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

The Genre: A “genre” is a standard kind of artistic form that large numbers of people consistently need to have. “Landscape” is a well-known genre, as is “Portraiture.” “Rap,” “blues,” and the “classical” are all different genres of music. Written documents always take shape within one or other genre. How we read a document differs depending upon the genre. A forensic report is supposed to consist of nothing but facts, whereas a science fiction is, well, fiction. We wouldn’t read a science fiction novel as if it were an eyewitness report.

The genre of “capital case records” is a special type within the larger genre of government reports. Because bureaucratic administration in China had already developed highly systematic procedures by the third century BCE, a variety of sub-genres appeared early in history, such as tax records or official memorials, each with its own specialized format. In each case, the standard format was adapted to the kind of information required.

Capital case records were designed to permit uniform, empire-wide review of capital crimes. Standardization was necessary in part to ensure fairness and in part to meet the practical needs of judicial officials. As one administrative handbook advised, reports were to be composed “so that a superior can understand the contents at a glance, without studying the depositions and confessions.” Case records could also be used as guides to legal practice, providing precedents for an official’s legal argument.

Published Collections of Case Records

China has a long history of published compilations of case records for education and entertainment. Dong Zhongshu (175-105 BCE), the famed Confucian scholar, compiled legal cases as an early effort to reinterpret law in terms of Confucian principles. Better known in the West, thanks to English translations, are Song Dynasty (960-1279) collections. Among the most famous of these works are Parallel Cases from under the Pear Tree (Tangyin pishi), translated in to English by R.H. van Gulik and Brian McKnight, and The Enlightened Judgments (Qingming ji), translated into English by James T. C. Liu. Gui Wanrong, the compiler of Parallel Cases from under the Pear Tree, drew on one hundred and forty-four civil and criminal cases spanning the period from 300 B.C. to 1100 A. D. It would seem that this compilation was meant to entertain as well as provide practical advice on legal matters: some cases addressed significant legal points but others were taken from legend to illustrate ingenious detective work. The Enlightened Judgment combined advice to local officials on a range of administrative duties with several chapters on legal judgments. The legal judgments were abbreviated passages from longer documents that contained descriptions of legal problems and the decisions on them.

Most of the extant compilations of legal cases originally appeared in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the better-known collections, The Conspectus of Criminal Cases (Xing’an huilan), contained more than 7600 cases. For the most part the large compendia of legal cases normally included only a bare-bones synopsis of the case and the final judgment. Many records were as terse as three hundred characters. As reference works and pedagogical tools, these works may have served a role similar to that of Black’s Commentaries in nineteenth-century America. Under different historical circumstances they might eventually have become the core of a Qing legal curriculum. These case compendia undoubtedly also inspired literary works, such as the Judge Bao detective stories that were popular in the late imperial period.

Now that you have some information about the capital case records, learn how to read its different parts: HOW TO READ IT

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