Yu Xingzhong 
Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Professor in Chinese Law, Cornell Law School

A Tribute to Professor William P. Alford


Professor William P. Alford, a scholar of Chinese law and legal history, as he modestly styles himself, has served as the vice dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School (“HLS”) for eighteen years, leaving behind a remarkable imprint on international legal education and exchange. As his first doctoral student, I have had the great luck to benefit from his eminent guidance and unswerving support in many aspects of my life, both academic and personal, during my student years and thereafter. While his virtues hardly need any personal testimony as affirmation, I feel grateful to have been asked to write about him by the Harvard International Law Journal.

I had the privilege of doing my master’s and doctoral degrees at HLS between 1990 and 1995, under Professor Alford’s guidance. After graduation, I returned to HLS twice in 1998 and 2006, to co-teach with him. I also have made countless short-term visits to the university. Each time, I felt very close and fresh. Because HLS is continuously changing, there is always something new and exciting to see.

In celebrating his legacy, we are celebrating the achievements of a decent human being—as dean John Manning commented, a great teacher, a bridge of cultural exchange, an admirable mentor, and a modest gentleman with the quality of jade, as many Chinese intellectuals fondly say of him.[1] Professor Alford is a renaissance man: erudite and thoughtful, far-sighted, and knowledgeable with a deep academic background. In addition to his command of Chinese culture and law, he is also conversant in other Asian cultures and institutions. Professor Alford is known not only for his research on Chinese law but also for his work regarding intellectual property and human rights. His subtle and comprehensive research focuses on, but is not limited to, Asia. He is an intellectual with great humanistic concern and a strong sense of historical responsibility.

When we celebrate his legacy, there is much to be mentioned. In this Tribute, I humbly offer a few comments related to my experience in learning from him.

I. A China specialist of his own

To begin, I want to salute Professor Alford’s contribution to scholarship on Chinese law and legal history. Those of us in Chinese legal studies are familiar with his excellent work in Chinese law, but let me offer a few thoughts about its long-lasting significance.

He regards law as an essential part of a nation’s culture and people and attaches great importance to understanding its historical and cultural background. He is very well versed in legal thought and legal institutions of major legal families. In his writing, Professor Alford reflects deeply on a typical practice of treating China as a foil more than an object of research to be seriously studied, rejects mechanical understandings of Chinese law, and calls for an understanding of Chinese law on its own terms. His book, To Steal A Book Is An Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization, introduces the history of the development of intellectual property law in China while touching upon legal and cultural transplantation issues, pointing out that the intellectual property system introduced from the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not successful. The main reason is that the transplanters did not consider how different the Chinese environment was. There is no doubt that his insightful research on Chinese and comparative law has made important contributions to the field.

Professor Alford’s approach to Chinese legal tradition contrasts with two other approaches available as conventional wisdom: universalism and cultural relativism. Universalist interpretations of Chinese legal tradition are connected by their reliance on the idea that all nations’ laws and legal experiences follow a general evolutionary pattern. The differences between legal systems in developing and developed societies are matters of the degree of societal development. Exponents usually rely on an analytical model developed by an influential thinker and apply that model to China for comparative purposes. Typical of these interpretations are those employing models developed by sociologists like Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Tönnies. While to some extent these interpretations reveal aspects of the Chinese legal tradition, they also exemplify what the Chinese call cutting the feet to fit the shoes.

For cultural relativists, each legal system is a unique consequence of a given culture. Law is inherently shaped by culture and cannot be adequately understood without referring to the larger cultural context. They tend to spell out a legal picture that stretches the concept of law to include the whole intellectual universe. For instance, some have argued that the Chinese legal tradition fuses heavenly reason, state law, and human sentiments and embodies the great principle of heaven and humanity’s unity. They tend to emphasize the uniqueness of China’s legal tradition and its incompatibility with universal principles and practices.

Dissatisfied with purely universalistic approaches and skeptical of the usefulness of relativism, Professor Alford has taken alternative ways to approach Chinese legal tradition. Instead of relying on any existing legal epistemology or employing the deductive method that usually accompanies universalistic analysis, he resorts to the analogical method and specific legal concepts or legal relations for analytical tools and detailed legal aspects for the subject matter of analysis.

For instance, Professor Alford contributed to the elevation of our understanding of the formal criminal justice process in late imperial China by reconstructing archival materials and analyzing one of the most celebrated criminal cases in Chinese history—that of Yang Naiwu and Xiao Baicai.[2] It is a significant effort because before him, no scholar, Chinese or foreign, had charted in meaningful and explicated detail the full course of any one case that traversed the entire formal criminal justice system from the district magistrate to the highest reaches of imperial government. Through an overall introduction to the Chinese legal context at the time of the case and a detailed reconstruction of the case, he vividly recreates the behavior, thoughts, judgments, reasoning, and psychological states of the people in the courtroom and behind the scenes, as well as the pros and cons of the Qing dynasty legal proceedings.

