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113 | 2014
Annuaire du Collège de France 2012-2013
Résumé des cours et travaux 113e année
Conférenciers invités

Law in Chinese Literature

Wilt L. Idema
p. 911-912

Notes de la rédaction

Le Pr Wilt L. Idema a été invité par l’Assemblée des professeurs, sur proposition du Pr Pierre-Étienne Will. Les conférences ont été prononcées les 10, 17, 24 et 31 octobre 2012. Elles sont disponibles en audio sur le site Internet du Collège de France :

Texte intégral

The Judgment (pan ) as a Genre of Literature

1Following a brief discussion of my disqualifications as a scholar of Chinese law I will discuss the “judgment (pan )” as a genre of literature. My starting point will be the negative assessment of the genre by Arthur Waley in his The Life and Times of Po Chü-i (1949). Basing myself on the growing body of recent Chinese scholarship on the genre, I will try to show that Waley’s characterization of the genre is not so much based on the judgments by Bai Juyi (772-846) as on the Longjin fengsui pan 龍筋鳳髓判(Dragon-sinews and Phoenix-Marrow Judgments) by Zhang Zhuo張鷟(ca. 660-ca.740). This collection, however, was written not so much as examples of judgments but as a repository of allusions for use in writing judgments. In the remainder of my talk I will follow the development of the pan as an independent genre of literature outside the examination practice, and end my talk with a brief presentation of the parodic use of the form by You Tong尤侗(1618-1704).

Animals in Court: Swallow vs. Sparrow and Rat vs. Cat

2The animal fable and the animal epic have played a major role in many literary traditions from Southeast Asia to Northwest Europe. In China, however, the true animal fable featuring talking animals never became a major genre in high literature despite the numerous translations of Buddhist jataka. The major reason for this absence of true animal fables in high literature probably has to be sought in the aversion to fiction in high literature. In more popular genres of Chinese literature animal tales are not so rare, and often the narrative is structured by a law case. Following a brief discussion of the rhymed versions of the case of the swallow and the sparrow known from Dunhuang, I will continue by a discussion of the case of the rat against the cat, argued in the underworld before King Yama as judge. In the nineteenth century (and the first half of the twentieth century) this tale was popular all over China and written up in a wide variety of local genres.

Judge Bao and the Nature of Crime

3While 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.

Judge Bao and the Authority of the Court

4In this talk I will continue my discussion of the “ballad-stories” on Judge Bao. In dealing with crimes of lust and greed by single actors the judge can function as a representative of the central government. From the standpoint of the bureaucracy the problem in such cases is not the lack of independence of the judge, but the contrary. In order to avoid arbitrary actions by civil magistrates, major sentences had to be subjected to an elaborate process of revision. If crime, however, emanates from the center of power itself, special measures may be needed to ensure the authority and independence of the judges concerned. The “ballad-stories” on Judge Bao would appear to be unique in their fascination with the institutional means to enhance the status of the judge. These means range from exceptional instruments of torture and execution to the concurrent appointment of multiple functions and even contractual agreements between the emperor and his bureaucrats. But in order to apply the law to the most powerful persons in the empire, the judge is allowed to disregard all rules and regulations regarding the application of judicial torture.

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Référence papier

Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 113e année, Collège de France, Paris, avril 2014, p. 911-912. ISBN 978-2-7226-0329-5

Référence électronique

Wilt L. Idema, « Law in Chinese Literature », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 113 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 août 2014, consulté le 25 mai 2018. URL :

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Wilt L. Idema

Professeur à l’université de Harvard (États-Unis)

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Collège de France

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