While working on a draft of this essay, a copy of Chao Xi's [Chinese characters?] new book, Corporate Governance and Legal Reform in China (2009) came across my desk. The existence of such a book, published in English, written for a specialized area of legal practice, is an important marker. Over the past twenty years, Chinese law has undergone a truly astounding metamorphosis. Where the study of Chinese law was once a niche area, populated by a fascinating but small cast of characters who battled against those who thought that the subject represented an oxymoron, now there is intense interest from many quarters. Not to oversimplify, but money is to be made in the field. While disentangling the root structure of the Chinese legal system remains a challenge, commentators are hard at work trimming the buds of this nascent legal system. Chinese law has become serious business.
Yet a problem that struck me in 1975 when I first began studying China remains relevant today. Any description of the Chinese legal system written in 2010, or at any moment in time, resembles a snapshot of an airplane flying by. One can describe with explicit granularity the current state of legal development in China, but as soon as something is written, events move on. China is a nation in motion and its legal system reflects that constant change. Over my career I have published little on Chinese law. The staggering difficulties of dealing with a system so deeply in process, so uncertain of itself, stopped me. Better to spend time teaching, reading and talking than writing things that would soon be out of date or simply wrong. This is not to denigrate efforts by my colleagues over the past two decades; there have been brilliant contributions and the literature grows richer by the day.1 But for me, describing the roots and the process of change became my focus. Yet now I see that the time may have come to take stock.