This is a story that made the rounds on China’s intranet in late June, but seems to have been missed by the international audience. That is not surprising, as there is no great significance in the simple divorce case at its center, but the presiding judge’s florid judgment makes it something of a curiosity, as does the public response that followed.
Chinese court judgments are usually pretty bare; they include a recitation of the parties’ names, some basic facts, and a report of the verdict with its legal basis. The section for legal reasoning is often brief and conclusory, with little actual discussion or analysis. One Chongqing judge hearing a divorce case earlier this year, however, seems to have found their muse, and proven the exception to this rule.
The facts of the case are exceptional only in so far as they provide furtive insight into a failed romance and speculation into the private lives of others. The couple met in May 2005 when both were away from home working in Guizhou. Although Ms. Wang was already married at the time, she moved in with Mr. Lu. They had a baby daughter in April 2001, at which point Ms. Wang divorced her husband to form a new family. For whatever reason, she did not marry Mr. Lu until twelve years later in 2013, when they moved to his home town.
After the wedding, Ms. Wang alleged that things began to sour, that Lu drank and played cards all day, insulting and hitting her. Prior to this case, she had filed for divorce once before in 2015, but then withdrew. Mr. Lu remained opposed, and of course, had his own version of events, claiming that he works the family farms and then travels to work in the off season.
The judge ultimately denied the divorce, waxing poetic in the decision:
”Time is a poison cup, strong enough to dilute the deepest passions. The reasons for a happy marriage are countless, but there is only one reason for an unhappy marriage; so many people are slaves of time, chasing after time, losing oneself; don’t they know that happiness is growing old together, respecting each other, slowly growing old through the good and the bad. “
The opinion continues, chastising the couple for selfishly finding fault in each other instead of looking for the good, and considering their own problems. It quotes the New Testament at Mather 7:3-5:
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
The invocation of the New Testament in a court judgment is what brought the opinion into the public eye. While Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief, if not always practice, the ruling Communist Party of China is explicitly atheist, and recently quite opposed to western ideologies. So, for a Chinese judge to draw on the bible is more than a little unusual. Less unusual for China, the case was removed from official websites after it went viral online. Still, copies can be found easily enough, and much of the public discussion and debate remains available.
Many commentators focused on whether bible verse has any place in a court judgment at all. Some posts seem to suggest that the judge relied on the bible as a basis of authority, which would be clearly inappropriate, although the opinion merely borrows the language of Mathew to express a point (if not one that seems immediately relevant to the case facts). More nuanced readers questioned whether even the bible in an opinion amounted endorsement of Christianity. The U.S. establishment clause was even sometimes invoked to discuss the reasons why government should not favor any given religion.
Interestingly the judge’s general discussion of marriage and family ethics seems to have been well received, with the question being whether morality and religion need to be linked, or whether that would only alienate non-believers. The emotional language and broader discussion of marriage seems to have resonated with some readers, and seems even to be something of mini-trend in family cases.
Still more curious, after the story went viral, some internet detectives discovered that this was not the first time this judge had quoted the bible, and that they had in fact quoted the same portion from Mathew in two earlier judgments. Those cases seem to have passed by unnoticed at the time, but have now also been removed from the online judgments web.