Transnational Legal History: Research and Teaching at CUHK LAW

Studying law as it is practiced on an everyday basis directs our attention to the challenges and opportunities of the current moment. Focusing on current approaches and problematics can limit the questions we ask, however, or leave us confronting practical or political impasses. Adopting a historical perspective can provide new shades of meaning and the opportunity for new perspectives—including, on occasion, perspectives that help cut through what may otherwise seem intractable problems. In recognition of such potentials, CUHK LAW places great emphasis on producing innovative new research on legal history, on providing students with an understanding of how the law has evolved over time, and on disseminating and discussing the insights that arise from the exploration of legal history with the broader legal community in Hong Kong.


The Transnational Legal History Group was established as a research cluster within the Centre for Comparative and Transnational Law. The group aims to provide insights drawn from the experiences of the Asian region as well as from cross-cutting work focused on developments on the international and transnational levels. In coming years, the Group plans to expand in several directions. Group members are working to develop new interdisciplinary connections, with the aim of generating new fields of study. In addition, the Group aims to develop a broader network connecting academics with policy professionals, civil society advocates and international organizations, with the aim of turning historical research into a vehicle for impacting contemporary policies.

The Group’s research is organized around three areas of focus, Asian Legal History, Comparative Approaches to International Law, and the History of Empire.

The Asian Legal History thematic is focused on developing new perspectives on the history of law in Asia. Professor Wolff has emphasized the importance of exploring Hong Kong’s legal history in “Hong Kong Legal History – why and for what?,” in Itineraria iuris – From Rome to China: Festschrift for Ulrich Manthe. Professor Malagodi’s research explores the history of constitutionalism in South Asia, including for instance through pieces such as “Dominion status and the origins of authoritarian constitutionalism in Pakistan,” published in the International Journal of Constitutional Law, Ivor Jenning’s Constitutional Legacy Beyond the Occidental-Oriental Divide,” published in the Journal of Law and Society, and “Constitution Drafting as Cold War Realpolitik: Sir Ivor Jennings and Nepal’s 1959 Constitution,” in Constitution Making in Asia: Decolonisation and State-building in the Aftermath of the British Empire. Professor Bui’s work examines the history of constitutionalism in East and Southeast Asia, including through such pieces as “Anticolonial Constitutionalism: The Case of Ho Chi Minh,” published in the Japanese Journal of Political Science, and “The Global Origins of Vietnam’s Constitutions: Text in Context,” published in the University of Illinois Law Review. Professor Gallagher’s research investigates cultural heritage law in Asia and elsewhere, as illustrated by pieces such as “Museums and the Return of Human Remains: An Equitable Solution” and “‘Purchased in Hong Kong’: Is Hong Kong the Best Place to Buy Stolen or Looted Antiquities?,” both published in the International Journal of Cultural Property.

Professor Gordon’s research delves into the history of international criminal law. This may be seen for instance in pieces such as “International Criminal Law’s ‘Oriental Pre-Birth’: The 1894-1900 Trials of the Siamese, Ottomans and Chinese,” in The Historical Origins of International Criminal Law, The Trial of Peter von Hagenbach: Reconciling History, Historiography and International Criminal Law,” in Untold Stories: Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials, and “The Forgotten Nuremberg Hate Speech Case: Otto Dietrich and the Future of Persecution Law,” published in the Ohio State Law Journal. Professor Mitchell’s research considers the history of international law, as reflected in pieces such as “International Law as a Coercive Order: Hans Kelsen and the Transformation of Sanction,” published in the Indiana International and Comparative Law Review,Manchukuo’s Contested Sovereignty: Legal Activism, Rights Consciousness, and Civil Resistance in a ‘Puppet State,’’ published in the Asian Journal of Law and Society, and in his forthcoming Recentering the World: China’s Reception and Contention of International Law.

Professor Roberts’ research focuses on the historical evolution of approaches to public order legality within the British Empire. This research is illustrated in pieces such as “From the State of Emergency to the Rule of Law: The Evolution of Repressive Legality in the Nineteenth Century British Empire,” published in the Chicago Journal of International Law, and “Experiments With Suppression: The Evolution of Repressive Legality in Britain in the Revolutionary Period,” forthcoming in the Loyola Los Angeles Journal of International and Comparative Law.

Greater China Legal History Seminar Series

The Greater China Legal History Seminar Series serves as a forum to discuss the historical development of legal issues in the Greater China region. Seminars have explored issues as diverse as corporal punishment in traditional Chinese legal thought, the small house policy in Hong Kong’s New Territories, China’s engagement with international law in historical context, law and slavery in the South China Sea, and the legal history of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. Conducted at CUHK LAW’s downtown Graduate Law Centre, the seminars provide a chance for academics, practitioners and CUHK LAW’s student body to discuss and develop new perspectives on contemporary practices by exploring the manner in which they have evolved, and are generally filled to capacity with over one hundred participants per session, many of them practicing lawyers from Hong Kong’s downtown legal community.


A strong background in legal history not only provides students with a better understanding of some of the intricacies of the law in its current form, it also helps them to understand the manner in which laws and legal systems evolve and change over time, and to reflect on the role different legal system play in the broader structure of societies. Several CUHK LAW courses address transnational legal history. Common Law: Origins and Development, a core class within the LLM in common law, provides a wide-angled introduction to the manner in which the common law has evolved historically, and some of the recurrent themes and tensions that have arisen along the way. Principles of Art, Antiquities, Cultural Heritage and the Law provides students with the ability to explore the manner in which contemporary laws in China and Hong Kong address the illicit trafficking of art, antiquities, and cultural heritage objects. Since 2020, CUHK LAW has also been offering courses on Transnational Law After Empire as well as on Colonial Governance and the Rule of Law within the LLM program, which explore the manner in which the history of empire has shaped both national and international legal orders.