The following primary legal sources, organized around the theme of “law and society,” offer insight into how the power of the state or dynasty interacted with people’s everyday lives. The list includes legal cases that have been translated into English, along with films that illustrate legal procedure, from China, Japan, and Korea, starting in the thirteenth century to the present day. Used in the classroom these legal cases not only serve as examples of legal concepts, state doctrine, or social values, but they also serve as snapshots into social history, bringing the extraordinary and ordinary of everyday society to life for students. Reading these translated legal cases, students can gain first-hand insight into how legal practitioners envisioned social order, while also witnessing what happened when those ideas conflicted with social realities.
For examples of student activities using legal cases or trials, see also:
Song Dynasty (960-1279)
McKNIGHT, Brian E. and James T.C. LIU, trans. The Enlightened Judgments: Ch’ing-ming Chi, The Sung Dynasty Collection
. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
This text is a partial translation of a 13th century compilation of legal cases and decisions. Incorporating a diverse sampling of topics — from taxation disputes to fish thefts to allegations of human sacrifice — it provides insight into the exceptional as well as the mundane in Song-era life.
Late Imperial China
Selected Cases of Interest:
• “Presumptuously Establishing an Official Household by Claiming Another Person’s Ancestor as One’s Own,” pp. 84-85.
This case concerns an individual who fabricated a claim of descent from an elite household.
• “On Being Inadmissible to the Examinations Because One’s Native Place Is in Doubt,” pp. 138-40.
This case addresses a contested claim of eligibility to sit for the state civil service examination on the basis of unconfirmed ancestral home location.
• “One Who Contends to Be Installed as Heir Is Denied Permission,” pp. 234-7.
This case concerns a dispute over designating the legal heir of a family in which both the patriarch and eldest son have died. Specifically, in this case the family’s matriarch resisted the legal claim made by a paternal cousin.
• “Saving A Mother by Cutting One’s Own Flesh,” pp. 373-4.
In this case, a son whose mother was ill sliced off a piece of his thigh in an attempt to aid her recovery. The magistrate commended this act as an expression of true filial piety and rewarded the son with an offer of enrollment in the military.
• “Spreading Devilish Faith at a Lotus Hall,” pp. 476-8.
This case, which considers the punishment of the leaders of a heterodox, minority religious group, illustrates how the Song state perceived such communities to be serious threats to moral virtue and political stability.
“A Father-in-Law Was Killed by His Daughter-in-Law When He Attempted to Rape Her.” In ZHU, Qingqi (CHU, Ch’ing-ch’i,) Xing’an huilan
[Conspectus of Legal Cases], reprint of the 1886 edition. Taipei: Cheng wen chubanshe, 1968. http://www.exeas.org/resources/pdf/your-honor-handout1.pdf
The teaching unit “Your Honor I Am Innocent: Law and Society in Late Imperial China” (http://www.exeas.org/resources/your-honor.html) provides background information, student readings, and student activities for using this case in the classroom.
PAN, Ming-te. "Eight Cases and Rulings from the Qing." Download as PDF
Republican-era China (1911-49)
LEAN, Eugenia. Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China
. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, April 2007.
In 1935-1936, SHI Jianqiao was put on trial for avenging her father’s death by murdering the warlord who killed him. Having committed a crime of passion and filial piety, Shi garnered wide public support which resulted in a highly lenient verdict of seven years.
“A 1983 Rape Case in Hunan, China: Liu Changjian Raped His Own Daughter.” In LIU, Bin, ed. Dang dai Zhongguo ming an, 1949-1995
[Famous legal cases of contemporary China, 1949-1995]. Guangdong: Zhuhai Chubanshe, 1996. Translated by Ming-te PAN. Available online at:
ZHANG, Yimou, dir. The Story of Qiu Ju
. 1992, 100 min.
This film depicts a rural woman’s struggle for justice following a village elder’s assault on her husband and offers a fictional representation of the Chinese legal system in the early 1990s. Highlighting the highly bureaucratic nature of China’s legal institutions as well as tensions between the urban and rural, the film speaks to the social life of law, or the social character of the popular imagination of law.
“Tokugawa Justice under Confucian Precepts.” In David John LU, ed. Sources of Japanese History: Volume One
. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974, pp. 243-7.
In this 1711 case, a woman’s father and brother conspired to murder her husband. Unaware of the plot, the woman searched for her missing husband, and upon discovering his dead body, uncovered her father and brother’s crime. This case points to a conflict between two elements of the Confucian vision of the virtuous woman: filial piety and loyalty to one’s husband. In her search for her missing husband, the woman demonstrated loyalty to her husband; however, since her discovery of the body exposed her father’s crime, she also acted unfilially.
MAKI, John M, ed. Court and Constitution in Japan: Selected Supreme Court Decisions, 1948-60
. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.
