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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Law, Justice, Society at the Margins of Asian States
3: Mr. Pan Versus the Tsar: How a Manchurian Peasant Made (up) Asian International Law, 1908-1921
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Yale University, United States
By most standards, Mr. Pan was extraordinarily ordinary. He was a Chinese farmer with no legal education, or any education, for that matter. Yet in the year 1908, he filed the most ambitious of lawsuits that one could have on this planet: he sued the Tsar of the Russian Empire. A few years ago, the Russian army left his native place in tatters as it fought the Japanese infantry. A furious Mr. Pan raised funds from nine counties on the Liaodong peninsula, posed as a lawyer for the American consul to gather evidence in the countryside, and slipped across the border to travel to St. Petersburg. His would be the first of many transnational war damage litigations in Northeast Asia, some of which are still pending at courts all across the region. This paper reconstructs Mr. Pan’s ragtag campaign of international law. I use his case to show how a powerful imagination of the legal structured the everyday life of the transnational borderland. Prevailing narratives on East Asian international law often privilege the ordered legislative spaces of the coastal metropolises. By focusing on transnational legal strategization at the grassroots, I foreground other spaces of lawmaking in Asia. The rural hinterlands, the marshy wetlands, and the windy badlands: these spaces, often marginalized in the histories of international law, were just as generative for the norms that defined the popular imaginations of transnational justice.