Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chen, Clash of Empires in the Realm of Law and History: A Case Study of the Sino-British Legal Dispute in 1784

Li Chen, Columbia, has posted a new paper, Clash of Empires in the Realm of Law and History: A Case Study of the Sino-British Legal Dispute in 1784. Here's the abstract:
Chinese law, Chinese sovereignty, and Chinese history are inseparably intertwined with one another in the issue of Western extraterritoriality. Pre-1840 Sino-British/Western legal disputes have been cited by numerous commentators and historians to explain or defend Western extraterritoriality in China from 1842 to 1943 as well as Western resistance to Chinese law and jurisdiction before that. Spearheading this enterprise, the British had primarily relied upon the Lady Hughes case in Canton in 1784 to argue that Chinese law was too arbitrary, sanguinary, and barbaric to govern Westerners in China. This discourse acquired such a hegemonic, epistemic status that scholars over the next two centuries have rarely questioned it. Utilizing both original English and Chinese records, this paper for the first time provided a detailed, critical reexamination of this landmark international dispute and its far-reaching historiographic impact. It argues that the centuries-long discourse of Chinese injustice and legal barbarity was largely constructed to retrospectively justify the British request for extraterritoriality in China. Unlike the traditional, simplistic narratives, this case study as a micro-history sheds fresh light on the complex process of negotiations and contestations between two empires and their respective agents in South China, with conflicting claims for sovereignty and imperial honor. It illustrates how much such power politics shaped our inherited knowledge of Chinese legal and political traditions and of early modern Sino-Western relations.

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