‘Controversies on the Morality and Effectiveness of Judicial Torture in late Ming China’ by Dr. Ka-chai Tam (Online)

This seminar explores the controversial views of late Ming China (1550-1644) to judicial torture from two opposite but interactive directions. While considered an effective, if not indispensable, measure to finding facts of crimes before the age of scientific investigation and DNA testing, in their judicial casebooks the late Ming prefectural judges often complained against the wrongful application of judicial torture of their subordinates at the lower levels. They argued that in the hands of inexperienced and careless magistrates and underlings, forcing confession by violence indeed corrupted the judiciary other than brought justice to light.

On the other hand, in many contemporaneous popular novels and novellas, such as Feng Menglong’s 馮夢龍 (1574-1646) celebrated series of vernacular stories, the Sanyan 三言, judicial torture, however, is not blamed as a source of injustice in the same way of the judges. On the contrary, it is lavishly employed by good judges in the stories who discovered hidden details of crimes and therefore effectively eliminated evil. By comparing reasons of different strata of society in our sources on both criticizing and supporting the application of torture at court, how the late Ming people found the principles to manage this violent judicial apparatus is discussed in the conclusion.

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