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The Influence of Confucianism on Imperial Chinese Law

Written by Akshita Singh for International Criminal Law.

A brief glimpse into confucianism and legalism, and why they played an important role in forming the contents of China's Imperial law. This article unearths how a person's social class, gender and age presented differential treatment by the law, according to the categories a person falls into.

Confucianism has been a predominant influence on Chinese culture and law, particularly in the past. In this article, we will discuss how the elements of Confucianism began to influence imperial Chinese law during the reign of the Han and the Qing dynasties, and the key characteristics of the law code which were inspired by Confucianism ideology.  

Confucianism and Legalism: A History

Before the founding of the Han dynasty, an intense power struggle between the Legalists and the Confucianists took place in the effort to establish their ideological dominance. The Legalists wanted the King to have strict control over the people and to do so, the establishment of a bureaucracy to achieve this. The formation of a law code was proposed and came to fruition during the Qing dynasty. Punishments were harsh for even minor offences to plant fear amongst the people and prevent crime altogether. Legalists believed that man was inherently evil and that only a disciplined law code could keep society from descending into chaos.  

Confucianists, on the other hand, focussed on the inherent goodness of man and held a deep suspicion of law because they believed that the traditional order was enough to maintain harmony. However, with the increase in the formulation of law codes by dynasties Confucianists eventually acquiesced to the idea of law governing the society. 

The rivalry continued with legalism remaining the dominant ideology for a long time, helping dynasties set up vast bureaucracies. However, the harsh and excessive punishments made them unpopular amongst the masses and with the founding of the Han Dynasty, law underwent a transformation process through Confucianism which was considered a more peaceful belief. Values such as filial piety, family ideology, righteousness and moral virtue became the cornerstone of the legal system.  

Crime, Punishment and Social Ranks

Confucians believed in the punishment according to the crime committed. The motive was extremely important and thus we find mentions of premeditated homicide and homicide by accident having different levels of punishments. The codes also provided penalties that differed sharply according to the relative class status of the offender and his victim. For example, decapitation was the penalty for a slave who struck his master (irrespective of injury), whereas no penalty was attached to a master who injured a slave unless it led to death.  

The codes recognized entire categories of persons as deserving of special judicial procedure which distinguished and elevated them as a whole from the great mass of commoners. 8 groups received this consideration. Some of the groups in question were members of the imperial family, descendants of former imperial houses, and "persons of great merit," but by far the most significant category was that of high officials and their immediate family members. They could not be arrested, investigated, or tortured without permission of the emperor; the sentences of those found guilty of an offence were subject to consideration by the emperor for a possible reduction and rather than physical punishments, most of the time they were subjected to monetary fines, reduction in the official rank, or dismissal from the civil service.  

A higher position in society also meant a higher demand for morality from Confucians. They had to live according to a code called “noblesse oblige” which accorded them higher punishments than commoners for the same crime. For example- Officials who violated the sumptuary regulations, were punished under the Qing code by 100 blows of heavy bamboo, whereas the corresponding punishment for non-officials was only fifty blows. Some activities were not even considered a crime for commoners such as prostitution for which nobles were awarded punishments.  

Gender and age were important factors around which degree of punishment was differentiated. A wife who struck her husband received 100 blows of the heavy bamboo, whereas a husband who struck his wife was punished only if he inflicted a significant injury. Age was also a decisive factor in the Qing code. Thus, if a younger brother beat an older brother, he received two and one-half years of penal servitude plus ninety blows of the heavy bamboo, even if no injury resulted. If, however, an older brother beat a younger one, he incurred no penalty at all. Seniority in age was constantly emphasised in Confucianism ideology.  

If a conflict arose, loyalty to one’s father took precedence even over the ruler and state, filial piety being a cornerstone of the code. This took such extreme levels whereby a son who brought an accusation of parental wrong-doing before the authorities was considered unfilial and subjected to heavy punishment. Under the Qing code, for example, such an accusation, if false, was punished by strangulation, but even if true, it brought three years of penal servitude plus 100 blows of heavy bamboo. However, according to Derk Bodde, a notable exception to the right of concealment, was its denial in cases of treason or rebellion. When these occurred, the principle of group responsibility was applied, with all close relatives of the offender being either executed or permanently banished. When the Confucian state felt its existence to be threatened, it was willing to forego its Confucian precepts. 

A remarkable feature of the law codes during the time was that if a criminal confessed their guilt to the authorities before the crime was discovered, they were eligible for a reduced or no punishment. This traces back to the point we discussed in the beginning about the Confucian emphasis on morality and inherent goodness; they believed that the criminal could be reformed in such scenarios. 


Traditionally, due to the moralistic nature of Chinese imperial law, many comparative legal scholars believed that China had not been, by Western legal standards, a "law-oriented" society despite the archaeological evidence that codified law existed in China as early as 300 B.C. Moreover, as opposed to the religious orientation in the West, the secular and cosmological origin of Chinese law that emphasised man's, especially the ruler's capability in administering law further alienated China from being considered a law-oriented society by Western legal scholars. However, as we have seen this was indeed not the case. China had a strong legal order which tried to keep the society and its people in check with an elaborate system of bureaucracy and punishment with Confucianism at its centre.


Bodde D and Morris C, Law in Imperial China (Harvard University Press 2013)  

Bodde D, ‘Basic Concepts of Chinese Law: The Genesis and Evolution of Legal Thought in Traditional China’ (1963) 107 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society   

Lee L.T. and Lai W. W., ‘The Chinese Conceptions of Law: Confucian, Legalist, and Buddhist’ (1978) 29 Hastings Law Journal   

Teon A, ‘Law in Imperial China- Confucianism and Legalism’ [2016] The Greater China Journal  

Xin R, Tradition of the Law and Law of the Tradition: Law, State and Social Control in China (Greenwood Press, 1997) 

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