International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, Vol 18, No 1 (2011)

A Critical Analysis of Chinese Courtroom Discourse

Guang Shi
Issued Date: 13 Sep 2011


This thesis analyzes the formal features of Chinese courtroom discourse and their interaction with the ideologies of, and power relations between, the subjects in the courtroom. Based on Fairclough’s (1992, 1995,2001) three-dimensional approach to discourse and Liao’s (2003) schema of the court trial1, the author developed a three-dimensional framework of Chinese courtroom discourse and employed it to analyze the audio recording transcripts of eight court trials (four criminal, three civil, and one administrative), which amount to more than 200,000 words. The first dimension, ‘discourse as text’ describes features and underlying meanings of the following aspects: classification, transitivity, modality and interactional control. The key findings arising from the analyses were:
1) In the courtroom, due to different purposes and ideologies of the subjects, words and expressions with different and even opposite meanings are used to describe or refer to same things or incidents.
2) Material and verbal processes (see Halliday and Matthiessen 2004: 179-252) appear by far most frequently, while the number of existential processes is the smallest.
3) Generally speaking, markers of modality used by the judges help to clarify rights and duties and realize the functions of regulation, permission, authorization and prohibition, while those employed by other subjects have a negative effect on the reliability of their statements and the accuracy of meanings they want to express.
4) Courtroom interaction is generally controlled by the powerful (judges in all trials, judges and public prosecutors in criminal ones). Occasionally, the non-powerful (plaintiffs, defendants, appellants, appellees, witnesses, etc.) attempt to challenge the authority of the powerful. In such cases, the powerful will seek to reassert their control in various ways.
The second dimension, ‘discursive practice’ interprets courtroom discourse in relation to its production, distribution, and consumption (i.e., how it is interpreted and responded) through the analysis of force, coherence and intertextuality. Under the rubric of force, “speech acts” and “politeness” were analyzed. Among Searle’s (1965) five-part classification of speech acts, representative and directive speech acts are most frequently used. With regard to politeness, generally speaking, less politeness strategies are adopted by the subjects in the courtroom than in daily conversations (cf.Yang 2007). The more powerful a subject is, the more “impolite” s/he tends to be, that is, s/he tends to do more FTAs (Face-Threatening Acts) (see Brown & Levinson 1987: 60). As the most powerful subjects in the courtroom, judges do FTAs most frequently. The second aspect is coherence. The analysis of two cases shows that courtroom discourse is coherent semantically, topically, and contextually. Following Xin (2000, 2005), “intertextuality” was classified into two types: specific and generic. When analyzing the former the following findings emerged:
1) Among the three ways of showing news source: specific and exact news source, implicit news source, and seemingly real news source (Xin 2000: 167-69, Xin 2005: 111-12), only the first two are used by the subjects in the court trials, while the third is not found.
2) Among the four major modes of speech reporting: Direct Reporting (DR), Indirect Reporting (IR), Free Indirect Reporting (FIR), and Narrative Report of Speech Act (NRSA) (Fairclough 2003: 49), only DR, IR, NRSA appear in the eight cases.
It should be pointed out that the choice of ways of showing news source and modes of speech reporting is in accordance with the purposes and interests of the subjects in the courtroom. The analysis of generic intertextuality shows that courtroom discourse, especially the sub-genre of “evidence-producing”, contains not only a mixture of different genres but also of different modes, which may be the result of the judicial reform being carried out in China (Liao 2003: 2) and a manifestation of the trend of ‘conversationalization’ (Fairclough 1992: 204) in contemporary society.
The third dimension, “social practice” explains the ideologies of, and power relations between, the subjects in the courtroom as reflected by their discourses. The ideologies of the subjects have two major tendencies: convergence and conflict. Convergence mainly exists between judges and public prosecutors because both are the embodiment of certain institutions: judges embody the court (the judicial organ), while public prosecutors embody the procuratorate (the organ for legal supervision). Another tendency is the conflict of ideologies. The major conflicts are those between public prosecutors and defendants in criminal trials, and those between opposing parties (plaintiffs and defendants, appellants and appellees, etc.) in civil and administrative ones. Generally speaking, opposing parties in the courtroom tend to have different ideologies due to their differing purposes and interests. In the courtroom, power relations have the following three main characteristics:
1) Power relations of the subjects in the courtroom are hierarchical and asymmetrical.
2) Power relations are largely determined by the institutional nature of the court.
3) Power relations are reflected by, and in turn affect, the linguistic features used by subjects during discourse.

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DOI: 10.1558/ijsll.v18i1.157


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