Chinese Legal Documents Series #3

Cover of original case report sentencing Du Huailiang to be beheaded after the Autumn Assizes. Dated Kangxi 35.5.17 (June 16, 1696).

The ISCLH Blog is happy to ring in 2015 with a new update to the Chinese Legal Documents Series!  This special series invites researchers to introduce a document from their own collections, provide a translation, and discuss what these texts might be used to study.  Our goal is to showcase the research of members, offer a small corpus of legal texts for the training of students, and give readers a wide view of what the study of Chinese legal history looks like.

Our latest post comes from Robert Hegel, Professor of Comparative Literature and Professor of Chinese at Washington University in St. Louis.  In addition to his True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories, with Katherine Carlitz he also edited Writing and Law in Late Imperial China, a collection of essays. Professor Hegel’s document is a translation from his book, True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), pp. 80-81, 83-84. The translation is an excerpt of a testimony from a 17th century murder case involving an illicit union that highlights the tensions between the Confucian ideals at the heart of Qing law and the realities of everyday adjudication. The complete transcription of the original crime report (First Historical Archives 內閣題本刑罰類 518-46; Kangxi 35.5.17) is available on the Washington University Digital Archive together with the complete transcripts of the other nineteen cases found in the published collection:;cc=tru;rgn=main;view=text;idno=tru0006.1696.006

The document with translation and analysis is presented after the bibliographical information below.  A printable PDF version is also available for download here.  As always, we welcome any comments and suggestions you might have and would be especially eager to hear from those who have used this document in the classroom.  Finally, please e-mail Maura Dykstra if you are interested in contributing a future document for the series.

Robert Hegel, “Reading the Narratives in Archived Crime Reports,” Chinese Legal Documents Series (International Society for Chinese Law and History) 2, No. 1 (Jan. 2015)
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Reading the Narratives in Archived Crime Reports
Robert Hegel
International Society for Chinese Law and History
Note: Chinese text displayed is based on original text.

My introduction to the study of legal documents came via a lecture by Philip Kuhn. It was based on research that would become his monograph Soulstealers, and it included mention of the monks’ testimony in their own words. This possibility was tremendously exciting: as a student of Ming-Qing vernacular literature, I was drawn by the prospect of seeing how real spoken language was recorded: how were different languages and dialects represented?

In 1986, armed with Professor Kuhn’s introductions, I visited the First Historical Archives 第一歷史檔案館 in Beijing to find some of those records. Capital cases in the Qing Archives generally include oral testimony taken from all the principals in a case: the accused, the plaintiff, witnesses, and, often, neighbors of the deceased and of the perpetrator. Testimony is taken at the inquest with the body in view, during the magistrate’s investigation of the crime at his yamen, and through subsequent stages of judicial review. I had hoped to discover a variety of speech forms represented there, but of course I quickly learned that all testimony in the final reports had been standardized to an easily read form of guanhua 官話 or Mandarin. In spite of the disappointment of this early discovery, I went on to realize that these documents contained more than mere language, and often included intimate details about the personal lives of men and women involved in legal cases. Because most cases involve the poor, they offer information about the lives of people otherwise individually invisible in the written record.

More importantly, however, patterns of representation appeared in the structure of these reports. As Karasawa Yasuhiko 唐澤靖彥 pointed out some years ago, all of this testimony was carefully edited, even rewritten, to make every element of the final report supportive of the magistrate’s judgment. Even though the editing appears to have been done with an eye to conciseness rather than to select or distort facts, these case reports became carefully constructed narratives meant to reveal the magistrate’s interpretation as well as the details of the case.

In one example, a case from Shandong dated 1696, the report records an investigation upon which hinged the life of a murdered man’s widow. In both soliciting and editing the testimony, the Liaocheng 聊城縣 magistrate Jin Yingdou 金應斗 seems to have shaped his report to emphasize not only how and why the murderer perpetrated this crime but also how his paramour, Ms. Li 李氏, was guiltless in the death of her husband, Chen Wenxian 陳文現. I quote segments of the testimony of these two below. Even though the adulteress by law should have been strangled as an accessory to the murder of her husband, the testimony was carefully structured to present her as the helpless victim of her landlord, Du Huailiang 杜懷亮.

