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By Daisy Yan Du

The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydro-electric power station in the world. The construction of the dam began in 1994 and was completed in 2009. Proponents bill it as a symbol of China’s rise on the global stage, while critics worldwide see it as a huge humanitarian crisis that has the potential to worsen in years to come. The biggest controversy of this project concerns the forced migration of around two million people, who, due to the rising water, have been displaced from their hometowns along the upper reaches of the Yangzi River in Chongqing and Sichuan and Hubei provinces. Many novels and films have found fertile topics for exploration in these ongoing drastic social-historical changes, large-scale population movements, and everyday narratives of displacements and loss of homelands.

In the Lap of the Gods (2010), a lyrical novel written by Li Miao Lovett, is set against this complex landscape of disappearances. The novel begins in an evacuated village about to be submerged by the Yangzi River as the water crawls steadily uphill. Nothing but ruins remains. In this deadly quiet ghost village, Liu Renfu, a poor scavenger, is digging in the ruins, collecting the trash and occasional valuables left behind by departed villagers. Among the ruins on the riverbank Liu finds an abandoned baby girl. He brings her home to Wushan, a small city also about to disappear under the rising water. The rest of the novel revolves around Liu’s life with the baby girl named Rose. Her English name is unique because other characters have typical Chinese names, a distinction perhaps explained by her illegitimate status. The novel takes place over several years as Rose grows into a toddler, and the scope of the story is expanded as it is interwoven with other narratives about people’s daily lives and their pasts in the Three Gorges area.

Although there are many perspectives from which to approach this novel, the figure of the baby girl is the pivot of the whole story, because it is she who connects or disconnects all the other characters. After Liu brings her home, he does not know how to take care of her, so he turns to Fang, a shrewd and well-connected old broker. Fang advises Liu to take the baby girl to the orphanage in Chongqing. On their way there, however, Fang’s car breaks down. Liu then changes his mind and brings the baby girl back home, functioning as her surrogate father from then on. Later, when Fang finds out that Rose is the granddaughter of Sulin, the woman he has loved for many decades, he intervenes again and tries to get the child back from Liu in order to please Sulin, who wants the baby.

Mei Ling, a waitress in a restaurant in Liu’s neighborhood, desperately wants to escape from her tyrannical father and to start a new life of her own. Mei Ling thus marries Liu in rush without knowing of his poverty. However, Rose, although affectionate with Liu, is instinctively hostile to Mei Ling. Many conflicts take place between Rose and Mei Ling, and Mei Ling finally leaves Liu for Chongqing to begin her life anew.

Rose serves as an allegory of memory and the haunting presence of the past that resists to be effaced. She is an illegitimate child born to the daughter of Sulin and the son of a Party member in the village. Although Sulin volunteers to raise the girl herself, her daughter, who desperately wants to forget the past and start over, declines her offer and abandons the child on the riverbank as she leaves for her new home designated by the government. Rose, because she is illegitimate, lacks a family name and represents an embarrassment, repeatedly reminding people of the unspeakable past associated with her. In saving the baby girl from being drowned by the river, Liu not only saves a life, but also salvages the disturbing memories and secrets that would have otherwise been submerged.

The whole novel is fraught with this tension between memory and amnesia. The grand narrative of the forced migration of the Three Gorges Dam is predicated on the rhetoric of forgetting. As the wheels of history relentlessly move ahead, the local residents are expected to forsake their pasts, which are to be buried under the water forever. Memories are disavowed as the nation pushes forward in a collective enterprise of progress and modernity. However, traces of the past can never be completely erased by the master narrative, because what is repressed and oppressed will eventually return to haunt those who seek to forget.

Liu the scavenger is not only digging up and collecting the personal belongings buried among the ruins, but also salvaging the memories and desires about to be submerged forever. His discoveries form a living museum for the vanished space. As a scavenger, Liu is the most sentimental character, a man who stubbornly clings to the past. Fei Fei, his pregnant first wife who was drowned by the river in a boating accident, haunts him constantly. As a ghost that exists only in Liu’s memory, Fei Fei assumes a role even more significant than that of Mei Ling in Liu’s life. Associated with Fei Fei is the memory of the already submerged city of Fengjie, where they had found a home and spent happy times together. Torn between the past and the present, Liu painstakingly searches for the meaning of his life before the imminent disappearance of his whole world.

