Development of Chinese Legal Language and Legal Awakening in Hong Kong

Clara Chan

The Hong Kong legal system is based on the English common law system and English has been the dominant language since the British rule. In the late 1980s, the Hong Kong Government started to develop a bilingual legal system by adopting Chinese as its second official legal language. This reform was intended to prepare Hong Kong for the handover to China in 1997, as well as to meet the needs of the predominantly Cantonese-speaking population who mostly use Chinese in daily life. While the Chinese legal language is still in a ‘developing stage’ in Hong Kong’s bilingual legal system, this study proposes that its increasing use strengthens the legal awakening of people in the city, and vice versa. There are two main observations for this. First, the use of Chinese language facilitates the dissemination of legal knowledge to the general public. For example, according to Carlye Chu Fun-ling (2012: 5), Justice of Appeal of the Court of Appeal of the High Court, the Chinese use in court proceedings and judgement writing has been attracting more and more Chinese media attention. She remarks that even those who are not particularly interested in the law have passively absorbed knowledge of court cases and legal procedures through Chinese media reports. Second, when the general population develops greater awareness of their legal rights and the rule of law in general, Hong Kong citizens can become more legally informed. Poon (2010: 89) describes this as ‘legal awakening’, meaning the people of Hong Kong are more motivated to safeguard their interests through knowledge of law. Chan (2020) argues that the more educated citizens will have a higher demand for language quality of legislation and judgments, making possible the creation of a communicative and target-oriented Chinese legal language of law.


Clara Ho-yan Chan is an Associate Professor of the School of Humanities and Social Science, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. She received her PhD from the University of Queensland, Australia, MA and BA from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and LLB from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research interests focus on language and law, especially legal translation, legal terminology and bilingual law drafting.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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