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The Rise of Litigation Masters and their “Arts of Winning the Case” Manuals in Late Imperial China

Special Issue
Peng-sheng CHIU (Academia Sinica)
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It is true that traditional China had no lawyers or legal profession. But this does not mean that the development of litigation masters or pettifoggers (songsi) was not of great historical significance. The displacement of the litigation masters by modern lawyers in the late Qing and Republican periods was not simply a process of modernization of Chinese law from underdeveloped and backwards to developed and modern. Analysis of the history of the litigation masters is crucial to a full understanding of important trends in historical change in Ming and Qing.

Requiring no legal recognition by the state, unafraid of suppression by central or local officials, and relying on no guild or inn to recruit and license students or to encourage cross-fertilization of professional ideas, the litigation masters nonetheless continuously transmitted and developed the arts of the lawsuit and legal knowledge. Their secret handbooks, or “Arts of Winning the Case” (zhishengshu), served as the medium for transmitting their professional knowledge. This paper uses two analytic approaches to situate the “Arts of Winning the Case” in their historical context. The first approach considers the external and institutional environment, meaning the development of the market economy and the judicial ratification and review system of Ming and Qing China. The second seeks to uncover the internal system of values expressed in the secret manuals, and to compare them to other forms of legal knowledge at the time.

The article concludes that by the Qing litigation masters had already formed into a professional group that was able to provide all manner of legal services for its clients, including merchants. Though they did not produce a vocabulary of laws and rights, some manuals did develop a notion of the desirability of protecting the safety of persons and property, even to the extent of opposing government clerks and officials. To fully appreciate the litigation masters and the manuals by which their knowledge was transmitted, we need to understand both the external and institutional environment and the internal values systems in China from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Journal of History and Anthropology