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The Legal Thought of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618–907)

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Little scholarly work has been done on understanding Taizong’s (one of China’s most influential emperors) legal thought. Existing historiography has been descriptive and has not fully contextualized Taizong’s legal thought in his broader political thought. Furthermore, it has been influenced by the traditional bias in Tang historiography as a whole, which has been adulatory toward Taizong’s reign. Drawing from a variety of sources, including dynastic histories and Taizong’s writings, this article seeks to complicate the existing historiography. It lays out key characteristics of Taizong’s legal thought, situating them in the historical context in which Taizong operated, as well as contextualizing them within his broader political thought, to present a more balanced analysis. It will argue that Taizong was an emperor who was concerned with legality, competent legal administration, and leniency in punishments. His actions and rhetoric also suggest that he believed that law should be applied to the emperor’s conduct as well. At the same time, this article also argues that Taizong should not be viewed primarily as an innovative legal thinker or as someone with an ideological or idealistic commitment to legal reform for its own sake. Rather, he was a man whose views on law were greatly motivated by practical, political concerns, such as concerns regarding the stability and legitimacy of his rule. More broadly, this article contributes to the historiography of traditional Chinese legal history by complicating the so-called dominant narrative of the process of “Confucianization of law” in premodern Chinese history by highlighting the role that specific historical actors (such as Taizong) played in that process.

Norman P. HO, J.D., School of Law, New York University, New York, USA and A.M. in Regional Studies-East Asia (Chinese History), Harvard University, Cambridge, USA; Associate Professor, Peking University School of Transnational Law, Shenzhen 518055, China. Contact:

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