“Rule by man” and “rule by law” are frequently invoked categories in Chinese political discourse past and present, but their theoretical scope and possible interpretation remain highly controversial. Seeking to gain analytical traction on these categories, the author revisits an early Republican debate over whether virtuous men or well-designed institutions were more essential to securing political stability and social transformation in the aftermath of China's 1911 Republican Revolution. Focusing on the work of Liang Qichao, Zhang Shizhao, and their interlocutors, the author shows how “man” and “law” not only play roles in legitimizing one or another form of rule, but also help formulate questions about the interaction between individual effort and institutional influence. Viewed from this theoretical rather than historical angle, the debates become important not only for understanding wider issues in early Republican political discourse, but also for critically interrogating their contemporary variants from Chinese—rather than Western liberal-democratic—perspectives.

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