Handbooks and local jurisdiction in Ming China. According to the sections on judicial matters in the «Shih cheng lu» by Lü K’un, a handbook for magistrates
By Dominiek Delporte
Crime, Histoire & Sociétés /Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 6:2 (2002)
Abstract: In addition to their judicial functions, local magistrates in imperial China had to perform many other tasks, without specializing in any one field. In order to ensure that these officials would have the necessary expertise, handbooks were compiled. The «Shih-cheng lu» («Record of practical government»), a manual edited in 1589, contains sections that offer an extremely realistic insight into the functioning, difficulties and shortcomings of local judicial administration during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). These sections – guidelines for surveillance officials – point out the many problems that surrounded local magistrates in Ming China: the constant threat of unfavorable evaluations, the continuous pressure of investigation deadlines, a large caseload, underpaid staff who did not hesitate to abuse their authority, and liability for punishment if they made wrong judgments. Lü K’un, the author of the manual, does not address these problems without advising magistrates on how to avoid them. By translating sections from the original classical Chinese text, and by situating them in the social and legal context of the Ming dynasty, we discover the motives and the – sometimes conflicting – ideals of the author of this important work in the legal history of China.
Introduction: In imperial China, judicial matters fell under the authority of administrators at all levels of the civil and military administration. For most of these officials, their judicial function was only one of the many functions they had to exercise; they also were responsible for matters such as tax collection, public works, ceremonial observances, or the supervision of granaries. Few of them had enjoyed specialized judicial training, but they were nevertheless expected to have enough knowledge of the law and of judicial procedures to be able to perform their judicial duties.
In order to improve the judicial knowledge and skills of these officials, and in order to help them to avoid malpractices, commentaries on the codes – originally only by government functionaries in their official capacity, but from the Yüan dynasty (1279-1368) on also by private individuals – and handbooks for magistrates were compiled. This form of literature was aimed at explaining the meaning of the statutes and at advising the officials on their application. Some of the handbooks are reprints of the code with interlinear commentary between the statutes and sub-statutes, others are case collections in which the decision in each case is motivated with stipulations from the code, precedents, or moral concepts. A third group of handbooks is formed by manuals that give practical advice for each procedure the civil officials were responsible for. Handbooks belonging to this last group also contain some excerpts from the code, and illustrate important steps in the procedures by means of specific cases.
In comparison with the administrative regulations and the official histories, the handbooks for magistrates give a much more realistic insight into judicial practice and into civil administration in general. The former shows us how the judicial system was ideally supposed to work, whereas the latter point out how it functioned in reality. Other interesting sources that enable us to see some of the problems and shortcomings of the judicial administration are memorials, directed to the throne by officials whose anger was frequently triggered by malpractice on different levels of the administrational hierarchy.