The Honorable Judge Bao, Presiding

I love the Judge Dee detective stories by Robert Van Gulik. Like any rightminded, obsessed person, I have also read his translation of Dee Goong An, a Ming Dynasty detective novel from China, and Parallel Cases Under the Pear-Tree, his translation of T’ang Yin Pi Shih, a “13th Century Manual of Jurisprudence and Detection”.

But alas, one lacks the motion and visuals. One occasionally sees magistrates and other court officials in martial arts flicks with a Chinese background, but it’s just not the same. Sigh.

However, if one is willing to look a bit further afield, it turns out that among all the Judge Lo’s, Judge Pan’s, and so forth, there’s actually a good amount of media presence for Judge Bao!

Like Judge Dee and the rest, he’s a real historical person who has also become the hero of innumerable stories, anecdotes, novels, Chinese operas, and now movies and TV shows. Of course he is a great detective, absolutely incorruptible, and served by incorruptible officials who are also great swordsmen. His distinguishing marks are that he was said to have a white crescent-shaped scar on his forehead (paging J.K. Rowling), a black face (symbolizing his devotion to justice, the color of which is black), and employed special machines for executing royals, nobles and commoners. (The dragon-head decorated one is for royalty. Gets lots of use in the operas.) His popularity is such that he is worshipped by some as god of justice. (This is highly ironic, since there’s a fairly good chance that the historical Judge Bao was a Yutai — a Chinese Jew.)

He’s also god of the star Wen Qu, aka Megrez in the Big Dipper. “Wen Qu” means “literary pursuits” or “scholars”. (I trust that Barry Hughart fans see why Master Li was destined to become the god of a star, now. This star was also supposedly the domain of Bi Gan, another historical figure, who apparently cut out his heart; Wen Chang Di Chun, worshipped as god of scholars; and one of the nine emperor gods. Confused yet?)

Anyway, his hometown, the old capital city Kaifeng, makes a big thing of him. They’ve got his memorial temple, his house, a tablet with his picture, statues, his name on a stone listing all Kaifeng’s “mayors”, a historical amusement park featuring him, some kind of local delicacy buns named after him, and a daily performance of a play of one of his many cases. (Sounds like a fun trip for mystery fans, doesn’t it?)

Another fun thing about Judge Bao is that his loyal, brave, handsome, and skilled officers of the tribunal come from a 17th century crossover novel. Zhao Zhan and Co. used to have their own heroic adventures, you see. But the crossover was so successful that they’ve stuck with the judge ever since. :)

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any online source yet which provides subtitles for any of the TV shows, except ones with subtitles in Vietnamese or Korean. The 1995 series’ opening credits look very spiffy, though, and features a spunky swordswoman who apparently spends a good deal of time disguising herself as a young man. (And I think there’s supposed to be a love interest between her and Zhao Zhan, or one of the swordsmen, anyway. This is apparently a change from romance with the judge’s niece, romance with princesses, widows needing help, wandering swordswomen, etc.) There’s also some opening credits from Young Justice Bao. Here are reviews of various Judge Bao TV series.

Anyway, here are some search terms to use: “Judge Bao” “Judge Pao” “Young Justice Bao”, and “Kaifeng”.

China Today article, including brief descriptions of some famous cases, a picture of the Peking Opera makeup of the judge, and some famous Kaifeng sites.

Museum of Kaifeng website, including some info on the judge in English and New Year’s woodcuts, mostly of the Judge and his faithful followers, but also a few Immortals and a chi-lin/ki-rin/Chinese unicorn bringing babies. (The front page takes a long time to load, but has wonderful traditional music.)

Museum recreation of Judge Bao’s court.

Judge Bao’s Memorial Temple in day and night: His seated statue, with offerings. His standing statue. Judge Bao Lake nearby.

Judge Bao’s grave, and the case of “Ghosts Build a Bridge”.

Henan opera plot summary: Judge Bao’s Mistake. How a Dead Cat Was Substituted for a Newborn Prince: Parts 1 (no Bao) & 2 (with Bao). The webpage’s banner features a Judge Bao opera.

A visit to Kaifeng during a heatwave. Famous local dishes: peanut cakes, guan tang bao (steamed soup dumplings), bai ji mo (cake with meat), Kaifeng chicken, five-spice bread, sesame soup, chrysanthemum tea. Discussion of Kaifeng and soup dumplings.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Honorable Judge Bao, Presiding

  1. Joy

    I didn’t know there were Jews in China at that time. Your entry sent me on a lovely trip through the bowls of wikipedia.

  2. However, if one is willing to look a bit further afield, it turns out that among all the Judge Lo’s, Judge Pan’s

    Is there a Judge Lo-Pan? That would be awesome!

