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True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories.

True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories, by Robert E. Hegel. Asian Law Series. Seattle, Washington, University of Washington Press, 2009. xvii, 286 pp. $75.00 US (cloth), $30.00 US (paper).

Robert E. Hegel, Professor of Comparative Literature ar Washington University in St. Louis and a scholar of late-imperial China, has put together a top-notch book, True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China: Twenty Case Histories, which is published as part of the University of Washington Press' Asian Law Series. This is Hegel's second foray into criminal literature, having edited (with Katherine Carlitz) Writing and Law in Late Imperial China: Crime, Conflict and Judgment (University of Washington Press: Seattle and London, 2009) in the same series. True Crimes is a welcome addition to the ever growing body of literature in English on the law in late imperial China. In this study, Hegel translates documents from twenty cases from Qing imperial archives, a massive set of nine million files which became available to scholars in the 1980s. This work will be a wonderful text for classroom use as well as a useful guide to China's legal system in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

The cases belong to the High Qing, dating roughly from the 1680s to the 1820s, when the Qing dynasty was at its wealthiest and most powerful, and headed by three extremely and one moderately talented rulers (known by their reign titles: Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong and Jiaqing). They were ethnically Manchu, a people who had conquered China in 1644 and were in most regards quite distinct from the Chinese. They differed in social customs (dress, hair style, foot-binding), language, religion and other regards. In their law code, known as the The Great Qing Code (translated by William Jones, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, and referred to at appropriate points by Hegel), they followed closely the earlier Chinese dynastic codes of the Ming, Song, and Tang dynasties, though with some modification to better address their own circumstances.

True Crimes highlights major features of criminal law in late imperial China. Hegel has judiciously selected these cases to allow the reader access to "glimpses of lived experience--both personal and administrative" in Qing China (p. xi). The texts, though written by scholars who served as the administrators involved in solving the crimes in the official language with a bent for standardization (of dialect, expression and other features), nevertheless still grant the reader access to a world not to be found in other source materials (p. x). The cases represent a wide range of activities, although murder is a key feature. Other crimes include theft, blackmail, kidnapping, adultery, incest, religious rebellion, and impersonation of an official.

The book is divided into seven parts and has an introduction. In the introduction, Hegel provides an overview of basic issues in Chinese late imperial law and includes the function of the administration, the steps involved in a case (investigation, trial, processes of review and final review in capital cases by or on behalf of the emperor), the procedures within the case (including the use or threat of the use of torture), and an overview of biases in the documents translated. The seven parts or divisions of the cases are titled: judicial procedures, interrogation techniques, intent and premeditated violence, the failure of "Confucian" family values, control of politically marginal groups and individuals, social mobility and crime, and imperial intervention. The cases not only bear out those topics, but also bring out other topics that are covered under other sections or not specifically labeled. I will comment on two cases below.

Case 11, "Li Er and Li San: Two Pecks of Beans," is in part iv, "the failure of 'Confucian' family values," which focuses on cases that involve transgressions against family hierarchy and harmony, and is the record of the murder of an elder brother by a younger brother. The two brothers had divided households and moved apart (it was not uncommon for married brothers to maintain shared compounds), bur on account of a fairly trivial matter (two pecks of beans had been sold by one brother, instead of shared), they came to blows and the younger killed the elder. Two sets of documents are used to reconstruct the case. The first is from the initial report by the magistrate at the prefectural level; the second is from the Board of Punishments in Beijing, which reviewed the file, before forwarding it to the emperor. The emperor's decision was written on the memorial with the instructions, "Let the Three Judicial Officials review the punishment and submit a memorial with their decision" (p. 127). However, this case also highlights the special status of Han Bannermen (Han Chinese who had joined the Manchu before the conquest of China were grouped in administrative divisions called banners), and reflects the way ethnicity and social registration worked specifically during the Qing dynasty.

Case 15 (Village Vendetta and Han Intercession), which belongs to part v, "Control of Politically Marginal Groups and Individuals," investigates the murder of a number persons who were burned to death in a long-standing feud over land. The two parties involved are different clans of the Zhuang people and their dispute goes back several generations. The magistrate resolves the case and, in addition to recommending penalties for those involved, also argues that the land be confiscated by the state, so that the matter in dispute be resolved. His recommendation was followed. Beside the topic of a politically marginal group, the case is also concerned with property rights, codes of honor and the use of torture in investigation: themes which resonate throughout various cases in the book.

True Crimes is a useful introduction to the legal system of late-imperial China, and should be a welcome addition to the classroom. Pedagogical materials might be accessed by links provided in the introduction to the text. Students will be drawn to its engaging case studies, while scholars of the law will enjoy it for comparative purposes.

Ihor Pidhainy

Marietta College
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Author:Pidhainy, Ihor
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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