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The speed of justice : summary execution and legal culture in Qing dynasty China, 1644-1912 Guo, Weiting


This dissertation examines the history of summary execution in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and its significant impact upon Chinese politics and legal culture. The practice of this extraordinary punishment initially increased in the eighteenth century, when the Qing Empire encountered the challenges of a growing population, an overburdened judicial system, and an increased number of popular protests. The Qianlong emperor (1711-1799) extensively used expedient procedures and bestowed upon regional authorities the power of summary execution to battle the threats from both borderland and inland—including the emerging underclass and the protesters. However, the problems remained unresolved and the court continued to institutionalize this informal punishment. In the nineteenth century, the increasing social turmoil and continuously overwhelmed judicial system led to several reforms at the regional level. Following the trend of local militarization, the spread of men using force became an inevitable trend. The authorities continued to rely on braves in order to quench local revolts and save government expenditures. Yet this approach blurred the boundary between legality and illegality and forced the authorities to severely punish soldiers and unorganized “roaming braves” (youyong 游勇) through the informal procedure of summary execution. Although the practice of summary execution helped the authorities to overcome the lack of judicial resources and suppress the threats in an efficient manner, it also evaded central authority over death penalty and enhanced political intervention in the judicial process. The extensive use of this punishment created a space for not only the state but also regional authorities and local forces to manipulate judicial expediency and the death penalty. It also led to the rise of what I call the “economy of punishment”—the spread and distribution of penal resources related to crime and violence. This trend shifted the practice of Chinese death penalty toward a system where routinized and exceptional, centralized and decentralized, and formal and informal forces consistently negotiated judicial expediency and mutually shaped one another. More importantly, it reveals that a series of significant reforms predated the Westernization of law and continued to influence Chinese criminal justice during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International