Having realized that the apparent authoritarian behavior of Judge Dee is only a manifestation of the accepted ethical standards of the age, we can now move on to some of his positive traits. When an old mystic teases Judge Dee by saying that “Your honor has had a tiring day, why should you remain in this lonely place? Come with me to the teahouse, and let us, sipping the fragrant brew, listen for a while to the talk of the people there. (Van Gulik, p.82) Along with these words, the old mystic also entices Judge Dee by referring to the beautiful abstract poetry painted on the glamorous interiors of the teahouse. But Judge Dee exhibits a robust work ethic, when he replies in the negative, saying that his mind was preoccupied with the mysteries of the crime cases he is dealing with. Having reluctantly accepted the invitation to visit the teahouse, we learn that Judge Dee’s mind was still occupied with finding solutions to the crime cases. This does show Judge Dee in good light, in that, despite no restrictions from the King Emperor, he disciplines his mind and actions to perform his foremost duty, namely that of the district magistrate in charge of solving mysterious crimes.
It is not unusual for Chinese magistrates to employ torture as a means of getting confession out of a suspect. In the crime stories that were part of book too torture is resorted to without much hesitation. The other objectionable practice is the public humiliation meted out to those found guilty of crime. Looking at it from the Western liberal democratic tradition, this would seem unwarranted and unethical. But we have to remember that the prevalent judicial practices of the time were derived from the tenets laid down in the Four Books of Confucius. While the Four Books give broad guidelines for administrative officers on how to conduct themselves, they do not say much about their specific functions. In all probability, Judge Dee had perused the dictates laid out by religious texts Chou li to guide his actions. And as a result, his actions tended to be authoritarian.
“According to the Chou li only the king establishes the state. He appoints central officials to supervise its administration and local officials to manage the education and pacification of its peoples. These officials are responsible for upholding the ruler’s authority, checking their subordinates, and controlling the affairs of the people. They regulate taxes, issue edicts and prohibitions, hear suits, examine faults, and punish criminals. Every year they account for their administration and are penalized for any mistakes.” (Watt, 1972)
Hence Judge Dee was only performing his ordained duty when he was interrogating, detaining, torturing and decreeing punishment. As a censor deputed to evaluate his performance, I have to admit that I am quite impressed by Judge Dee’s adherence to the Tang Dynasty penal code, as well as his following of Confucian principles of public administration as laid down in the Four Books, which to this day remain the cornerstone of Chinese civil society management.
R. Van Gulik, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, New York: Dover Publications, 1976.
Potter, Pitman B. The Chinese Legal System: Globalization and Local Legal Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Watt, John R. The District Magistrate in Late Imperial China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.