Friday, October 18, 2019

Altehenger on "Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1989"

We missed this one when it came out last year: Jennifer Altehenger, Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1989 (Harvard University Press, 2018). Altehenger is Associate Professor of Chinese History at the University of Oxford. Here's a description from the Press:
The popularization of basic legal knowledge is an important and contested technique of state governance in China today. Its roots reach back to the early years of Chinese Communist Party rule. Legal Lessons tells the story of how the party-state attempted to mobilize ordinary citizens to learn laws during the early years of the Mao period (1949–1976) and in the decade after Mao’s death.

Examining case studies such as the dissemination of the 1950 Marriage Law and successive constitutions since 1954 in Beijing and Shanghai, Jennifer Altehenger traces the dissemination of legal knowledge at different levels of state and society. Archival records, internal publications, periodicals, advice manuals, memoirs, and colorful propaganda materials reveal how official attempts to determine and promote “correct” understanding of written laws intersected with people’s interpretations and practical experiences. They also show how diverse groups—including party-state leadership, legal experts, publishers, writers, artists, and local officials, along with ordinary people—helped to define the meaning of laws in China’s socialist society. Placing mass legal education and law propaganda at the center of analysis, Legal Lessons offers a new perspective on the sociocultural and political history of law in socialist China.
A few blurbs:
“A major scholarly accomplishment, Legal Lessons masterfully details how the Chinese state over forty years spread knowledge about law. By providing an extraordinarily deft portrayal of the deep internal conceptual and practical tensions that the party-state encountered in endeavoring to use law as a governing instrument, and the intricate ways in which China’s populace received and understood those messages, Altehenger shows that creating law for a new China was far more complex an undertaking than had previously been presumed.”—William Alford

Legal Lessons links the practice of legal education in the early PRC to the larger international project of socialist lawmaking, and raises new questions about the relationship between legal propaganda, legal ‘reform,’ and the quest for new kinds of legal polities in the late twentieth century and beyond. Altehenger’s masterful study provides a critical foundation for understanding the Chinese path to that contested condition we call rule of law.”—Madeleine Zelin
More information is available here.

-- Karen Tani