The Philosophies of Judge Dee
The Philosophies of Judge Dee
The translated novel Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee tells of a district magistrate of Chang-Ping in the T’ang Dynasty named Judge Dee Goong An, famous for his ability to solve mysterious cases. This is simple enough, except it is immediately evident to the reader that Judge Dee is not just a normal magistrate content with solving a case – it is easy to see that he always digs deeper. His success is unparalleled in the land, his actions laid out without a single corrupt thought or a lax view. What makes Judge Dee so effective? How is he able to look past the most obvious answers to find the one that is correct?
It is obvious that he can only do this with the help of various different philosophies. These philosophies provided him significant methods, clues, and authority to bring justice to the region. Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism all play vital and separate roles in allowing Judge Dee to work effectively. Without all three, he would have not been successful in his cases. The first of these philosophies is Confucianism. Confucianism is based off of the teachings of the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius, and it places heavy emphasis filial piety, or respect to one’s elders and ancestors.
It also stresses proper relationships and order within society and within families. Education is also valued in Confucian beliefs, and these beliefs play a big role in Judge Dee’s actions. For one, Judge Dee would not have been a magistrate if he had not studied the Confucian classics. Study of Confucianism was a part of the “benchmark” or standard that one had to reach in order to proceed in becoming a statesman. Aside from this technicality, Confucianism also appeared many times throughout the novel.
One of the most important was the fact that role models were evident in how Judge Dee was respected and also how the social hierarchy worked, not only in his own court but how Judge Dee perceived his subjects. An example of that is the punishment that was given to Dr. Tang. Dr. Tang was the head of the house and was therefore responsible for the actions taken by one of his students, Hsu Deh-tai. Hsu, of course, was the young man who committed adultery and was an accessory to the murder of Bee Hsun, the husband of Mrs. Djou. Instead of a severe punishment for Dr.
Tang, Judge Dee orders otherwise, saying “But in deference to your great achievements in the field of scholarly researches, I shall free with this public reprimand, enjoining you henceforth to devote all your time to your own literary studies. You are strictly forbidden ever again to engage in the teaching of young students. ” (Van Gulik, pg. 208). Judge Dee respected Dr. Tang’s higher learning status, whereas if it were a normal person the punishment would have been far more severe and painful. Respect for the actions of a person’s elders is evident as well.
In the same scene, Judge Dee convicts the student Hsu Deh-tai, who is to be executed by strangulation – however, Judge Dee recognizes the “meritorious services rendered to the State by the said Hsu Deh-tai’s father and grandfather” (pg. 214). This is a subtle example of filial piety, albeit indirect filial piety. A social hierarchy is near-impossible to miss in this novel as well– from the very beginning the reader is notified of the position of Judge Dee and his consequent assistants under him, along with the fact that all of his subjects refer to themselves as “this insignificant person” (pg.10).
They all respect Judge Dee, which shows the Confucian idea of social order. Because of these facts, Confucianism played a very important part in the eventual outcome of the book, and more important in the set-up of the book’s characters and plot. It is also important because of its influence on what is right and wrong (crimes) – adultery and an unprovoked murdering of a woman’s husband is the most despicable crime because of the relationship between husband and wife in Confucian ideals, which is that the wife should respect and care for the husband.
The second philosophy that plays a role in this book is Taoism. This is possibly the most literal of the three philosophies that affects Judge Dee’s actions. Taoism, at it’s very basic, represents and values one’s connection with nature. It promotes a natural way or path in life and consequently emphasizes one’s intuition. It also says that the universe is all about balance – for one object, there is a corresponding counterpart. Taoism plays a vital role in the physical solutions of the cases and the outcome of the book because of the way it is shown.
Judge Dee, frustrated by his inability to think clearly, first consults with bamboo slips used for divination. Giving up logical thought, he thinks to himself, saying “Since I have come here to receive instruction from the powers on high, I might as well consult fate through these divination slips. Who knows whether the spirits have not chosen these particular means for manifesting themselves? ” (pg. 81). With this, Judge Dee places trust in a “natural”, passive form of progression towards the solutions of his various cases which follows the basic ideals of Taoism.
