Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Criminal procedure in the Qing: an eyewitness report

When Enlightenment Europeans such as Voltaire first encountered Chinese civilization, they were impressed by its rationality. Later visitors during and after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion were horrified by what they witnessed. Here's an interesting eyewitness account of late 19th-century Qing criminal procedure I recently ran across in a book published in 1877. It is on the whole quite sympathetic - although one wonders whether the author would have recommended the same system for his own country.

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In a similar vein, let me bring the following volume to attention. It contains a firsthand European account of late Ming dynasty prisons.

"BOXER, C. R. (editor); South China in the Sixteenth Century; being the narratives of Galeote Pereira, Gaspar da Cruz, Martin de Rada. London, The Hakluyt Society, 1953, First Edition, 8vo [22.5 x 15 cm]; xcii, 388 pp, 12 plates including frontis & 2 double-page plans, 8 maps including 3 fldg, bibliog, table of emperors to 1912, glossary of Chinese terms, names, index, orig cloth, gilt vignette on front cover, gilt spine title lettering, spine slightly faded but fine and clean, gilt bright, with a loose leaf from publisher on their publications.

This volume contains three narratives describing South China as it appeared to Portuguese and Spanish visitors in 1550-1575, with an extensive 74 page introduction by the editor which gives the historical context."

[Don's response: Cool! Thanks.]

Posted by: Glenn Tiffert | Dec 1, 2007 11:52:18 PM

I doubt that good taste would let him or any man suggest it for their own country. But, behind closed doors, it is obviously the more akin to the true code of justice from Abu Gharib to the local police station. So... in effect, its not worth suggesting. That would just unmask the thing. It might be interesting to trace how these outward forms moved underground.

Posted by: salaud | Dec 2, 2007 9:18:09 AM

Actually, there were numerous visual and textual depictions ("news reports" in major Euro-American newspapers) about Chinese prison, judicial torture, and executions throughout the whole 19th century, as part of the larger discourse to support the "civilizing mission." I am finishing up a dissertation with a long chapter documenting and analyzing these images and reports. Those interested could get in touch with me for this chapter. A forthcoming volume by three other China historians is also devoted to a study of the form of "slicing" (lingchi) in both Chinese and Western discourses in this period. This is a worldwide discourse, as well. One find plenty of segments or reports about Japanese, Indian, vietnamese, Egyptian torture and punishments in the same period.

Posted by: Li | Dec 3, 2007 9:16:28 AM

I think it would be a mistake to lump all these writings together under the term "discourse", since that seems to me often a code word for dismissing the substance of what the writer actually says (i.e., is it accurate or not) in favor of analyzing the text as a symptom of some kind of larger ideological phenomenon. Such an exercise is not without historical interest, but it would be a shame if we forgot that these texts also might tell us something about how the Chinese legal system actually functioned.

In any case, I don't think one can fairly read this text as providing ideological support for sending gunboats up the Yangtze; as I noted, it's rather admiring of the Chinese way.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Dec 3, 2007 7:37:56 PM

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