In the Lap of the Gods is filled with stories of unfulfilled desires, voluntary or involuntary abandonment, aborted hopes, ephemeral emotions, failed relationships, unending regrets, and nostalgic longings for a home that is no longer welcoming. Against such a drastically changing landscape, perhaps nothing remains constant. The only thing one can always hold on to is memory itself.

Although most of the characters in this novel are ordinary people such as peasants, scavengers, beggars, brokers, and migrant workers, they are nonetheless endowed with dignity, respect, and even tragic heroism. Confronted with unprecedented physical and emotional crises resulting from the deluge, some of them choose to follow the call of the mainstream rhetoric, move ahead, and start anew, while some choose to linger in the past and indulge in the disappeared world. Whatever the case, memory still asserts its presence and leaves traces among the ruins, just like the abandoned child Rose, who is rescued from the coming deluge and stubbornly lives on as a haunting reminder of the vanished past, whether others welcome it or not.

Daisy Yan Du is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese literature and visual culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is now completing her dissertation on Chinese animated film between the 1940s and 1970s.

By Jérôme Bourgon and Paul R. Katz

The following debate between Jérôme Bourgon and Paul R. Katz treats one of the most important issues in the study of Chinese social history in general and Chinese legal culture in particular, namely the striking similarities, or correspondences, between litigation and judicial rituals performed to resolve disputes or even deal with plaints filed by the dead.

Our main concern revolves around the concept of the “judicial continuum”, defined in Paul’s recent Divine Justice book (Routledge, 2009) as a holistic range of options for achieving legitimation and dispute resolution, including mediation (judgments made by elders and other elites), formal legal procedures (judgments made by officials), and performing rituals (judgments made by the gods). Depending on the nature of the dispute and the status of those parties involved, people could choose one or a combination of these options. Moreover, a wealth of evidence indicates that officials would not hesitate to rely on dreams and other forms of divine intervention to solve difficult legal cases, right instances of injustice, capture bandits/thieves, and even fight spirits that haunted their offices or homes. All this suggests that China’s judicial continuum covered both the official and religious realms, with considerable interaction occurring between the two.

Jérôme questioned the above arguments from the vantage point of judicial practice and legal codification, arguing that the available evidence forces us to rigorously qualify any claims about human and divine justice constituting a seamless cloth, as well as the ways in which judicial rituals may have shaped official legal practices. The main thrust of his analysis is that there was an institutional division between formal legal practice and judicial rituals, with the latter exerting precious little impact on the former. Jérôme’s analysis was quite sharp at the outset, but gradually softened as he became aware of the complexity of the issue and of the potential usefulness of this concept.

Our debate commenced with Jérôme’s conference paper (presented in Beijing) and has continued over many a month. Both of us have gained numerous insights as a result of this process, so we decided to share some of its highlights with the academic public sphere represented by The China Beat. Ultimately, our debate bears on how the ritual and official aspects of Chinese legal culture were meshed together to imbibe the Chinese mind with the belief that the whole moral universe was a huge net allowing no escape for any criminal or sinner. A better understanding of this interrelation, or division of labor, between human and divine justice will require more regular exchanges and tighter collaboration between historians of religions and legal historians.

An underworld court

Part I

Opening ceremonies
PK: Let me begin by stating how much I appreciated the breakthroughs contained in Death by a Thousand Cuts (Harvard, 2008), which is cited a number of times in my own book. Of particular value for my research was the stimulating analysis of the “distorting mimesis” of the homology between worldly legal institutions and their representations in Chinese religious traditions, with depictions of underworld torments serving to remind viewers of earthly punishments, even if such punishments were not identical. I found additional insights in your paper as well, one example being the fascinating point that “Chinese justice was represented in the West by tortures that specialists now easily localize in hell, but which were taken as sketches of real life by 19th century Europeans”.

