Even the communities that rely heavily on traditions and strict rules that define almost every aspect of the lives of the people, namely the ones of the Ancient and Medieval China, tend to face social and moral issues. Nowadays, readers can find the numerous examples of such problems both in the official documents and literature of those periods. However, among them, one work stands out. It is entitled as the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and is an example of the Chinese detective novel. Naturally, the genre itself is associated with social and moral issues, focusing on the analysis of a mysterious incident, where the conflict is based on the clash between justice and lawlessness. At the same time, the Chinese novel contained details that are strange to Western readers, including the simultaneous investigation of several cases and participation of the supernatural forces in the affairs of men. As a result, it presents a different image of the issues the people may encounter. Therefore, the following work focuses on the review of the series of problems presented in the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, as well as the way of its resolution.
The respect towards the elders has long been one of the cornerstones of the Chinese society, with filial piety being among the most important virtues of a man. Moreover, it was not limited to the living people, such as parents – people also honored the deceased. The burial and mourning rituals, including the behavior of the people performing them and the choice of place for the grave, are subject to a thorough description. For example, one could not mourn for more than three years or grieve without beating the breast and crying. Even the type of coffin meant to contain the body was pre-defined. As a result, it is possible to assume that all these rituals signify the one-way nature of burial in China – in other words, once being placed to rest, the deceased person was to remain in the grave forever. Moreover, the Chinese used to perceive such burial techniques as cremation as inacceptable as they destroy the remains of the people. As a result, it is clear that even the body of a deceased ancestor was an object of the utmost importance in the Chinese tradition. In other words, no one could disturb it without an important reason.
At the same, the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee often shows the main characters making questionable choices in their pursuit of justice, which results in the emergence of moral issues. In particular, during the investigation of the crime of passion that took place in the small village, Judge Dee resorts to exhumation. He orders the removal of a corpse from the place of its burial – to study the causes of death and discover the new facts and evidence that may help him to identify the offender. Naturally, given the attitude towards the deceased in the Chinese culture, such action could have been perceived as a desecration of the grave – the final place of rest of a person – in other words, a sacrilege. As a result, Judge Dee faces a dilemma, having to choose between his duty as a representative of the law and the traditions that define the life in the country.
The moral issues of the case become even more serious due to the fact that the main character intends to perform an autopsy –a post-mortem study of the body, including its internal organs. Once again, in the Chinese culture, such deed was likely to be deemed as a sign of disrespect not only to the deceased but also the e system of values and moral norms as a whole. Moreover, Judge Dee cannot present the evidence that a person that is to be exhumed was a victim of murder. As it was mentioned before, one must have a valid reason to disturb a grave, which means that the activities of the official were controversial. Finally, the problem is exacerbated by the social status of Judge Dee. In particular, the fact that he occupies the position that combines the duties of a magistrate, judge, investigator, and prosecutor, as well as possesses a medical knowledge, is a sign of a high standing. Thus, it is safe to assume that Judge Dee belonged to the class of the so-called gentry. Such people were the keepers of the Confucian ideology and traditions that dictated the commitment to the ideas of the country as a whole. In particular, when occupying the important positions, they were never to act outside the ways of virtue, and, most importantly, preserve the altars of the deceased. As a result, the exhumation ordered by one of them was likely to have devastating consequences as it defied the burial rituals.
It is stated in the book that the request of Judge Dee was met with oppression from the relatives of a deceased man, namely the wife that was against the idea of her husband’s body being disturbed, even with the purpose of identifying a murderer. It was also implied that despite Dee’s rank of a magistrate, he could have been punished severely for ordering the defiling of a grave. In particular, the comments provided by the other official, the Governor of Shangtung, indicate that such behavior was likely to result not only in the loss of position but also in the lowered loyalty of the people towards such person. As it was mentioned before, Judge Dee was among the keepers of the Chinese ideology, meaning that his actions could have undermined the very belief in the traditions and principles that define almost every aspect of human life. Once again, these facts contribute to the importance of rituals, including the burial ones, in the Chinese society and demonstrate the scope of the moral issue that is presented in the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. It is interesting to note that the main character is aware of the controversial nature of his actions and is ready to accept the punishment in the case of failure. In particular, he filed a self-accusation regarding the exhumation of a corpse and sent it to the high-rank officials. As a result, despite the moral issues he has triggered, Judge Dee can be perceived as an example of honesty and integrity, as well as the responsible and courageous servant of the law.
However, in the end, the problem has been resolved successfully, with Judge Dee retaining his position and the criminal facing justice. The fact that the murderer, Mrs. Djou, refused to confess and the autopsy of the dead body did not provide any evidence of violent death, made the magistrate resort to exotic measures to close the case and prove that his decision of ordering the exhumation was justified. As a result, he, together with assistants, appeared before her under the guise of the Judge of the Inferno. Weak and confused after the long stay in the prison cell, Mrs. Djou perceived this vision as a sign of her being already dead and ready to receive the final judgment before going on to the afterlife. As a result, she disclosed the details of the crime, including the motif (a passion towards the other man) and the tools of murder – a long and thin wooden nail and a hammer. The woman has also confirmed that her daughter received a powerful drug that robbed her of the ability to speak, rendering her incapable of disclosing any details that could have helped to move the investigation forward. Given the state of Mrs. Djou (no one would lie to the Judge of the Inferno), it was clear that she spoke the truth. Being presented with this confession next day, she was named guilty of having adulterous relations and murder. Therefore, the exhumation of a corpse conducted earlier was not a crime but rather a necessity, which has allowed Judge Dee to retain his position as a magistrate and justified his actions in the course of the investigation.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that ritual has always been an integral part of the Chinese society, especially during the period when the principles of Confucianism defined almost every aspect of life in the country. However, as it was demonstrated by the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, the latter were not dogmas, In fact, the people of a high social standing, namely Judge Dee, a magistrate, used to neglect them to make their goals achievable. Still, the book points out that the latter acted on the basis of well-meaning, trying to find and punish the criminal. However, one cannot exclude the possibility of the use of such judgment for the personal gain. Such situation raises the moral issues to a new level – the one related to the inviolability of rules, laws, and traditions to those that have to live and act in accordance with them.