China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Doubtful Cases: Hesitation and Misgiving in the Making of Early Imperial Law

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Roosevelt Room 1, Exhibit Level

The discovery of legal manuscripts over the last half century promises a more finely grained and complete view of early imperial society.  But each new archeological find reanimates old doubts: To what degree was a given statute followed or implemented?  What is the value of a population record when declarations often contained deceptions?  What makes a forgery?  These misgivings are not new, nor do they imply that manuscripts are an unreliable index of the past. Indeed, magistrates in the early imperial period made extensive use of doubt and partial knowledge in making law.  Evidence from Zhangjiashan (186 BCE) and from the unprovenenced 3rd century BCE collection from Yuelu Academy illustrates how magistrates used delay and disbelief to maintain agility in legal practice.  Doubtful cases (yi’an疑案) arose when magistrates found more than one way to sew the rationalities of legal statutes to the facts of the case. The impasse (called xuanlun 懸論—a suspended verdict) that resulted allowed local officials to submit (yan 𤅊/讞) the case up the ladder of authority: to the governor, and if he could fare no better, to the superintendent of justice.  Each disjunction and suspension allowed legal means to emerge in zigzag fashion through partial analogies and re-definitions, through hesitation and delay, and by circulation between various officials.  Despite the apparently totalizing vision of imperial law, doubtful cases demonstrate that law was made through the accumulation of partial perspectives.  

Jesse D. Watson

University of California, Berkeley, Massachusetts

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1 - Doubtful Cases: Hesitation and Misgiving in the Making of Early Imperial Law



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