JB: I take this debate as the first step in a long-term scholarly endeavor where we really tackle all dimensions of justice, to take a whole picture on it, including the institutional and individual sides. The richness of Divine Justice is in its vivid descriptions of various judicial rituals, ranging from oaths sealed with the blood of beheaded chickens to processions of penitents disguised as would-be condemned criminals, while also covering a great array of rituals allowing living people to indict other living persons or ghostly foes or even incompetent divine officials, and to be indicted by them as well. However, the influence that judicial indictments and other religious practices may have had on the course of official justice is not always clearly evidenced and qualified.

The continuum
PK: It seems to me that our main point of disagreement is about how to conceptualize what I call the judicial continuum. Let me begin by quoting one definition of the term continuum: “A continuous extent, succession, or whole, no part of which can be distinguished from neighbouring parts except by arbitrary division”. In other words, to me the word “continuum” suggests a range of interrelated phenomena, not equivalence. Therefore, mediation, the courts, and ritual can be conceived of as constituting a Chinese judicial continuum, even though they are hardly identical phenomena.

I am unclear about the following assertion that you made in your paper: “More than forming a continuum, human and divine justice seem two worlds co-existing side by side, with relatively few interlinking”. Conceptually speaking, why does co-existence involve more than the formation of a continuum? Isn’t co-existence a precondition for the formation of a continuum?

You also state that, “…there was no identity, since hell punishments targeted sin, and were therefore moral-oriented, while penal codes targeted crimes, by restrictively defining them and neatly differentiating them from sin”. The distinction is valid, but perhaps also a bit too rigid? Was there no moral dimension to the ways in which crimes were defined in official legal writings?

You observe that, “…many punishments reported from Chinese hells by their visitors seem more like symbolic contrapasso (counterpoise; punishment resembling or contrasting with sin) than like codified punishments enumerated in the books or pictured in their illustrations” This makes perfect sense to me, as I never argued in favour of an identity between human and divine justice, merely similarity and overlap. I would respond in the same way to your observation that, “…these rituals were not submitted to the same formal constraint as the legal procedure imposed to plaintiffs”.

A similar problem occurs when you argue that, “Chinese justice still appears as remarkably immune from divine interferences, when compared to other civilizations”. This is absolutely true, and I made this point very clearly in my book, especially in Chapter 2 and the end of Chapter 3, where I discussed the Chinese state’s decision not to include judicial (or inaugural oaths) as part of its quest for a “modern” government. However, some legal officials have allowed judicial rites to be performed in their courts, or relied on such rites to assess guilt or innocence of plaintiffs and defendants. Other officials have gone so far as to file plaints at temples to judicial deities. In other words, the segregation between ritual and formal judicial practice might not be as rigid as assumed.

Death represented as a departure for legal exile, under escort by a runner and pressure from a demon

“I must confess that I do not see what relations these sonorous spells and these highly colored ceremonies had with judicial practice, or even with the ‘ideology of justice.’” This is a valid point. In the book, I note that oaths were not a part of official legal practice, and that late Qing officials rejected the option of including such practices in modern court procedures. However, while some oaths involved issues of loyalty and/or legitimation, others were intended to determine guilt or innocence, with chthonic deities serving as both witnesses and judges. These latter rites are linked to processes of dispute resolution (particularly issues similar to what we now call “civil law”), and feature individuals often referred to as plaintiffs and defendants; Still, you are right—such rites might best be referred to as “semi-judicial” or “quasi-judicial”. However, I chose to emphasize the issue of continuity in order to tempt readers to reconsider preconceptions of Chinese law as restricted to formal judicial procedures.

“There was no need to resort to a legal scrivener”. In some cases, yes, but while worshippers could write their own plaints or simply present them orally, there are many example of plaints being written down by temple scribes (bisheng 筆生) like the one described in Chapter 8 of my book.

JB: I understand what you had in mind when you put forward the concept of the judicial continuum. However, I still have objections to the term—if not to the basic idea. I discuss below some of the points you raised.

