October 24: Judge Bao and the nature of crime

While Robert van Gulik's creation Judge Dee may be the most famous Chinese judge outside China, in China itself Judge Bao 包公has always been the most eminent of many "pure officials" (each with their own story-cycles) at least since the fourteenth century. Our knowledge of the early history of the development of his legend has been greatly increased by a set of eight "ballad-stories" (cihua 詞話) discovered in 1967. These texts had originally been printed in the second part of the fifteenth century but most likely had been composed at some earlier date. A comparison of these "ballad-stories" with the plays of roughly the same period reveals a different conception of crime and corruption. Whereas the plays (written or revised for performance at court) tend to treat crime as an isolated event and the criminal as a loner, the ballad-stories portray crime and corruption as social phenomena emanating from the court. I will illustrate this contrast by a detailed comparison of the play and the ballad-story devoted to the episode of Judge Bao correcting the abuses in the distribution of famine-relief grain in Chenzhou.