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Without Laws, we litigated with our tongues or fists_part one
Chinese traditionally were ruled by the wills of emperors rather than by laws. The battle between the rule of laws and the rule of wills had been fought since Confucius’s time, but the legalist (法家) lost and the Confucius’s followers triumphed. I am in no position to comment on whether this outcome was positive or negative for the Chinese, but the consequence was clear that we became a people ruled without rules, and its effect on us can be felt in our most trivial daily life.|
Without the rule of laws, we resorted to fists or tongues rather than litigation.
It was, may still be, quite common in a traditional Chinese neighbourhood to find citizens quarrelling or fighting to resolve their disputes. In my childhood years, the scene was quite familiar of someone’s mom or grandma crying, shouting, and lashing out at a neighbor on the street for the purpose of protesting against some unfair practice by that neighbor ( it s called 骂街). When a dispute occurred without a resolution, the one feeling improperly compensated typically went to the public, on the street, loudly protesting with loud cries, tears and often half-hearted empty threats, as other neighbors watched. Often the other side would wisely shut the doors to avoid a direct confrontation, but occasionally confrontation did break out in the form of shouting match or, worse, wrestling or scratching. As emotions calmed down, or simply becoming too exhausted, the protester felt being compensated by the humiliation on the other side, and justice was thus served.
Until fairly recently, Chinese did not think of laws as a means to resolve disputes. Traditionally the function of litigation was performed by family clan, neighbors, village elders, guild associations, or workplace in the modern days. My father was a little manager overseeing one hundred workers, who would come to chat with my father almost every evening when they were not rounded up to study revolutionary politics. All sorts of private matters or disputes between workers or neighbors were arbitrated by this supposedly neutral leader of the company.
While the quarrelling or even wrestling between women was usually harmless, the fights between men can be deadly. Once in 1974, two of my 4th grade classmates got into a fight, and the parents of both sides were called for, one being the vice-principal of our school, taller and stronger, and the other shorter and smaller. Encouraged by his physique the stronger one threw a punch and badly bruised and bled the smaller’s left eye. However, being well connected with his relatives in the villages in the country, the smaller one was able to mobilize an entire village and the villagers rushed into town with all sorts of farming tools as weapons. Fully aware of the danger, the vice-principal and his family fled, quickly letting out the word that they were willing to apologize and offer financial compensation. A war was thus avoided.
Isn’t there some kind of policing force in that small town? Yes, in fact they were well paid and enjoyed a high status since they were the only few who could carry a pistol. Somehow they were not terribly interested in disputes between citizens for they were fully occupied by other more significant crimes, the ones that were committed against the state. Stealing money from a state-owned company, for example, can get you a death penalty easily. The chill was vividly felt when our parents talked about how one of the workers in their company earned his death after he was found stealing RMB10,000 (the equivalent of 300 times of his monthly salary) from the shop he was managing. His family was also charged for the cost of the 3 bullets. The father of a girl in my class in elementary school earned the same fate for a similar crime.
Even if the police did take the time to mind the citizen’s business, there was little guidance or laws they could follow, and little incentive for them to enforce such guidance or laws, unless one of the concerned was well connected.
The most terrifying incident ever happened in that small town was the death of a young man, who was said to be a very nice and gentle person. Somehow, he got into a fight, got kicked at his private part , and died! The victim’s family carried his body, paraded through the streets, and finally placed it in the hall of the killer’s home.
[to be continued in part 2]