I am effectively challenging, or more exactly testing this new concept, which is the best way to take it into account. Your definition raises questions, especially the claim about “arbitrary division”. Such a division was, unless proven otherwise, an institutional fact: there was no point of quoting “underworld decision” or interference in a legal judgment, and even mediation seems to be a rather secular practice. For instance, the impact of oaths or other forms of swearing on judicial practice itself is not evidenced. This is a highly relevant point about the mental atmosphere that surrounds judicial institutions. Highlighting the spiritual context of judicial decisions should be a proficient breakthrough, since judgments do not only aim at institutional validation, but also at reaching people’s minds, which can be religious, concerned with underworld justice, etc. But continuum lets me expect there is something like a continuity between earthly and underworld justice, or at least that both were included in a coherent framework. And this is where there’s the rub.

Judgment after death: A view of the Department of suffering and misery 苦楚司 in the Eastern Peak temple (Dongyuemiao) of Beijing

Your point about the moral dimensions of legal writings in an important one, since law exists as a restricted area in the moral universe. Basically, and originally, all faults are sins. But with the building of law and jurisprudence, only a part of these faults-sins are deemed “crimes” and made punishable. I quoted the “Ten evils” (shi’e 十惡), an originally Buddhist list of misdeeds that became, after modifications, the second article of imperial codes from the Tang through the Qing, as the most perceptible mark of the doctrinal work that sets apart “sins” and “crimes”. In practice, repeated pressure tend to blur the difference, all the more so since there was no clear distinction between “sin”, “crime”, and “fault” (all were zui 罪). However the code and judicial decision show that the legal system resisted such pressures and reinforced the differences between breaches of moral-religious duties and crimes against the law. This is the place where law institutionalizes a breaking point between religious and secular conception —a break in the “continuum”, precisely.

As for the issue of both separation and interaction, both of us may be right: it seems clear that the earthly judicial system is the model for indictment rituals, so that seen from perspective of the latter there is a “continuum”. However, when you consider Chinese judicial practices of say the Ming and Qing, supernatural interferences are strikingly scant when compared to Christian Europe. Law instituted a secular vision of society; you are right to say this is “artificial”, since real society was religious, bound to the underworld, etc. But, I am to be the speaker of this legal fiction of a purely human justice, without divine interference, since I believe it was the Chinese official vision. The popular religious vision certainly must be taken into account, all the more since it was reckoned with and used (manipulated?) by sensible magistrates. But the official vision should not be overlooked, since it animated institutions that proved quite sound, and efficiently resisted popular “superstitions”.

I maintain that received knowledge as well as our sources at the moment force us to set apart human and divine justice. Continuum seems to imply more than co-existence, namely a real coherence or a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct. Continuity must be shown to exist through evidence.

Jérôme Bourgon is a researcher at the Institut d’Asie Orientale; Paul R. Katz is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica.

Check back soon for Part II of the debate between Bourgon and Katz.

We wrote to Jonathan Watts to ask him to write a commentary on the book tour he’s been on to promote When a Billion Chinese Jump, which included a stop at UC Irvine, but he said he was too busy being whisked from champagne receptions to meetings with Hollywood directors seeking to buy the film rights to the book to craft something suitable. Watts was, however, good enough to offer us permission to run (in slightly trimmed-down form) a piece he wrote—with tongue firmly in cheek—for a 2009 issue of the newsletter of the Beijing Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Composed while he was working on When a Billion Chinese Jump, it explores all the reasons why a journalist should resist the siren call of writing a China book:

By Jonathan Watts

Don’t do it. Stop now, before it is too late.

This is my advice if you are thinking of writing a book. It may sound a mite negative, but believe me, I write from bitter experience out of compassion for my fellow man.

In my case, it started innocently enough: A flattering email from an agent that played on my ego and a vague ambition to become an author. I thought long and hard for, oh, what? about a minute and then, yes, yes, why not.

I persuaded myself I had noble motives. It really wasn’t the promise of fame and fortune, it was the chance to do something worthwhile, to dig deeper into a subject than the day-to-day news agenda allows.

Don’t get me wrong. I love our trade. Journalism is a search for the truth on expenses. But isn’t there also an element of the job that makes us treat knowledge like disposable plastic cups? We fill our heads with facts, figures and comments in the hours or—if we are lucky—days before deadline. Then we empty out all the juiciest bits into our stories and discard what is left to make mental space for the next subject.