II. A magnanimous heart

One of the significant achievements whereby Professor Alford has set an example concerns human rights. He has made enormous efforts in promoting human rights in Asian countries, especially in China, where things are complicated due to the cultural tradition and political environment. It is often difficult to get involved from the outside, and even hard to find where to get started. Very often, good efforts encounter unexpected frustrations.

Over the years, whether supervising a student thesis, hosting Chinese scholars, organizing training sessions for grassroots actors or holding conferences in the field of comparative law and human rights, Professor Alford applied his wisdom and negotiated his way to effectively promote human rights in China. A famous Chinese saying succinctly describes his pursuit in that he “corrects his way but does not calculate what benefits will bring him; adheres to principles without hurrying after success.”[3]

The well-known Harvard Law School Project on Disability Rights, which Professor Alford co-founded, has volunteered in several countries, including China, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Vietnam, on disability rights issues. It has been very well received by Asian countries, being not only a socially beneficial program but also one of pedagogical significance.

In dealing with various difficulties the promotion of human rights in China often encounters, he embodies a subtle way of thinking: “When the water is clear enough, I wash my hat; when it is muddy, I wash my feet.”[4] Behind all these tremendous human rights involvements is a great person who has a magnanimous heart—humane, sympathetic, generous, and tolerant.

III. A never-tiring teacher 

Professor Alford has been seen as a generous mentor, never-tiring teacher, and role model; as having achieved high moral and ethical status and commanding heartfelt admiration and respect; and as an ideal teacher in the Confucian tradition, and indeed, other great cultural traditions.[5] Over the years, he helped numerous students from diverse ethnic and geographical origins, academically and otherwise, to complete their education at HLS. Like his scholarship, his way of teaching exemplifies the most refined style of the work: polite but demanding, inspirational but realistic, laying stress on the present but also emphasizing historical background. His students surely remember the meticulous comments Professor Alford left on their papers!

However, what characterizes the true relationship between Professor Alford and his students does not stop here. His practice of Maimonides’ teachings on how to care for others distinguishes his role as a teacher, the highest degree of which is to help the students one supports become independent, from educating them to finding a way of living for those students.[6] In doing that, he is no longer just your teacher, but a close friend or a relative as well. That is true in my case, and that of other students, for which we are eternally grateful.

Professor Alford likes to quote from Xunzi, a Confucian-Legalist-Taoist thinker who thrived around third century B.C.E, to encourage all his students: “Blue dye derives from the indigo plant, and yet it is bluer than the plant; ice comes from water, and yet it is colder than water.”[7] This means that a good student should surpass his teacher. Whenever possible, he made arrangements to help his student. He has a research project on Roscoe Pound and asked me to collect Chinese materials on Pound. Having gone through some papers written by scholars on Mainland China and Taiwan, I wrote a brief introduction for him. He then gracefully suggested that I be his co-author. That was something I never dreamed of. This anecdote also attests to what a decent human being he is. 


Professor Alford has been described as a monumental bridge between cultures in the West and East. His wisdom and generosity have inspired generations of students, academics, and lawyers in many corners of the world. In celebrating him, I see no better way than continuing his effort to build that bridge to effectuate more substantial exchanges between and among scholars. I wish him longevity and blissfulness.


[1] In May 2019, more than fifty Chinese legal scholars gathered at the People’s University of China (“Renda”) to honor Professor Alford for his contributions to China’s legal education and legal reform. Many scholars, including Wang Liming, vice president of Renda, Zhu Jinwen, Han Dayuan and Wang Yi, former and current deans of the Renda Law School, Wu Zhipan, former dean of the School of Law and current vice president of Peking University, Wang Zhenmin, former dean of Tsinghua University Law School, professor Liang Zhiping of the Chinese Academy of Arts, professor He Weifang of Peking University Law School, expressed their appreciation of him and his friendship. See As Elegant as Green 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) (Guo Rui & Miu Yinzhi eds., 2019).

[2] William P. Alford “Of Arsenic and Old Laws: Looking Anew at Criminal Justice in Late Imperial China” California Law Review, December 1984.

[3] See Dong Zhongshu, “The Great Officers of Yue Cannot be Considered Humane,” in 董仲舒《春秋繁露·对胶西王越大夫不得为仁》, Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn, edited and translated by Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) P. 328.

[4] Quoted from an old Chinese folk song. “沧浪之水清兮,可以濯吾缨;沧浪之水浊兮,可以濯吾足。”

[5] See supra note 1.

[6] See Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charityin Charity: an Anthology (Yanki Tauber ed.), https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/45907/jewish/Eight-Levels-of-Charity.htm (last visited Nov. 25, 2020).

[7] An Exhortation to Learningin Xunzi: The Complete Text 1 (Eric Hutton trans. and ed., 2014).