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Doctoral dissertation project of Lucas Brang

Narrating Universality: The Discipline of International Law in Modern China (working title)

International law carries the claim (or pretension) to universality in its name. Its norms are supposed to be equally binding regardless of religious-cultural context or political-economic regime. Oftentimes, however, there is no agreement on how to identify binding norms; and even if there is, one and the same provision might lend itself to antithetical readings, giving international law a semblance of uncertainty. Thus, in contrast to the discipline’s popular self-perception as an ‘invisible college’ – speaking a shared cosmopolitan vernacular – international law also appears as the site of a permanent struggle over the semantic authority of how to “correctly” interpret its principles and norms. Different individuals, states, and disciplinary communities constantly put forward different narratives of which norms are sacrosanct and which derogable; of who is violating and who upholding international legality; who a progressive force in its development and who an impediment to it; who guardian and who pariah.

This narrative uncertainty looms large in the scholarly debate about China’s rise. The PRC’s emergence as an illiberal one-party state, for better or for worse, has put a lid on many unspoken teleologies of the post-Cold War era. As a result, many have turned to history for putative guidance on how China’s past is presumably powering (or constraining) its present rise. Indeed, in much of the recent scholarly literature, both the sense of either apprehension or aspiration associated with China’s ascent are conventionally narrated and contested through the medium of a past that seems inextricably linked up with political concerns in the present. Strikingly, however, there is no meaningful discussion of the various narrative strategies with which invocations of and extrapolations from the past are put to use in often troubling ways to make sense of and effect changes in the present. Nor is there a widespread theoretical awareness of how different visions of disciplinary history inform (and often limit) our views of a rising China.

Drawing on literature in Chinese and European languages, my dissertation seeks to address these questions by tracing the development of international law as an academic discipline and professional practice in twentieth century China. On the one hand, it questions prevailing narratives in legal and historiographical research that tend to either extrapolate from China’s historical experience under colonialism a supposedly enduring skepticism toward international law – or else romanticize China’s past struggle on part of the Third World. In its stead, I propose a more open and contingent account of the Chinese disciplinary past that stresses the versatility of professional roles, the pliability of political agendas, and the recurrence of biographical dilemmas under conditions of political crisis. On the other hand, I argue that these stories offer insights into the structure, function, and performative effects of narrative forms in international legal discourse more generally. At the same time, this raises the corollary question of what the apparent incommensurability of these narratives tells us about the field’s embattled sense of universality, and how this universality is itself subject to narrative construction.


Short biography

Lucas Brang is a PhD candidate at the Chair of Chinese Legal Culture, University of Cologne, and the recipient of a three-year Marie Curie research fellowship of the European Union, as part of which he is currently affiliated with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His dissertation on the discipline of international law in twentieth century China is supervised by Prof. Björn Ahl (Cologne) and Prof. Samuli Seppänen (Hong Kong). Lucas’ research interests lie in modern Chinese legal, intellectual, and conceptual history, with a focus on how the globalization of political and legal thought affects debates about constitutionalism and global order in China.

After studying Chinese and Law in Cologne, Nanjing, and Beijing, Lucas obtained his M.A. in 2018. As an undergraduate and graduate student, he received scholarships of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the China Scholarship Council, and the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung). Besides several academic posts, he worked as an intern at the German Federal Foreign Office and as a translator from Chinese into German.

Contact: lbrang(at)smail.uni-koeln.de


Peer reviewed articles:

Editorial reviewed articles/review essays:

Academic blogs:

Conference papers/ presentations:

  • “Lawyering for a half-sovereign state: A sociology of international legal knowledge in republican China,” European China Law Studies Association annual conference, 24-26 September 2021, Warsaw.
  • “When National Revanchism meets Disciplinary Self-Doubt: China’s Rise and the Politics of Global Legal History,” Online Symposium “China and Global History”, 1-3 September 2021, Vienna.
  • “The Lexicon of Particularity in Contemporary China – From Global Constitutionalism to Constitutional Anti-Globalism…and Back?”, Online Webinar organized by “Global Constitutionalism” (Cambridge University Press), 5 June 2020.
  • “Chinese Political Constitutionalism and the Antinomies of Legal Globalisation”, European China Law Studies Association annual conference, 26-28 July 2019, Durham (UK).


Cover photo: Wellington Koo (Gu Weijun), renowned Chinese international lawyer and diplomat, portrayed as a young man in 1912 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., USA, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002717877/) // Potrait photo: Patric Fouad

a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 713600.

Call: H2020-MSCA-COFUND-2015 | Proposal: 713600 – artes EUmanities
CORDIS: http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/203182_de.html