That, of course, is the also the beauty of what we do. No high-falutin dreams of eternal glory for us. Nope, we are so in harmony with the mutable and the down-to-earth that we are throwaway, we are garbage. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s chip wrapper, as they used to say in the UK. (That was before health-and-safety standards were tightened. Newspapers today are not considered good enough even for chip wrappers.)

But I have a confession. As the years go by, I increasingly crave depth, longevity. I know it is wrong. Really, I feel guilty. The journalistic gods know I have tried to fight it. But it’s no use. The book demon won’t go away. I have become, gulp, earnest.

So earnest, in fact, that not only did I take the plunge into the book world, but I picked that most earnest—and least likely to be a bestseller—of subjects: the environment.

My friends, bless them, tried to save me. Why waste your time, they said. There’s no money in books, they said. The last thing the world needs now is another journalist writing a book about China, they said. One acquaintance even started a club for China correspondents who are not writing books. It is the only club in Beijing that gets smaller every year, he said.

But I didn’t listen.

It really isn’t for the money. By March 2009, I must write 120,000 words. The advance is less than a fifth of the amount a freelancer could earn writing that many words at New York rates.

Add in the extra grief with family, friends, employers and it is a truly rank return on the investment of time and emotion. My life has been turned upside down. At every step I have created expectations of myself that have proved impossible to live up to. Instead, I discovered hidden talents of procrastination. I tried spending a couple of hours on the book each day before work. Total failure. Kind (pitying?) friend have provided refuges in the wilds of Norway, Japan and the Chinese countryside. The result? I’ve developed a penchant for new distractions of weeding, cooking and cycling.

Oh yeah, and then there is the book beard, the hair I must bear until the bloody thing is finished. What a stupid idea that was. But thanks, dear friends for your supportive comments. I count myself lucky that you are still willing to be seen in public with someone that you have variously described as having the facial hair of a Unabomber, Bin-Laden, gulag inmate, Karl Marx, Worzel Gummidge, tramp and scrumpy drinker. My children have forbidden me from attending their school until it is shaven.

But will that day ever come? On my darkest days, alone, starting at my laptop, I begin to doubt. The deadline is looming. The daily word count is rising. With each day that passes, I fear I will go to my grave with an unfinished book on my hard drive and an unruly thicket on my chin.

In desperation, I have sought advice from wiser heads, all published authors—Paul French, John Gittings, James Kynge, Rob Gifford, Richard McGregor, Catherine Sampson, Zhang Lijia, Phil Pan, Alexandra Harney. Their answers were inspiring, though I wish I had heeded their warnings at an earlier stage. In brief, I have condensed their advice to 10 commandments.

1) MOTIVATION: Don’t start unless you are utterly committed to your subject and prepared for your life to change (Everyone).

2) TIME: Don’t think about combining a book with regular work. Take a long sabbatical or sign up to a university course (Gifford).

3) MONEY: Make sure you have a financial cushion, especially if you have a family. Writing and doing original research cost time and money (McGregor).

4) RYHYTHM: Follow Graham Greene and set realistic daily targets (Kynge 384 words per day, Zhang 500, and McGregor 703). Or alternatively, write when the mood strikes and occasionally endure marathons until your forehead hits the table with exhaustion (Gifford).

5) MOMENTUM: If film making is about bums on seats, then book writing is about words on the page (Gittings). You have to keep your “run-rate” up to avoid a last minute rush (McGregor).

6) CRAP: Don’t stop to clean up the crap. Leave that till last. Books are sculpted as much as written (Gittings, Kynge, Gifford, McGregor, Hemingway).

7) ISOLATION: Avoid the internet—or strictly ration your daily use (Sampson, McGregor).

8) EXERCISE: Exercise before starting each writing session to purge the pacing urge (Sampson).

9) AMBIENCE: If you like to work with music, avoid anything with vocals (Sampson).

10) HELP: Show the manuscript to a frank friend who will tell you just much crap you need to cut or clean up (Gifford, Harney).

Closest to my own feeling at the moment is Paul French’s advice to “Forget it” unless you are pervertedly obsessed. In my case, it comes too late. The pain of this bloody book has exposed a truly masochistic streak—I even sometimes enjoy it. Though this probably isn’t the type of perverted obsession Paul was referring to.

