During times of great political change, dynasties in both Japan and China were dealing with issues regarding stability within the state and maintaining power throughout their respective realms. In order to solidify and centralize their states, the leaders of these dynasties introduced ideas of governing and ruling in order to successfully form and maintain a united empire. In China this was done through the Tang law code and in Japan the Seventeen Article Constitution. Although both documents share similarities in the goals of the state, the Tang Law Code seems to be a more specific document focused on legalist ideas rather than the more generalized and cooperation oriented Seventeen Article Constitution.
Two widely different states, China and Japan although with similar goals each had different political structures when these laws of governance were first introduced. Already centralized and bureaucratic after the fall of the Sui, the Tang empire lead by Taizong held a large portion of land with all of China under its rule. However, the political structure was quite different in Japan. As a result of the loss of Japanese domains on the Korean peninsula and the defeat of its ally, the Paekche kingdom, there existed domestic fighting between powerful clans in Japan. Before Empress Suiko and regent Shototuku took power there existed no central government and instead there was constant fighting between clans for power. Therefore the Japanese state was much more unstable than the Chinese state because of its lack of an established central government and this constant struggle and conflict between clans. Whether it was due to differences in Buddhism and Shinto between the Soga and Mononobe clan conflicts always existed. Dangers to the government and its institutions were constantly feared even during the rule of Suiko and Shotoku.
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With these descriptions of the respective states in China and Japan, it is obvious to why differences exist in the organization and function of the different laws of governance introduced. Shotoku and Japan attempted to unify and create a centralized state like those that he had seen in China. Through the Seventeen Articles of constitution Shotoku provided seventeen guidelines to how the state should be governed and run. It provided ways in which people should act according to Confucian traditions, but more importantly it held this idea that “the sovereign is the master of the people of the whole country. The officials to whom he gives charge are all his vassals” (53).
This Seventeen Article constitution introduced a central taxation system in which power to tax was in the central government and not in the hands of many. On the other hand, the Tang Law Code had a different goal in mind. Already unified and centralized, the Tang dynasty focused more on maintaining the stability of the state rather than creating one. Because the Tang dynasty covered so much land and was continually being attacked by enemies at its borders, the rulers of the Tang dynasty knew in order to solidify their power and maintain social stability within their empire they must set down a set of laws that all people under their rule must follow. “Overall, the Code reflects an attempt by a centralized, bureaucratic, dynastic state (not the decentralized “feudal state idealized by the Confucians) to assert its authority and protect its power over all China” (Chinese sources 546).
Therefore in order to do this it incorporated Legalist teachings by laying down strict laws that must be obeyed by all. It specifically outlaws certain atrocities that may be harmful to the state such as rebellion. Article 6 labeled the “Ten Abominations” describes some of the most serious offenses that could be met with harsh punishments. “As his children, as his subjects, they must be loyal and filial. Should they dare to cherish wickedness and have rebellious hearts, however, they will run counter to Heaven’s constancy and violate human principle. Therefore this is called plotting rebellion” (550).
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Obviously a large state like the Tang is greatly concerned with rebellions. The Seventeen Article of Constitution neither makes specific references nor discusses exact punishments because there existed no state to rebel against. Instead the main focus of the constitution was the idea of creating and not maintaining a centralized and unified state. Therefore the articles such as articles 12 and 15 talk about the power to tax with this main goal of establishing “imperial authority” over a uncentralized state (Japanese sources 51).
Therefore these two laws of governance were stressed and implemented quite differently by the leaders of the time.
Although being both centered on Confucian ideals, they held opposing underlying views mainly because of other beliefs that were prevalent at the time. The Tang Law Code with its addition of legalist teachings was much more extensive than the Seventeen Article constitution. Because of its implementation of legalist teachings into its code the Tang Law Code had a “concern for universality, consistency, impartiality, and inexorability in the application of the law, along with a Confucian disposition to take into account particular statuses, qualitative hierarchical distinctions, and degrees of personal relationship” (Chinese source 546).
Going back to Dong Zhongshu and his belief about the link between natural orders and humans, the Tang believed that an offense that disrupted society required corrective action by the rulers to maintain the harmony and balance of the state. This Legalist tradition can definitely be seen in this quote from the preface of the Tang Law Code, “punishments are used to stop punishments and killing is used to stop killing” (Chinese sources 547).
On the other hand instead of acting as a constitution that required and pressured everyone to follow the rules, the Seventeen Article constitution instead stressed cooperation of the people rather than forcing their people to obey certain laws. “The ruler should offer his people moral guidance and instruction, not burden them with detailed laws involving compulsion rather than eliciting cooperation” (Japanese sources 51).
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Therefore by taking this Confucian view Shotoku’s constitution encouraged and not forced people to lay aside their differences of being comprised of different clans in order to create a strong and harmonious central state like those in China. Nowhere in the Seventeen articles does it speak about specific punishments for not obeying certain articles. Instead the Seventeen Article constitution speaks in generalities and encourages people to follow the constitution. As an alternative of being an actual law code like the one during the Tang, Shotoku’s constitution was not even a constitution. Instead it could be viewed as a chain of guidelines of social behavior that Shotoku hoped his officials and fellow countrymen would follow.
The Seventeen Article constitution also greatly differed in its underlying ideas to the Tang Legal code because of its association with Buddhism. The author of the Seventeen Article constitution, Prince Shotoku, not only was interested in China and Confucian ideals but was also from the Soga clan that supported Buddhism when it first entered Japan. He therefore supported Buddhism and showed deep interest in the religion. His Seventeen Article constitution was therefore a synthesis of not only Japanese tradition and Confucianism, but also Buddhist thought. The second article in the constitution states “Sincerely reverence the Three treasures. The Buddha, the Law, and the religious orders are the final refuge of all beings and the supreme objects of reverence in all countries.” (Japanese sources 51).
Therefore instead of incorporating legalist teachings like the Tang, this document instead integrates Buddhist thought that had started to spread throughout the state of Japan. Becoming a more popular religion in Japan, Buddhist ideals could help unify the Japanese nation like it had done for previous dynasties in China.
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The Tang Legal code and the Seventeen Article constitution also shared differences and similarities in that they produced different institutional and social consequences. Both were key processes in building stronger states and would be influence dynasties and their dynastic codes. During the reign of Empress Suiko and Regent Shotoku supreme rule was given to the emperor that would be implemented by later dynasties. Unlike China, Japan’s aristocrats grew in power instead while the emperor just acted as a figurehead legitimizing power. However, other ideals from the Articles of constitution would definitely be implemented later in Japanese history. On the other hand the Tang dynasty is sometimes viewed as the golden age. Later dynasties would not have the same control and stability like the Tang had. These laws of governance would undoubtedly shape the law and morality of the people for many years after.
These two documents of governance offers an insight of the structure of the respective states in Japan and China. Depicting more of an unstable and less centralized state, the Seventeen Article constitution was written accordingly in order to pioneer new institutional and social change. On the other with its strict laws and specific references about daily conduct, the Tang Legal code obviously had different goals in mind in order to maintain institutional practices and social control. Whatever their respective goals may be, both documents were responses to the social structures of their time and initiated laws and guidelines that would influence dynasties to come.