Roman law has long been strongly admired by legal professionals and scholars in China. From the Ming dynasty, when Italian missionaries visited China, to the year 2021, when the first Civil Code of PRC came into effect, it has been a long story of evolution.

At the end of the Ming Dynasty, Italian missionary, Giulio Aleni, arrived in China. Aleni authored a basic introduction to the western academic system, in which was outlined the Italian legal tradition and education of the time.

For example, he wrote in his book, “From cradle to grave, from personal relationship to government administration, should all ruled by law, the law is like the voice of God’s will, the bond of governance, the armor of morality, the link of ethics. … Because of the importance of the law, six years of legal education and the qualified result of a rigorous examination was required to become a lawyer”.

Aleni was the first to explain the structure of western law in the Chinese language.

In the late Qing Dynasty, the government was eager to seek a way to save its regime. There was a consensus that the strong national strength of western countries originated from the rule of law.

Therefore, in 1906, five ministers of the Qing government went on a study tour of western countries and drew the conclusion that all laws in European countries came from Rome. In 1907, a course on Roman law was set up at an academy in today’s Tianjin University. In 1910, the Qing government decided to make the Study of Roman Law the first course of the first semester in all law schools.

After the end of the Qing Dynasty, Roman law education was continued in law schools as a compulsory subject in the Republic of China. In the famous Soochow University (东吴大学), not only Roman law, but also legal Latin was a compulsory subject.

During this period of history, the draft Civil Law of both the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China incorporated the basic principles of Roman law, such as good faith and the concept of private property rights.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, 50 Chinese universities offered Roman law courses, and in 1982, the first version of “Fundamentals of Roman Law”, wrote by Jiang Ping, one of the most famous leading Chinese legal scholars, was published.

Subsequently, a large number of scholars who were skilled in Latin visited Italy to study from the original texts of Roman law and communicate with Italian Roman law luminaries. When these visiting scholars returned to China, they devoted themselves to the teaching and research of Roman law, publishing a great number of excellent and far-reaching works.

Civil code, as a form of law, originated from Roman law. Through generations of legal education, this form and the spirit of Roman law has penetrated the hearts of Chinese legal professionals and scholars. The implementation of the Civil Code of PRC in 2021 was inseparable from efforts of the legal professionals and scholars who have received the education of Roman law. The current Civil Code of PRC has critically inherited the spirit of Roman law and absorbed many professional terms, such as objects of adjustment, civil law principles, legal acts, statute of limitations and the possession system.

From the Italian missionaries in the late Ming Dynasty to the first Civil Code of PRC of this year, Chinese civil law has gone through a long process of learning from Roman law which has accompanied the entire process of Chinese civil law modernisation and will continue to do so.

The article is published on the Nanjinger magazine on April 27th, 2021: