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