A century ago, Xiamen's foreigners were quite impressed with both the imagination and the sense of humor of Chinese judges--as well as their humanity. I enjoyed this excerpt from MacGowan ("Men and Manners of Modern China," 1912, pp. 164-6), in which a Chinese judge appealed to a goddess to solve a crime!
The Chinese judge, having nothing to control his decisions excepting his own free will, frequently settles cases after a very free and easy method. He sometimes shows great common-sense and ingenuity in the ruses adopted to elicit the truth in some disputed case. An amusing instance occurred some time ago, when the mandarin showed himself to be a man of humour and one well acquainted with the ins and outs of the Chinese mind. A Chinese went abroad and stayed away for fifteen years, where he accumulated quite a comfortable little sum, with which he determined to return home and spend the rest of his days in comfort. Night had fallen when he reached the entrance of the village where his home was. During all the years he had been away no letter had passed between him and his wife, and no tidings had ever reached him about her or his home. Was she alive? And, if so, would she receive him kindly after the neglect of years? His mind was so agitated about the reception he was likely to receive that he took the bar of gold into which he had converted his savings, and hid it in the ashes of the incense dish in front of the village idol in the public temple, and then with beating heart he made his way to his home. He found his wife alive, and to his delight she received him without any reproaches. She was too happy to have him back again to dream of scolding him. As they sat talking he told her how much money he had made and how it was then in the incense dish in front of the Goddess of Mercy in the village temple. He tried to tell her this in a low voice, but he did not succeed. A Chinese does not seem to know how to whisper. He can shout and bawl and howl, but the art of speaking quietly into another’s ear is a lost one in China. The expression “in a pig’s whisper” would be utterly misunderstood in this land.
At a crack in the wall that separated his house from his neighbour’s was an ear that drank in every word that was uttered by husband and wife. It seemed glued to it. It was fascinated, indeed, by the strange stories that poured into it, and when the tale of the gold bar was related it thrilled with joy, for it seemed as though some fairy had come to reveal a hidden fortune. Next morning, before the dawn of the day, the husband wound his way silently to the temple for his gold bar, but to his horror he found it was gone. He at once accused his neighbor of the theft, but the latter declared that he had not even heard of his return, and , therefore, he could not possibly have known anything about his gold. Finding it useless to discuss the matter, he hurried to the nearest mandarin and laid his complaint before him. This official happened to be a man of humour as well as a very sagacious one. He summoned the accused before him and ordered him to restore the gold. This the man declared he could not do for the simple reason that he had never taken it. The mandarin, who was convinced of his guilt, now determined to adopt a ruse which he believed would be successful. He ordered his policeman to go to the village temple and bring the idol in whose incense dish the gold had been concealed into his presence. When it arrived he asked the goddess who had stolen the gold. Profound silence was the only reply. “Don’t you consider it your duty to tell me who the thief is, seeing that the money was practically entrusted to you care?” asked the mandarin. Still no reply. Upon this the judge became indignant and accused the idol of want of respect to him, and also of neglect in allowing a theft to take place in a temple that was her residence. The mandarin now adjourned the case for a day and in an angry tone threatened the goddess that if she did not confess then he would have her publicly beaten with rods by his policemen.
That same evening the mandarin summoned the accused into his private room, and with a look of mystery on his face and in a voice trembling with emotion he said: “The goddess has confessed that it was you who stole the gold. She is furious with you, for you have made her ‘lose face’ to-day when I threatened before my whole court to have her beaten, and she vows vengeance against you and your whole family. She says she will make your fields barren and send sickness into your home. Yours sons will die, and when you leave the world there will be no one to worship at your tomb, and you will wander a hungry and wretched spirit in the land of the shades. The only way in which you can avert the wrath of the goddess is by an instant confession. If you do this, I will use all my influence to get her to forgive you.” The man was so terrified at the prospect of such awful calamities awaiting him that, trembling and full of awe, he made a clean breast of it and restored the bar of gold to the rightful owner; and, though he was punished by the mandarin for his wrong, he considered he had got off lightly, since he had not to suffer the vengeance of the goddess.