Selected Cases of Interest:
• “I: Obscenity and Freedom of Expression (The Lady Chatterley’s Lover Case),” pp. 3-37. [1950-52]
This Supreme Court decision examines the prosecution of the publisher and translator of the Japanese version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, affirming the state’s power to suppress cultural products it deems obscene or pornographic. The case also raises questions about the meaning and constitution of “obscenity.”
• “VIII: Filial Piety, Patricide, and Equality of the Law (The Fukuoka Patricide Decision),” 129-55. [1949-50]
This case of patricide was brought to the Supreme Court after the local court replaced the prosecution’s strict indictment of patricide with the lesser crime of more general murder. Citing the new constitution’s principle of juridical universality, or equality before the law, the local court claimed that the charge of patricide which according to Confucian ideas of filial piety demanded rougher sentencing for murder committed against parents was unconstitutional. As such, this case addresses the place of the Confucian heritage of filial piety in post-war Japanese law, and considers whether concepts of Confucian and universal justice are in conflict or are reconcilable.
• “XXIII: The Constitutionality under Article 9 of United States Bases in Japan (The Sunakawa Decision),” pp. 298-361. [1957-9]
In this case seven Japanese citizens, tried for trespassing on a US military base, claimed that their prosecution was unconstitutional because the presence of US military bases in Japan conflicted with article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution, known as the renunciation of war clause. The court’s decision upheld the constitutionality of US military bases in Japan, arguing that article 9 prohibits neither the development of self-defense capabilities, nor the signing of international treaties concerning foreign military deployments.
SHAW, William. Legal Norms in a Confucian State
. Berkeley: Center for Korean Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1981.
In addition to extensive commentary on Chosŏn dynasty-era legal theory and practice, this source includes translations of 100 cases from the Simnirok, a compilation of cases submitted to the king and other high officials for special review due to a range of complexities and/or contestations.
Selected Cases of Interest:
• “Case of Yun’s daughter Yun cho-I, Kyŏnggi Province, Suwon County (#275; 1780-2),” p. 210.
This record concerns a case in which a secondary wife hired a shaman to curse her husband’s primary wife, which resulted in the primary wife committing suicide. The king decided in favor of the primary wife and ordered the secondary wife’s execution. In his argument he discusses the importance of “fostering good customs” and “placating the victim’s ghost” in legal action. The king’s decision also points to conflicts between Confucianism and shamanism as well as urban and rural areas.
• ‘Case of Sŏ Ch’ang-bae, Chŏlla Province, Nagan County (#445; 1783-4),’ pp. 241-2.
In this case a husband murdered his wife in a fit of rage shortly after a laborer asked him for some tobacco. The court, trying to account for this irrational act within their system of ethics and law described the murder as a “transfer of anger.”
United States Army Forces in Korea. Selected Legal Opinions of the Department of Justice, United States Army Military Government in Korea: Opinions Rendered in the Role of Legal Adviser to the Military Government of Korea, and Covering a Period From March 1946 to August 1948
. Seoul: Department of Justice, Headquarters, United States Military Government in Korea, 1948, 2 Volumes.
Selected Cases of Interest:
• “Opinion #247 – 25 April 1946,” Vol. 1, pp. 57-58.
This case concerns the legal status of a house occupied by a woman of Korean descent whose Japanese husband had abandoned her five years earlier, moving to Japan and remarrying there. The case raises the question of colonial and postcolonial nationality. According to Japanese colonial law, “an alien acquires Japanese nationality ‘by becoming the wife of a Japanese,’” and according to US military law, any property owned by Japanese nationals in Korea at the time of surrender became the legal property of the US Military Government. The opinion finds that the woman in question has no legal right of ownership with respect to the house.
• “Opinion #582 – 26 August 1946,” Vol. 1, p. 160.
This case concerns the legal status of property owned by a woman of Japanese descent who is married to a Korean man. According to Japanese colonial law, Japanese nationals who married non-Japanese men lost their status as Japanese citizens. The decision finds that the woman in question was a Korean national at the time of surrender, and therefore, that she retains ownership rights. Like “Opinion #247 – 25” above, this case demonstrates the intersection of Japanese colonial law and US military ordinances during the occupation era.
• “Opinion #712 – 15 November 1946,” Vol. 1, p. 203-4.
This case concerns the adoption of Korean children by US personnel. According to the decision, adoption rights in Korea were defined by “Korean customary law,” which stated that children may only be adopted by blood relatives from their fathers’ side of the family. Therefore, US personnel could not adopt Korean children.
‘Transcript of Oral Judgement Delivered on 4 December 2001 by the Judges of the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery.’
This is an abridged version of the decision of the 2000 Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal finding Emperor Hirohito and eight other high-ranking Japanese wartime officials criminally responsible for the establishment and operation of the comfort women system, a system affirmed as one of sexual slavery, institutionalized rape, and therefore a crime against humanity. Significantly, the Tribunal also affirmed Japanese state responsibility, calling for an official acknowledgment of responsibility, an official apology, reparations, and educational initiatives, among other recommendations.
Special thanks to ExEAS intern Jonathan Kief for his contribution to this list of resources.