Saturday, November 24, 2012

Magistrate Pao: Chinese crime fiction from the eleventh century

Connoisseurs of exotic crime stories may know of the Dutch author, scholar, diplomat and collector Robert Van Gulik and the stories he wrote about the real-life Tang Dynasty magistrate Di Renjie, or Judge Dee.

Van Gulik translated an eighteenth-century story about the seventh-century Dee, then went on to write a series of original novels and stories featuring Dee. The tales, along with Van Gulik's forthright and illuminating introductions, shed light on Chinese life in the period, on Chinese taste in crime stories, and on the profound differences between those tastes and their Western counterparts.

Dee was not the only magistrate who found his way into Chinese drama, folklore, opera and crime fiction down through the centuries. This week at Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto, I found The Strange Cases of Magistrate Pao: Chinese Tales of Crime and Detection, a book of stories about the Song Dynasty (960-1279) magistrate Bao Zheng.

Like Dee, Pao was a magistrate, a position in the Chinese imperial system that combined the roles of administrator, mayor or governor, detective, prosecutor, and judge. Like Dee he was so noted for his rectitude that his fame has lived on in popular art for more than a thousand years.

Leon Comber's rendering of the Pao stories offers a hero more interested than Dee in repairing the social fabric torn by crime. In particular, he delights in finding new mates for those bereft by crime (in accordance with the principle from the Chinese classic of Mencius that "Three things are unfilial, and of these the worst is to have no offspring.")

The Wikipedia article on Bao Zheng says that "In his lifetime, Bao was renowned for his filial piety, his stern demeanor, and his intolerance of injustice and corruption." Official corruption continues to be a problem in today's China, though the Dee and Pao stories suggest the problem has been around for centuries.  If murder is the defining crime in Western crime writing, does official corruption occupy a similar place in Chinese crime fiction? If so, I wonder how the old stories resonate in today's China.

Here's an interesting passage from Wikipedia's article on Chinese crime fiction (and isn't it interesting to see that term applied to popular literature so many centuries older than Poe and Conan Doyle?):
"In the Song dynasty, the growth of commerce and urban society created a demand for many new forms of popular entertainment. `Stories about criminal cases' were among the new types of vernacular fiction that developed from the Song to the Ming periods. ... they nearly always featured district magistrates or judges in the higher courts. ... The plots usually begin with a description of the crime (often including much realistic detail of contemporary life) and culminate in the exposure of the deed and the punishment of the guilty. Sometimes two solutions to a mystery are posited, but the correct solution is reached through a brilliant judge."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

I know you love research. Check out the biography of Robert van Gulik. He wrote some definitive works about ancient Chinese forgeries (hundreds of years in the prepping.) About the sex lives of the aristocrats from the Tang to the Ming Dynasties. He spoke perhaps a dozen languages. He was a diplomat trapped in China during Japanese attacks. In the Middle East he was fired upon, including a near-hit by an aerial bomb one night -- but he kept on writing. He was a very impressive man by anybody's standards.

November 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred: I came to van Gulik through Janwillem van de Wetering. I would not mind reading van de Wetering's biography of van Gulik if I could find it in a library or buy it for a reasonable price.

November 25, 2012  
Anonymous Helen Wang said...

If you're interested in more recent Chinese crime fiction, have you tried Bertrand Mialaret's excellent website: http://mychinesebooks.com/category/detective-stories/?lang=en
and www.paper-republic.org ? There has also been some interesting work on how and why Sherlock Holmes was introduced into China; see, for example, "Sherlock Holmes in Early Twentieth Century China (1896-1916)-Popular Fiction as Educational Tool", Translators' Strategies & Creativity, edited by Anne Beylard-Ozeroff, Jana Kralova and Barbara Moser-Mercer (Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1998) pp. 71-79.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Thanks for the information regarding Magistrate Pao. The Judge Dee stories have long been favorites of mine. These sound very interesting.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Helen, many thanks your comment. Here’s the link in handy, one-click form. .

I noticed the first article right away: Qiu Xiaolong talking about corruption in China. That’s a theme of his excellent first novel, Death of a Red Heroine, too, if I recall correctly.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've just noticed another article called "En Chine, les fonctionnaires inspirent une centaine de romans tous les ans." That also has obvious connections with the theme of the upright magistrate, so thanks again.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, the introduction to this book mentions Van Gulik and the Judge Dee books several times, and these stories obviously come from the same tradition that the Judge Dee stories do.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I've read a few of the Judge Dee stories, but what I find fascinating is that this was a whole genre that obviously gave people a lot of enjoyment. I was going to say that I couldn't think of a contemporary equivalent of this interest in judges and magistrates rulings, but of course it's merely gone to television in the form of Judge Judy and the like. Although I think they are not loved for their brilliance so much as their flair...

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, you have to remember that these judges were also adminstrators, which addresses the apparent Chinese popular interest in official corruption, and detectives. This week I watched a movie called Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The movie was set in the Tang Dynasty and thus presumably also based on the real-life Judge Dee. But the character had virtually nothing to do with the administrative or judicial sides of the character I knew from Van Gulik's stories.

From what I gather, the Chinese magistrates who lived on in popular culture were admired more for their rectitude than anything else. This concern with official corruption is apparently a much stronger concern in Chinese popular culture than in any other I know.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

With respect to the first paragraph in my previous comment, the magistrates' multiple functions obviously gives later artists much latitude to pick and choose for their own depictions.

November 25, 2012  
Anonymous Anne - Le French Book said...

Thanks Peter for this tip. I'm a huge fan of Judge Dee. I've read them all more than once, and I even liked the movie (Judge Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), which I saw in the original Chinese in an obscure movie theater in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, with my then 5-year-old daughter who spoke no Chinese at the time and couldn't read the subtitles, but enjoyed it well enough with mom's abridged translation. OK, off topic, but it is a sweet memory of mine.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! That's not the first movie I'd imagine a woman watching with her 5-year-old daughter. I can imagine the toppling Buddha and the burning bodies scaring a child that age, but then, it's been a long time since I was 5.

My favorite character was Pei Donglai, Dee's young, white-haired assistant and a memorably cantankerous, ill-tempered, sidekick who I thought at first would turn out to be a villain.

November 25, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I dug around to see if I could find a downloadable copy -- something this old has to be public domain, right? Well, sort of. If I could only read Chinese.

November 26, 2012  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Check out: "Robert van Gulik and the Classic Chinese kung-an." (A critical essay.) Clues: A Journal of Detection. Bowling Green Popular Press. Fall/Winter, 1993:

November 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, my Chinese is a bit rusty as well, so I'll have to pass.

November 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Fred. I should be able to find a library that subscribes to that.

November 26, 2012  
Anonymous Anne - Le French Book said...

Yes, Peter, you're not the only one. We got a few glares from the people at the movie theater too, although all they dared to say was, "You do know it's in Chinese, right?" She did get to sit on my lap the whole time, which is apparently a plus at that age. She totally got the movie, too, despite the language barrier. Comme quoi...

November 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What, they were more worried about exposing her to Chinese than to burning bodies? I say her sitting in your lap was behavior most filial. Any good Confucian would approve.

November 26, 2012  

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