1. JUSTICE UNDONE
For readers of late Qing fiction, one of the most memorable scenes is perhaps the intrusion of Lao Can into the hall of justice in Liu E's (1857–1909) Lao Can youji (The travels of Lao Can, 1907). In chapter 16 of The Travels of Lao Can, prefect Gangbi is cross-examining a woman prisoner named Jia Wei, who had been wrongly indicted as murderer of the whole family of her father-in-law—a total of thirteen lives—after her alleged adultery was exposed. Exasperated by the woman's response that she could not give the name of her lover-accomplice because she had never had one, Gangbi orders thumbscrews placed on her. One attendant grasps the woman's hair and lifts up her head and another two are pushing her hands into the thumbscrews, and at this crucial moment Lao Can walks into the middle of the courtroom and stops the torture.
Lao Can had learned of the misjudged case from a friend. Outraged by Gangbi's bigotry and cruelty, Lao Can volunteered to draft a letter of impeachment to Governor Zhuang and Judge Bai, Gangbi's superiors, so as to save the innocent defendant. He receives positive responses from Zhuang and Bai. As there is no time to deliver Zhuang's and Bai's letters to Gangbi through the normal channels, in the crucial scene described above, Lao Can is carrying the letters and has walked into the hall of justice without permission.
The illegal intrusion of Lao Can into the hall of justice brings together two strands from contesting themes that have been manifested from the beginning of the novel. The confrontation between Lao Can and Gangbi is not merely a show-down between a chivalrous traveling doctor and a haughty judge-investigator regarding a misjudged case. Rather, it represents the dramatic moment in which the incipient issues of legal praxis and its transgression, governmental mandate and
Despite conventional wisdom, however, Liu E does not hold corrupt officials responsible for the collapse of law and justice. As many scholars have pointed out, what makes the novel polemic is that it condemns apparently good or incorruptible judges, not the corruptible ones, as the real source of evil. In the episode cited above, Judge Gangbi is not a classically "bad" judge but one famous for his sense of integrity. In a judicial system in which buying oneself out of indictments has become the norm, Gangbi is known for taking no bribes, and to that extent he has reason to be proud of himself. But as he tries hard to maintain his clean image, he turns this virtue into a vice. He is so proud of his reputation for virtue that he has become an intolerant puritan, as his Chinese name, homophonous with "bigotry" (gangbi), indicates.
When the woman Jia Wei was put in jail, her family had followed the normal rules of the game by paying a sizable sum of money to the court. Instead of returning the money right away, however, Gangbi keeps it, to use as new evidence against Jia Wei; he believes that the family of an innocent defendant would not bribe a judge. He tortures the woman with all kinds of penal instruments, forcing her to confess in accordance with a scenario that jumps to the worst of conclusions. Gangbi's behavior leads Liu E to make the famous commentary at the end of chapter 16: "All men know that corrupt officials are bad, but few know that incorruptible officials are even worse. Whereas a corrupt official knows his own faults and dares not play the tyrant openly, an incorruptible official imagines that since he never takes bribes he is free to do whatever he likes. Then self-confidence and personal prejudice may lead him to kill the innocent or even endanger the state."
