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  • Judge Bao and the Rule of Law: Eight Ballad Stories from the Period 1250-1450
  • Robert E. Hegel (bio)
Wilt L. Idema . Judge Bao and the Rule of Law: Eight Ballad Stories from the Period 1250-1450. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2010. xxxv, 417 pp. Hardcover US$52.00 / £39, ISBN 978-981-4277-01-3. Paperback US$32.00 / £21, ISBN 978-981-4304-45-0. Ebook US$68.00, ISBN 978-981-4277-58-7.

For anyone interested in traditional Chinese stories of crime and its detection, prosecution, and punishment, there is no better source than the stories of Magistrate Bao. The historical Lord Bao (also called "Judge" Bao in English, Bao Gong 包公) lived nearly a thousand years ago; tales of his miraculous powers of detection and his utterly unshakeable sense of justice (reflected in his nickname Qingtian 清天 "Clear sky" have circulated for centuries in oral and theatrical performances as well as in various print forms. For each new generation of raconteurs and writers, Lord Bao has been the standard for impartiality, punishing wrongdoers from all levels of society up to and including the closest relatives of the emperor himself.

The real Bao Zheng 包拯 (999-1062) served as an official during the Song empire, having passed the civil service examinations in 1027. He declined his first appointment in order to fulfill his duties as a filial son, and then went on to establish a reputation for incorruptibility in both provincial and central administrative offices. In his position as prefect of Kaifeng, the area around the capital, he made enemies of relatives of the Song emperor Renzong's favorite concubine and several court eunuchs as well for his refusal to be lenient with them. Within two centuries of his death, he had become an important figure in the religious beliefs of North China; as chief judge of the underworld and head of its bureaucracy, his aid was sought for impartial assessment of the dead—and the living as well. By 1250, legends concerning his insights and fairness were the stuff of professional storytellers and began to find their way into early printed literature. Although most extant texts are clearly of more recent vintage, the random discovery of a sodden mass of paper in a Ming official's grave in 1967 dramatically changed scholarly understanding of Lord Bao's fictional career.

When dried and straightened out, this find turned out to include a forgotten collection of eight stories of magistrate Bao in a form known as shuochang cihua 説唱詞話 (ballad stories for narrating and singing), tales told in alternating sections of simple prose and lines of seven-syllable (or ten-syllable) verse, neither form presenting much difficulty for the reader. Most have to do with homicide. They had been printed in Beijing during the Chenghua 成化 period (1465-1487), although their rhymes and internal geographical information suggest that at least some of the tales had originated in the Jiangnan region. These were the first clear examples of a form previously known only from references in Yuan and early Ming period writings. They were initially reproduced in facsimile and then made available in a punctuated and annotated edition, from which these translations were made.1

Idema's volume translates all eight cihua stories concerning Bao Zheng in this collection. They fall into two groups on the basis of their length: the shorter pieces provide basic background for the judicial hero; the longer four are more complex tales of detection and judgment. The first narrates his early life as a child so homely that his father cannot stand to look at him through his maturation to the [End Page 241] point that he takes his first administrative post. The second records how he provides relief for famine victims; in the third he reunites the emperor with his birth mother, now a beggar. Despite their fantastic elements, they establish Bao as a defender of proper Confucian values, filial respect, and care for the unfortunate. In the fourth he combats a weretiger, a foretaste of the longer stories of the second group. The fifth tale is commonly known from an extant theatrical version. Here the corpse of a murder victim has been reduced to...