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How To Learn Chinese Law: DO Try This At Home.

International China lawyer

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a Chinese-American, fluent in both English and Chinese, asking how he should go about learning Chinese law and Chinese legal terms so as to be better prepared for securing a paralegal job with the eventual plan of becoming an international lawyer/China lawyer.

In his initial email, this person asked me not to name him on the blog, a request I found pretty strange because I saw absolutely nothing in his request that would be “blog-worthy.”

However, upon receiving co-blogger and (China super lawyer) Steve Dickinson’s response to this person, I instantly realized I had a blog post on my hands. So here goes:

Here are my suggestions on how to get familiar with legal Chinese. It is certainly difficult, but the below is the method I suggest.

1. You have to select a place to start. It is all difficult, so you should just do your best. What you want is a law or regulation in Chinese that has a very good English language translation. Because your interest in Chinese business law, I suggest you start with China’s Company Law and then review the regulations on foreign invested enterprises. There are three sets of regulations: Wholly Foreign Owned Entities, Equity Joint Ventures and Cooperative Joint Ventures. Both Chinese and English versions of these are available on the internet.

2. Read the Chinese from copies of the laws/regulations you get on the internet. First, compare the Chinese with the English and try to develop your vocabulary list from your translation comparisons. When you come across Chinese terms you don’t know, try using an online dictionary. You can cut the Chinese and paste it into the online dictionary. This is much faster than looking up the words in a dictionary.

3. You should buy a good legal dictionary. There are many available, but none are excellent. You can look in the Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Road in Shanghai. If you use the technique above, you should not need to do a lot of dictionary work.

4. As you move from Chinese law to Chinese law, you will find that the reading goes easier. Be patient as it will be very slow at the start. Other laws to look at are the Constitution, the Basic Principles of Civil Law and the Property Law and the Enterprise Income Tax Law.

Good luck and enjoy!

14 responses to “How To Learn Chinese Law: DO Try This At Home.”

  1. Coincidentally, Dr. Chen Ke of AllBright Law Offices in Shanghai spoke at our school yesterday and he said that he used almost the exact same method to learn English and English legal terms. He commented specifically on a couple of legal terms for which new words and phrases had to be invented in Chinese: “due diligence” and “including, but not limited to.”

  2. I just started learning how to read Chinese law in Chinese and it was pretty frustrating, and I am fluent in the language. For 30 minutes with the help of a Chinese translator and an online Chinese dictionary, we slowly pried open the legalese of Article 2 of the Copyright Law. I must say the hardest part was the nonsensical Chinese that was being used describe legal terms and definitions.
    The good news was that I felt a great sense of accomplishment and Article 3 became a little bit easier to read and understand.

  3. I agree that Chinese legalese can be daunting. English legalese is tough because of the archaic terminology and the occasional Latin, but I find Chinese difficult at the sentential level.
    There seems to be more information crammed in there than my western brain can handle. PRC documents in particular consist of interminably long paragraph-length sentences mercilessly strung together with 因此 or the dreaded 而!Is it contrastive 而?Simple clause resumptive 而?Who knows? Each paragraph or article inevitably starts out: 按照 (in accordance with) such and such a regulation from the circular on the effective stipulations as specified by the…it really makes the head spin.
    You really do have to wade through it a few times to make heads or tails of it, let alone come up with a readable translation.

  4. If you want a treat in linguistic acrobatics in Chinese, go back and read some of Lao Mao’s essays. You need to do some serious diagramming of each sentence.

