Gender and the Chinese Legal Profession in Historical Perspective: From Heaven and Earth to Rule of Woman?

93 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2008 Last revised: 14 Dec 2013

See all articles by Mary Szto

Mary Szto

Syracuse University College of Law

Date Written: August 30, 2008


This article first discusses the current phenomenon of women judges and male lawyers in China. Many women have joined the ranks of the Chinese judiciary because this is considered a stable job conducive to caring for one's family, as opposed to being a lawyer, which requires business travel and heavy client entertaining. I then trace this phenomenon to ancient views of Heaven, earth, gender and law in China. In this yin/yang framework, men had primary responsibility for providing sustenance for both this life and the life to come and women were relegated to the "inner chambers". Also, law was secondary to ritual, which mediated between Heaven and earth, and lawyers were deemed unnecessary.

After telling the stories of legal actors in China from imperial times to the present (including the fabled qingguan (model judges) and the first woman lawyer), I conclude that a revolutionary space for women has opened up. The inadvertent conflation of Confucian gender stratification, cultivation and mainland economics and politics has led to the redefinition of the inner chambers to judicial chambers. This inadvertence can be strategic. As China's political and legal system develops, these judicial positions may yield a powerful sphere of influence. Also, China's new judges are and should be inspired by their legal ancestors who harmonized Heaven and earth, virtue and talent. Part of the robust future of the rule of law in China lies in its past.

Keywords: China, law, gender, legal profession, history, women, lawyers, judges, religion, Confucianism, legalism, education, ritual

JEL Classification: K10, K19, K40

Suggested Citation

Szto, Mary, Gender and the Chinese Legal Profession in Historical Perspective: From Heaven and Earth to Rule of Woman? (August 30, 2008). Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-12, Available at SSRN: or

Mary Szto (Contact Author)

Syracuse University College of Law ( email )

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