An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Da-Ming lü 大明律, the Ming Code

Jul 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Da-Ming lü 大明律 is the penal law codex of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). The first emperor of the Ming, Ming Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398), at a very early point in his imperial career already started caring for legislative matters and entrusted his ministers Li Shanchang 李善長 (1314-1390) and Liu Ji 劉基 (1311-1375) with the compilation of a code in 1367, even before he proclaimed the Ming dynasty. Already two months later the compilers submitted a code of penal and administrative law (lüling 律令) in 340 articles and a supplement of explanations (Lüling zhiyi 律令直義).

On the basis of this rudimentary canon, the Ming canon was due to be compiled. The compilation started on imperial order in 1373 and was supervised by Liu Weilqian 劉惟謙. It was finished less than half a year later and was promulgated by the emperor.

The Da-Ming lü was arranged like the first great surviving code, the Tanglü shuyi 唐律疏義 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907). It consisted of 606 articles (tiao 條) in 30 juan. The articles were arranged according to the jurisdictional responsibility of the Six Ministries (liubu 六部).

In 1389 the code was thoroughly revised and arranged according to a jurisdictional concept instead of a topical concept as before. The new version contained 260 articles in 30 juan. In 1397 the code was again revised with the imperial advise to never alter it again, which order was in fact obeyed until the end of the Ming dynasty.

Instead of revising the code regularly, Ming Taizu's successors had compiled supplements containing precedent cases (shili 事例) which were not integrated into the canon but issued separately. This was the Wenxing tiaoli 問刑條例 with 279 articles, issued in 1500, and two revisions with large additions issued in 1550 and 1585.

Table 1. Contents of the Da-Ming lü 大明律
1 名條律 Regulations for defining offenses and sentences
2-3 吏律 Laws under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of State Offices
4-10 戶律 Laws under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Revenue
11-12 禮律 Laws under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of State Rites
13-17 兵律 Laws under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War
18-28 刑律 Laws under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Penal Law
29-30 工律 Laws under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Official Works
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