Magistrate Jin initially interrogated Du Huailiang as follows: “How old are you, and what is your native place?”

Du Huailiang testified: “Your humble servant is 26 sui, and I am from this District.”

Further interrogation: “How did you know that Chen Wenxian was twenty-seven sui in age? Why did you kill him and your wife Ms. Zhang? Tell the truth.”

Du further testified: “He and I have been on good terms ever since he moved into my house to live during Kangxi 31 [1692]. That’s how I know how old he is. Often he and my wife Zhang had made eyes at each other. I was suspicious in my heart, but I didn’t have any proof so I couldn’t say anything to him about any ‘smelly business’ between them. During the fifth month I told him to get out, and he found a room at Widow Wei’s place. He moved out on the 7th of the fifth month of this year [June 18, 1695]. On the 4th of the sixth month [July 14] I took a hatchet with me to sleep in the courtyard to guard the cattle. My wife closed the door and went to sleep inside our room. About the second watch of the night I heard a sound at the door like somebody pushing it open and then closing it. Very quietly I got up, picked up the hatchet, and went over to the door, where I stood for a good long time listening. Inside the room there were two people talking in whispers. I kicked open the door, and there was Chen Wenxian, naked, trying to get away. I blocked the door and chopped at him with my hatchet. He turned back toward the kang, where he collapsed on the floor. I caught up with him and gave him a couple more chops, and he died. My wife was sitting on the kang. With one chop I killed her, too. I called the warden and the neighbors to bear witness, and they came along with me to report the matter.”

Further interrogation: “According to the complaint filed by Ms. Li, you were suspicious about her husband Chen Wenxian and you tricked him into coming to your house to drink so that you could kill him. Fearing that you would be found out, you murdered your wife and made it look like illicit sex to deceive us. What do you have to say about that?”

Du further testified: “I never did have any grudge or bad feelings about Chen Wenxian. It was just that he came to have illicit sex with my wife, and I happened to catch them at it. So I killed him and my wife as well. It wasn’t at all that I was suspicious of him and lured him over to kill him.”

Interrogation of Ms. Li: “What’s your age? What bad feelings did your husband Chen Wenxian and Du Huailiang have about each other? Why did he trick your husband to come over so he could kill him? Tell the truth.”

She testified: “Your humble servant is twenty-six sui this year. In Kangxi 31 my husband Chen Wenxian and I moved into Du Huailiang’s house and lived there three or four years. On the 6th of the fifth month this year [June 17, 1695] they squabbled with us about the child, and on the 7th we moved into Widow Wei’s house to live. Then on the 4th of the sixth month [July 14], in the evening, my husband went out, saying that he was going to Du Huailiang’s house to drink wine with him. When he got to his house Du Huailiang killed my husband, but I don’t know why.”

Further interrogation: “According to Du Huailiang’s testimony, your husband really went there in order to have illicit sex with his wife. He happened to catch them at it, and he killed them. How can you say that he tricked your husband there in order to kill him?”

Ms. Li further testified: “But Du Huailiang did trick my husband there in order to kill him. He was afraid that he’d be found out, and he made it look like my husband was having illicit sex with his wife in the hope that he could cover it up. If you’d just question the two neighbors you’d find out.”











The testimony recorded next, from the perpetrator’s neighbors, reveals that Du’s wife is crippled (and he later describes her as homely) and has a reputation for scrupulous uprightness, which thoroughly undermines his first statements. Magistrate Jin then threatens Du Huailiang with torture, which provokes a full confession.

Interrogation of Du Huailiang: “In previous interrogations you said that you were sleeping in the courtyard when Chen Wenxian came to your room to have illicit sex with your wife. You heard someone talking inside, and you went into the room and killed them. If you were sleeping in the courtyard, when Chen Wenxian came in he naturally would have seen you. How did he dare go into your room to have illicit sex? How did he dare to talk aloud in your room? Clearly you’re just making this up. Tell the truth about why you killed Chen Wenxian and you can avoid the instruments of torture.”

