2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Force of Law: The Rise of Litigation Masters and Private Secretaries and Their Impact on Legal Norms
in the Ming-Qing Period

Pengsheng Chiu

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

How were legal norms being transformed during the Ming-Qing period in China? This essay traces the rise of litigation masters (songshi訟師) and private secretaries (muyou幕友) after the sixteenth century and examines their impact on the institutional transformation of legal norms. Although litigation masters seemed in constant confrontation with private secretaries in most local courts, both groups actually developed under the framework of two kinds of legal systems: the judicial review and ratification system (shenzhuan 審轉), and the regulations on ruling deadlines (shenxian 審限). These two institutional reforms in the legal system underwent tremendous change from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and their amalgamation led to unexpected consequences for the flourishing of litigation masters and private secretaries.

Along with their unexpected flourishing emerged a particular perspective on lawsuits and legal knowledge: that is, the desire to win their cases and to succeed in the judicial review and ratification system. As litigation masters sought judicial victories, a group of famous private secretaries demonstrated their eagerness to produce irrefutable rulings, written for their employers, judges who included magistrates and higher local officials. In the wake of the increasing influence of litigation masters and private secretaries, most ongoing lawsuits occurred in parts of China such as the lower Yangtze area, where cases were manipulated precisely by these belligerent litigation masters and private secretaries.  Although a curtain of secrecy hid the alliance between litigation masters and private secretaries, the former opposed judges in local courts while the latter opposed judges in central courts. This alliance was fueled by a shared eagerness to win cases and not to lose a ruling; thus was a kind of competitive order distilled from the norms of the legal sphere.


Keywords: Litigation Master, Private Secretary, The Judicial Review and Ratification System (Shenzhuan 審轉), The Regulation on Ruling Deadlines (Shengxian 審限), Legal Norms, Ming-Qing