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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Justice Through the Looking Glass: Fiction, Technology, and Law in Late Imperial and Modern China
1: Bad Romance: Moral Imagination and Judicial Dilemmas in Late Ming Court Case Stories
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Harvard University, United States
This paper reevaluates the literary and historical significance of court case stories of the late Ming Dynasty (ca. 1600 – 1644). These fictional accounts of legal cases, geared towards entertainment, have long been dismissed by scholars as neither a mature form of literature nor useful historical records. By contrast, I argue that the authors’ combination of the conventions of Ming narrative fiction with those of legal complaints and verdicts was an innovative story-telling strategy. The narrative part of each story presents the course of the conflict from its social origins to its resolution in the courtroom, while the legal documents embedded within the story present a version of events that have been formulated, and often sanitized, to support the judge’s final verdict. The juxtaposition of different formats thus allows the reader to adjudicate the fairness of the judgment in a broader social context.
Using two stories of adultery as examples, this paper shows that the authors consciously explored the judicial dilemmas born out of the conflict between the gradual elaboration of the codes and statutes during the Ming and morality as it existed in the popular imagination. Specifically, in certain sexual offenses, a widely held moral belief that mitigating circumstances should be considered regardless of an offender’s familial relationship to the victim conflicted with the Confucian family values embedded in the legal code. The authors leveled explicit criticism at the increasing complexity and professionalization of the legal system which, in certain aspects, had moved away from popular conceptions of justice.