University of Cambridge > > Education, Equality and Development (EED) Group Seminars > THE LEGAL CONSTRUCTION OF CHILDHOOD - ADJUDICATING JUVENILE OFFENDERS IN WARTIME CHINA, 1937-1945


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At the turn of the twentieth century, as major Western powers coped with the aftermath of the First World War and later the Great Depression, China was an isolated nation, where after two thousand years of imperial rule, a republic was established and the monarchy was overthrown by a group of revolutionaries. Despite such social and political changes, it was also a time when China’s legal system remained in a state of flux – a transitional period lodged somewhere between the imperial legal system and attempts to embrace new ideas and legal reforms imported from the West. Drawing on previously unexamined archival legal case records from China and Taiwan, this paper demonstrates the evolution and development in the formation of ideas about the legal treatment of the young from the early Republic to contemporary China. More specifically, it examines how the outbreak of China’s War of Resistance against Japan from 1937 to 1945, more commonly folded into the Pacific component of the Second World War, served as a crucial catalyst to crystallising ideas on how the law should treat the young, and the construction of the legal boundaries of childhood. The aim of this paper is to therefore demonstrate how courts attempted to challenge the liminal space occupied by juvenile offenders within the legal sphere, and examine how the social impact war on juveniles brought about a new legal and social understanding of children and childhood in twentieth-century China. Although the People’s Republic of China did not formally develop a juvenile justice system until the early 1980s, the judicial landscape of contemporary China with respect to the concept of juvenile justice was forged from the fundamentals and precedence set during the wartime period, which was later revived in the 1980s and 90s, as part of the country’s social and legal movement towards a rule of law. However, Western, Chinese, and Japanese language scholarship on the development of a juvenile justice system in contemporary China have largely neglected the importance of legal developments that occurred before the rise of the Communist Party in 1949. Developments in the first half of the twentieth century therefore marked an important period of transition and transformation within the judicial realm for China, as new legal norms were formed and ideas of social justice were being tested.

This talk is part of the Education, Equality and Development (EED) Group Seminars series.

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