  5. 1) Log into a Chinese bookseller like and start buying lots of law school textbooks. These are extremely cheap. One good set of books is the 21st century law review books.
    Chinese booksellers also have large amounts of “law for layman” books.
    These textbooks are essential because they explain the basic concepts behind the German-based Chinese legal system. These basic concepts are “person”, “juristic act”, “thing”, “right”, “obligation”, “liability.”
    2) I’ve only found one decent English textbook on Chinese law and unfortunately that book is not at my desk right now, but I can post the name in two or three days. The Nutshell pocket handbook on the PRC legal system is something you should read for what a bad textbook looks like, since it is about twenty years out of date and basically misses the point.
    One thing that you will quickly figure out in reading Chinese legal textbooks is how important reading another language is, since only fragments of the body of knowledge that exists in Chinese has been translated into English.
    3) Reading American “law review” texts is a good thing because just skimming a book on contract law how the German-based Chinese system is different from the English based American system. The one caveat is that you will do better to get a “law review” text like Gilbert’s or the Nutshell guides rather than a law textbook itself. US law schools use the “”casebook” method of teaching law, and this method simply does not work for teaching Roman-derived based systems. One thing that you might want to do is to get a law school text books (these are very expensive however) and then you’ll quickly appreciate how the basic principles of English-based law is different from Roman/German-based law.
    Something you will pick up is how heavily US law has influenced PRC ideas on securities and banking as well as on torts, and how little it has influenced PRC contract and corporate law.
    4) The Chinese laws you should look at first are the PRC Constitution, the General Principles of Civil Law and the Legislation Law. These are framework laws. The other thing that should look at are procedural laws such as the criminal procedure law, the civil procedure law, and the administrative procedure law. Finally, one thing that you’ll quickly pick up is the difference between different types of regulations, what the difference is between a “regulation”, a “measure”, and an “interpretation.”
    5) As far as websites go. My favorite is the That website gives you a flavor for current and past debates. One of the useful things on that site is a paper on the legislative process for the company law, and you get to see how Chinese legislation is drafted, and how and why people fight over one or two phrases in a law. Also a good site is They have English translations of changes in Chinese law.
    6) Finally, if you are adventurous, you can go into the German based law of the Republic of China on Taiwan and English based Hong Kong law. Both of those jurisdictions have had a huge amount of influence on PRC law. Also there is a book on Soviet law which I found to be very useful in understanding some of the philosophical issues that PRC law drafters faced.

  6. Found it.
    William C Jones “Basic Principles of Civil Law In China” published by ME Sharpe. Inc.
    It’s a translation of a Chinese text, and somewhat dated since it was written in 1989, but it’s the only decent overview of Chinese law that I’ve ever seen in English.

  7. China Law Blog on How to Learn Korean Law
    Dan Harris' China Law Blog has another wise bit of advice to students of foreign laws -- although Dan relates his partner Steve Dickinson's view on how to learn Chinese law, the advice is (once again!) completely applicable to anyo…

  8. I would be interested in getting my hands on a list of Chinese Legal terms (with English equivalents would be nice, but not necessary) for contribution to CEDICT or a similar free/open Chinese English Dictionary Project. If anyone has such a list, I’d truly appreciate it.
    Using Yahoo! mail (, my account is stevendaniels88.

  9. China Law 101 Plus.
    Checking in with Dan Harris at China Law Blog, we find “How To Learn Chinese Law. Do Try This At Home”. If you practice corporate law in this new world of ours, are busy, and have limited time to read…

  10. @Glen Wilkins: “There seems to be more information crammed in there than my western brain can handle. PRC documents in particular consist of interminably long paragraph-length sentences mercilessly strung together with 因此 or the dreaded 而!Is it contrastive 而?Simple clause resumptive 而?Who knows? Each paragraph or article inevitably starts out: 按照 (in accordance with) such and such a regulation from the circular on the effective stipulations as specified by the…it really makes the head spin.”
    Amen to that. Had a bilingual document plunked down in front of me last week (the non-Chinese language was not English and is one that I do not speak). Being told to generate an English-language contract off it concentrated the mind wonderfully, but each paragraph-sized sentence still needed 3-4 read throughs before understanding.
    Sometimes I think you don’t need diagrams to understand these sentences so much as you need an annotated map.

  11. Hi, I ran into this blog when searching for translation business opportunities on the Internet.
    I am a Chinese native speaker based in Hong Kong and fluent in Chinese and English. I work as a full-time translator at my own small company on documents from English to Chinese and vice versa.
    I am happy to get to know many foreigners are so interested in PRC laws. Actually I finished a course on PRC commercial and industrial laws many years ago, which is very helpful to my career.
    I previously worked as a translator at China Law & Practice (a legal publishing house in Hong Kong)and several international law firms like Lovells, Linklaters and Deacons, dealing with various documents such as Chinese joint venture contracts, letters of intent, patent applications and oppositions, etc. I now focus on translation for H-shares companies in Hong Kong.
    I must say I am pretty experienced in PRC legal and financial translation, and happy to answer any questions in relation thereto in future on your blog, or if you are looking for a freelance translator to do any paid translation assignments (E-C or C-E), you may try me.

  12. Chinese laws are relative short in comparison to American laws. This is probably because Chinese laws are drafted in a concise form while American laws are detail oriented to cover every thing the law makers can think of. Remember the reporting on the American health care law a few years ago, it was probably longer than all Chinese laws combined.

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