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Emory Law News Center

Faculty and Scholarship

Unraveling misconceptions about Chinese jurisprudence

Emory University School of Law |

When Teemu Ruskola tells people he works on Chinese law, he is often met with an incredulous response such as, “There’s no such thing!” These opinions made the Emory law professor even more curious about questions regarding who gets to decide what law is and who has it. What is at stake in asking these questions? And why is China historically associated with lawlessness and Oriental despotism, while the United States regards itself as a paradigm of the rule of law?

“If you want to think seriously about law and its significance in the modern world, you have to look at China,” Ruskola says. “If you want to think theoretically about any major Western discourse, whether it be politics, law, or economics, you have to think comparatively, even to understand and be aware of the categories that we use in our thinking.”

Ruskola delved into these issues in his latest book, Legal Orientalism: China, the United States, and Modern Law (Harvard University Press 2013), a comparative study about ideas of law — along with its principles, formation, and effect. Indeed, the first Western observers of China were 16th-century Jesuit missionaries. These well-educated visitors had an extremely positive view of China and its legal system. The negative image didn’t become widespread until 18th- and 19th-century traders — neither well-educated nor particularly cultured — began to complain of China’s lawlessness.

Ruskola also looked at the effect the negative views of China’s legal system have had on the US legal order. For example, after encouraging Chinese immigration when cheap labor was needed to build the railroads, the US did an about-face by enacting a series of Chinese exclusion laws in the late 19th century. The Chinese challenged the laws under the US Constitution, but the US Supreme Court upheld them on the theory that the federal government possesses a “plenary power” to exclude immigrants, a kind of discretionary authority unconstrained by the Constitution. Paradoxically, Ruskola says, the desire to keep subjects of “Oriental despotism” outside the United States resulted in the establishment of a kind of legal despotism inside the United States.

Ruskola was drawn to study China early on, leaving Finland to study East Asian Studies at Stanford University. “I have always wanted to explore other ways of thinking, and China seemed the perfect subject, the opposite of Finland in my college freshman eyes,” he says. “In many ways, China is the significant civilizational ‘other,’ the opposite of the liberal, modern West.”

After graduating, he spent two years in Taiwan learning Mandarin — the sixth language he studied — and then attended Yale Law School. He practiced with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in New York and Hong Kong and then returned to Stanford to get a graduate degree in East Asian Studies. Prior to joining Emory, he was professor of law at American University in Washington, DC.

He was drawn to Emory by its strength in legal history, comparative law, and legal theory. “My project cuts across many disciplinary lines, both inside and outside of law,” says Ruskola. “It draws on history and postcolonial studies, for example, and Emory has great intellectual resources in both. The law school in particular is a place that has a long-standing tradition of taking interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study of law seriously, especially in its humanistic aspects.”

In addition to his responsibilities at Emory, Ruskola is an affiliated faculty member of the Finnish Centre for Chinese Law and Legal Culture, where he helps run two Chinese labor law–related projects funded by the Academy of Finland and hosted by the Law Faculty of the University of Helsinki.