Gangbi's perpetration of "pious violence" posits an uncanny challenge to the conventional practice of justice. To scare people away from transgressing the law, or to demonstrate the absolute power of justice over evil, Gangbi can impose a punishment that is crueler and more spectacular than the crime for which the punishment is executed. The effect of Gangbi's law resorts to a penal technology that comes from the very transgression it aims to eliminate. Liu E has described earlier in the novel this paradox of justice in the form of another incorruptible judge, Yuxian. Under his rule, a part of Shandong has become a model region free of crime. But Yuxian has achieved this temporary miracle by setting up a regime of horror; he mercilessly kills not only bandits but also innocent suspects misidentified as bandits. The citizens under Yuxian's governorship enjoy a communal life safe from bandits, their lives saved until they themselves are accused of
By exposing the violence concealed behind the facade of "benevolent" governorship, Liu E means to do more than criticize local judicial errors. He sees this hidden injustice as a most dangerous malady that, left unchecked, would eventually jeopardize national well-being. In Lao Can's words, "With so great a reputation as an administrator,… within a few years [Yuxian] will become provincial governor. The greater the official position such a man holds, the greater the harm he will do. If he controls a prefecture, then a prefecture suffers; if he governs a province, then a province is maimed; if he [administers the affairs of] the Empire, then the Empire dies!" Liu E has a good reason to make such a radical comment. A historically verifiable figure, Yuxian was later promoted to high position thanks to his judicial impartiality. He turned out nevertheless to be one of the most vehement voices in support of the Boxer Rebellion, which led to national disaster. The final irony is that, in the wake of the invasion of the eight foreign allied armies, Yuxian found himself being indicted by his own government as a war criminal, for having instigated a rebellion aimed at "punishing" foreigners. The incorruptible judge was finally sentenced as a traitor and beheaded.
Back to the episode of Gangbi and the woman Jia Wei. When he is planning to save the woman, Lao Can at the same time involves himself in ransoming a prostitute named Cuihuan, who otherwise would be resold to a lower-class brothel. The girl was a survivor of a massive Yellow River flood in Shandong Province. She had come from a rich farm family in the fertile land between the governmental dikes against the Yellow River. As the Yellow River was about to flood one year, Shandong governor Zhuang took the advice of a scholar to give up areas outside the governmental dikes so as to widen the river and ease the peak of the flood. But the area between the governmental dikes was densely populated and rimmed with smaller dikes built by farmers to protect their land. For fear that these people would fiercely object to his policy, Zhuang was urged to keep it a secret till the last moment. Governor Zhuang was an official well known for his benevolence and fair-mindedness: a "good judge" in other words. In the case of the Yellow River flood, nevertheless, he knowingly let thousands of people be drowned and their properties washed away, as the wisest and most effective policy mechanism.
Governor Zhuang, it will be recalled, is the fictional force whose last-minute interference rescues the woman Jia Wei from the hands of Gangbi. He serves as the deus ex machina whose power sponsors Lao Can in his intrusion in the above-cited courtroom scene. But Lao Can is not unaware of the fact that it is this same Governor Zhuang who has indirectly killed thousands. One innocent has been saved by a merciful man, the governor; thousands of innocents have been killed by that same merciful man. If the criminal in the mystery of thirteen deaths is guilty of murder, how about a "good" judge like Gangbi or Yuxian who has administered so many wrong convictions and unjust capital punishments before this single case? If a
In volume two of The Travels of Lao Can, Lao Can has a dream. He travels to Hell and witnesses thousands of condemned souls undergoing various forms of punishment: they are scourged by nail-studded clubs till their flesh falls off their bones, deep-fried in a huge cauldron full of boiling oil, or ground into powder by grindstones. These souls are paying the price for their misdeeds, however trivial, during their lifetimes. As for those who were virtuous when alive, they have been rewarded with a smooth transmigration into their next lives. The dream visit to Hell reinforces Lao Can's belief that some supernatural agency is at work handing out proper retribution.
One wonders if Lao Can's dream visit to Hell in volume two is not to be taken as a belated act of poetic justice, written to counterbalance the numerous episodes of misjudged cases and undeserved sufferings in volume one. Though the secular judicial system fails, Liu E tells us, a higher judicial system still works. The eternal wheel of fortune still turns, at least in Lao Can's dreams.
But for a reader alerted by the first volume of Liu E's novel to the fact that incorruptible judges can be more dangerous than corruptible ones, and that justice on earthly China is only an expensive fantasy, questions remain. Given the way that Hell is visualized as a gigantic, rigid bureaucracy handing out gory punishments according to the book, one can only see it as an extension of, rather than a contrast to, human courtrooms. When the earthly "incorruptible" judge is seen as culpable of abusing justice, one cannot help questioning the "incorruptibility" of the judge of judges, Yama, the ruler of Hell. And the other side of a rigid and abacus-like system of rewards and punishments in Heaven and Hell can be the corrupt and careless system of divine whims and tantrums.