  3. Pingback: One of the Jews of Kaifeng Finds Love! « Aliens in This World

  4. Arsene Lo-Pan, master thief _and_ chief magistrate!

    He’d have to arrest himself…. :)

  5. u wrote:
    > Unfortunately, I haven’t found
    > any online source yet which
    > provides subtitles for any of the
    > TV shows

    Here’s a link to “Young Justice Bao II” (2001, 40 episodes) in Mandarin with English subtitles:

    http://tinyurl.com/l93wkc

  6. Jim

    I’m afraid everything “historical” you have written on this blog comes from the Judge’s various fictional novels. I believe his body guard Zhan Zhao is even a fictional character. This sort of thing–where people take fiction as truth–happens all of the time. When a novel has been around for hundreds of years and people don’t consult historical documents, it is just assumed these novels are historical accounts. One good example of this is the source of the famous tattoo of the Song Dynasty General Yue Fei. The commonly held story is that his mother gave him the tattoo “protect the country with utmost loyalty” when he was a young man (different version vary on whether this took place before or after he joined the military). However, people do not realize that the story of his mother giving him the tattoo comes directly from his popular folklore biography “The Story of Yue Fei” (1684) published during the early Qing Dynasty. If you consult older novels written in the Ming Dynasty, one of them states Yue Fei commissioned a young men in his village to tattoo it. If you consult Yue Fei’s biography in the “History of the Song” (1345) prepared during the Yuan Dynasty, you will see that the tattoo is only mentioned in passing towards the end when he is initially brought up on charges of treason. It is mentioned nowhere else in the biography, nor is it mentioned where he got it. And there is a good chance the tattoo was a fictional element added in his historical memoirs by his grandson, the historian Yue Ke, to make him seem that much more loyal. Therefore, you can’t believe everything that you hear about historical Chinese personages.

    Now moving on to the notion of Judge Bao being a Chinese Jew. I have two main problems with this claim: 1) I highly doubt that is Judge Bao’s original house. Kaifeng has flooded so many times that the current ground level is nowhere near to what it was a 1,000 years ago during the Song. For example, the synagogue of the Kaifeng Jews had to be rebuilt numerous times because of flooding. A big manmade flood in 1642 (either by bandits or the army) destroyed much of the city itself.

    Once you understand this, you have to take into account that the apparently Jewish symbols are being taken out of context. Symbols associated with legends about him might have been included in the rebuilding of his house in later dynasties. For instance, as you stated above, Bao is associated with the Wen Qu star. (I am unsure when this legend took hold, but it is probably something from a Chinese novel.) The six-pointed star motif in his house might simply be referring to the legend of the Wen Qu star. In astrology, the six-pointed star denotes a “fixed star.” Or it could have been added simply because the star is a common motif in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Jews don’t have the market cornered on this symbol.

    2) Even though Jews have lived in China since the Tang Dynasty, there is no evidence for them openly accepting Chinese culture until the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. The Jews most likely lived in tight net cloisters and only had representatives that dealt with the Chinese. It was like this with the Muslims during Ibn Battuta’s visit to China in the 14th century. They would have continued to live their lives like they had done in their native countries. It is not until the Ming and Qing Dynasty that there is evidence of Jews forsaking the study of Hebrew for the Confucian classics in order to pass the imperial exams, thereby raising their family’s social status. Even if the main Kaifeng Jewish community arrived in China as early as 960 (as some people assume), I doubt after living in a tight net community closed off from the Chinese, Bao woke up one morning and said, “Hey, I think I’m going to learn Chinese, study the Confucian classics and laws of the land, and become a Judge!”

    He was Chinese, plain and simple.

  7. Lyrea

    I also think that Justice Bao is a Chinese, for all the reason the person above gave out.
    But it doesn’t matter who he is, he was a human being and he did good. Eventhough maybe people take it out of context and hyperbolic, he must have done a good deed- even just one- enough to send him down the history and be remembered for thousand years by peopleas a “Justice Bao who defend the weak against the corrupt and evil ones.”
    Just like what Hermione of Harry POtter book said, ‘There is a truth in legend.’
    I believe that there must be some essence of truth in Justice Bao Legend, something that is good enough to make people remember him as he is.

    Now I wonder about his death. My father and brother told me that Justice Bao’s death is courtesy of an evil-corrupt man who tricked him into punishing the innocent man.
    When the truth comes to light, Justice Bao end up punishing the evil man but he also hold trial against himself. Because he know that he wronged an innocent man, so he too has to be punished. And he *sob* punish himself………beheaded in the same way he behead those evil corrupt people.
    Now is this true? If it’s true, how tragic it is!
    A just man like him, to end his life like that…..
    I’ve been trying to find something about this on the internet, but so far there is no one talking about Justice Bao’s death.
    Some said he dead because he already olf (old-age) but why my father and brother, who happen to be quite pro in Chinese history, told me that story? Or is it forgotten because it’s too embarassing for modern-ears?
    Can someone answer me? Thanks.

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