Scenes of Corpses: Forensic Examinations in Early Modern Chinese Literature
The past decades have seen a growing number of studies on literature, law, and medicine in premodern China and a similar interest in literary depictions of human anatomy in European history. Building on those studies, this ongoing project examines the representations of dead bodies in forensic literature of early modern China. In particular, it focuses on the scenes of corpse examination (shichang 屍場) in written, visual, and performance materials produced from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The project anatomizes various aspects of those scenes––dead bodies for examination; different participants including families, coroners, and spectators; various modes of viewing; and the media that enabled those experiences. With a focus on the dead bodies in forensic scenes, this project aims to reveal how forensic practices influenced the representation of personhood and justice in early modern Chinese literature and society. This presentation introduces the questions and materials for the project and invites critiques.
My Abstract: Yuan-dynasty dramas (mostly existing in Ming editions) include some special titles about criminal cases such as the well-known piece The Injustice to Dou E and some rarely studied plays such as Bu renshi (The Virtuous Mother Does Not Recognize the Corpse). Meanwhile, the Song-Yuan period saw the maturation of forensic studies in Chinese history, witnessing the publication of Song Ci’s Xiyuan jilu (Collected Writings on the Washing Away of Wrongs) followed by its different sequels and forensic manuals for local magistrates and their assistants. During the burgeoning period of both Chinese drama and forensic studies, how did theatrical representation and forensic investigation interact with each other? This study answers the question by examining the representation of men’s and women’s dead bodies in some Yuan-Ming plays. The paper focuses on two particular moments in those plays: the transition from a living body to a dead body; and the transition from corpse to legal evidence. It shows that, on the one hand, Yuan-Ming dramas heavily drew from actual practices involving corpses in society; and on the other hand, dead bodies as theatrical devices provided an anchor for plot developments as well as a unique venue to voice and perform concerns about personal identities.