Legal cases (Chevaleyre)

The following three texts are pieces of judicial cases adjudicated by two late Ming provincial officials. They have been selected from the recently published collection of Chinese legal materials entitled Lidai panli pandu 歷代判例判牘.1 The first and third documents are from Mao Yilu’s 毛一鷺Yunjian yanlüe 雲間讞略 (A Brief Account of Judgments in Songjiang). The second one has been selected among Qi Biaojia’s published cases. Though only a handful of printed Ming legal casebooks have survived, the genre flourished from the Wanli era on, in part because of the spread of commercial printing, but also as a consequence of the changes introduced in the panyu 叛語 (legal) test of the official examination process.2 These three documents all deal with contested servile identities. They provide elements to understand how status were negotiated in judicial context (i.e. when status issues were, for various reasons, submitted to local authorities) and how “civil” matters were adjudicated. Though highly rephrased so as to match with the standards of official judicial documents, they also provide an introduction to the reading of legal cases on local society, as well as to the issue of bondage in late Ming China.

A native of Sui’an (Zhejiang), Mao Yilu (?-1629) began his official career as a prefectural judge (tuiguan 推官) after he passed the jinshi degree in 1604. Known for his integrity and his expertise in adjudicating cases, Mao nonetheless became a controversial figure for his association with the eunuch Wei Zhongxian against the Donglin (in particular against Zhou Shunchang 周順昌).3 When emperor Chongzhen ascended the throne, Mao was then prosecuted as one of Wei’s followers. He died in 1629. The stele he had erected in honor of Wei later became a place of worship for Wei’s victims. The Yunjian yanlüe is an anthology of “court findings” (yanyu 讞語) composed by Mao during his first tenure as prefectural judge of Songjiang 松江and acting magistrate in Huating 華亭and Qingpu 青蒲 (1606-1610). Judgments were composed of two pieces: the verdict (zhaoni 招擬), and the yanyu. Both were read aloud at the court and transmitted to the superior administrative level for review. Contrary to the verdict, the yanyu are summaries of the case in which the magistrate principally justified his sentence.

After he served as prefectural judge of Xinghua 興化 (Fujian), Qi Biaojia 祁彪佳 (1602-1645) served as acting magistrate for Putian 莆田. In 1631 he was promoted to a position of censor and became regional inspector (xun’an 巡按) for the Suzhou-Songjiang region in 1633. Dismissed soon after, he retired to his home county to take care of his mother. During that period, he was involved in local efforts. He resumed his position of censor in 1643 and served the Southern Ming for as Jiangnan grand coordinator (xunfu 巡撫) before he retired. When the Manchus invaded Zhejiang he committed suicide. The An Wu qinshen xigao 按吳親審檄稿 (Draft Opinions from Cases Personally Tried as Regional Inspector of the Wu Region) is one of the 26 known works of Qi Biaojia (among manuals for famine relief manuals or military defense, collections of administrative pieces, a diary, plays, etc.). It consists of judicial statements delivered while the author was reviewing judgments by local officials as Su-Song regional inspector (1633-34). The selection is made of serious or noteworthy cases reviewed by Qi and addressed to the officials who originally dealt with the cases. Concrete information contained in the original dossiers is mostly absent from the texts collected here4.

Text I: 一件陷盜抄沒事 (Qingpu 青浦)

Mao Yilu, Yunjian yanlüe, repr. in Yang Yifan (dir.), Lidai panli pandu, vol. 3, p. 415.5



Text II: 一件陷奴殺父等 (Kunshan 崑山)

Qi Biaojia, An Wu qinshen xigao, repr. in Yang Yifan (dir.), Lidai panli pandu, vol. 4, p. 517-518.


Text III: 一件豪惡事 (Huating 華亭)

Yunjian yanlüe, p. 420.




Text I:

陷盜: to fall in a bandits’ nest (to be trapped)/falsely accuse of theft

抄沒: to make an inventory and to seize

(): administrative office, judicial court (of Songjiang)

: answer (from a superior official)

: district (administrative unit)

告人: plaintiff

: written complaint

前件: (according to) previous statements

審得: “it is found that” (: to investigate; : to come to a conclusion, it appears)

鬻身: to sell oneself, to be sold

: yearly harvest > year

奕葉, 奕世: successive generations

: perpetuate

門戶: home, family

繼兄: adoptive elder brother

病癲: dementia, depression

瀕危: agony, about to die

垂涎: to envy

異姓: of a different surname

, : control, to get hold on

: to foment, to join

: principal; master

: to accuse, to charge

: contract, deed

: for now, temporarily

: to decide, to pronounce a judgment

餼羊: ritual offering made of a sheep; rites, sense of proprieties

: to order

均出: to pay out equally, share the burden of the fine

: because;

繼子: adoptive son (as opposed to 親子natural son)

: naturally, certainly

: leave behind, set aside

: heavy, to weigh, to increase

維時: then, at that moment

赤貧: dire poverty

張哺: open one’s mouth

: to swallow, to devour

: to be satisfied with

斷銀: fine (lit. “pronounced money”)

: to plot, to conspire

一綱盡收: lit. “to take it all with one net”

: stratagem

謀主: principal, instigator

: trap, to trap, to harm someone

: to steal, to rob, robber, secretly

: to state, to charge

白捕: assistant of a bukuai 捕快 (yamen underling in charge of the capture of criminals, 捕快之白役)

