August 16, 2019

This book provides a comprehensive history of the emergence and the formation of the concept of sovereignty in China from the year 1840 to the present. It contributes to broadening the history of modern China by looking at the way the notion of sovereignty was gradually articulated by key Chinese intellectuals, diplomats and political figures in the unfolding of the history of international law in China, rehabilitates Chinese agency, and shows how China challenged Western Eurocentric assumptions about the progress of international law. It puts the history of international law in a global perspective, interrogating the widely-held belief of international law as universal order and exploring the ways in which its history is closely anchored to a European experience that fails to take into account how the encounter with other non-European realities has influenced its formation.


'The Confucian admonition that one needs to study the past to understand the present is especially apt when it comes to China and sovereignty. Fortunately, Dr Maria Adele Carrai’s new book provides a superb genealogy of Chinese approaches to sovereignty over time, from historic times to the present, that will be a key departure point on this important topic for years to come.'

William P. Alford - Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of East Asian Legal Studies and Director of East Asian Legal Studies, Harvard University

'Carrai’s innovative conceptual history of ‘sovereignty’ in China explores the changing meanings of international law and its structures of authority and legitimacy through three periods of dramatic Chinese political transition. This is a study not only of Chinese reception and adaptation. It provides a foundation for scrutiny of China’s active participation in shaping our present international legal order.'

Madeleine Zelin - Dean Lung Professor of Chinese Studies, Columbia University

'This is a stimulating, learned, and readable analysis of the many uses the malleable concept of ‘sovereignty’ has served in China’s relations with the world for almost two centuries. It offers invaluable assistance for parsing the rhetoric of both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump in the current East-West contest for domination.'

Jerome A. Cohen - Faculty Director of US-Asia Law Institute, New York University

'This study provides a much-needed concise history of the genealogy of sovereignty as a central concept of modern international law and politics in the context of Chinese transformation and Sino-foreign encounters since the mid nineteenth century. Its nuanced analysis of Chinese specificity and agency in shaping international legal and political history will be of great interest to scholars of China, comparative politics, and international history.'

Li Chen - University of Toronto

'Sovereignty occupies the conceptual heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s bid to claim for China its rightful place in the world and to justify its international policies. By showing how this concept emerged and what it means today, Carrai sets out the rhetorical terrain across which those who wish to enter into conversation with official China will have to make their way.'

Timothy Brook - Republic of China Chair, Department of History, University of British Columbia


Maria Adele Carrai is a sinologist and political scientist with a strong interest in conceptual history and history of international law. She is a recipient of a three-year Marie Curie Fellowship at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance – KU Leuven and a Fellow at Harvard University Asia Center. Her book Sovereignty in China, A Genealogy of a Concept Since 1840 (Cambridge University Press, 2019) looks at the way Chinese intellectuals, political figures, and diplomats appropriated and articulated the notion of sovereignty in their foreign policy within the new discourse of international law in the period between 1840 to the present. By tracing a genealogy of the notion of sovereignty in China from the earliest introduction of international law until the present, the book provides a historical perspective through which to better understand the path China is taking as a normative actor within the international global order.