Guo Rui
LL.M. ’05; S.J.D. ’13
Associate Professor of Law, Renmin University

As Quiet as the Rain of the Spring: William Alfords Engagement with China During a Changing Time

When Professor Alford gave the chair lecture of the Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of East Asian Legal Studies on December 19th, 2018, he titled his lecture with a famous quote from the Analects:  Learn from the Past to Appreciate the Present, That is What Makes One a Teacher.”[1] Introducing him for the chair lecture in 2018, Dean John F. Manning expressed his appreciation not only for Professor Alford’s academic work, but also for his service to Harvard Law School. Dean Manning also praised his personal virtues, such as kindness, generosity, readiness to serve the community and willingness to mentor young colleagues. From a traditional Confucian perspective, all these different aspects of Professor Alford’s life can be viewed as a whole. Just like what Confucius himself embodied, virtues were lived out in both academic and personal life of a Confucian scholar. In addition, Confucius took on public service responsibilities in his pursuit of virtues. Confucian scholars often anchor their choice of public service in a deep sense of responsibility. I wish to be the first to worry about the nation’s woes,” said Zhongyan Fan of the Song Dynasty,  and the last to enjoy its prosperity.” In their public service, Confucian scholars take pride in revealing the worries of the world, even at the cost of being marginalized. Professor Alford’s life experiences, academic work, and service in various academic leadership roles, including as Vice Dean for International Legal Studies at HLS, taken as a whole, reflect a Confucian scholar’s pursuit. 

The scholarly works of a Confucian scholar reflect a deep sense of responsibility. In The Peach Blossom Fan, a musical play and historical drama completed in 1699, there is a scene in which a drumming storyteller Liu Jingting is playing Confucius. In Lius story, Confucius stated that no matter how the world changes—the sea changes into the mulberry field, the mulberry field into the sea—I, the old man, only focus on editing the classics with my two hazy eyes.”[2] This is a beautiful description of the sense of responsibility of a Confucian scholar.  When Kong Shangren wrote The Peach Blossom Fan,  a small number of Manchurian conquerors had just taken over China and established the Qing Dynasty after defeating the Han troops of the Ming Dynasty. KONG, as a Han intellectual himself living under political and cultural oppression, spoke through the mouth of the old Confucius. To be “hazy-eyed” does not mean to ignore the reality of the national tragedy or to be oblivious to the hardships of the people.  To focus on editing the classics,” for Confucian scholars of the Qing, is to take up the responsibility, namely to carry on their passion for the nation through hard scholarly work. This description beautifully fits Professor William Alfords passion throughout his career in his engagement with China. 

Trained in Chinese history and comparative law, Professor Alford is well-read in Chinese classics. His early work in Chinese legal history deals with an influential criminal case in the late Qing Dynasty, which reflects his mastering of classical Chinese language and history and remains one of the most authoritative case studies in legal history.[3] His research on the history of Chinese intellectual property law, titled To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense, is a must-read in the fields of both intellectual property law and legal history.[4] Working in the then-burgeoning field of Chinese environmental law, he revealed how bureaucratic politics gave Chinese clean air law its current form.[5] All these works, having influenced many of his Chinese colleagues and students, maintain a balance between offering a comprehensive analysis of the institutional defects and inducing feasible progressive reforms. For many of Professor Alford’s friends in Chinese legal academia, they welcomed his intellectual integrity, since it gave them a crystal clear analysis of the problems; they also appreciated his kindness, for only patient efforts grown out of kindness could realistically help bring positive changes in China.

As a leader in academia, Professor Alford’s engagement with China began as early as the late 1970s, when China had just come back from the brink of collapse, which was caused by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It took much patience and understanding for a foreign scholar to be able to gain acceptance and friendship. His work in legal history, comparative law, intellectual property, environmental law and human rights made him one of the most well-known foreign scholars in China. In the meantime, Professor Alford promoted U.S.-China legal exchanges and helped build an international environment that supports the development of the rule of law in China. As a leading member of the U.S. legal academic community, he was a core member of the Committee on Legal Education Exchange with China (CLEEC). From 1983 to 1995, the Committee helped more than 200 Chinese legal scholars visit the United States, through which Chinese education and legal circles have fostered a large number of outstanding jurists.[6] After he became the Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and the director of East Asian Legal Studies, he welcomed hundreds of Chinese scholars to visit and do research at Harvard.

In June 2019, when Renmin University hosted a two-day conference celebrating his scholarship and career, many of these scholars, such as He Weifang, Liang Zhiping, Fang Liufang, Wang Liming, Wu Zhipan, Zhu Jingwen, Wang Chenguang, Han Dayuan and many others, participated in the event or contributed to the book dedicated to him.[7] Many of these scholars shared moving stories about him during the event or in their articles about the early years of China’s legal reform and opening-up, and they reflected how his commitment and unselfish help in promoting US-China legal exchange had made a difference in China’s progress towards the rule of law and in their academic careers. For instance, He Weifang, a law professor of Peking University and an outspoken intellectual leader known for his politically liberal ideas and bold proposals to reform the judiciary, expressed his gratitude especially for Professor Alford’s role in helping him understand the U.S. legal system in the formative years of his legal career. Professor Fang Liufang completed his study on the Chinese Concept of Corporation, a masterpiece in comparative law and legal history, taking advantage of his visit at East Asian Legal Studies from 2003 to 2004. In responding to their comments, Professor Alford not only took no credit, but offered genuine gratitude for their friendship and for their help in his study of Chinese law.