向人用背: to turn one’s back on others

: stratagem

: illusion; to metamorphose

: a magic and deadly turtle (treachery, nastiness)

孰知: who knows; to know perfectly

藏頭露尾: to betray oneself

: to investigate, to question

肺肝: entrails (lungs and liver)

漫滅: illegible

: greedy

: fool

: let’s assume that

關涉: to be connected to

纖毫: the smallest

著落: to organize, to get involved in

妄捏: to forge without thinking (or vainly)

偽券: fake document

可訝: amazing, astonishing

株連蔓引: to implicate many persons

貪壑: covetousness without limits

癡人想天雨粟: a fool who believes grain falls from heaven

: limit

督過: to blame, to sentence

從中煽雪: making snow fall by turning one’s hand

覆手作雨: making rain fall by turning one’s hand again

險惡可恨: dangerous and detestable

向者: once, formerly

作奸: deceitful, commit crimes

: proverb

開門揖盜: open the door to greet the robbers

搬石自磕: to harm oneself when moving stones

: it is only, it is no more than

: to accuse, to incriminate, to denigrate

詐贓染指: fraud and corruption

薄創: light reprimand


Text II:

行據: testimony, evidence

: (of criminals) transfer, send

到院: arrive at the tribunal (about pices)

服役: to perform service, to serve

無異: indifferently, without difference, without contesting

: official(s)

相繼: successively, one after the other

家道式微: ruined

另居: to settle separately

世僕: hereditary bondservant

: distinction, lot, status

: to be jealous of, despise, hate; here: to remain silent about

天啟七年: 1627, seventh year of the Tianqi era

: reprimand

失禮: loose sense of proprieties/etiquette

刁悍deceitful and violent

: to take advantage of, to use as an excuse

洗脫奴名: to wash away and get rid of the name “bondservant”

訟端: origins of a case

: recognize, admit, proclaim

簽釘: to nail, to plant (?)

反噬: counter attack, counter accusation

主奴之分: the distinction between master and bondservant, the respective status of …

據理據法: according to principles and law

斷歸復役: pronounce the return back to service

痛懲: punish severely

悖悍如許: so stubborn and brutal

執役: to serve

蕭牆: screen situated near the entrance door > inside the house > domestic

不必: no need to

掃除: to sweep up

從公: public matters; impartial, fair

(): to shock, to scandalize, to cause trouble

利吾貲: take advantage/profit of one’s wealth/goods

心迹: heart, sentiments, intentions

: activity, profession, occupation (the product of one’s labor)

: buy, acquire

給帖世守: get a certificate to keep for generations (insuring perpetual property of all goods)

青衿: blue collars, scholars, literati

自好: self-respect, dignity

不義之貲: unrighteous goods

問官: judicial official, magistrate

立案: to register a case

註銷: cancel

抄招回覆: 抄招= statement; 回覆= reply


Text III:

鹽院: salt circuit intendant office (Mao’s superior official)

: to be adopted, to succeed to

厮養: servant

: to sell

吏役: yamen servant

出居: to move,

騎墻: to be astride

良賤: honorable and mean (status)

抗禮: to consider oneself as equal

漸萌: progressively become

跋扈: brutal and arrogant

飽颺: once satisfied, to separate from

: to lie

: provincial judge

: to give a verdict, to sentence

溯源及流: to search for the cause

分誼: status and propriety

跳越: to overstep


兩造: the opponents

: to pay as compensation

鞅鞅: dissatisfied

: to obey, to serve?

乘間: to seize the occasion

: to oppose

寒盟: to break one’s word

中寢: to be stopped prematurely

徘徊: undecided

趑趄: to hesitate

銀田: goods

詐贓: blackmail and fraud

辭證: evidence, statement

與議: those who took part in the negotiation


交割: to hand over

多事: to interfere

誕妄: to boast

: to be bound by

強項: arrogant, inflexible

: to keep, to possess, to raise

: moreover

卵翼: to raise, to protect, to nurture

解維: to break the bond, to release

: to tie up

奔踶: to run

不忘水木之意: remind where on comes from

刁訐: to charge, to accuse (with ulterior motive)

反坐: to sentence to the penalty incurred by the crime one falsely denounced

影響: influence, effect

末減: to mitigate

翻弄: to manipulate




Text I




Text II




Text III



1 Yang Yifan et al. (ed.), Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2005, 10 vol.

2 Questions on judicial terms (and later model verdicts aimed at allowing candidates to demonstrate their skills in applying the law to practical judicial cases) were introduced in early Ming metropolitan examination system at Hongwu’s behest to promote “practical learning” (shixue). See Tam Ka-chai “Favourable Institutional Circumstances for the Publication of Judicial Works in Late Ming China”, Etudes Chinoises, 2009.

3 Zhou Shunchang was severely injured and mutilated in 1626 by the imperial agents that Wei had sent to arrest famous Donglin leaders in Suzhou. This resulted in a famous social outburst.

4 For more reference about the two legal casebooks presented in this session and their authors, see Will, Pierre-Étienne, Official Handbooks and Anthologies of Imperial China: A Descriptive and Critical Bibliography [in progress].

5 A somewhat similar case can be found in Yunjian yanlüe, p. 512.