I am now locking myself away in an empty factory-studio in north Beijing, where there is nothing to do but stare at the concrete walls and stroke my ever lengthening beard. Oh, yes, and write. I really must so more of that. Less than four months left and 80,000 words to go . . .

So apologies if I seem a bit anti-social over the coming weeks. Please allow for the stranger than usual behaviour and appearance. Forgive me if I occasionally neglect duties to family, club and company.

Our esteemed published colleagues assure me it will all be worth it in the end. I hope so. I really do. But in the meantime, please sympathise—and learn from this pathetic wretch. Just say No.

1. Hat tip to China Digital Times for directing us to this video by Ian Johnson at the Wall Street Journal site. Johnson narrates a quick tour of the Palace of Eternal Joy (Yongle Gong) in remote Shanxi Province, where a 700-year-old Daoist mural covers the walls. The paintings include rare depictions of Daoist gods, as well as representations of Yuan Dynasty architecture, “very little of which has survived.” Amazingly, the temple housing the mural was disassembled and relocated, piece by piece, during the Mao era, as a planned Yellow River dam would have flooded its original location.

2. “Bloggers Open an Internet Window on Shanghai,” reports an article by Maile Cannon and Jingying Yang at the International Herald Tribune. Mentioning some of our own go-to blogs, including Shanghaiist and Shanghai Scrap, the authors detail the shape of the Shanghai blogosphere. As blogger Wang Jianshuo explains,

the broad rise of blogging has meant a welcome increase in available information; and more information means a better idea of what is really happening in the city.

“Everything in this world is just like the elephant in the blind men and the elephant story,” he said, referring to the tale of blind men confronting a strange beast, trying to identify it by touching different parts and each giving a different answer. “As a blogger, I’m just one of the blind men to feel this elephant. I am very sure that I write everything that I know and I never write anything that I know is not true, but this does not mean that my article is the whole Shanghai.

“Blogging provides a way for all the blind men to sit down together and share whatever they see,” he added, “and when more and more people blog, we can understand this world better from many different perspectives.”

3. Thanks to UC Irvine graduate student Silvia Lindtner for sending us the link to this story by Jane Qiu in Nature, which discusses the results of a survey conducted among Chinese scientists in the wake of last month’s announcement by Google that it might pull out of the country. The survey explored how much the Chinese scientific community would be affected by the loss of Google’s search engine. Results seem to indicate that while other internet search sites would fill the Google gap, quite a few of the almost 800 scientists responding to the questions would prefer to maintain their access to Google’s resources.

4. At Open Democracy, William A. Callahan writes about “A new approach to human rights (and China),” arguing that the time has come to move away from debates about the universal rationality of Western-style human rights and consider instead how we can develop an understanding of human rights as a culture,

a shared moral identity that extends sympathy to others. Here the reason to support for human rights is not because they are true, but because they are “good” — and more importantly, because violating human rights is bad. . . .

In the effort to expand human-rights culture, it is not possible just to rely on conversations among (for example) Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama. There must be more transnational conversations in all sectors of society, including people who work in education, business, and NGOs.

5. We recently ran a Q-and-A between Jeff Wasserstrom and Warren I. Cohen, author of America’s Response to China. Cohen has a provocative essay at the Columbia University Press blog, titled “The China we’re stuck with.” From the piece:

Much of Beijing’s current outrage with American policy toward Taiwan, with American sympathy for the Dalai Lama, is based upon the conviction that China is a rapidly rising power and the United States is in steep decline. Chinese leaders, perceiving a change in the correlation of forces in their favor, expect Washington to behave more deferentially. They probably don’t expect the koutou, the prostrations and head-bangings that the emperors demanded of foreign visitors back in the days when China was on top of the world, but the rough equivalent—acceptance of Chinese values and priorities—would be welcome. Of late, American scholars and diplomats have been struck by the growing arrogance of their Chinese counterparts, lectures on the superiority of the Chinese model to the American model, the failure of American democracy, American economic profligacy, even on human rights in the United States. This will only get worse until we get our house in order, until we can demonstrate again that democracy works and that our economic system can provide jobs and a decent standard of living for all Americans.

