How could a peasant in Shandong in the Qing dynasty come to know enough about a specific law that he felt confident enough to kill his own wife and his lover’s husband and think that he could get away with it? As Ting Zhang
’s new book, Circulating the Code: Print Media and Legal Knowledge in Qing China
(University of Washington Press, 2020) shows, there was a whole range of ways: he could have read the entire statute himself, in either an official or a commercial edition of the Qing Code, or found a simple explanation of it in a popular legal handbook. He could have heard a community lecture on it, or seen the statute dramatized on stage. The state might have intended or tried to control the popular dissemination of legal information, but thanks to commercial printing and a thriving book market, legal knowledge circulated and disseminated far and wide in the Qing – right down to a peasant with murder on his mind.
Circulating the Code
is a beautiful combination of legal history and print culture history. Comparing different official and commercial editions of the Qing Code, handbooks for litigation masters, and manuals for community legal lectures, it explores the production, circulation, and reception of legal knowledge in Qing China, shows how the dissemination of legal information transformed law, and challenges assumptions about the state monopolization of accurate legal knowledge in the Qing. Wonderfully detailed, lucidly written, and packed full of fascinating books, this is a must-read for anyone interested in legal history, the history of the book, and in thinking about comparative histories of print culture and commercial publishing.
Ting Zhang is assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland.
Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate at Harvard University. She works on Manchu books and Manchu translations and loves anything involving a good kesike.