Law’s Political Foundations
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Law’s Political Foundations

Rivers, Rifles, Rice, and Religion

John O. Haley

Law’s Political Foundations explains the development of the two basic systems of public and private law and their historical transformations. Examining the historical development of law in China, Japan, Western Europe, and Hispanic America, Haley argues that law is a product, rather than a constitutive element, of political systems.
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Chapter 3: Rivers, rifles, and rice: foundations of public law and private ordering in China

John O. Haley


Until the Industrial Revolution catapulted Europe to center stage in the nineteenth century, China was the most populous, wealthy, and consequential polity on earth. In longevity and influence, its legal tradition rivals that of Rome. A civilization with origins as ancient as those of Mesopotamia and Egypt, by the end of the third century BCE, a centralized bureaucratic polity had emerged that, with intermittent intervals of internal division and fragmented rule, was to endure for over two millennia. In terms of governance by civilian officials, selected by merit from an educated elite versed in a moral philosophy of governance, and subject to oversight under a system of legal rules grounded in clearly articulated principles of proportionality, universality, and equality, China has no historical or even contemporary peer. China’s contributions to the intellectual and political life of the neighboring states of East Asia are difficult to exaggerate. Most fully emulated in Choson Korea (1392–1910) and under Li rule in Vietnam (1428–1788), the institutions and ideological foundations of governance in China provided models that were formally reformed only within the past century. The influence of Chinese civilization is apparent today in art, language, and belief systems throughout Northeast Asia. Here too the world’s most highly developed and enduring legal order originated. Based on a carefully reasoned set of fundamental principles, the dynastic codes, which span the history of China, anchored its rulers to a system of administrative principles and prescriptions that remain unsurpassed in coherence and normative justification.

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