He finds a passage in the book corresponding to the various bamboo divination slips, musing over the words and attempting to apply them to the murder of Bee Hsun, in which he believes his wife, Mrs. Djou, killed him. As this happens, he begins to fall asleep, where he experiences a dream that shows him even more puzzling clues via a poem written inside a teahouse, along with a bizarre staged acrobatic act. Sergeant Hoong tells him “Yet although I am but an unlettered man, the meaning of this particular entry seems obvious to me.
I don’t look for an explanation in the old story the poem refers to, but take the words as they stand. ” This directly affects the outcome of the novel because without these dreams, he probably would not have been able to figure out the crime, or at the very least, it would have taken him a lot longer. Another distinct example of Taoism within the book is more general – Judge Dee uses unorthodox tactics in order to find injustices. He follows his intuition to effectively root out crimes that were not even reported, as evidenced by the case of Bee Hsun’s murder. Judge Dee discovers strange things when visiting Mrs.
Bee’s house, which fosters suspicion. Judge Dee even goes as far to summon the spirit of Bee Hsun, which is supernatural – another aspect that relates to Taoism’s “natural” principles. All in all, Taoism plays a role in the novel that is essential to Judge Dee’s success. The final philosophy, Legalism, has a part in the book just like the others. Legalism is the ideology that says all men are born bad, and that in order to control these bad men, strict laws and restrictions must be put into place. It supports quick and harsh punishment in order to keep people in their place.
This philosophy comes into play because without it, Judge Dee would not have half the authority that he shows in the book. Judge Dee’s power and control is apparent when he punishes people for being out of line or, in one case, being lax on the job. In the case of the Six Mile Village Murder, Judge Dee, angered by the fact that Warden Pang moved the bodies and blamed Koong for the murders, punishes him– “Judge Dee ordered the constables to let Warden Pang have hundred strokes with the heavy bamboo, then and there. ” Judge Dee does not use this power unjustly, however.
He uses his authority effectively, sometimes intimidating people to make them tell the truth. For example, he begins to interrogate Mrs. Djou, the wife of Bee Hsun, for a confession because he wholeheartedly believes she killed him. When she defies Judge Dee’s order to confess, she is questioned under torture. Even though his assistants are doubtful, Judge Dee simply tells them “What I have found out myself convinces me that we are right. ” As it turns out – he is right! Without the ideals of legalism, he would never have the authority to torture her, which she did deserve if anything.
There would not be as much of the respectful fear of Judge Dee. And without Legalism, Judge Dee would not have the power to solve his cases firmly and in a timely manner. The force and intimidation reveals faults in people’s testimonies and allows him to enforce laws. This is why Legalism is a vital part of the how Judge Dee gets things done. Legalism provides the structure for his position as a superior to his subjects. It is important to realize that Judge Dee would not have been able to solve his cases effectively if he had not used the different influences of these three philosophies.
Unlike some other things, these philosophies cannot work alone – Judge Dee could not have just followed Confucian ideals, for that would mean that he might not have trusted his intuitions and his dreams or had the authority to effectively search out criminals. Taoism alone would not have reinforced his position as a magistrate. Legalism alone might have just made him a tyrant who accused and tortured anyone. Only with a balance of all three was he able to achieve his status of being one of the best magistrates with an eye for justice.
As a metaphor, this is true of our lives as well. In many situations, we cannot be overly stubborn and we cannot only look at things using one perspective – this will simply lead to failure. By opening our minds and applying different ideas to a single situation, we are able to resolve it efficiently. As the philosophy of Taoism teaches, there is always a counterpart to each object. All we have to do is to see that other side and use balance in our daily lives to find solutions to our never-ending problems, just like Judge Dee.
Subject: Han Dynasty,
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 1 November 2016
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