Monday, November 21, 2005

The Importance of Being Honest

To slightly paraphrase the title of an Oscar Wilde play is to arrive at an important truth(!) of the court system in 19th century Hong Kong. Today, the widespread application of the Anglo-American common law system, and perhaps even more important, the popularization of the American TV courtroom drama, has made many basic procedures of the system's operation widely known. But to many Chinese in the 19th century, it was a system that was totally alien to anything they'd seen before. The concept of perjury as a crime was unknown to China - of course, magistrates did not want witnesses to lie. But essentially, it was up to them to figure out who was telling the truth and who was not. The concept of perjury, though, is fundamental to the proper function of the Common Law court (and to Continental ones as well).

The system was contemplated in the early days of Hong Kong by the baffling alien language of English, and also the corruption of the police force and some of the magistrates, as well as racial differences in treatment (Christopher Munn estimates that approximately 8% of the Chinese population was in the dock in the 1850s, very high considering they made up the vast majority of the population).

Now, the way that British and American courts traditionally got witnesses to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" was to make them swear by something sacred, which in their case generally was the Bible. But what were the British to do with Chinese that didn't believe in the Bible, and would not properly recognise any one book as sacred or holy (the Tao Te Ching or the Analects would never do - many of them were illiterate).

Allow me then, to quote Julius Berncastle, a visitor to Hong Kong in 1849:
Great difficulty has existed at Hong Kong to find a proper form of oath to administer to Chinese in our courts of justice. In Chinese courts of law and judgment, where the character of the people is fully understood, no oath whatever is administered to witnesses. In order, however, to meet the requirements of English law, an attempt has been made to introduce a species of Chinese oath in our various courts.

The first form practiced here was the cutting off of a live cock’s or fowl’s head. A considerable perquisite by this system was afforded to the court-keeper, who unscrupulously devoured the decapitated bodies. A cheaper form of oath consists in breaking a basin into pieces, intending thereby to symbolize how anxious is the swearer, (?) that if he does not tell the truth his body shall be as unceremoniously smashed into its original dust.
They later settled on burning joss paper - although it resulted in a rather smoky courtroom, the burning of oaths apparently had a little bit more force than some of these somewhat sinister, obscure acts playing on superstitions...

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