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Han Dynasty Legal Code

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(depiction of Han imperial emperor)

    The Roman and the Han Empire faced many of the same problems that we now face today.  Each empire had about 50 million people.  The Han government relied more on day to day governance than the Romans or Greeks.  The Roman and Greeks spent much more time debating issues rather than making decisions.  Xiao-He wrote the Nine Chapters, the basis of Chinese law, that covered almost every type of legal situation that could arise.  There were 906 volumes under more than 60 separate headings that dealt with many of the same things that is currently being debated throughout the world.

    The legal spirit of the Han dynasty was the fullest under Prime Minister Dong Zhongshu, a Confucianism who served during the reign of emperor Wu-Di.  Under Dong, every legal decision or ruling had to be accompanied by an explanation that explained why the decision was made and under what law the ruling was based on.  According to Hsing Yi-tien, a researcher at the History and Philology at the Academia Sinica, the concept of human rights appeared in the Han Dynasty laws far earlier than in Roman Law.  Before the Han Dynasty, people were thought of as “state resources” in China whose only purpose was to help the state.  In the famous Qi Theory, people are equated to animal: “Easy to get along with when things are good, fighting when angered, taking advantage of every chance for gain, and running away to avoid harm”.  During the rule of Zhang Di of Eastern Han, confusions believed that parents did not have the right to take a child's life.  Chinese belief was that heaven decided the matters of human life and death could date back to this time.  During the rule of Wu Di, Dong Zhongshu suggested that masters not be able to kill their slaves at will.  This idea took root and remained in China.  Hsing Yi-tien says that emperor Guangwu of Eastern Han placed a high value on all human life.  Similar Roman law was not introduced until Christianity was the main religion, nearly 400 hears after the Chinese implemented it.
Another Han law that is strikingly similar to current laws is from a piece of bamboo found in Juyan.  This piece says that government officials did not have the right to go into a citizen’s house and make an arrest unless they had “due cause”.  This is similar to the “probable cause” article in the Bill of Rights.  The idea of Xuan Di was that law was primarily to protect human life.  He then used this to say that once a person was dead, that they could not be brought back and therefore it was better to error on the side of leniency than to kill an innocent person.  This idea is the argument against the death penalty today.


    The Chinese, especially the Han Dynasty, is responsible for more legal precedents than we give the credit for.  Much of this credit goes to the Roman Empire, which may have used the same ideas, but hundreds of years after the Chinese came up with the exact same laws..  While the Romans may have had some of the same ideas, the Han Dynasty was implementing these ideas long before the Romans were.
click for Han Empire timeline

Other websites for info
http://emuseum.mnsu.edu/prehistory/china/early_imperial_china/han.html
http://www.wsu.edu:8001/~dee/CHEMPIRE/FORMHAN.HTM
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