Natural Law in Chinese Legal Thought: The Philosophical System of Wang Yangming
Yonsei Law Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 & 2, pgs. 1-30 (November 2017)
30 Pages Posted: 15 May 2018
Date Written: November 1, 2017
Did natural law theory or natural law thinking exist in traditional Chinese legal thought? There have principally been three answers to this question. The most popular, conventional response has been that natural law did exist in traditional China in the form of Confucianism, and more specifically, in the idea of li (ritual propriety). Others argue that natural law did exist in traditional China, though not primarily in the idea of li (ritual propriety) but rather in other concepts, such as the dao (the Way) or laws of nature. Yet others say that natural law theory did not exist in traditional China, and, even if it did, it cannot be located in Confucianism. These three arguments have primarily focused on pre-Qin Confucianism, and their methodology has largely been selecting various passages from different ancient Chinese thinkers and/or texts to prove their positions. There has also been little comparison done with Western natural law theorists. In this article, I take a different position and methodological approach and argue that Ming dynasty Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming’s (1472-1529) philosophical system can be understood as a coherent natural law theory. In Wang’s system, the natural law and its norms are not only in, but actually are, the human “heart-mind” (xin) itself, equivalent to “Heavenly Principle” (tianli). They are discoverable via reason, as seen through his concept of “Pure Knowing” (liangzhi). His natural law theory is based on, and can therefore accommodate, various sources and bases, including the eternal order of the cosmos, laws of nature, self-evident values, and practical reason. Indeed, Wang’s philosophical system is arguably the closest thing traditional Chinese legal thought has to classical Western natural law theory. To try to demonstrate this particular point, this article also briefly highlights the similarities (and differences) between Wang’s theory of natural law with those of Aristotle and especially St. Thomas Aquinas (who is regarded as the seminal Western natural law theorist). Finally, I will also look at Wang’s government career to examine how his natural law thinking functioned in practice. It is hoped that this article can contribute not only to our understanding of traditional Chinese legal thought but also to comparative legal theory and legal theory more generally by broadening the traditional canon of natural law thinkers, which has been long dominated by Western natural law theorists. In this sense, this article is also inspired by general jurisprudence scholars such as William Twining who have called for jurisprudence scholarship that is more attune to non-Western legal traditions.
Keywords: Natural Law, Legal Theory, Chinese Legal Theory, Chinese Legal History
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