Medieval/Early Modern Periods

CASE 7:  Homicide and the Law in 18th Century China

China’s population was decimated in the wars following the fall of the Han dynasty in the early 3rd century CE. The ensuing chaos ushered in a period much resembling Europe’s middle ages, and as in Europe, law during that period was largely a function of privilege. Privilege, in turn, was a function of inherited status. Under those circumstances the legal checks instituted during the Han dynasty were no longer effective. China’s middle ages is often thought to have ended around the 9th century. By that time a fairly sophisticated system of legal checks for capital cases was already in place. We can get a glimpse of the process from a plaint that survives in the collected works of the famous poet Bai Juyi (772-846).

Bai wrote this plaint during a period when his official duties required him to review capital cases. In this case, a woman had been beaten to death by her husband. The lower court called it murder, but the higher court judged that the wife had died accidentally in the throes of a fight between husband and wife. The higher court therefore classified the crime as manslaughter. Bai reviewed the case in detail, arguing that the lower court was correct. His plaint follows a specific format: it cites the judgment of the upper court; then that of the lower court; then the relevant statutes from Tang law. He then proceeded to dismantle the upper court’s argument through the application of rigorous logic, including a consideration of forensic evidence and legal precedent. Nowhere in the document does the victim’s status as a woman imply she should be treated differently from anyone else. Read about this 9th century murder mystery (case review).

The system of legal procedures for capital cases achieved maturation during the Song dynasty (960 – 1278). It was during this period that detailed rules for the collection and presentation of forensic evidence were established. During this period all citizens could bring civil suits to the magistrate’s court. At this time also legal protections for slaves were expanded. We even have records of cases in which the families of slaves sued members of the imperial house, and won! Although in China there were no lawyers, professional legal counselors could be hired to advise citizens on how to present their case in court. Finally, circuit inspectors regularly reviewed the magistrate’s judicial records for fairness.

By and large similar procedures were maintained during ensuing centuries up into the 18th century. However, by the 18th century it became necessary to streamline the system. One reason for this was the success of Qing dynasty government, which had made possible an explosion in population. Despite a doubling of population during the eighteenth century, the number of judicial officials did not increase and the process of centralized review remained unchanged. While crime rates are nearly impossible to compute, it is clear that as the population doubled the absolute number of cases would have increased. Depending on the jurisdiction, provincial governors may have had hundreds of cases to review each year, while the central government would have had thousands. To prevent the mandated review process from collapsing under its own weight, expediencies were necessary.

For example, during the early years of of the Qianlong reign (1736-1795), case records often included multiple rounds of interrogations. These reports contain transcripts of each round of testimony, and reading these interrogations provides a lively narrative and a good sense of the magistrate’s detective skills. Over time, however, case records grew increasingly streamlined. By 1745 reports usually included only detailed interrogatories or multiple rounds of interrogation for the accused and the most important witnesses.

After 1765, case records became much more formulaic and one rarely sees detailed interrogations of even the most important witnesses. Whether or not this was due to the bureaucratic burden of automatic judicial review in the face of a quickly growing population, the transformation of capital case records as a genre is abundantly clear to the historian. Over time the records became more terse and took on a “just the facts” style of presentation. The extensive interrogations of witnesses and the accused were drastically abbreviated towards the end of the reign. Interestingly, medical forensics remained the single exception to this trend. The presentation of this objective evidence was almost excruciatingly detailed.

For a broader perspective on capital case records,
check out: GLOBAL CONTEXT.

Or go back to HOW IT EVOLVED IN HISTORY: Classical Period

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