Marvin Marcus




These true stories, from Chinese archives, show how justice was sought through the art of writing

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

My book presents a sample of crime reports from eighteenth-century China in English translation. All are capital crimes. Since all capital crimes might carry the death penalty, detailed reports of all levels of investigation had to be forwarded to the Emperor for his final decision on sentencing. Capital crimes required investigation and review at local, prefectural, provincial, and central levels of the imperial Qing period (1644-1911) administration. These reports include information about the victims and what happened to them, testimony from the accused and various witnesses, and official correspondence between judicial officials about the crimes.

They are not fiction, but they make for interesting reading for modern readers in two ways. First, they document all too common human mistakes and weaknesses—most seem like the kinds of crimes we might read about in our daily newspapers. (Only the political crimes appear to be unique to their time and place.)

In addition, these cases show how justice was sought through the art of writing: certain information was emphasized and other information was downplayed in order to support the verdict reached by the magistrate after his investigation. There was no jury; the interpretation of the evidence was left up to the local magistrate. But he had to convince a series of judicial reviewers—including the Emperor in Beijing—that he had fulfilled his obligations to get all the facts and to judge them fairly and accurately. If a perpetrator later recanted testimony that he or she had been wrongly forced to make, or if the magistrate had not discovered the whole truth, the magistrate could be punished by losing his position, being forever barred from holding office, or being physically punished and fined. All of the judicial reviewers were also regularly examined for any dereliction of duty; they, too, could be severely punished for interfering with justice.

These cases demonstrate the workings of a judicial and legal system very different from that of modern Western nations. But the administration of justice in imperial China also sought fairness, just as we do today, and the system incorporated many levels of safeguards for the accused. Like our own jury system, this system relied heavily on the basic goodness of individuals to make it work. I hope that my readers will get a better sense of how a common human problem—the punishment of perpetrators of major crimes—has been understood and dealt with in another culture, in another time, with unfamiliar concepts of law and criminal investigation.

“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.”

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.

December 18, 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.

“Many cases in my book 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.”


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
Robert E. Hegel True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories University of Washington Press 285 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0295989075
Marvin Marcus

For the last 35 years Robert E. Hegel has taught at Washington University in St. Louis, currently as Liselotte Dieckmann Professor of Comparative Literature and Professor of Chinese. His research centers on imperial China’s fiction, especially from the period of 1500 to 1900, when the novel and short story came of age. His first book surveys novels of the century of transition between China’s last two dynasties; his second, Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China, explores the book as commercial object and the development of reading and writing practices. His many articles address narratives of all kinds, including, most recently, legal texts.

Cover Interview of
December 18, 2009