My own journey with Professor Alford began in 2005. Over the past 15 years, as his former student, mentee, and later collaborator on various academic projects, I got to know more about him as I came to understand his sense of responsibility and experience all the Confucian virtues. I went to Harvard Law School for my master’s degree (LL.M.) in 2005 and continued my study until graduation with my doctorate (S.J.D.) in 2013. In these eight years and the years since then, I have had a close relationship with Professor Alford, and he has been a mentor and a role model for me. I have learned so much both from his scholarship and from his academic leadership.  

Before coming to Harvard, I was interested in the ownership rights of China’s private firms. Under the supervision of Professor Fang Liufang, I researched the phenomenon of “red-hat firms,” which was a wide-spread practice in which privately-owned firms voluntarily registered as publicly-owned. In the process of my research, I not only analyzed various civil and commercial lawsuits, but also brought relevant administrative and criminal cases into my study. The research was an unusual project, for it could not fit into any single field of Chinese legal academia. Only with Professor Fang’s strong support and guidance was I able to complete the study.[8] After I concluded my legal study in China, I explored the possibility of studying at a U.S. law school, which I understood would be much more friendly to my research interests like the “red-hat firms.” During my exploration, I encountered Professor Alford’s research and was immediately attracted to it. I found that he focused on specific topics, but he researched without considering whether they were bound in specific fields. I was fortunate to be admitted to the LL.M. program and to work with Professor Alford.

Two years later, I proceeded with my S.J.D study. Professor Alford agreed to be my main supervisor. In the following years, I benefited so much from his scholarship and mentorship. He helped me assemble an unprecedented committee, including Duncan Kennedy, who co-founded the Critical Legal Studies movement in the U.S., and Reineer Kraakman, one of the leading corporate law scholars. Years later, when I hosted Dean Martha Minow at Renmin University, she was amazed to hear about my committee. It was one of many examples that demonstrate the inclusive and collaborative environment that the Graduate Program became under Professor Alford ’s leadership. 

The humility of Professor Alford amazed me. Before going to the U.S., I was unfamiliar with the depth of American scholars’ understanding of Chinese law, and I often thought I understood better because I had first-hand knowledge. Professor Alford had often invited me to speak on Chinese law issues in the classroom and in academic seminars, but I was surprised to discover his knowledge far surpassing mine in many areas. His comments on many important, contemporary issues have stood the test of time.  In retrospect, I am deeply ashamed that I had more courage than humility. In our daily interactions, he often insisted on opening the door to let me enter first, which was perhaps the most non-Confucian style in his life. I would insist that he enter first, and the two of us would each hold a door in front of the cafeteria, and the students who passed by could not help smiling. 

I received patient and warm support from Professor Alford throughout the writing of my doctoral dissertation. I selected the topic of Chinese state-owned enterprises for my dissertation. At that time, many of my colleagues and classmates asked me to think twice. They told me that state-owned enterprises would be extinct like dinosaurs by the time I finished writing. Professor Alford encouraged me and shared with me how he persevered amidst the ups and downs of Chinese law studies in American legal academia from the 1970s to the 2000s. Inspired by the experiences he shared, I continued my work on the state-owned enterprises in China. 

What I learned from Professor Alford went far beyond formal classes and discussions. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how American scholars asked questions about Chinese law. In 2008, as Harvard Law School adopted a major reform of its curriculum, Professor Alford began to teach Chinese Law for the first year J.D. students. He invited me to be his teaching assistant. Throughout the semester, I think I learned more than the students. Sitting in a classroom with students who were new to Chinese law, I heard very down-to-earth and straightforward questions and Professor Alford’s amazing answers. By the end of the course, the students who were formerly unfamiliar with Chinese law were debating some of the most complex issues, such as the one-child policy and the ongoing criminal justice reform. As I looked back, I realized that Professor Alford perhaps had been intentional in having me in the class, despite the little teaching assistance I offered. I was able to understood the U.S. scholars’ perspective by encountering the prototype of the their research questions, as they were posed by the J.D. students. I remain grateful for Professor Alford’s quiet yet effective method of helping me acquire a very important perspective.

