It makes sense academically to measure the competency of Judge Dee with respect to his role as a high ranking Chinese official of the Tang period. What follows is an attempt to make an evaluation of Judge Dee from the eyes of an equally high ranking Chinese Censor of the same period. Here the author assumes the role of the censor and the following is the report generated by him on Judge Dee.
One aspect in which Judge Dee differs remarkably from modern day judges is the number of roles he takes up during the process of an investigation. Judge Dee is not only the final decision-maker on a case, but is also its investigator, under-cover detective, prosecutor and the jury. It is quite impressive how he wears these different hats with nonchalant ease and is also able to fulfill those roles adequately.
The stories were set in the era of the Tang Dynasty, during which time, the teaching and philosophy of Confucius was firmly established in administrative circles. It should be remembered that Confucianism has its major applications in the realm of civil society administration and justice. Although classified and referred to as a philosopher, his ideas and teachings have largely been practical in nature. It would be unfair to compare the principles laid out by Confucius with modern-day jurisprudence practiced by judges in advanced western democracies. For example, some of the methods and practices employed by Judge Dee might come across as being authoritative, strict and coercive. Today, in most democratic nations, citizens are entitled to due process of law and to a fair trial. But such rights were not given to the characters of the three stories featuring in the book. If I, as the censor sent to make a report on Judge Dee incorporated factors of cultural relativism and consider the activities of the subject in his temporal and cultural setting, his actions would indeed seem quite meritorious.
Some of the methods employed by Judge Dee can appear unreasonable or unwarranted at first. In the tradition steeped Chinese society during the Tang dynasty’s reign, laws were written not so much with the help of logic and reason, as they were decreed on the basis of a traditional moral code. That is why we see Judge Dee resorting to religion and mysticism in solving the crimes. He even looks out for bad omens, signs of good luck and follows superstition during the course of the investigation. One such superstitious belief is that if the dead are not buried properly they would come back as ghosts to haunt the family. During the process of his investigation, Judge Dee does go to a graveyard to consult the spirits of the dead. There is no way one could come to sound conclusions based on inputs gathered from such mystical practices. Yet, through the course of all three crime investigations, Judge Dee resorts to such means to arrive at his inferences. This will be the strongest criticism made against Judge Dee. If only he had adhered to the practical principles of jurisprudence advocated by Confucius, he would have better fulfilled his role as the high-ranking district magistrate. This assessment of Judge Dee makes sense when seen in the light of the value of Confucian thought during the Tang dynasty’s rule:
“It would be hard to exaggerate the influence of classical Confucian theory on Tang administration. Its values permeated Tang political and social structure. It provided society with its basic educational texts and gave its education a profoundly political cast. For administrators it represented an enduring and authoritative guide to the never-ending problem of maintaining order. Throughout the early and mid-Tang, the tyranny of the examination system ensured that the minds of officials were steeped in classical views on administration.” (Watt, 1972)