Robert E. Hegel


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

Cover Interview of December 17, 2009


As a reader of fiction, I was drawn not only to how the “stories” here were told, but even more to what those stories had to say about specific individuals and about humanity in general.  My hope is that other readers can empathize with these people, relating to them as neighbors from another time rather than representatives of some strange, foreign culture now long gone.  If we can view the judicial system of late imperial China as a viable attempt to reach goals that we share today, then we can overcome the prejudiced view of early twentieth-century reformers and we can more objectively regard China’s past as an important segment of our common human experience.  By doing so, we can more easily see the common human needs at work then, and we can more fairly judge the accomplishments of that time and place. 

In creating this compilation, I wanted to provide my undergraduate students of Chinese literature and culture a means to get beyond the generalizations, the welter of dates, and the names of numerous dynasties and poets through time.  I wanted them to appreciate something of the messy reality of lived experience.

Fiction is often seen as a viable means to that end.  And it may be a valuable window into a culture.  But in the end fiction is made up for a purpose—which in imperial China was never to provide an accurate description of the author’s society or of any particular real person.  Legal reports tell the sad stories of real people who got into very real trouble and, at least to some extent, the reasons why they did so.  These criminals were not exemplary figures, nor were they either typical or even fully unique.  Human mistakes are human mistakes, and that is what is shown by these cases.

I also want to provide people who are interested in law and criminal justice a sample of these hard-to-access materials.  Until recently, there were no translations of such case reports.  The originals were all in archives in Beijing and Taipei, carefully preserved, but, even for scholars, difficult to reach.  My hope is that with a better understanding of alternative visions of working criminal justice systems, specifically of the courts of long-gone imperial China, those of our own time might be better understood, and perhaps perfected.

© 2009 Robert Hegel