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Judging Revolution: Beijing and the Birth of the PRC Judicial System (1906-1958)


The impact of the PRC legal system on the world is swelling, yet our grasp of its history and path dependencies rests on weak empirical foundations, a thin source base, and outmoded claims that distort our understandings of its past, present, and future.

This dissertation tackles those deficiencies on two levels: first, by filling major knowledge gaps and dispelling chronic misperceptions about the birth of the PRC judicial system and, second, by reframing in time and space the 1949 revolution and China’s twentieth-century engagements with modernity.

Specifically, the dissertation reinterprets the 1949 revolution by theorizing it not as an a priori rupture, but rather as an engine for recursively producing and negotiating difference. The dissertation unearths forgotten elements from China’s legal past and configures them in provocative ways to blast holes in the layered compartmentalizations that have structured the historiography of modern China, namely its temporal segmentation into Republican, Mao, and post-Mao periods, and the spatial and ideological cleavages that have sundered the Nationalist regime from the CCP’s coeval revolutionary base areas. In short, the dissertation aims to redefine the Republican-PRC transition, and firmly restore the PRC to Chinese historical time.

Section One establishes an empirical baseline for assessing the revolution by mapping the condition of the Nationalist judicial system as it approached 1949. Section Two conducts a similar inquiry into the CCP’s Shaanganning border region and North China liberated area. It dispels the myth of an autochthonous CCP legal tradition by showing that the legal systems of these iconic base areas developed in deep dialogue with Nationalist China, and that this contact actually drove much of the dynamism in pre-1949 CCP legal policy and practice. The PRC judicial system therefore bore a congenital Republican imprint, not just from the institutions and personnel inherited from the ancien régime, but also more profoundly from the accumulated network effects of more than a decade of prior CCP engagement with Nationalist law. Reconceptualizing the PRC as an heir to Republican judicial modernization rather than as its antithesis empowers the dissertation to break new ground in the histories of signature practices such as people’s mediation, and on topics such as the rule of law and judicial independence.

Section Three carries this framework into 1949 and beyond. Through a micro-history of the Beijing Municipal People’s Court, it not only supplies the first scholarly account of the CCP takeover and reconstruction of a major Nationalist state organ, but also shows the tortuous emergence of a new judicial system in unprecedented empirical detail. This tears the mask off of the monolithic CCP, and reveals the politics, tensions, and inconstancy that roiled inside. It exposes how, in the domain of law, the CCP bore multiple, competing visions of the revolution simultaneously, and as the balance of forces in the surrounding environment shifted, different equilibriums among these visions emerged, tracing a convoluted, sometimes violent course that reaches the present day. Time and again, the CCP has tapped this reservoir of legal diversity for adaptive solutions to political imperatives, which have then fed back into their surroundings iteratively. Reading that history as a dynamical system lends coherence to a series of otherwise serpentine fluctuations, most notably the stunning speed with which suppressed policies, and the persecuted people who once promoted them, resurfaced to jumpstart legal reconstruction after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In this way, the dissertation decisively reframes our understanding of the present. Today, observers of Chinese legal reform often speak as if the PRC’s engagement with ideas such as constitutionalism, judicial independence, and human rights stretches back no more than a generation and takes it cues predominantly from the West. This impact-response paradigm has a long record in Chinese Studies and, insofar as it infantilizes the PRC, it distorts our grasp of a much more complex and protracted series of exchanges. To refute it, the dissertation historicizes post-Mao legal modernity by tying it directly to the founding decade of the PRC, and indeed still further back into the Republican era. This establishes a more balanced, alternate genealogy for current legal reform that better accounts for its distinctive trajectory and significations, and its vexing aberrations from international “best practices.”

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