The Chinese have been wrong before about America’s decline, their analysts predicting it on the eve of the great expansion of American economic and military power in the 1990s. We can only hope to prove them wrong again—before they do much more harm to the international system. In the interim, our choices are very limited. China is too strong, too important to the world economy to be ignored or pressured into doing what we believe to be right. That leaves us with the unappealing policy of “engagement,” to which Washington has ultimately turned under both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. It means coexisting with a difficult, unsavory regime, relying on diplomacy to persuade Beijing that what we want is in its interest and accepting what little progress can be made.

Historically, China has overreached and self-destructed whenever it played the role of hegemonic power. The arrogance it currently exhibits suggests it is headed in that direction again. But it is not in the interests of the United States for China to collapse. It remains in our interest to have a strong, stable, and prosperous China. Optimally it would also be friendly and democratic. Don’t hold your breath.

By Paul Katz

As China ascends to its place as a leading nation on the world stage, questions have arisen concerning the role of its legal system. As Joseph Kahn noted in a feature article entitled Deep Flaws, and Little Justice, in China’s Court System, “Justice in China is swift but not sure.” Many protests in China today center on the issue of justice, with one blogger responding to the January 2008 fatal beating by parapolice officials of a man trying to videotape a protest by lamenting “Where is justice? Where is the law? Aren’t there any rules in China?

My newest book, Divine Justice: Religion and the Development of Chinese Legal Culture (Routledge 2008) considers these issues by examining the ways in which religious beliefs and practices have contributed to the formation of Chinese legal culture. It does so by describing two forms of overlap between religion and the law: the ideology of justice and the performance of judicial rituals.

The former covers beliefs about how the gods intervene in human affairs in this life and the next in order to ensure the attainment of justice. Because this ideal is rarely realized in earthly courts, many people place their faith in underworld deities who have the power to pass judgment on both the living and the dead.

The latter extends to the realm of practice, and involves instances when men and women perform oaths, chicken-beheadings, and underworld indictments in order to enhance the legitimacy of their positions, deal with cases of perceived injustice, and resolve disputes.

These rites coexist with other forms of legal practice, including private mediation and the courts, comprising a wide-ranging spectrum of practices that I refer to as the judicial continuum. Individuals ranging from high-ranking officials to chaste widows have performed judicial rituals for centuries, and such rites have shaped the legal histories of overseas Chinese in colonies like Batavia, the Straits Settlements, and Hong Kong, as well as those who immigrated to countries like Australia and the United States.

Despite the fact that China is experiencing a period of rapid religious revival, the fate of its judicial rituals is unclear, especially since religious beliefs and practices labeled as “superstition” (mixin 迷信) still face the very real threat of state persecution. Judicial rituals remain largely underground, meaning that the judicial continuum in China today remains fragmentary and inchoate. Inasmuch as the effective functioning of any legal system requires a certain degree of entirety, the extent to which the Chinese government proves willing to tolerate the performance of judicial rites may influence its citizens’ confidence in their ability to obtain true justice.

Penitents dressed as criminals process in front of a Hsinchu police station, with McDonald’s sign in the background

In contrast, judicial rituals are an integral part of legitimation and dispute resolution processes in modern, high-tech nations like Taiwan, where people rely on such rites to deal with problems that are not readily addressed in the courtroom (particularly family tensions) or even resolve disputes that have already entered the formal legal system. The role of such rites in Taiwan’s current political environment remains to be seen, however, as its legal system faces many new challenges. The present state of affairs has prompted Amnesty International to issue a public statement urging the authorities to investigate concerns centering on charges of excessive use of police force, and to conduct legal procedures in a “fair, transparent, and timely manner in compliance with international standards.”

While some Taiwanese prosecutors have been quoted as asserting judicial authority by making statements such as “Suspects in certain cases investigated by prosecutors need not be convicted of a crime, but we can use [the legal process] to teach them a lesson” (檢察官辦案不一定是要當事人被判有罪,但至少要讓他們得到『教訓』), it might be worth bearing in mind the late Attorney General Robert Jackson (1892-1954)’s definition of what it takes to be a distinguished prosecutor: “The citizens’ safety lies in [someone who] tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, [and] who serves the law and not factional purposes.”