Du further testified: “You don’t need to squeeze me—I’ll tell the truth, that’s for sure! Chen Wenxian and Ms. Li lived with me ever since they moved into my house in Kangxi 31. Later Chen Wenxian went to work for the Wei family as a farm hand. When the farm work was busy, he often didn’t come home to sleep. In the eighth month of Kangxi 31 [late September, 1692] during the time for preparing jujubes, I don’t remember the date, Chen Wenxian didn’t come home.   About the first watch of the night Ms. Li came into my room to get a light from the fire. I saw that there was nobody else around so I pulled her to me and wanted to have some illicit sex. She went along with it, and we had illicit sex on the kang where the jujubes were being prepared. After that she had illicit sex with me either in her room or mine. I don’t remember how many times we got together.”

“This year my mother figured it out. On the 6th of the fifth month about noon I came home from the slope where I’d been cutting wheat, and because my wife didn’t have the meal ready I gave her a couple of slaps. My mother saw me slap my wife so she came after me and hit me; she said that Ms. Li had put me up to it, and she cursed her, calling her a slut and a bitch. Ms. Li heard her and she went back into the back room and started a squabble with my mother. Sun Erchen’s wife and Du Weiyuan came over to make peace between them. When Chen Wenxian came home that evening and heard they’d been squabbling, he beat Ms. Li for a while. Then on the morning of the 7th Chen Wenxian was getting ready to move out. I told Sun Erchen to try to get him to stay until we had finished cutting the wheat and then he could move, but Ms. Li said she was too ashamed to stay there so they moved away.”

“After they moved I couldn’t get together with her at all, but because I had been having illicit sex with Ms. Li, I thought about her all the time. On the 4th of the sixth month [July 14] I invited Chen Wenxian over to drink wine. He said, ‘I don’t have any free time in the daytime, but in the evening after I’ve fed the cattle I’ll come over to your house to have a drink.’ That made me think about how I feel about his wife and about how I can’t even see her now that they’ve moved away. The best thing would be to take advantage of his coming over in the evening to drink to say he was having illicit sex with wife and kill him along with my crippled wife so that I can get back together with his wife. When I’d made up my mind, I went home and got a hatchet and put it in my room and waited for him.”

“About the time of the second watch Chen Wenxian came over. I showed him into the room; he sat on a plank stool, and I brought out something for him to smoke.   When he got good and drunk I took out my hatchet and aimed a good chop at his head. He cried out once, and then he fell down on the floor. I gave him a few more chops and then he died. My wife was sleeping on the kang there. Then I immediately chopped her to death, too. My mom and dad both live in the back. I went into the back and shouted for my dad to get up. I told him that the Chen Wenxian who lived in our house for three or four years and who had moved out for good had come back looking for trouble, so I killed him and my wife as well, and that I wanted to go to the magistrate’s court to turn myself in. My dad called Du Weiyuan to come to the house and take a look. I told Du Weiyuan that Chen Wenxian had come to have illicit sex with my wife and so I had killed him and my wife as well. Du Weiyuan said, ‘Since you killed them, there’s no problem. You can go report it at the District tomorrow.’ After daylight I went along with the neighbors to turn myself in at the magistrate’s court. These are the true facts.”

Further interrogation: “Since you had already killed Chen Wenxian, why did you also kill your own wife?”

Du further testified: “Since I’d had illicit sex with Ms. Li, if I killed her husband Chen Wenxian I was afraid there’d be a murder investigation. My wife was crippled, and also homely, so I killed her as well. I hoped that if I killed them while they were committing adultery I wouldn’t be charged with a crime.”









The magistrate proposed that Ms. Li be strangled in accordance with the Qing Code prescription for an adulteress involved in a homicide. Even so, the reviewing officials granted Ms. Li a full pardon—even though a fortuitously timed general amnesty would normally have reduced her sentence by only one level of severity—while Du Huailiang was executed as Jin Yingdou had originally proposed. This variation from normal sentencing would seem to have been the consequence of sympathy for Ms. Li provoked by the compelling narrative of her victimization that Magistrate Jin created from the testimony he included here.

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