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16: Jurisprudence

Law,[*] as we understand the term, with all its paradoxes and refinements, is utterly unknown to the Chinese, and it was absolutely necessary to invent an equivalent for the word "barrister," simply because no such expression was to be found ready-made in the language. Further, it would be quite impossible to persuade even the most enlightened native that the Bar is an honourable profession, and that its members are men of the highest principles and integrity. They cannot get it out of their heads that western lawyers must belong to the same category as a certain disreputable class among themselves, to be met with in every Chinese town of importance, and generally residing in the vicinity of a magistrate's or judge's yamen. These fellows are always ready to undertake for a small remuneration the conduct of cases, in so far as they are able to do this by the preparation of skilfully-worded petitions or counter-petitions, and by otherwise giving their advice. Of course they do not appear in court, for their very existence is forbidden, but their services are largely availed of by the people, especially the poor and ignorant. At the trial, prosecutor and accused must each manage his own case, the magistrate himself doing all the cross-examination. We say _prosecutor_ and _accused_ advisedly, for as a matter of fact civil cases are rare in China, such questions as arise in the way of trade being almost invariably referred to some leading guild, whose arbitration is accepted without appeal. Now, we know of no such book as "Laws of Evidence" in the whole range of Chinese literature; yet we believe firmly that the intellects which adorn our own bench are not more keen in discriminating truth from falsehood, and detecting at a glance the corrupt witness, than the semi-civilised native functionary --that is, when no silver influences have been brought to bear upon his judgment. The Chinese have a penal code which, allowing for the difference in national customs and habits of thought, stands almost unrivalled; and with this solitary work their legal literature begins and ends. It is regarded by the people as an inspired book, though few know much beyond the title, and seems to answer its purpose well.

[*] Civil law.

But inasmuch as in China as elsewhere _summum jus_ is not infrequently _summa injuria_, a clever magistrate never hesitates to set aside law or custom, and deal out Solomonic justice with an unsparing hand, provided always he can shew that his course is one which _reason_ infallibly dictates. Such an officer wins golden opinions from the people, and his departure from the neighbourhood is usually signalised by the presentation of the much-coveted testimonial umbrella. In the reign of the last Emperor but one, less than twenty years ago, there was an official of this stamp employed as "second Prefect" in the department of Han-yang. Many and wonderful are the stories told of his unerring acumen, and his memory is still fondly cherished by all who knew him in his days of power. We will quote one from among numerous traditions of his genius which have survived to the present day.

A poor man, passing through one of the back thoroughfares in Hankow, came upon a Tls. 50[*] note lying in the road and payable to bearer. His first impulse was to cash it, but reflecting that the sum was large and that the loser might be driven in despair to commit suicide, the consequences of which might be that he himself would perhaps get into trouble, he determined to wait on the spot for the owner and rest content with the "thanks money" he was entitled by Chinese custom to claim as a right. Very shortly he saw a stranger approaching, with his eyes bent on the ground, evidently in search of something; whereupon he made up to him and asked at once if anything was the matter. Explanations followed, and the Tls. 50 note was restored to its lawful possessor, who, recovering himself instantaneously, asked where the other one was, and went on to say that he had lost _two_ notes of the same value, and that on recovery of the other one he would reward the finder as he deserved, but that unless that was also forthcoming he should be too great a loser as it was. His benefactor was protesting strongly against this ungenerous behaviour when the "second Prefect" happened to come round the corner, who, seeing there was a row, stopped his chair, and inquired there and then into the merits of the case. The result was that he took the Tls. 50 note and presented it to the honest finder, telling him to go on his way rejoicing; while, turning to the ungrateful loser, he sternly bade him wait till he met some one who had found _two_ notes of that value, and from him endeavour to recover his lost property.

[*] Fifty taels, equal to about 15 pounds.