Whereas Liu E takes pains to distinguish the divine and human agencies of justice and their violent consequences, only to call attention to the collusive relation between them, Li Boyuan (1857–1906), Liu's contemporary, approaches the issue from a different angle. Li tells his readers that Hell is neither worse nor better than this world; as a matter of fact, Hell is this world. In his preface to his Huo Diyu (Living hell, 1906), he says:
At the trial in the Grand Hall of Justice, the magistrate is the king of Hades; the clerks and underlings are the judges who demand the death penalty; the runners and servants, all three ranks of them, are like the ox-headed and horse-faced demon messengers from purgatory; and the flat bamboo canes and instruments of torture designed to hurt people are like the two edged sword-leaf trees and the hill of knives in Hell. Before the prisoner has been assigned to his quarters or incarcerated in prison, he has suffered more than enough! Alas! Heaven is above us and Hell is below!
Living Hell is a novel featuring fourteen misjudged cases and cruel tortures presided over by corrupt judges. It has never been a popular work from Li's oeuvre. Among the few critics who appreciated it, the novel was regarded as "the first book written in Chinese which sought to expose malpractice and corruption in the Chinese penal system and to describe in detail a variety of techniques employed to extract information from prisoners." In terms of unveiling the most inhuman aspects of the Chinese legal system, the novel is indeed a chilling success. Such a reading, however, overlooks the real "virtue" of Living Hell by making it merely another example of late Qing exposé fiction.
Artistic flaws—the crude language, contrived plotting, and flat characterization typical of late Qing fiction—notwithstanding, Living Hell distinguishes itself. A relentless parody of the genre of chivalric and court-case fiction, it also questions the concept of justice and its violation (most exposé novels assume or reaffirm a concept of it). Justice, as I am using the word, is not just the implementation of a humanmade or heaven-given law by human or divine judges; it is also the process of questioning and remaking the laws themselves. It contains a dimension in which narrative praxis figures importantly, because there it does not assume an originary concept of justice by which human or celestial laws can be evaluated. Liu E in The Travels of Lao Can still betrays a lingering nostalgia about the lost world of chivalry and justice; with all his cynical observations on contemporary society, Li Boyuan makes the abuses of law and order the pretext of his novel; his is a world in which chivalry is nullified and justice turned upside down, but there is still a perspective from which abuse is clearly abuse. If Liu E still worries about why justice can be so generally violated, Li Boyuan is surprised to see any justice being done anywhere.
What kinds of cases does Li Boyuan examine in his novel? In one story, local officers provoke two feuding families in Shanxi to sue each other. As more and more of their members are put in jail, both families are forced to spend thousands of dollars buying the magistrate's favor; the case comes to a sudden halt as the magistrate moves to a new position (chapters 1–8). In another, a highway robber known for his capacity to endure any form of punishment finally succumbs to the tools of torture invented by a cruel judge (chapter 12). More than half of the episodes in the novel deal with sufferings of the innocent, however. A chaste woman turns down the sexual advances of a local official, only to find herself being charged with murdering her husband, who is actually away on business. The woman suffers horribly in jail and has to be acquitted only because her husband returns from his trip (chapters 13–18). In a similar case, a man who loses all his property in an accidental fire is accused of arson. Without money to buy himself out of the charge and unable to stand police torture, he drowns himself (chapter 33).
