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The Legal Ethos of Late Imperial China: Two Neglected and Rival Legal Specialists

DOI https://doi.org/10.15543/MWS/2014/1/5

Po-Fang Tsai


Although Max Weber pointed out the importance of the Literati or Mandarin and their cultural ethos, mainly Confucianism and Taoism, in the maintenance of order of imperial China, his analysis of the carrier strata left some problems to be elaborated. One is the structural differentiation and social mobilization caused by civil service examinations (CSE). The literati who did not pass the CSE to become civil servants, such as the local magistrate, often earned their living as legal and financial advisors of the mandarins. Private secretaries and litigation masters were the most commonly seen occupations, and they became involved in the local legal practice. Along with this trend, the other problem is the cultural ethos, not always shared, within the three roles—local magistrate, private secretary, and litigation master. While they might have a similar experience of Confucianism during their examination life, there existed different professional ethics and religious faiths after their career paths and jobs diverged. As far as these two observations are concerned, this paper attempts to extend Weber’s analysis of literati into local legal practice. Using the different texts left respectively by local magistrate, private secretary, and litigation master, I try to compare their different self-images and prejudices against one another. The implication of this paper is double: Weber’s insight could be revived again by investigating the structural differentiation within the literati strata, but the ethical analysis indicates a much more complicated ethos than his ‘Confucianism and Taoism’ theme.

Po-Fang Tsai 1

1 Po-Fang Tsai is currently Project-Appointed Assistant Professor (2013–14) at the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University. His main area of interest concerns legal and cultural sociology, citizenship studies, and Max Weber studies. He worked closely with his advisor Professor Lin Duan, who tragically died early in 2013. Lin Duan (1958–2013) was a leading Taiwan sociologist having published on Max Weber, social theory, and Confucianism.

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