An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zichan xingding 子產刑鼎, the Code of Zichan

Aug 27, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

The "law tripod" (xingding 刑鼎) of Zichan 子產 (d. 496 BCE) was a bronze vessel into which a legal text was inscribed. The vessel, exhibited to the public, was produced in 536 BCE by the Counsellor in the regional state of Zheng 鄭, Zichan.

It was the earliest public law code. Tripods (ding 鼎) were not only used as cooking pots for sacrifices to the ancestors, but also as a means of demonstrating political power, and objects storing information on legal contracts, like investitures or royal and ducal presents. Communist historians seen in the vessel a triumph over the nobility of the "slave-holder society", by making public legal matters to the oppressed masses.

Historical records show indeed that members of the nobility of the powerful state of Jin 晉, like Shu Xiang 叔向, lamented that legal matters were commonly dealt with in debates according to the principles of propriety (later known as Confucianism), and not according to written codes. It was to be feared that the people might contest the power of the nobility.

Zichan's code was part of a general trend of the codification of law which culminated in the state philosophy of the legalists. In 513 Zhao Yang 趙鞅 and Xun Ying 荀罃, nobles of the state of Jin, decided to follow the precedent of Zichan. This time even Confucius himself criticized the custom of written law, because it distracted the people from their "natural" duty of obeying the nobility. The commentary Zuozhuan zhengyi 左傳正義 to the history book Zuozhuan 左傳 explains that the tripod of Jin was not exhibited in public, but only presented at the ducal court of that state.

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