Legal rites

子曰:「片言可以折獄者,其由也與!」子路無宿諾。
Confucius said: “Only Zilu could pass judgment on a lawsuit after hearing half the evidence.” Zilu never slept over a promise.
子曰:「聽訟,吾猶人也,必也使無訟乎!」
Confucius said: “I can adjudicate lawsuits as well as anybody. But I would prefer it if litigation was unnecessary.”

Whenever modern-day politicians want to prove that they are “doing something” to solve a problem they inevitably create new legislation that criminalizes the undesirable behavior involved. The problem with such a legalist approach is that no piece of legislation is ever enough to cover all the possible scenarios even when bureaucracies follow up with multiple regulations and judges and magistrates add in their own interpretations. Meanwhile, the general population generally figures out how to get round the law if they need to – witness the massive multibillion dollar “services” industry that has sprung up to help people avoid paying taxes.

Perhaps because of his own experiences as a magistrate and minister of justice in his home state of Lu, Confucius was vehemently against the use of litigation, arguing that adherence to the rites (禮/) – the invisible glue that holds society together – is a much more effective way of ensuring civilized behavior and settling personal, family, and business disputes.

Despite occasional virulent challenges from the Legalist school, the Confucian focus on the rites has played a critical role in Chinese jurisprudence for over two millennia. That situation is changing, however, as China works to modernize its legal system.

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