Legal Thought and Legal Development in the People's Republic of China 1949-2008

45 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2009 Last revised: 23 Feb 2011

See all articles by Albert H. Y. Chen

Albert H. Y. Chen

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law

Date Written: March 28, 2009


The People's Republic of China has experienced a chequered legal history. Modern Chinese law has been marked by radical discontinuities with the past. The Chinese dynastic empires used to have elaborate legal codes and highly developed bureaucracies for administration, but as imperial rule came to an end with the 1911 Revolution, Chinese law entered an era of doubt about its own past, uncertainty and attempts in Westernization, modernization and reconstruction, first by drawing inspiration from Continental Europe and Japan in the Republican era, and then from the Soviet Union. After a brief attempt in the mid 1950s to establish a new socialist legality modeled on that practiced by the Soviet Union, China saw two decades of deteriorating standards of legality ending in total lawlessness in the Cultural Revolution era of 1966-1976.

In 1978, the Dengist era of "reform and opening" began. The last thirty years have seen not only rapid economic development in China, but also significant efforts in the reconstruction and development of its legal system. These efforts were guided by and reflected a new and continuously deepening understanding of the value of law and legal institutions and of the Rule of Law on the part of the scholarly and governing elites of China which has also spread and penetrated among the populace, civil society and the mass media. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the history of legal thought in the PRC, and to review how such thought has produced "an event of epic historic proportions".

This paper is divided into the following parts. Part I divides the legal history of the PRC into several periods, and describes the legal thought of each period. Part II reviews major legal developments in China, including both the making of laws and the building of legal institutions. Part III reflects on the characteristics and achievements of the Chinese project of legal development in the last three decades as well as its limitations. Finally, part IV offers a few concluding remarks.

Keywords: China, law, legal thought, legal development

Suggested Citation

Chen, Albert H. Y., Legal Thought and Legal Development in the People's Republic of China 1949-2008 (March 28, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Albert H. Y. Chen (Contact Author)

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law ( email )

Pokfulam Road
Hong Kong, Hong Kong


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