Did you know that for hundreds of years during the Imperial Period China’s magistrates embodied the entire judicial system in the area they served? That they were the crime investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury?
Magistrates were appointed to their office and generally served for only three years before being moved on to another location. This short-term service was designed to avoid corruption. The idea was that in three years, the magistrates would not be able to become too closely aligned with the elite of the area. The emperor wanted his representatives to remain distinct and isolated from the people they served. This was because the magistrates had immense authority and power. A close relationship with local influential families could pressure the court to act more as a personal judicial arm for them and their interests versus the emperor and his government.
Another critical element in keeping the short-term magistrates from becoming closely aligned with the local elite was that sometimes magistrates would serve an area where they didn’t know one or more of the local languages. Chinese writing is not phonetic and, therefore, could be read by anyone, whether they spoke the dominate Chinese language or not.
What we think of as spoken Chinese, however, is not really one language. One language means those who speak it must be able to understand each other—their words are mutually intelligible. Spoken Chinese can differ significantly from region to region. The language spoken in one area may be not understood by their neighboring area. Think of the difference between Spanish and Italian. Both are Romance languages but they are quite distinct from each other. They are mutually unintelligible.
This was the situation Chinese magistrates faced. They had a three-year appointment with heavy responsibilities and were often placed in an district where they could not understand the local language(s).
Such a situation meant that, in spite of the emperor’s desire to keep the court separate from the local power sources, the day-to-day running of the judicial system depended on local people to fill the positions needed: the jailer, runners, police, scribes, etc. Magistrates sat as an outsider on a pyramid of staff that they had not chosen, did not know, and could not necessarily trust.
That is why magistrates often brought their own court reporters. The court reporter played a key role in making sure the documents were accurate and not manipulated in one way or another. The magistrates also often brought a couple of his own personal guards. Men he chose himself, who depended solely on him, and who, therefore, he could trust.
I invite you to come and explore the tensions and challenges faced by a magistrate, Judge Lu, as he brings justice to those under his protection—in spite of countervailing forces which could destroy him at any moment. You’ll find a collection of these stories in Judge Lu’s Case Files, Stories of Crime & Mystery in Imperial China. Available as e-book, paperback, or hardback.