Magistrate Pao: Chinese crime fiction from the eleventh century
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