Books / Reviews


The lore and legend of Asian lawmen

by Mark Schreiber

“The Calf Strung Up beneath The Cart” will cause you agony profound; “The Ass tied tightly to The Post” will make you scream and leap around; “The Phoenix drying both her Wings” to death itself will bring you near; “The Boy who Sits and Contemplates,” the stoutest soul will cause to fear; And if “The Ape Avoids the Fire” does not produce a speedy “Yes,” “The Night-imp looking at The Lake” will quickly make the wretch confess!

But Li Mian was not like the rest of them. He was all for justice and mercy, and never used these horrible methods [of torture].

The above is excerpted from “The Wonderful Adventure of Duke Li,” E.B. Howell’s translation (circa 1930) of a Ming-period Chinese anthology known as Jingu Qiguan (“Observations of Strange Matters, New and Old”).

Based on written renderings of tales passed orally from generation to generation, such works in China included many stories lauding the exploits of “upright officials.” English translations began appearing from the late 19th century.

The famous Liao Zhai Zhi Yi (“Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio”), written by Pu Songling (1640-1715) and described by some as the “Chinese Arabian Nights,” made its English appearance in 1880.

The Liao Zhai contains numerous accounts of crime and punishment, although many, as medieval Chinese writers were often wont to do, dwell on the supernatural. And any entertainment aspects aside, their stated objective was to “to glorify virtue and censure vice.”

It was not until 1942, however, when Canadian writer-essayist Vincent Starrett (1886-1976) published the essay “Some Chinese Detective Stories,” that the West began to discover that China also had a well-developed body of mystery fiction.

It is not known if Starrett’s article influenced a scholarly Dutch diplomat, Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967), to translate “Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Gong-An)” in 1949. Although most English sources cite the original work as having first appeared in the Ming period (1368-1644), others believe it may actually date as late as 1894, i.e., right at a time when Sherlock Holmes and other detective stories had begun to flourish in the West.

Van Gulik’s translation featured a famous Tang period official named Di Renjie (630-700), who, with assistance from his stalwart lieutenants, solves several baffling crimes. In one passage, said typical of works of the pre-modern era, Di summons the spirit of the murder victim and urges him to reveal his killer — something modern forensic scientists have yet to accomplish.

Van Gulik was well aware of these shortcomings, but rightly sensed the stories could be tweaked to appeal to the tastes of Western mystery fans. Beginning with “The Chinese Maze Murders” in 1952, he adopted the same characters into his own mystery series, which he festooned with delightful illustrations.

Reprints of these are still regularly published in a number of languages, and anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of perusing a Judge Dee mystery is missing out on a great literary treat.

Next to appear in English, in 1964, was Leon Comber’s “Strange Cases of Magistrate Pao,” six short tales translated from Ming-period novels featuring Bao Cheng (999-1062), an incorruptible Sung-period official who remains revered in China to this day. Comber’s book also contains a 23-page introduction — definitely not for the timid — detailing various forms of tortures used to interrogate suspects (and witnesses) and gruesome executions such as the infamous ling chi, known in the West as “death of a thousand cuts.”

Japanese style

Even during 2 1/2 centuries of national seclusion, popular Chinese works continued to reach Japan and influenced writers here.

In “Honcho Oin Hiji (Parallel Cases under the Cherry Tree),” first published in 1689, popular author Ihara Saikaku (1641-1693) adapted the style of a much older Chinese work to present cases tried by the Shogun’s regional deputy for Kyoto.

Three legendary historical personages whose exploits became the stuff of fiction, and later movies and TV, were Ooka Tadasuke (1677-1752), Hasegawa Heizo (1745-1795) and Toyama Kinshiro (1793-1855).

Traditional tales about Ooka — a respected reformer and Japan’s answer to China’s Judge Bao — began appearing not long after his death.

In “Onihei (Hei the Fiend),” Hasegawa, who was not a magistrate but head of old Edo’s version of the SWAT team, was immortalized by the late author Shotaro Ikenami.

The most exaggerated of the three would be Judge Toyama, who in each TV episode goes undercover as a streetwise rogue and then, at the show’s climax, leaps to his feet and flashes a colorfully tattooed shoulder to the astonishment and chagrin of the perjurious criminals who kneel in his court. The real Toyama owed his popularity to the public’s hatred of a rival judge who rigidly enforced the crackdown on public merrymaking in Edo during the oppressive Tempo Reforms of the 1840s.

Alas, only Ooka has popped up, and only sporadically, in English fiction: once back in 1908, once in 1956 and currently in a series of juvenile mysteries by Thomas and Dorothy Hoobler.

The latest work of feudal crime fiction to appear is “The Snake that Bowed,” Edward Seidensticker’s wonderfully readable translation from the Hanshichi Torimonocho stories by popular author Kido Okamoto (1872-1939).

While “on the Shogun’s business,” the fictitious Mikawaya no Hanshichi and his sidekick, Matsu, make a sojourn to Yokohama to investigate the “sale” of a foreigner’s decapitated head. They also find an important samurai’s missing son, and expose a murderer who strangled a woman and attempted to trick investigators by using a snake as a red herring.

Okamoto’s works essentially follow the structure of the modern novel and greatly romanticize the role of Hanshichi, who was an okappiki (paid police informer). Unlike real law enforcement officers, called yoriki and doshin, who were always of the samurai class, Hanshichi would have been part of a citywide network of spies who received a small allowance to report what they saw and heard to the cops. He would have had no authority to make an arrest, and this is where the fiction begins to part from the historical reality.

Hanshichi’s real appeal is in his laconic humor and streetwise, down-to-earth manner, which gave a warm, human dimension to the times in which he lived. The late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida (1878-1967) was said to have been one of Hanshichi’s biggest fans, and now at long last Seidensticker’s superb translation allows English readers to enjoy him, too.