Law and Order in Early Modern East Asia

AHA Session 135
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room 303 (Hynes Convention Center)
Sun Joo Kim, Harvard University
The Making of Chastity Culture in Late Chosŏn Korea
Jungwon Kim, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Outsiders, Outlaws, and Unrest in Late Eighteenth-Century Japan
David A. Eason, University at Albany (State University of New York)
Dana Rabin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Session Abstract

This panel explores the multifaceted yet vibrant socio-cultural-legal aspects of early modern East Asia as encoded in various legal documents, such as criminal investigation logs, trial records, petitions, legal statutes, and other quasi-legal texts. Historians in the East and West have long cherished the unique value of legal documents, and of trial records in particular. Legal documents provide an essential means for understanding both judicial practice and the dynamics of legal procedure over time, while also disclosing all kinds of human problems and diverse ways to interpret and solve such issues. Above all, they carry the voices of ordinary men and women—whether filtered through elites’ edits or not—which are rarely detected in the conventional archival materials mostly written by male elites, and thus enable historians to read attitudes and practices by common people and to reconstruct their quotidian lives in the past in more realistic ways. Working like snapshots of a society, legal cases both document the implementation of the law and record human activities that took place in a given historical moment. These legal cases serve as a rich body of source material for observing fundamental aspects of cultural values, social structure, and human relations. Since the opening of Qing China’s legal archives in the 1980s, numerous scholars of Chinese studies have carried out multidisciplinary and humanistic investigations of the newfound materials. While some exciting studies based on legal documents in the field of Japanese studies have also begun to be published, the legal archive of Korea is an almost untouched treasure trove. In this panel, three panelists in early modern East Asia propose to present the lives and experiences of people revealed in the East Asian legal space at a specific cultural moment—Late Imperial China, Tokugawa Japan, and Chosŏn Korea. The three papers will not only point out the complexities of the relationship between codified law and law in practice, between expected values and lived experiences, but overturn some of the old stereotypes about the early modern societies in China, Japan, and Korea as well. The panel is designed to be a distinctive site for comparing research notes and exchanging methodologies and perspectives among historians who work with legal archives of their own, to better understand the larger implications of legal materials in the study of human society and culture. Our discussant, Dana Rabin, a specialist in early modern Britain’s legal, cultural, and gender history, will certainly offer insights from her own handling of legal materials and accumulated scholarship in the field of early modern European history. We hope our panel will add invaluable sources to comparative studies in law, socio-cultural history, and gender, and appeal to scholars dedicated to understanding the human past in all its complexity, whatever their own focus on a particular country or region of the world.

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