Go to the U of M home page


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Our Rare Chinese Law Collection

Recently we were visited by Yao Chen, the librarian of the East Asian collection in Wilson Library here on campus. Yao is working on compiling an important bibliography of rare Chinese books at the University, which involves updating the records and information we have about the books. It is a great project that allows us to learn more about our own collection also, which has been exciting. 

Our collection of Chinese law was largely acquired from the Northwestern Law Library as a single acquisition. Although not extensive, a number of multi-volume sets push the size of the collection over 100 volumes and fascicles. The earliest title in the collection, published in 1810, is the Ta Tsing Leu Lee in its first English translation by George Thomas Staunton. Often transliterated today as Da Qing lüli, these are the "Laws and Precedents of the Great Qing," the law code of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which was periodically updated over their long reign. The criminal code covers a broad range of subjects, from offenses related to ritual and familial piety, to marriage, public administration, tax, property and violent crimes.   

Other items in the collection are also of note. We hold one late Qing series of bulletins on administrative law, as Yao mentioned to us, that is very rare and will require a detailed comparison to holdings in other libraries. Many other titles relate to criminal law and touch on subjects that are worth the attention of the historical researcher who can navigate them. In one example, pointed out by a visiting student, some penalties under the Qing dynasty could be reduced if the guilty party's family would suffer from a loss of livelihood. In other cases, like crimes against the state, penalties were severe, resulting in the forfeiture of family property and the execution of family members. 

After Staunton's translation of the Da Qing lüli, the next earliest titles in our collection are also among the most unique. Yao very kindly pointed these out to us during her research. The works relate to the legendary judge Bao Zheng (999-1062) and the famous administrator Hai Rui (1514-1587). Both figures have been mythologized in Chinese culture (Bao Zheng has been taken sometimes as divine). Both have also been interpreted as paragons of uncompromising justice, and as bulwarks of law against corruption. They are still portrayed today in literature, television (here, for example), cinema and other forums in China, though more innocuously than at points in the past. In the case of symbolism associated with Hai Rui, a controversial play about his career provided the spark for Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

The two works in our collection related to Bao Zheng and Hai Rui are similarly fictionalized. The first title, transliterated as Xiu Xiang Longtu Gong An (1816), are stories related to Bao Zheng, and the second, Hai Rui da Hong Pao Quan Zhuan (1813), stories about Hai Rui. In these fictitious criminal cases, well-dramatized wrongs are investigated and righted by the protagonists. Judge Bao, in particular, was and is a very popular protagonist in gong'an, or crime stories, of which our work represents an example. Somewhat like "Law & Order" today, the stories were popular among Chinese audiences under the Ming dynasty, and certainly during the Qing, when our books were published. Our titles are appropriately mass market books intended for wide distribution. The quality of printing is also appropriate for a mass market. Unusual even for more literary works in our collection, our edition of stories about Bao Zheng is illustrated with scenes from the tales. The woodblock printing required single carved blocks to create the engaging images, some of which are included below. For more on reading illustrated fiction during the period, see here.

Although modest in scope, the collection of Chinese law is diverse and interesting, and certainly worth perusal and study.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.