Desperately Seeking ‘Justice’ in Classical Chinese: On the Meanings of Yi

  • Deborah CaoEmail author


This essay sets out to search for an equivalent Chinese word to the English word ‘justice’ in classical Chinese language, through ancient Chinese philosophical texts, imperial codes and idioms. The study found that there does not seem to be a linguistic sign for ‘justice’ in classical Chinese, and further, yi resembles ‘justice’ in some ways and has been used sometimes to translate  ‘justice’, but yi is a complex concept in traditional Chinese philosophy with multiple meanings and it is dissimilar to ‘justice’ in their semantic and pragmatic meanings in Chinese and English legal culture. While ‘justice’ is a keyword and fundamental to Western law, yi is not a legal word or concept in classical Chinese in traditional China. Given its complexity, yi does not have a one-to-one equivalent in English. It sometimes carries a sense of ‘righteousness’ and occasionally ‘justice’, but yi and ‘justice’ are not equivalent. In view of these, it becomes understandable that the translations of yi in contemporary Chinese usage vary ranging from ‘friendship and justice’ to ‘greater good’, among others. The meaning of yi is still uncertain and context sensitive as it was two thousand years ago.


Chinese law Legal language Classical Chinese Justice Legal meaning 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Humanities, Languages and Social ScienceGriffith UniversityNathan, BrisbaneAustralia

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