Samuli Seppänen
S.J.D. ’12, Associate Professor of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Finding the Way (Out) with Professor Alford

Thank you for inviting me to write this Tribute to Professor William Alford on his retirement from Harvard Law School. I was fortunate to be Professor Alford’s (it is still hard to commit to “Bill” in writing) S.J.D. student from 2007-2012, when he also directed Harvard Law School’s Graduate Program.

The Graduate Program provided its predominantly foreign students a sheltered existence. At the same time, the program felt slightly anomalous in Harvard’s all-American contest for esteem and influence. The S.J.D. degree itself is an odd creature in the American context, where all law degrees are graduate-level degrees, while law itself is not thought of as its own science. Conforming foreign sensibilities to the local academic game in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seemed challenging in many ways. However, we foreign students knew who in the Harvard faculty was interested in engaging with us. Professor Alford stood out as one of the most welcoming and cosmopolitan American law professors on campus, although he was characteristically modest about his role. In an S.J.D townhall meeting a student once asked Professor Alford why he had chosen to serve as the Director of the Graduate Program. His answer, which I suspect was only partly a joke, was that not many faculty members had wanted this role.

Professor Alford used to have an office in Pound Hall, a sinister mixture of 1960s concrete brutalism and “the International Style.” The Pound Hall – which was partly demolished in my final year at HLS – came from an America that declared its international ambitions loudly, and without much self-reflection. Professor Alford transcended these surroundings. On a personal level, Professor Alford would try to make his graduate students feel comfortable in at the Law School. This was a concrete effort: our meetings would start with Professor Alford offering me something to drink and even to eat. I believe there was a collection of snacks on his table for this purpose.

In more substantial terms, Professor Alford promoted a modest and respectful approach to the study of foreign law. The goal was to experience foreign law and Chinese law on their own terms rather than to use foreign law as a means for settling scores back home. Whatever score-settling there may have been before my time – Professor Alford had had a prominent role in criticizing Roberto Unger’s writings on China in the 1980s – I experienced him as a remarkably open and generous advisor, who encouraged me to explore all theoretical and ideological angles to my research topic.[1]

At the same time, Professor Alford urged me to leave my baggage (figuratively speaking) behind when traveling to China. In one of our meetings in the gloomy Pound Hall, I described my plans for an upcoming research trip to Shanghai and Beijing. I was working on a map of ideological conflicts in Chinese legal academia. I had conducted some preliminary research on this topic and placed prominent Chinese scholars on my map in accordance with their ideological viewpoints. My intention was basically to visit Chinese universities and ask Chinese scholars whether my impressions were correct. Professor Alford listened to my description of the map, assured me that it was not bad, and then pointed out that Chinese scholars might be too polite to contest my findings. As a consequence, he implied, I might not get much out of my research trip. He suggested that I find another way to test my map. I recognized that this was a good idea. Yet somehow, I ended up doing more or less what Professor Alford had warned me against.

I may have not been the most receptive student, but something fundamental from Professor Alford’s guidance has stayed with me. Professor Alford’s reluctance to view China as a matter of local American or “Western” game caused a fundamental rethink for the purpose of my own research. Even now, as I rush towards a hasty judgment on a topic, I imagine him saying something sympathetic about my viewpoint, and then inevitably revealing the issue to be far more nuanced than what I had initially proposed.

Professor Alford’s approach to comparative law – a combination of modesty and respect – is not only an intellectual position but also an attitude and a character trait.[2] Agreeing with this ideal intellectually and practicing it are two different things. Intellectually it is easy to accept that one should not impose parochial categories on say, Chinese legal thought. But to actually do this – to actually check in one’s ego at the airport – is a different matter altogether. To make the approach even more nuanced, suppressing parochial notions is not the same thing as having no normative opinions about foreign law. Professor Alford’s work on disability rights in China demonstrates that there is no need to lose one’s moral bearings in a foreign context.[3] On the contrary, respect for others calls for critical engagement with them. In comparative law such engagement is often hard to find especially – and ironically – in scholarship that is most critical of the Eurocentric nature of comparative law.[4] In contrast to the armchair critics of comparative law, Professor Alford’s long-standing personal engagement with Chinese scholars has created a vast network of colleagues and students around the world and in China, in particular. This network has given Professor Alford a uniquely comprehensive view of Chinese legal thought. As I reviewed my notes from our meetings for this Tribute, I found it remarkable how effortlessly he was able to lay out the detailed tapestry of Chinese legal scholarship in front of me.

Professor Alford’s humble approach to the study of foreign law is a difficult lesson for anyone. It is a particularly hard lesson to learn at an elite institution, such as Harvard, which teaches its students and faculty to “lead” others. Indeed, the will to leadership often seemed as self-evident and unexamined at Harvard as the dwindling swagger of its modernist architecture. More generally, it is a deep-rooted fantasy of some parts of the American legal academy that the intellectual leadership exercised by American jurists can help others reach their full potential.[5] Roscoe Pound himself (of Pound Hall fame), sought to design legal institutions and methods of adjudication for the Republic of China. Pound maintained that his designs were based on local life in China rather than on blindly copied models from foreign countries.[6] Yet the very project of basing legal institutions on local conditions turned out to be part of Pound’s home-grown campaign against analytical jurisprudence in the Western world, and of little consequence in China.[7] Again, agreeing intellectually with a theoretical proposition is not the same thing as practicing it.[8]

Even though Professor Alford encouraged me to approach Chinese law without vendettas, I never got the sense from him that my own preoccupation with parochial theoretical concerns and score-settling were wrong as such. It was just that there were far more interesting questions to be examined on China. Once after a meeting with Professor Alford, I was feeling particularly exasperated about my research topic and the entire enterprise of writing about Chinese law as a foreigner. Professor Alford was having none of it. There were so many fascinating topics to examine in China; things were changing fast and new research topics were coming up constantly; so much had yet to be done. As I was going through Harvard Law School’s Graduate Program, I was fortunate to have Professor Alford show me the way out of there.


[1] See William P. Alford, The Inscrutable Occidental? Implications of Roberto Unger’s Uses and Abuses of the Chinese Past, 64 Tex. L. Rev. 915, 965 (1986).

[2] Ibid at 954-966; William P. Alford, On the Limits of “Grand Theory’ in Comparative Law, 61 Wash. L. Rev. 945, 947 (1986).

[3] William P. Alford, Focus: Disability Rights in China and in the World: Editor’s Note, 11 Frontiers L. China 1 (2016).

[4] For a similar observation, see William P. Alford, How Theory Does – and Does Not – Matter: American Approaches to Intellectual Property Law in East Asia, 13 UCLA Pac. Basin L.J. 8, 18 (1994).

[5] Alford, On the Limits of “Grand Theory’, supra note 2, at 955.

[6] Roscoe Pound, Comparative Law and History As Bases for Chinese Law, 61 Harv. L. Rev. 749, 757-759 (1948).

[7] Ibid. 754.

[8] Alford, supra note 4, at 19.