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

The case record of the murder of Wen Shaolong illustrates the sophistication of the Chinese criminal justice system and reveals the impressive thoroughness and efficiency of this system in eighteenth-century China. The circumstances surrounding the crime and its aftermath were complex and entailed a protracted investigation that spanned several years, but the forensic competence and administrative efficiency revealed in the final case record are typical of eighteenth-century criminal justice. As this case reveals, extraordinary circumstances might postpone the detection and complicate the investigation of a crime, but once initiated, the prosecution of capital crime and the review of capital sentencing in the Qing dynasty followed clear and predictable legal and administrative procedures. This tragic account of deceit, treachery, and mariticide also provides a serendipitous window on the extraordinary struggles of ordinary people in eighteenth-century China.The county magistrate and his staff produced the bulk of the report, which includes:

  1. The initial complaint
  2. A brief account of the incident
  3. An extensive report of the investigation
  4. Medical forensics
  5. Transcripts of direct testimony from key witnesses and accused perpetrators

Sorting through this multilayered report is facilitated by the vocabulary of routine memorials. This specific terminology facilitates the reading of these terse, unpunctuated documents. Though the documents are quite lengthy, the most important details are usually in the initial first third of the report, which is produced at the county level. The final two pages provide in very small print an “executive summary” that includes all the essential details of the case, the legal statutes upon which the judgment was based, and the sentences that were meted out.

Interrogations: The style of interrogation was similar to that recommended in a legal text from the third century B.C.: the magistrate allowed the accused to develop a version of the crime in the first round of questioning even if the testimony seemed dubious. Subsequent rounds of interrogation would then probe the questionable points Remarkably similar methods are sometimes used in the U.S. today. Magistrates often forcefully confronted the accused, pointed out inconsistencies in their statements, and suggested alternative explanations for events. This technique resulted in a long document.


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