Home - Introduction
A feature all old Chinese detective stories have in common is that the role of detective is always played by the magistrate of the the district where the crime occurred.
This official is in charge of the entire administration of th edistrict under his jurisdiction and the countryside around it for fifty miles or so. The magistrate's duties are manifold. He is fully responsible for the collection of taxes, the registration of births, deaths and marriages, keeping up to date the land registration, the maintenance of the peace, etc., while as presiding judge of the local tribunal he is charge with the apprehension and punishing of criminals and the hearing of all civil and criminal cases. Since the magistrate thus supervises practically every phase of the daily life of the people, he is commonly referred to as the 'father-and-mother official.'
The magistrate is a permanently overworked official. He lives with his family in separate quarters inside the compound of the tribunal, and as a rule spends his every waking hour upon his official duties.
The district magistrate is at the bottom of the colossal pyramidal structure of ancient Chine government organisation. He must report to the prefect, who supervises twenty or more districts. The prefect reports to the provincial government, who is responsible for a dozen or so prefectures. The governor in his turn reports to the central authorities in capital, with the Emperor at the top.
Every citizen in the Empire, whether rich or poor and regardless of his social background, could enter official life and become a district magistrate by passing the literary examinations. In this respect the Chinese system was already a rather democratic one at a time when Europe was still under feudal rule.
A magistrate's term of office was usually three years. Thereafter he was transferred to another district, to be in due time promoted to prefect. Promotion was selective, being based solely on actual performance: less gifted men often spent the greater part of their lives as district magistrate.
The magistrate was assisted by the permanent personnel of the tribunal, such as the scribes, the warden of the jail, the coroner, the constables, the guards and the runners. These, however, only perform their routine duties. They are not concerned with the detection of crimes.
This task is performed by the magistrate himself, with the assistance of three or four trusted lieutenants. These he selects at the beginning of his career and they accompany him to whatever post he goes. The lieutenants are placed over the other personnel of the tribunal. Unlike the latter they have no local connections and are, therefore, less liable to let themselves be influenced by private considerations in the execution of their official duties. For the same reason it is an old-established rule that no official shall ever be appointed magistrate in his own native district.
The present novel gives a general idea of ancient Chinese court procedure. When the court is in session, the judge sits behind the bench, with his lieutenants and the scribes standing by his side. The bench is a high table covered with a piece of red cloth that hangs down in front from the top of the table till the floor of the raised dais. On this bench one always sees the same implements: an ink stone for rubbing black and red ink, two writing brushes, and the large seal of the tribunal.
The constables stand in front of the dais, facing each other in two rows on left and right. Both plaintiff and accused must kneel on the bare flagstones between these two menacing rows, and remain so during the entire session. They have no lawyers to assist them, they may call no witnesses, so their position is generally not an enviable one. The entire court procedure was in fact intended to act as a deterrent, impressing on the people the awful consequences of getting involved with the law.
The magistrate's private office was usually located at the back of the courtroom, separated from the dais by a screen.
It is a fundamental principle of ancient Chinese law that no criminal can be pronounced guilty unless he has confessed to his crime. To prevent hardened criminals from escaping punishment by refusing to confess even when confronted with irrefutable evidence, the law allows the application of legal severities, such as beating with whip and bamboo, and placing hands and ankles in screws. Next to these authorised means of torture magistrates often apply more severe kinds. if, however, the accused should receive permanent bodily harm or die under excessive torture, the magistrate and the entire personnel of his tribunal are punished, often with the extreme penalty. Most judges, therefore, depend more upon their shrewd psychological insight and their knowledge of their fellow men than on the application of torture.
All in all the old Chinese system worked reasonably well. Sharp control by the higher authorities prevented excesses, and public opinion acted as another curb on wicked or irresponsible magistrates. Capital sentences had to be ratified by the Throne and every condemned criminal could appeal to the higher judicial instances, going up as high as the Emperor himself. Moreover, the magistrate was not allowed to interrogate any accused or witness in private, all his hearings of a case including the preliminary examination had to be conducted in the public sessions of the tribunal. A careful record was kept of all proceedings and these reports had to be forwarded to the higher authorities for their inspection.
In most Chinese detective novels the magistrate is engaged in solving three or more totally different cases at the same time. This interesting feature I have retained in the present novel. In my opinion Chinese crime stories in this respect are more realistic than ours. A district had quite a numerous population. It is therefore only logical that often several criminal cases had to be dealt with at the same time.
in this novel I have followed the Chinese time-honoured tradition of adding at the end of the story a detailed description of the execution of the criminals. Chinese sense of justice demands that the punishment meted out to the criminal should be set forth in full detail. I also adopted the custom of Chinese writers of the Ming Dynasty of describing in their novels men and life as they were in their own time, although the scene of their plots is often laid in former centuries. The same applies to the illustrations of this novel, which reproduce customs and costumes of the Ming period(A.D. I368-i644) rather than those of the T'ang Dynasty. Note that at that time the Chinese did not smoke, either tobacco or opium, and did not wear the pigtail, which was imposed on them only after A.D. i644 by the Manchu conquerors. The men wore their hair long and done up in a topknot. Both outdoors and inside the house they wore caps.
I may add that 'Judge Dee' is one of the great ancient Chinese detectives. He was a historical person, one of the well-known statesmen of the T'ang dynasty. His full name was Ti Jen-chieh and he lived from A.D. 630 till A.D. 700. Later he became a Minister of the Imperial Court and through his wise counsels exercised a beneficial influence on affairs of state. It is chiefly because of his reputation as a detector of crimes, however, that later Chinese fiction has made him the hero of a number of crime stories which have only very slight foundation in historical fact.
Robert Hans van Gulik