November 3, 2020

In the light of 19th-century attempts to universalize history and international law, the purpose of this article is to show how the theory of an Ancient Chinese international law matured and disseminated within one politics of history and helped generate another at the end of the Qing Dynasty. On the one hand, the middleman William Alexander Parsons Martin, who as part of his Christian mission and in order to make international law more acceptable to the Chinese, translated systematically international law into Chinese and attempted to universalize it by finding a proto-international law in Ancient China. On the other hand, Chinese scholars and officials sought to use Martin’s theory to universalize Confucianism and rectify international law according to what they believed to be their own superior morality and history.

Maria Adele Carrai is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Global China Studies at NYU Shanghai. Her research explores the history of international law in East Asia and investigates how China’s rise as a global power is shaping norms and redefining the international distribution of power. In light of the development of the Belt and Road Initiative, she is looking in particular at the economic, legal, and political repercussions of Chinese investments and economic engagement in Europe and Africa. Prior to joining NYU Shanghai, she was a recipient of a three-year Marie-Curie fellowship at KU Leuven. She was also a Fellow at the Italian Academy of Columbia University, Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, Max Weber Program of the European University Institute of Florence, and New York University Law School. More information can be found on her website

Photo Credit:

Above: Martin with his students. Below: With the faculty of the Chinese Imperial University, the predecessor of Peking University. W. A. P. Martin (1901). The Lore of Cathay or the Intellect of China. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company. p. 34. From Wikipedia.