Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
Criminal Justice in China

Criminal Justice in China

A History

Klaus Mühlhahn

ISBN 9780674033238

Publication date: 04/30/2009

In a groundbreaking work, Klaus Mühlhahn offers a comprehensive examination of the criminal justice system in modern China, an institution deeply rooted in politics, society, and culture.

In late imperial China, flogging, tattooing, torture, and servitude were routine punishments. Sentences, including executions, were generally carried out in public. After 1905, in a drive to build a strong state and curtail pressure from the West, Chinese officials initiated major legal reforms. Physical punishments were replaced by fines and imprisonment. Capital punishment, though removed from the public sphere, remained in force for the worst crimes. Trials no longer relied on confessions obtained through torture but were instead held in open court and based on evidence. Prison reform became the centerpiece of an ambitious social-improvement program.

After 1949, the Chinese communists developed their own definitions of criminality and new forms of punishment. People’s tribunals were convened before large crowds, which often participated in the proceedings. At the center of the socialist system was “reform through labor,” and thousands of camps administered prison sentences. Eventually, the communist leadership used the camps to detain anyone who offended against the new society, and the “crime” of counterrevolution was born.

Mühlhahn reveals the broad contours of criminal justice from late imperial China to the Deng reform era and details the underlying values, successes and failures, and ultimate human costs of the system. Based on unprecedented research in Chinese archives and incorporating prisoner testimonies, witness reports, and interviews, this book is essential reading for understanding modern China.


  • In this ambitious work of prodigious research and thoughtful analysis, Mühlhahn takes readers beyond a simple account of legal and institutional development to offer a more nuanced interpretive framework. This is an important contribution that significantly advances our knowledge of twentieth-century Chinese criminal justice.

    —Jonathan K. Ocko, North Carolina State University and Duke Law School


  • 2009, Winner of the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History


  • Klaus Mühlhahn is Professor of Modern China Studies and President of Zeppelin University. His Criminal Justice in China won the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History.

Book Details

  • 376 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author