Symposium: Focus on Asia

Heavenly Principles? The Translation of International Law in 19th-century China and the Constitution of Universality

Abstract

Modern international relations are established on the acceptance of international law as the rules of conduct. But how does this legal order, which originated from European jurisprudence, acquire its universality? How did this legal order in the time of European colonial expansion interact with other systems of law, which formed the socio-political foundation of non-Western powers, such as China? These are the two main problems addressed by this study, which focuses on the translation of Western writings, particularly those by American jurist Henry Wheaton, and legal documents on international law in China from the late 19th century. This article, which takes a legal comparative perspective, argues that the clashes between China and European colonial powers by nature were disputes between the jurisdictions. The clashes reflect the realpolitik struggles between two powers as well as the limitation of 19th-century international law based on the acceptance of a Eurocentric universalism.