State Building in a Multipolar World: Financial History and the Making of the Modern Chinese State in the Early Twentieth Century
3: Globalized Tradition: Customary Law and Financial Development in Qing and Republican China
Friday, March 25, 2022
1:30pm – 3:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
While recent findings in economic and legal history have highlighted the importance of law for long-term economic development, China has remained conspicuously absent from these debates. Apart from a lingering perception that the impact of law in civil matters was all but marginal throughout Chinese history, a major reason for the neglect of Chinese law in global comparative development has been a singular focus on opposing common law to continental law. Chinese justice does not comfortably fit this framework because it retains strong elements of a third major legal tradition, broadly summarised as ‘customary law’. By examining the role of custom in China’s legal tradition, this paper aims to integrate Chinese law into the debate on the role of law in global comparative development. The paper shows that customary law could effectively regulate economic transactions, but also that its rules were moulded more by bureaucratic processes than by popular practice.
At the heart of this paper is a case study of the Shanghai Native Bankers’ Guild (ca. 1917-1928). Guilds are important to assess the role of custom in Chinese law because their rules regulated the vast sectors of economic life that the Qing code left untouched, and because it was these rules that often entered codified law during the Republican era. The case study shows how the ‘customs’ of native banks rose to importance not as simple traditions but as a complex amalgam of rules drawing on traditional Chinese and Western legal concepts, carefully crafted to satisfy bureaucratic power.