Robert E. Hegel


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

Cover Interview of December 17, 2009

A close-up

There are many cases in my book that should be of particular interest to an inquisitive reader wanting to find out what happened, why, and what the punishment might have been: the two cases involving men who killed their own brothers, one over a few pounds of beans beyond what was needed for consumption and another over manure for fertilizing the fields; the neighbors whose frustrations resulted in flashes of anger that caused irreparable damage, one over an outhouse, another over water for irrigation. Or perhaps the reader would happen on a case involving adultery, reading on to find out how the affair began, and how it reached its inevitably tragic outcome—since only those cases that ended in homicide appear in my sample of cases.

There are moral lessons to be learned here, of course (then, as always, alcohol abuse all too frequently led to disaster), but there are greater human truths as well.  Not all brothers get along well; there can be jealousy, misunderstandings, hurt feelings from childhood that still linger decades later, and mistreatment that cannot be spoken about openly but that leaves its scars and its acute sensitivities. Adultery can be provoked by more than just sexual desire; differences in power relations between the genders and between people of different status levels led to violence in Qing society just as often as they have in others.

Much is left unsaid in many of these cases.  Was the act that spurred the violence really the “last straw,” the last of a series of insults, intended or accidental, that pushed the perpetrator beyond the breaking point?  Was the magistrate really interested in the whole truth, or merely what he needed to build a persuasive case?  I can not help wishing that more questions had been asked—but the reports are limited to information immediately relevant to the crime.  And to what extent should we all be responsible for what happens to our neighbors—or even our brothers?  Were there really different obligations to be fulfilled in that very different culture, now 250 years old? 

There is no speculation on human values incorporated into these crime reports; however, standards for behavior can be inferred from the penal codes that stipulated a specific punishment for every type of crime, distinguished by the relationships between the perpetrator and his or her victim.  This may be a world of the past, but Qing China comes alive through the misadventures of some of its least distinguished subjects.