulating Qing law looked like.

  • Philastre, Paul-Louis-Félix. Le Code Annamite. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1876.

    A French translation of the 1812 Vietnamese legal code, this reference is often consulted by Sinologists because of its precise technical qualities and its inclusion of many of the most incisive and commonly consulted legal commentaries of the era.

  • Ratchnevsky, Paul, with Françoise Aubin. Un Code des Yuan. 4 vols. E. Leroux, Collège de France, Presses universitaires de France, 1937–1985.

    This is the only extensive translation of the Yuan dianzhang in a Western language. A first volume was published in 1937, with a preface by Paul Pelliot. The three last volumes appeared in 1972, 1977, and 1985, thanks to the increasing intervention of Françoise Aubin. The construal of the Dianzhang as a “code” should be questioned in the light of modern works, notably Birge 2017.

  • Staunton, Sir George Thomas. Ta Tsing Leu Lee; Being the Fundamental Laws, and a Selection from the Supplementary Statutes, of the Penal Code of China. London: Cadell and Davies, 1810.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139178808

    This 1810 abridged translation of the Qing Code was the earliest published attempt to translate late imperial law into the English language. This work was the first that many in 19th-century Europe read as an introduction to Qing law. Multiple scholars have noted how Staunton’s translation of the Qing Code clearly had the objectives of the East India Company in mind, and must therefore be read critically. Reprinted by Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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