Robert E. Hegel


On his book True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories

Cover Interview of December 17, 2009

The wide angle

The history of China’s interactions with Western cultures is fraught with misunderstandings, especially on the part of the West. Based on information supplied by pioneering Jesuit missionaries in China at the end of the 16th century, enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and Leibniz saw China as a model secular state administered by the learned. The Jesuits were trying hard to penetrate elite Chinese society—the stratum from which the administrators were drawn—and so devoted tremendous energies to learning about the subjects tested in the imperial civil service examinations and talked about in polite and learned conversations. Consequently, such figures as Matteo Ricci sent back accounts of Chinese refinement and courtesy of manners, advances in such technologies as book printing, and the glories of their ancient culture. The views they presented of Chinese ideals and social practice were generally positive.

Within the next two centuries the British had become tea drinkers, paying dearly for huge amounts of Chinese tea. In order to correct their trade imbalance, British merchants began to import opium into China and peddle it. When the Chinese authorities impounded and destroyed this product, the British, along with their allies, carried out the Opium Wars to force China to accept trade and, among other impositions, free movement of European missionaries in China. Many of these foreigners reported the backwardness and poverty of China’s rural people, as China’s population had rapidly outpaced economic growth. By 1900 both foreigners and China’s intellectuals alike were convinced that there was nothing of traditional political or social value that was worth preserving, and that all must be destroyed. This last attitude has shaped most Chinese-language scholarship on imperial China, and for decades in the twentieth century, foreign scholars and travelers alike also tended to agree that the only “good” China of the past was the culture of high antiquity.

Only during the last two or three decades have revisionist scholars begun to look in detail at the mass of information left from China’s last empire, much of it preserved in the imperial archives in Beijing. The crime reports I translate in this book were all stored in imperial archive collections. The reports are final copies of comprehensive and detailed summaries of each case that had been prepared for personal review by the emperor, who did so whenever a sentence of execution was proposed for any criminal.

My collection contributes to this revisionist reading of China’s past by demonstrating the human problems that the judiciary system faced and the means by which the system had to be used to guarantee what conscientious judges felt to be just. The reports also reveal the magistrates’ frustrations with an inflexible system and their efforts to bend the system to prevent injustice. I bring to these materials an extensive study of Chinese fiction of the late imperial period, the Ming and Qing, spanning roughly from 1500 to 1900. As a student of literature I have had to be very careful to check my interpretations with legal historians to ensure that I have not over-read these documents. But as a scholar trained to read what is implicit in a text, seeing these magistrates as creative writers seems to be an easy and natural exercise.

This approach is useful, I feel, because most historians who have used such archival materials have done so with an eye for data, often accumulating information on problems such as adultery and other sex crimes, struggles over land and water resources, or official worries about popular religious movements. Even though the reports are decidedly not fictional, nor have they been “fictionalized” by making them more readable (magistrates faced strenuous penalties for tampering with the facts of a case) seeing how each case was presented reveals a deeper level of meaning than is gained from simply noting what each case concerned. Without attention to these matters, concepts such as fairness, justice, attitudes toward authority, and personal moral standards for these people at that time would be much harder to ascertain.

I came to the study of these judicial reports to see whether regional styles of language were used in writing nonfictional narratives. But crime reports are written in the languages of official communication, classical Chinese for the documentary portions and the standard vernacular dialect (known as “Mandarin” in English) for testimony; they do not reveal local expressions or manners of speech to any great degree. However, as products of the same educational system that produced China’s novelists and story writers, the magistrates who wrote these reports had a similar sense of careful composition and the ability to make texts mean more than they say. These features of the crime reports are what attracted me.