Peasants Versus Empires: Transnational Civil Justice and National Legal Decolonization in Manchuria, 1881-1951

Peasants Versus Empires: Transnational Civil Justice and National Legal Decolonization in Manchuria, 1881-1951
This dissertation offers a transnational legal history of peasants, merchants, and migrants in the Manchurian borderland. Drawing on previously unexamined sources from seventeen archives and numerous non-archival collections in Northeast China, Taiwan, Russia, Japan, and the United States, the dissertation shows how this battleground of empires, quite paradoxically, was also the breeding ground for a new form of normative imagination about transnational justice from below.

Amid the game of great powers in Northeast Asia, millions of migrants mingled with the local population in Manchuria. As settlers and sojourners traveled across the Great Wall, over the Sea of Japan, and through the steppes of Russia, they brought new repertoires of legalities and legal sentiments into the borderland. By examining the hundreds of transnational litigation records they left behind, this dissertation reconstructs the desires and anxieties of borderland inhabitants as they navigated a world overflowing with multinational laws. Through many stories of legal inventiveness in property, debt, and resource exploitation, I demonstrate how the Manchurian borderland emerged as a generative site of transnational lawmaking. Unlike the formal laws and state legal interventions that played a key role in the emergence of modern legal culture in China proper, I argue that Manchurian borderlanders made law through make-believe techniques, imaginative performances, and border-crossing maneuvers. Audacious as they were, the norms of private legal transactions that took shape in this world then reshaped colonial and national sovereignty.

The dissertation begins by describing the Russian intervention in Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century, demonstrating how, through its railway imperialism, the Russian empire unwittingly laid the groundwork for a unique form of inter-imperial legal pluralism in the region. Relying on materials in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and English, I show how, in the years of Sino-Japanese rivalry that followed, borderlanders developed this legal consciousness into a transnational legal vernacular, using legal claim-making as an effective strategy of anti-colonial social action. The dissertation goes on to show how the Japan-sponsored colonial state of Manchukuo (1932-1945) attempted to coopt borderland legal energy by introducing a property regime that it regarded as legally legible. Ultimately, however, its machinations merely disrupted the existing transnational structure of rights. When the Japanese empire fell, the Nationalists and Communists each hurried to offer a vision of legal decolonization, aiming to dismantle the Japanese legal legacy. I make the case that the Nationalist project of legal decolonization foundered because of its ill-timed incorporation of Republican Chinese civil jurisprudence. Having unleashed a legal tsunami in the courts, the Nationalist rights restoration movement paved the way for what I call liberal decolonial socialism, which followed in the years immediately after the end of the Civil War.

Where prevailing narratives on East Asian international law often privilege the ordered legislative spaces of China’s coastal metropolises, I foreground the other spaces of norm-making in East Asia and focus on transnational legal strategization at the grassroots. The dissertation aims to show that frontier “badlands,” often marginalized in the histories of modern law, were just as generative for the norms that defined transnational legal modernity. That is, legal modernities did not travel solely through state mediation from Berlin and Paris to Beijing and Tokyo. They also emerged from the forested hills, rice paddies, and mining pits of the lived transnational space. This study of Manchuria in the first half of the 20th century thus offers an alternative local history for the emergence of the modern legal culture of the (post)colonial Global South. It also challenges conventional narratives about nationalist identity and colonialism in Northeast Asia. The prevailing account suggests that via techniques of inclusion and exclusion, imperialism helped engender national identities. Yet the findings presented in this dissertation suggest that legal actors instrumentalized their identities not to create boundaries but to cross borders and build alternative alliances. As I demonstrate, the juridical processes in which they engaged laid bare the instability of imperial ethno-national categories, even as these same processes hailed into being a new transnational legal subject. This legal subject, defined by a regime of private rights and by a high degree of mobility, defied the framework of national state building, even if the end result at times led to new, transnational forms of dispossession.

The findings presented in this dissertation also compel us to rethink the story of decolonization in China. It has often been suggested that decolonization was either unnecessary or unthinkable under the banner of Maoist Revolution. I argue, however, that the decolonial imagination defined the horizon of expectations for the postcolonial population in Manchuria. The story of the Manchurian postcolony shows the asynchronic temporalities of decolonization in different regions of China, thus enabling a reconsideration of China’s relationship with the legacies of colonialism.


Rui Hua

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

Harvard University, Program in History and East Asian Languages




Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)
East Asia