In Li Boyuan's world, corruptible judges and incorruptible judges are alike in administering inhuman punishments; innocent people and bandits are tortured
This is where Li Boyuan shows that his novel can at the same time be more conservative and radical than The Travels of Lao Can. Like A Ying, Zhao Jingshen, and other critics, one may conclude that Li Boyuan views the total breakdown of a judicial system from a conventional perspective, that of the dynastic cycle. By comparing the world to Hell, he reveals a reliance on conventional wisdom without either questioning its premises or stating a resolution in traditional terms. His cynicism partakes less of skeptical rigor, such as Liu E's, than of noncommittal play. Nonetheless, the way Li Boyuan portrays the late Qing courtroom as a bloody circus marks a radical departure from the traditional aesthetics of spectatorhood. So, just as Liu E's narrative innovations shed an ambiguous light on his politics of writing, Li Boyuan's relentless narratives of bodily torture seize new ground in the morality of reading.
One cannot overlook the possibility that Li Boyuan (and his intended readers) may actually enjoy the blood and pain, in a kind of philosophical schadenfreude. What he ultimately provides in the novel is not an account of misjudged cases but, rather, a spectacle of punishments. Few readers will fail to be impressed by Li's meticulous descriptions of the tools and paraphernalia used to torture the indicted. Women are often among the first group of victims in this circus of cruelty. A woman charged with adultery is treated with a "nippled iron": stripped of her clothes, she is "ironed" by a burninghot metal instrument with nipplelike points. Another woman culprit with tender bound feet is forced to stand barefoot for hours on bricks. As her feet are already deformed thanks to foot binding, she can hardly stand straight for a moment.
Unpleasant as they are, these punishments are only for beginners. Some penal devices are so ingenious that they are even given patent names. "Red embroidered shoes" are shoes made from iron. Prisoners put on the shoes only when they are red hot. "Big red gown" refers to a kind of glue as thick as ox hide. When heated to a liquid, it is applied to the prisoner's body. The courtroom attendants wait till
Li Boyuan scrupulously catalogues the variety of courtroom punishments, so much so that the report acquires an aesthetic of its own. A mock-encyclopedic form of narrative, of course, is a main trait of late Qing exposé novels. Living Hell stands out as the exposé that relates social justice to bodily pain in the most direct and systematic way (like the judges it exposes). It features a penal technology that resorts heavily to the presentation of a bloody corporeal theater, and in this sense it is almost a textbook illustration of Michel Foucault's notion of the relation between disciplining and punishing, power and law, in premodern society. Pain and confession are supposed to come together; fragments of information can be pieced together at the cost of torn limbs. Through performing physical torture and mutilation in public, the authorities make sure that the law has been literally implicated into the body politic.
Besides offering lip service to the institution of justice, Li shows little sympathy for his victims. No matter how he justifies his narrative stance, he cannot hide his thirst for sensationalism. Following the Foucauldian argument, one can say that Li's elaborate description of punishment betrays a sadomasochistic penchant, something that upsets the solemnity of justice and turns it into an excuse for a macabre carnival. Parading the penal devices used in the courtroom and overexposing the pain of the indicted, Li Boyuan imbues his narrative with a cynical subtext, thereby intimating the final stage of the decadent inclination in late Qing fiction. In a similar manner, the novel anticipates a reader who may be as much provoked as he or she is excited by the bloody cases. Twice removed from the scene of punishments, the implied reader occupies a safe position and may attentively observe limbs torn apart and bodies charred into pieces. With a quivering sigh, the reader may experience a quick catharsis, accompanied by a puff of reassuring indignation.
These Foucauldian observations lead us back to the question: how can justice be represented as such? One remembers that, in The Travels of Lao Can, Liu E scandalizes his readers by declaring that incorruptible judges are more dangerous than corruptible judges. While it blurs the distinction between good and bad judges sanctioned by conventional wisdom, Liu E's discovery is nevertheless based on a belief that there is an essential system for judging the goodness of a "good" judge; hence he experiments with various forms of poetic justice, from appropriating the new Sherlock Holmes techniques of investigation to invoking the old Buddhist consolations of Heaven and Hell.
Li Boyuan answers the question by telling us that there is no distinction between good and bad judges, because there are no good judges. Li envisions in Living Hell a state of legal and bureaucratic anarchy, one that celebrates the complicity between the corruptible and incorruptible judges and shows no sympathy for