13 June 2018

BOOK: Jennifer E. ALTEHENGER, Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1989 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018). ISBN 9780674983854, €45.00

Harvard University Press has just published a new book on the popularisation of laws in the early years of communist rule in China.


The popularization of basic legal knowledge is an important and contested technique of state governance in China today. Its roots reach back to the early years of Chinese Communist Party rule. Legal Lessons tells the story of how the party-state attempted to mobilize ordinary citizens to learn laws during the early years of the Mao period (1949–1976) and in the decade after Mao’s death.
Examining case studies such as the dissemination of the 1950 Marriage Law and successive constitutions since 1954 in Beijing and Shanghai, Jennifer Altehenger traces the dissemination of legal knowledge at different levels of state and society. Archival records, internal publications, periodicals, advice manuals, memoirs, and colorful propaganda materials reveal how official attempts to determine and promote “correct” understanding of written laws intersected with people’s interpretations and practical experiences. They also show how diverse groups—including party-state leadership, legal experts, publishers, writers, artists, and local officials, along with ordinary people—helped to define the meaning of laws in China’s socialist society. Placing mass legal education and law propaganda at the center of analysis, Legal Lessons offers a new perspective on the sociocultural and political history of law in socialist China.


Jennifer Altehenger is Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese History in the Department of History at King’s College London.


List of Illustrations*
I. Preparations: 1949–1954
1. No Legalese, Please: Why the Dissemination of Laws Became a Problem
2. Paper Trials: How the Publishing Field Adapted to Law Propaganda
II. Practices: 1950–1962
3. What Is a Basic Spirit? The Marriage Law and the Model Legal Education Campaign
4. Getting People to Abide by Law: The Constitution Draft Discussion and Its Aftermath
III. Revivals: 1970–1989
5. Constitutional Dilemmas: Reworking Law Propaganda for a New Socialist Era
6. A New Type of Five-Year Plan: Institutionalizing “Common Legal Knowledge”
Chinese Character List
Archival Files

More information with the publisher

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