PUBLISHED:March 03, 2014

Zhang, scholar of comparative legal history, property law, and Chinese law, to join governing faculty

Taisu Zhang Prof. Taisu Zhang

Taisu Zhang, an interdisciplinary scholar of comparative and economic legal history, property law, and Chinese law, will join the governing faculty in July. Zhang, whose ambitious research agenda includes empirical and theoretical study of property rights in pre-industrial China and Western Europe as well as the operation of the contemporary Chinese judiciary, has been a visiting professor of law at Duke since 2012.

Raised primarily in Beijing, Zhang majored in history and mathematics at Yale University, where he received his BA magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He received his JD from Yale Law School, where he served as articles editor of the Yale Law Journal. He will soon receive his PhD in history from Yale. His dissertation, “Kinship, Property, and Agricultural Capitalism in Pre-Industrial China and England,” which he is developing into a book manuscript, has been recognized with a Kathryn T. Preyer Award by the American Society for Legal History and a Yale East Asia Prize Fellowship, among others.

Zhang has taught at Yale, Brown University, and the Peking University Law School, and has been a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University School of Law. He has worked in the Institute of Applied Legal Studies of the Supreme People’s Court of China, at the Federal Defenders of New York in Manhattan, and with Davis Polk and Wardwell in New York and Hong Kong.

“Taisu Zhang is a remarkable young scholar whose work illuminates the role of culture in shaping legal institutions and the economic impact of those institutions,” said Dean David F. Levi. “He is extremely versatile in his scholarship and in his teaching, which includes legal history, property, land use, Chinese law, contracts, and comparative law. And he brings a deep understanding of China that will be valuable to our institutional international initiatives and to our students bound for cross-border legal careers.  He is well recognized in the United States and in China as one of the foremost scholars of China of his generation, and we are very fortunate that he chose to come to Duke Law.”

“Taisu brings both enormous talent and an enormous range of talent to Duke Law,” said Barak Richman, the Edgar P. and Elizabeth C. Bartlett Professor of Law and Professor of Business Administration. “In his short time here, he’s been the instigator in many creative discussions and scholarly aspirations. He’s a legal historian, a property theorist, an institutional economist, and a China expert – and he’s a top-flight scholar in each of those areas. Any one of those areas is a need of ours, and also an important area for future scholarship. It’s just exceptional that he neatly fits in all of them. We are extremely fortunate to have Taisu joining our faculty.”

A multi-faceted research agenda

A core focus of Zhang’s research concerns the way cultural norms of kinship and interpersonal hierarchy shaped property in pre-industrial China and England and how those property institutions affected broader trends in global economic history. In particular, he explores the interaction between cultural norms, legal and customary institutions, and economic outcomes.

“In the societies that I study, the law itself was often a less important player than custom in regulating actual economic activity,” he said. “This was true for most Asian countries until the 20th Century, and it was true in England and France up to the 17th and 18th centuries, and possibly later.”

In a new work derived from his PhD thesis, “Social Hierarchies and the Formation of Customary Property Law in Pre-Industrial China and England,” 62 American Journal of Comparative Law 501 (2014), Zhang challenges the common assumption of comparative lawyers and economists that traditional Chinese laws and customs were unduly “despotic” towards the poor.

Zhang compares practices surrounding land-pawning and redemption by small landholders in need of quick cash through conditional “dian” sales in Qing and Republican China, and mortgages in early-modern England. The societies both had robust markets for both land and agricultural goods, but he finds Chinese customs to be comparatively more egalitarian. Chinese property institutions “often gave significantly greater economic protection to the poorer segments of society than comparable institutions in early modern England,” he writes.

English debtors who mortgaged land would generally lose property rights if they failed to redeem it within one year, causing land ownership to become highly concentrated, over time, in the hands of a wealthy elite. Chinese customary law, in contrast, allowed debtors unlimited redemption rights.

Why were small landholders in China able to negotiate more desirable property institutions than their English peers? Zhang credits the operation of hierarchical “Confucian” kinship networks that granted social status based on age, while England’s meritocratic system conferred high status only on the wealthy.

“I certainly acknowledge that property institutions tend to be the product of rational negotiation based on perceived self-interest,” said Zhang. “But the crux of the comparison is that the starting point of those negotiations in China was different from the starting point in England. The age-based social hierarchies operating in most rural communities in China facilitated a distribution of sociopolitical power that was much more egalitarian than did the wealth-based social hierarchy operating in England.”

The theoretical themes that emerge from this work have spurred Zhang’s complementary theoretical and empirical research on Chinese cultural institutions and property law. Among other projects, he and a co-author are investigating whether kinship networks function differently from other social networks, and whether large, well-organized kinship networks help protect private property against coercive government expropriation. The project uses data from longitudinal surveys of 238 Chinese villages from 1986 to 2006.

Studying the Chinese judiciary

Zhang’s body of work on the contemporary Chinese judiciary looks both at the institutional structure and motivation of judges in the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and at the motivations of petitioners with grievances against government officials.

One article, published in China’s leading sociology journal, examined why most complaints against officials are filed in administrative petitioning offices rather than as administrative lawsuits. In another article, published in the Columbia Journal of Asian Law, Zhang measures SPC populist rhetoric in favor of increased public participation against the court’s recent actions and rulings. He finds the court driven more by “pragmatic considerations of its institutional self-interest,” than by ideological concerns.

Zhang plans to conduct an empirical review of SPC rulings issued from 2003 to 2013 designed to illuminate how cultural or ideological factors might affect judicial behavior. “This would be, to the extent of my knowledge, the first empirical study of SPC decision-making,” he said.

Cross-cultural comfort facilitates scholarship

Zhang, who spent five years of his childhood in Buffalo, N.Y., while his father was in graduate school, feels that his comfort across cultures aids his scholarship in law and history.

“I think that if you stay in one cultural context, there is a considerable likelihood that you’re going to be captured by its conventions,” he said. “I feel that an objective scholar will probably want to jump outside, occasionally, of his or her own cultural and social conventions in order to take a more neutral and contrasting perspective. I’ve ended up becoming this semi-insider and semi-outsider to both societies, and that has its benefits.”

Zhang said he’s found an intellectual home at Duke. “I loved my first year here. I deeply respect my colleagues – they are brilliant scholars and wonderful people. And what really struck me about Duke was how easy it is to cross departmental and disciplinary boundaries. So I always felt pretty happy about being able to stay here if I got the chance.”