Ancient China Lesson for Kids: Government & Laws

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The history of China's governments and laws stretches back further than any other nation. Learn about how China's laws began and changed over thousands of years in this lesson.

First Formation of Government and Laws

Suppose you had the chance to live on your own beautiful island with your friends and family. You'd get to put a few laws into place, such as nobody has to wear shoes and everyone gets ice cream for dessert. But you'd need serious laws too, such as nobody steals anything. How would you know which laws to choose? One way would be to draw on the laws created by previous generations like many societies do. In the case of China, which is thousands of years old, laws and government have always been in place, but they have changed over time.

Picture of Confucius
Confucius picture

Perhaps the most important person in Chinese legal history is a philosopher (someone who studies and thinks about life) named Confucius. He lived 2,500 years ago and created some of the most important Chinese writings on government. Confucius believed government was closely tied to morality (ideas about right and wrong), and that if a ruler was morally good then the government would work well for the people. Confucius' ideas influenced Chinese government, religion, and philosophy for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Crime and Punishment

While today's laws may seem a bit tough to some people, they're nowhere near as harsh as many laws of ancient China. Back then, a group of politicians and philosophers called Legalists sought to make the punishments as tough as possible in order to prevent anyone from committing a crime. In fact, a leader named Li Si said that only the smartest leaders would have fierce punishments for small crimes, so that everyone would be afraid of the punishment for big crimes.

Picture of Li Si
Li Si picture

This meant that someone accused of a crime in ancient China was in a huge heap of trouble. Some might be tortured, put into cages, or even have a heavy stone attached around their neck! Even if you were not harmed, you still might be sent far away from home to do hard work for the rest of your life.

Who's in Charge?

If you lived in ancient China and wanted to change these laws, you didn't have much of a chance because for thousands of years, up until just 100 years ago, China was always ruled by an emperor who passed power down to his family. While the Chinese dynasties (ruling families) sometimes fell from power, an emperor almost always ruled with total control.

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