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Imperial Power and the Politics of Difference:

Columbia University Weatherhead East Asian Institute hosts a book talk with Li Chen on his new book on Chinese law during the imperial period

April 26, 2016 12:00pm to 1:30pm

Li Chen
Associate Professor of History, University of Toronto

Moderated by Madeleine Zelin, Dean Lung Professor of Chinese Studies, Columbia University

"Just when we thought no one could offer any new approach to the subject of the Sino-Western encounter during the early modern period, this book pulls us back in. Li Chen sets a new standard for any future study on this topic." - Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, New York University

How did American schoolchildren, French philosophers, Russian Sinologists, Dutch merchants, and British lawyers imagine China and Chinese law? What happened when agents of presumably dominant Western empires had to endure the humiliations and anxieties of maintaining a profitable but precarious relationship with China? In Chinese Law in Imperial Eyes, Li Chen provides a richly textured analysis of these related issues and their intersection with law, culture, and politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Using a wide array of sources, Chen's study focuses on the power dynamics of Sino-Western relations during the formative century before the First Opium War (1839-1842). He highlights the centrality of law to modern imperial ideology and politics and brings new insight to the origins of comparative Chinese law in the West, the First Opium War, and foreign extraterritoriality in China. The shifting balance of economic and political power formed and transformed knowledge of China and Chinese law in different contact zones. Chen argues that recovering the variegated and contradictory roles of Chinese law in Western "modernization" helps provincialize the subsequent Euro-Americentric discourse of global modernity.

Chen draws attention to important yet underanalyzed sites in which imperial sovereignty, national identity, cultural tradition, or international law and order were defined and restructured. His valuable case studies show how constructed differences between societies were hardened into cultural or racial boundaries and then politicized to rationalize international conflicts and hierarchy.

About the Author
Li Chen is associate professor at the University of Toronto and founding president of the International Society for Chinese Law and History. He has published on late imperial and modern Chinese law and society, Sino-Western encounters, and international law and empire, including a volume coedited with Madeleine Zelin called Chinese Law: Knowledge, Practice and Transformation, 1530s–1950s.

Free and Open to the Public