The History of Restorative Justice in Asia

“Persia to China: The Silk Road of Restorative Justice” by John Braithwaite and Yan Zhang (2017) examines how the ancient Silk Road trade routes facilitated not only the exchange of goods between civilizations, but also the cross-pollination of ideas and philosophies across cultures. Among the influential concepts that traveled these routes connecting East and West were principles of restorative justice – resolving conflicts through mediation, reconciliation and restoration rather than solely punitive measures. This two-part knowledge article explores the rich histories and revivals of restorative justice traditions, as well as the related philosophical threads of feminism, forgiveness, and republican political thought that emerged and experienced ebbs and flows across societies along the Silk Road over millennia. It highlights how these diverse intellectual currents, by combining in myriad ways over time, seeded institutional innovations intended to uphold human rights and prevent domination – valuable perspectives for reinvigorating restorative justice values globally today.


The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East, Europe and Africa. For centuries, it facilitated not just the movement of goods, but also the exchange of ideas, cultures and traditions between East and West. One idea that traveled the Silk Road was the philosophy of restorative justice – resolving conflicts through mediation, reconciliation and restoration of relationships rather than solely punitive measures.

Confucius and Relational Justice
The foundational thinker whose restorative ideas profoundly influenced the Silk Road regions was Confucius. A Chinese philosopher from the 6th-5th century BCE, Confucius believed in healing and reconciliation over punishment and litigation. His teachings emphasized relational harmony based on the Golden Rule of reciprocal treatment of others. Confucian virtues like ren (humaneness, benevolence) and li (rituals promoting social order) prioritized moral persuasion over harsh enforcement of laws.

Restorative Justice in Ancient China
These Confucian ideals shaped ancient Chinese approaches to conflict resolution like people’s mediation and criminal reconciliation that emerged in various forms over the centuries. People’s mediation began as a tool for the Communist Party to prioritize grievances of the rural poor and maintain social stability. Though suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, it was revived in the 1970s-80s during economic reforms. In 2010, the People’s Mediation Law formalized over 9 million cases being resolved this way annually.

Similarly, the 2012 Criminal Procedure Law reforms officially incorporated criminal reconciliation between victims and offenders based on contrition, compensation and forgiveness by victims. However, prosecutors have been resistant to widely implementing this more restorative approach.

Restorative Justice in Ancient Persia and Modern Iran
At the other end of the Silk Road, the ancient Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great pioneered principles like freedom from slavery that traveled west. After the Arab conquest, Persian law blended with Sharia and later European civil law traditions. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran enacted major restorative justice reforms codifying mediation, victim rights to forgiveness, and reparations in the 2013 Criminal Procedure reforms. As in China though, judicial resistance has hampered the implementation of these policies.

Women’s Rights Movements Along the Silk Road
The feminist history of women’s empowerment and rights did not follow a purely western trajectory along the Silk Road. While patriarchal norms were entrenched in many societies, several pivotal developments occurred in this region well before modern western feminism.

Revisionists argue that Genghis Khan’s Mongol society in the 13th century centrally involved women in administration and empire governance through strategic marriages, contrarycting the stereotype of female subjugation under his rule.

In India, Nepal and Pakistan, the village panchayat assemblies advocated by Gandhi and constitutionally enshrined electoral quotas prioritizing women’s representation and voice in local justice processes compared to formal courts.

Similarly, restorative justice innovations like Iran’s mediation councils and Pakistan’s jirga reconciliation committees have begun including more women as de facto local judgemediators, circumventing patriarchal strictures in official judicial roles.

So while beset by many patriarchal limits, the Silk Road societies unveiled diverse local traditions intermittently prioritizing feminist ideals and women’s agency in household and community conflict resolution over the centuries.

Forgiveness in Eastern Philosophy and Law
The principle of forgiveness has deep resonance in both ancient Chinese and Persian philosophies that spread along the Silk Road. For Confucius, forgiveness was tied to the Golden Rule of relational reciprocity and justice. In ancient Persia too, forgiveness was advocated, with Cyrus the Great famously freeing slaves and funding the return of Hebrew captives to Jerusalem.

This emphasis on forgiveness as a key restorative value persists in modern Iranian criminal law. It allows victims extensive rights to forgive offenders rather than pursue punishment in many circumstances. Forgiveness is conceived as a principle that can override harsh sentencing rules, facilitating victim healing and societal reconciliation.

Revivals of Restorative Traditions
While taking divergent trajectories over the centuries, the shared heritage of restorative justice traditions continues to experience revival and reinvention along the Silk Road regions. In China and Iran, recent decades witnessed major legislative reforms to institutionalize criminal mediation and reconciliation practices rooted in ancient community-based conflict resolution methods.

However, despite high-level political backing, these reforms face resistance from judicial systems still prioritizing more punitive, top-down approaches. Their limited implementation underscores the need for broader grassroots social movements to ingrain restorative values.

At the same time, local restorative innovations persist, adapting old practices for modern conflicts. The Nepalese kachahari street forums allow citizens to voice grievances restoratively. The Indian nyaya panchayats hearken back to village court assemblies. Such hybrids demonstrate restorative justice’s malleability across cultures.

Republican Traditions of Checks and Balances
Another philosophical thread connecting the Silk Road societies is the tradition of republican thinking that emphasizes non-domination through checks on power. The Persian king Cyrus institutionalized principles like freedom from slavery that influenced later political thought.

In China, Sun Yat-sen’s constitutional vision for an independent judiciary, bureaucratic integrity through merit-based exams, and robust accountability branches monitoring the branches of government represents an influential strand of Chinese republican ideals.

These examples illustrate the long heritage of institutional designs intended to diffuse power and uphold rights – ideals that could enrich modern restorative justice which remains susceptible to co-option by punitive state agendas.

The eclectic histories of restorative justice, feminism, forgiveness and republicanism across the Silk Road civilizations offer a reminder. The universal human struggle for rights, justice and freedom from domination transcends any single philosophical tradition or cultural context.

By cultivating an openness to diverse ideas and institutional hybrids that periodically blossomed in the spaces connected by trade, social movements today can craft syntheses more resilient to oppressive forces. Reformers can draw insight from the contestations – of rules by principles, of patriarchy by feminist and local republican movements – that rejuvenated emancipatory impulses across eras and empires along these ancient routes.Copy