Another significant academic influence Professor Alford had on me was his introducing me to the field of disability law. In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The Harvard Law School Project on Disabilities (HPOD), led by Professor Alford, played an active role in contributing to CRPD and helping China to join it. Professor Alford invited me to help translate some English text of CRPD into Chinese. Later, he also asked me to polish the Chinese translation of a handbook for persons with intellectual disabilities. It was the beginning of my journey in the field of disability law. Today, I teach disability law and lead the Clinic of Disability Rights of Renmin Law School. But at that time, it was difficult for me to understand Professor Alford’s passion for the field of disability law. In China, disability law was a marginal field. No fame or recognition existed for scholars in the field. Considering worldly fame and fortune, I did not see how it added anything to Professor Alford. I found an explanation from an interview by the Harvard Law Bulletin in 2011, titled “Able Lawyering.” Professor Alford said,”I think each of us has both gifts and limitations, and it is immensely gratifying to try to enlist whatever gifts I may have to try to help others realize their gifts.”[9] 

In the past seven years, as I have worked with Professor Alford on various projects on disability rights, I have come to understand more and more what he meant by these words. Persons with disabilities in China were originally referred to as Canfei, a combination of two characters meaning disabled and wasted.” Canji replaced Canfei from the 1990s onward, changing the latter character to one meaning disease or sickness.” This term is still used today. The Harvard Law School Project on Disability led by Professor Alford, has been dedicated to changing the concept to Canzhang, the latter character meaning “barrier,” which emphasizes the social and physical barriers that prevent persons with disabilities from participating in society equally. During the many HPOD-organized trainings for those with disabilities and their families, I witnessed Professor Alford’s generosity with his time and genuine love. He tirelessly served Special Olympics as a member of its executive board. The Special Olympics was instrumental in ushering in major changes in China, from accessible facilities for persons with disabilities in cities to improvements in inclusive education in rural areas. Beyond the direct impact made by Professor Alford, his indirect impact could not be overestimated.

The unique profession of law allowed Professor Alford to help with reforms and initiate changes through legislation and policymaking in China. In the past years, Professor Alford did not waste any opportunity when he sat down with legal academics or Chinese government officials. His colleagues from HPOD, Professor Michael Stein, Fengming Cui and Alonzo Emory have all been frequent visitors to Renmin University to join conferences and training sessions. Along with many Chinese scholars, such as Professor Han Dayuan and Li Jianfei, HPOD worked with teachers, parents and government officials to increase educational opportunities. Rather than merely offering teaching, Professor Alford showed his dedication not only by academic support, but also by personal involvement in many projects. As one of the many fruits of the work, the Ministry of Education made it possible for blind high school students to join the national college entrance examination, which helped bring equal opportunity for higher education. In 2016, Professor Alford shared his research, as well as his personal involvement, in disability law during a training session at Harvard in which the young law faculty from Renmin University participated. Upon returning to the campus of Renmin University, they recognized its impact and began to incorporate the disability perspective in their scholarship and teaching.

“Moistening things finely, without a sound,” described by a famous Tang poet Du Fu, is characteristic of a good rain of the spring.”[10] It is also a description of the style of Professor Alford. He writes on important academic themes, producing scholarship that stands the test of time. He teaches students without being explicit. He leads by being an example himself, rather than by making demands to others. And it is only when he steps down that people notice the dedication and excellence he has brought to the field and to the people around him.

[2] The text is translated from original Chinese text (沧海变桑田,桑田变沧海,俺那老夫子只管朦胧两眼订六经”) , which is found on wikisource website (last visited on September 20th, 2020). For English translation, see Shang-jen K’ung, Chen, S.H. and Acton, H., 1976. The Peach Blossom Fan. University of California Press.

[3] See William P. Alford, Of Arsenic and Old Laws: Looking Anew at Criminal Justice in Late Imperial China, 72 Calif. L. Rev. 1180 (1984).

[4] See ALFORD, W. P. (1995). To steal a book is an elegant offense: intellectual property law in Chinese civilization. Stanford, Calif, Stanford University Press.

[5] See Alford, W.P. and Liebman, B.L., 2000. Clean Air, Clean Processes–The Struggle over Air Pollution Law in the People’s Republic of China. Hastings LJ52, p.703.

[6] See, in general, Erie, Matthew S. Legal Education Reform in China Through U.S.-Inspired Transplants.” Journal of Legal Education, vol. 59, no. 1, 2009, pp. 60–96. 

[7] This event, taking advantage of the special occasion of his seventieth birthday. In the Chinese academia, similar celebrations are often held for an established scholar. The 2019 celebration was planned in 2018. Renmin University Press published a book, with authors coming from leading law schools and think tanks. See As Elegant as Luxuriant Bamboos—A Collection of Papers Commemorating the Exchange Between Professor William Alford and the Chinese Legal World, (绿竹猗猗安守廉教授与中国法学界交流纪念文集), edited by Guo Rui and Miao Yinzhi (Beijing: The People’s University Press, 2019).

[8] The work was subsequently published. See Rui Guo, The Red Hat Firms of China—Ownership and Control in Chinese Private Businesses, Law and Economic Study Journal, Vol. 1 (2005), Beijing, China.

[9] ELAINE MCARDLE, Able Lawyering——A Harvard Law School program with 675 million clientsHarvard Law Bulletin August 10, 2011

[10] The English text is translated by Prof. Stephen Owen. See Delighting in Rain on a Spring Night, Book 10, Vol.3. p 4-5, The Poetry of Du Fu, translated and edited by Stephen Owen, Volume edited by Paul W. Kroll and Ding Xiang Warner,  de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2015.