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8.2
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  [History & Culture] Section's overview | Article
  西方传教士与
国际法初入中国

Western Missionaries and the Introduction of International Law
to China


by 王超杰 Wang Chaojie
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  The introduction of international law to China was not a one-way process, but one of clash and relative growth and decay between the traditional Chinese external order based on the concept of “Under the Heaven” and the modern world order dominated by the West. It was marked by the two events: Western missionaries translated the Western works of international law at the end of the Ming Dynasty and begining of the Qing Dynasty, and international law was applied in the negotiation of international treaties.

IN the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, modern international law began to appear and develop in Europe, but the Chinese feudal dynasties with Sino-centric concept of “Tianxia” still regarded China as the centre of the world.(1) China made the first regulation of conflict between nations in Yonghui Code in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) which provided that: “a dispute between two aliens of the same nationality should be solved according to their own law and custom while a dispute between two aliens of different nationalities should be solved according to Chinese law.” According to the
annotation of Yonghui Code, the term “alien” referred to foreigners, that is to say, subjects of other kingdoms or countries. Because aliens have their own customs and laws, the judge should decide their cases according to their own law. With regard to disputes between nationals of different countries, for example, a national of Koryo and a national of Paekche, the judge should resolve disputes according to Chinese law.(2) This advanced international law idea was followed just for a short period of time and was quickly replaced with territorial jurisdiction. China exercised absolute territorial jurisdiction and decided all criminal cases according to Chinese law during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD).(3) In a country closed to the outer world, international law was just unimaginable.

The conflict between Chinese and Western customs began to appear at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911 AD). The Chinese traditional tributary system of foreign relations and the treatment of aliens underwent impacts from the international law system of Western countries based on the notion of sovereignty. During this time, missionaries were the second largest group (only smaller than merchants) of foreigners in China. Those foreign missionaries were highly regarded by the then emperors such as Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty, and emperors Shunzhi and Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. During the latter part of the seventeenth century, missionaries first tried to translate Western international law books into Chinese and promoted the application of international law in Chinese diplomatic relations with other countries. This was the beginning of the introduction of international law into China. In this sense, the introduction of international law to China confirmed a classical saying: “the history of international law should not be separated from the history of religion and intellectual history”.(4)

1. International Law Education Background of Missionaries
Religion is closely linked to the world of human beings and is a form of culture. Religion and law are two closely linked social phenomena. It is a fact that religion has had much impact on the development of international law. Religious oaths and ceremonies were widely used in affairs related to treaties and wars in ancient times, and played an important role in strengthening the authority of ancient international law. The term jus gentium of the ancient Roman law at first referred to international law. Jewish law, Islamic law and other religious laws contained international law elements, and were important sources of ancient and medieval international law. The development of international law almost stopped in Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Because of the emergence of nation-states in Europe, international law began to develop again around 1300. Canon law contained the rules for international relations. The law of treaties, the law of territory, arbitration law, the law of war, maritime law, and rules on embassies and consulates developed to a certain degree. There were a number of international law scholars in the latter part of the sixteenth century prior to the birth of Hugo Grotius, such as Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, Conrad Branu, Alberico Gentili and Balthazar Ayala, all of whom held ecclesiastical teaching positions.

Jean Bodin, a French political thinker and jurist, for the first time clearly advocated the notion of sovereignty in 1577 in his famous The Six Books of Republic, which provided the necessary basis for the emergence of modern international law. Hugo Grotius, father of modern international law, thought that international law consisted of natural law originating in the will of God and jus gentium originating in the will of human beings. His books, such as Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, Mare Liberum and The Rights of War and Peace, were deeply influenced by religion, covered all the topics of international law of that time and provided a full theoretical basis for the birth of modern international law.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of missionaries entered seminaries and joined the Society of Jesus when they were teenagers. They studied theology as well as a wide range of natural and social sciences under the instructions of top scholars to become elites who were both scholars and missionaries. International law as one of the oldest legal disciplines was attached to theology in medieval times. Therefore, missionaries undoubtedly were well-trained in international law.

2. Introduction of International Law by Giulio Aleni
Giulio Aleni (1582-1649) was a famous Italian missionary during the Ming Dynasty. He came to China in 1613 and worked in China for decades before he died in 1649 in Yanping, Fujian Province. He was the most distinguished missionary in his time, between the time of Michele Ruggleri and Matteo Ricci, and the time of Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest.(5) Giulio Aleni took several effective measures to spread the Catholic faith in Fujian Province over his whole life and was the summit of his career. He was learned, had wide connections with Chinese people, wrote a lot, and won himself the name of “Apostle of Fujian”...


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1. Zhou Zhenhe, “Research into Matteo Ricci’s World Map”, China Surveying and Mapping [J], 2005, Vol. 4, pp. 60, 61.
2. Zhengsun Wuji, Annotations of the Laws of Tang Dynasty [M], Liu Junwen ed., Huangshan Press, 2002, p. 63.
3. Dou Yi, Criminal Law of Song Dynasty [M], Liu Junwen ed., Huangshan Press, 2002, p. 87.
4. Alfred Verdross, International Law [M], translated by Li Haopei, Commercial Press, 1981,
p. 44.
5. Xu Minglong, “Commentary of European Missionaries in China before the Eighteenth Century”, World History [J], 1993, Vol. 4, p. 20.


Wang Chaojie, of Han nationality, was born in 1974 in Henan Province, Dan Cheng county. He graduated in 1998 from the South-Western University of Political Science. Since 2002, he has taught at Guangdong Zhaoqing University, focusing on International Law Studies, International Relations Studies pedagogy and scientific research work. In Sociology Forum, Frontier, Zhaoqing University Academic Journal, Culture Magazine and other periodicals, he has published more than ten articles.

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