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Professor Ruskola's new book explores Chinese, U.S. Law

Emory University School of Law |
Since the Cold War, China has become a global symbol of human rights violations while the United States has emerged as the world’s chief law-enforcer and its leading law-exporter. Yet the association of China with lawlessness and the United States with rule-of-law has a much longer history, Emory Law Professor Teemu Ruskola says in his new book, Legal Orientalism: China, the United States, and Modern Law, to be released by Harvard University Press May 13.

Ruskola uses the term “legal Orientalism” to refer to a set of political and cultural narratives about what is and is not law, and who has it. He describes his book as a “comparative and historical study about ideas of Chinese and U.S. law, and of how those ideas have produced distinctive subjectivities, articulated social relations, and shaped geopolitical conditions” in China, the United States, and globally.

Ruskola tells the story of how over the course of the 19th century a European tradition of prejudices about Chinese law became the foundation for a distinctively American ideology of empire. This empire was institutionalized in a system of U.S. extraterritorial courts in the Asia-Pacific, justified on the theory that U.S. citizens could not be subjected to despotic Oriental legal systems. American extraterritorial jurisdiction in Asia culminated in the establishment of a U.S. Court for China—a nearly lawless tribunal that operated in Shanghai for several decades in early 20th century, with jurisdiction over the “District of China.”

The book also challenges the notion that China has no indigenous history of corporation law by analyzing Confucian family law as a kind of corporation law. With regard to present-day reforms, Ruskola characterizes contemporary Chinese law as a kind of self-Orientalism: a self-conscious turn to foreign legal models. From the perspective of the U.S., the book examines the damage wrought on the U.S. Constitution by 19th-century anti-Chinese immigration laws and their ongoing significance—a key contemporary legacy of legal Orientalism.

Ruskola is also a faculty member in the East Asian Studies Program at Emory University.

In an advance review, Professor Bruce Ackerman of Yale Law School characterizes Legal Orientalism as a breakthrough book that “places the legal study of China’s relationship to the West, and vice-versa, on a new and deep foundation.”

Mae Ngai, professor of history at Columbia University, emphasizes the book’s important interdisciplinary contributions: “On the one hand, it is a historical analysis that illuminates important aspects of 19th- and early-20th-century world history. On the other, this book is urgently contemporary, speaking to interest in legal studies and the social sciences about the place of law and legal reform in present-day China.”

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Legal Orientalism: China, the United States, and Modern Law »