Top of page

Supreme Court of China, 99 Years Ago

Share this post:

While looking through the Law Library of Congress’s collection of a set of valuable Chinese judicial gazettes from the Minguo (or Republican) Period (1912-1949), I came across a picture of the Supreme Court (da li yuan) of China that was taken in 1913, ninety-nine years ago.

Picture of the Supreme Court in the Judicial Gazette of the Republic of China, 1913 (Photo by Laney Zhang)

So what functions did these nine men in the picture perform?  The man sitting directly in front of the seven men in a row and facing left appears to be the court reporter.  Are the seven gentlemen at the bench all judges, or judges and prosecutor(s)?  Is the gentleman sitting on the far right of the photo a prosecutor or a lawyer?  It would have helped if this was a color photo–apparently the technology did not exist in China at the time, although we did find some color photos taken in China by a foreign photographer during that period.  If it were in color, we would be able to tell their roles from the color of the piped edge of their robes and hats: black for lawyers, purple for prosecutors, and gold for judges.  This is according to an official court dress decree from 1913 (5 Judicial Gazette of the Republic of China 9 (Feb. 15, 1913)).  Below is the design sketch of the required attire.

Picture from the Judicial Gazette of the Republic of China, 1913. Top right: front of a robe worn by judges, prosecutors and attorneys; top left: back view of the same robe.  Middle right, front of a robe worn by court reporters.  Middle left: back of the same robe.  Bottom right: front view of hat worn by judges, prosecutors, lawyers and reporters. Bottom left: back view of the same hat. (Photo by Laney Zhang)

According to the decree and its implementing order (6 Judicial Gazette of the Republic of China 17 (Mar. 15, 1913), judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and court reporters had to wear the prescriptive black robes and hats, with the piped edge made from different color of velvet distinguished by their respective roles.  The decree even set the fabric of the robes and hats, which had to be made with “silk or wool from domestic sources” — an early “buy China” provision, or a method to guarantee good quality?

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Laney Zhang. The author information has been updated to reflect that Laney is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.