Fixing the outdated ancestral rule: the formation of the Hongzhi Wenxing tiaoli and the socio-economic transformations of mid-Ming China in the light of the Huang Ming tiaofa shi leizuan and other legal sources from 15th century

Project: Research project

Project Details


After decades of painstaking legislation and no less than eight revisions, the Ming Founding Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (re.1368-98) eventually completed the final version of the Great Ming Code just prior to his death. When promulgating this “code of perfection” in 1398, Zhu warned his descendants that “not a single character of the established law could be altered”. It was indeed the backbone of the legal system of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1645), but the situation in society and the needs of the government changed very frequently and therefore the unalterable codes were soon found to be a handicap in checking the institutional and socio-economic problems of the Ming regime.

Since the end of 14th century, however, some ad hoc measures such as Regulations on Placard had already been employed, even by Zhu Yuanzhang himself, to maintain the smooth functioning of the Ming judicial system. Eventually, in the latter half of 15th century, some high officials of the Ming court saw the necessity to alter the fixed but outdated ancestral rule by installing a formal legislative system to compile and supplement new regulations parallel to the code on a regular basis, while keeping the Great Ming Code intact; their meticulous answer is the promulgation of the 1500 Hongzhi wenxing tiaoli 弘治問刑條例.

By connecting all 279 regulations of the Hongzhi wenxing tiaoli with the relevant memorials and court reports submitted by judicial officials to the throne collected in the Huang Ming tiaofa shi leizuan 皇明條法事類纂 (1,259 items in total), along with other official collections that founded the legal sources of the mid-Ming legislators, this study will investigate the formation process of the second foundation of Ming legislation that was completed by the end of 15th century. It will also identify and discuss the rapid institutional and socio-economic transformations of the generally neglected 15th century Ming China, where all sorts of political and social situations, as reflected in our legal materials, had gradually evolved and thus differed significantly from the original form designed by the Founding Emperor. The details and explanations of the century-long struggles in the legal arena between the dynastic ideal and the “social reality” can inform us as to the actual needs and orientation of the general public during late imperial China
Effective start/end date1/09/2029/02/24


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