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  • Death in Beijing: Murder and Forensic Science in Republican China by Daniel Asen
  • Carol Benedict
Daniel Asen. Death in Beijing: Murder and Forensic Science in Republican China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 258pp. $49.99 (cloth).

Although the propensity of some humans to kill others unfortunately appears to be shared universally across cultures, the patterns and causes of such violence vary dramatically over time and space. Just as homicide has a history, so too does forensic science. Murder investigations and the meanings of the evidence they uncover are shaped by dynamic regimes of culturally and discursively constructed knowledge that obtain in particular historical contexts. In this extensively researched history of homicide investigations in Republican-era Beijing, Daniel Asen chronicles the globally situated but locally specific landscape of Chinese forensic knowledge and practice in the first half of the twentieth century.

Asen’s principal aim is to explain how and why a sophisticated field of traditional Chinese knowledge came to serve as a foundation for the modern Chinese state and its judiciary. Under the Qing dynasty, a centralized system of forensic examinations, governed by detailed regulations that promoted investigative consistency across the empire, was established on the basis of late imperial versions of the Southern Song (1127–1279) classic, the Collected Writings on the Washing Away of Wrongs (洗冤集録 Xiyuan jilu), authored by Song Ci (宋慈 1186–1249). Borrowing Madeleine Yue Dong’s concept of “recycling” and Carol Gluck’s notion of “blended modernities” as key metaphors,1 Asen argues that this tradition of imperial forensics remained in place for many decades after the fall of the Qing not because it was hopelessly entrenched but because it uniquely supported the bureaucratic requirements of the modernizing Chinese state. In making this argument, he moves away from an earlier historiography that framed the continued use of techniques first outlined in the Washing Away of Wrongs as a historical remnant that conservative officials stubbornly held on to despite the opposition of modern scientific forensic experts. Instead, he provides a more complicated narrative of the institutional and discursive transformations underway in Republican-era Beijing, describing Chinese forensic knowledge in the early twentieth century as a palimpsest that was layered with competing meanings and practices, some rooted in the past, others appropriated from abroad, and still others newly invented or recycled locally.

In many ways, as Asen points out, the early twentieth century was the time when Chinese forensics were brought more closely into line with those in Japan, Europe, and North America. The transnational emergence of modern scientific forensics occurred at a time when Chinese sovereignty was under assault by Western and Japanese imperialism. [End Page E-12] Intellectuals and officials supported the introduction of foreign forensic practices as part of a broader package of policing, judicial, and medical reforms designed to strengthen the state and revitalize society. The newly established discipline of legal medicine, which derived its authority from the professional expertise of biomedical physicians who dissected dead bodies and examined forensic evidence in the laboratory, gained ground during a time when May Fourth iconoclasts were challenging inherited knowledge. However, the older forensic examination system was maintained throughout the Republican period because late imperial techniques derived from Washing Away of Wrongs texts were already standardized in ways that supported the modern bureaucracy’s need to retain centralized control over homicide investigations that were conducted in widely divergent localities. The basic forensic guidelines and uniform checklists developed by the Qing state allowed Republican officials and the inspection clerks they supervised to attain a surprising degree of consistency when determining the manner of death (homicide, suicide, accidental death, or death by natural causes), if not the exact cause, thereby obviating the need for well-trained and highly priced forensic experts who were limited in number and based only in select cities.

By continuing the bureaucratized examination practices of the late imperial state, the transmuted Republican judiciary bolstered the professional jurisdiction of the Beijing Procuracy in the modern legal order (this office emerged during the New Policies reform period between 1901 and 1911). Over the following decades, procurators increasingly relied upon the results of autopsies and laboratory tests in their criminal investigations, but they did...


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