Montaigne Centre Blog


Why is a legal “case” literally called a “desk” in Chinese?


Sjaak Zhang

Trials in China largely consist of written documents collected in a dossier rather than in oral debates. This perception and administration of (criminal) justice is deeply entrenched in China’s legal culture, which can be well illustrated by China’s peculiar terminology on (criminal) trial. 

In Chinese, a legal case is referred to literally as “an (案)” or more specifically as “an jian (案件)”. Etymologically, the former is a phono-semantic compound with the phonetic root “an (安)” and the semantic root “木” which means (a piece of) wood. The original and basic meaning of the Chinese character “an (案)” is a (usually wooden) desk (see the picture below) that was typically used by judicial officials of ancient China, and the more specific term “an jian (案件)” refers literally to “items on the desk”. The image below vividly shows the greatly divergent perceptions and visualizations between Chinese and Anglo-American legal cultures, which paradigmatically denotes a legal “case (or in Chinese, literally a ‘desk’ indeed)” and who typically embodies justice.

chinese casetable

The Chinese use of a word that basically means “desk” to metonymically represent legal cases vividly reflects how  trial is perceived and conducted in China’s traditional legal culture. In the Anglo-American world,  trials consist of “cases” including legal counsel for both parties (see the picture above), and therefore trials are actually the telling and hearing of stories contained in the “cases” by both sides. In contrast, China’s  trials consist of the documents on the judges’ desks, and therefore are actually producing, displaying and examining written documents in a dossier. This might be the very reason why a trial can be literally referred to as a “hearing” in English, while in Chinese the corresponding word (审 shen) literally has nothing to do with “hear”, but an ancient connotation of “see”. Similarly, the Chinese term regarding access to the dossier is defined literally as a right to see/view the dossier (yue juan阅卷). In other words, China’s particular perception and administration of  justice based on its traditional legal culture is characterized by an entrenched judicial bureaucracy and technical legalism. Therefore, it is imaginable that should Lady Justice (Themis) be born in China, mythical chinese unicornshe would never be blindfolded and her auditory sense would be less significant. In fact, the visual representation of Justice in Chinese traditional culture is a mythical unicorn named “獬豸(xiè zhì)” which hits the guilty with its horn.

The text above is part of my PhD thesis. Those who have interest to learn more about the difference between Chinese and Western legal cultures are cordially invited to my PhD defence on 29 September 2017 at 10:30 am at Utrecht University; or have one copy of my book.

Written by Shuai Zhang.