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Aside from the quest myths, what were the first “Mysteries?”

Historically, you could say that the Chinese Gong’an or “crime case” fiction stories, published in the 16th and 17th Centuries, were probably the first real detective novels. The word gong’an originally referred to the desk or table of the judge or magistrate. It came to be used to refer to the legal cases. Interestingly enough, that is how the English word “case” also evolved: it originally referred to the box that contained the legal documentsand came to mean the details of a criminal proceeding.

The roots are even older than the novels: they started with the exploits of a real person, BaoZheng (包拯), who is usually referred to as Bao Gong (包公, “Lord Bao”), who was born on April 11th, 999 and died on May 20th of 1062). He was a courtofficer during the reign of Song Dynasty Emperor Renzong.

Judge Bao was a remarkable person: honest, just, and certainly ahead of his time. He felt the death penalty should be very very carefully administered and that the corruption of high officials was the worst crime of all.   And by all accounts, he utilized a mixture of wisdom and forensic evidence to determine guilt.

As is the situation with many noteworthy people from Chinese history, Bao became a mythical figure.   In the 13th and 14th Centuries, during the Yuan Dynasty, oral story performances and puppet shows featuring Bao Zheng, often with supernatural interventions, began appearing. These include Judge Bao Cleverly Investigates the Flower of the Back Courtyard (包待制智勘後庭花) by Zheng Tingyu, Judge Bao Thrice Investigates the Butterfly Dream (包待制三勘蝴蝶夢) by Guan Hanqing, and Judge Bao Cleverly Investigates the Circle of Chalk (包待制智勘灰闌記), by Li Qianfu. The latter is considered to be a masterpiece and has been translated into French and German, and rewritten as an opera and various stories and plays by such literary luminaries as Bertolt Brecht and Charles L. Mee.

But long before the Western story adaptations appeared, the wily Judge Bao had been novelized in China during the Ming Dynasty.   Cases of A Hundred Families Judged by Dragon-Design Bao (包龍圖判百家公案) appeared in 1594. This was the first Judge Bao short story collection. Some of the Judge Bao stories that would appear over the next twenty years were about ghosts, Judge Bao Solves a Case through a Ghost That Appeared Thrice (三現身包龍圖斷冤) and Lady Qin’s Ghost Return to Exile Shimei (秦氏還魂配世美). And perhaps the first real detective novel was Bao Gong An

What is astonishing is that the Judge Bao tales began increasingly to take on elements that seem quite like modern detective stories. For example, in The Case of Two Nails (雙釘記), the good Judge works with the coroner to find a cause of death using forensic evidence—a long steel nail pushed into the brain, leaving no trace on the body. The body of the murderess’ previous husband, is exhumed and examined (something almost unheard of in those days) and a similar, previously-unnoticed homicide technique is discovered.

Later, during the Qing Dynasty (17th to early 20th Century), Judge Bao really started looking like a modern franchise.

In Bejing, there was a storyteller named Shi Yukun who was so compelling, he was like a combination of a rock star and blockbuster movie, attracting audiences of thousands. It was just him on stage, telling vivid stories, accompanied by a sanxian ( 三弦, “three strings”), a Chinese lute. Shi Yukan’s biggest hits were his Judge Bao stories. These were so popular, they were reworked into print form.

One of these, The Tale of Loyal Heroes and Righteous Gallants (忠烈俠義傳) was not only all the rage, it was a seminal example of a new trend in Gong’an stories: they had merged with an increasingly popular type of story: wuxia (武俠) (“martial heroes”) fiction. These stories are about wandering, righteous, warriors – like knight or samurai – who fight eviland perform good deeds. So now the good judge had a team of sidekicks (literally), almost like his own Avengers.

In one of the most remarkable events in literary history–almost totally unnoticed in Western literary scholarship (I never heard anything about it in any of my Literature classes), Shi Yukun’s The Tale of Loyal Heroes and Righteous Gallants was made into a book and published in 1879 by the famous publisher Juzhen tang (聚珍堂)—with the author’s name on the title page, which up to that point, had never happened.

The book created a sensation and was even accepted by the usually rigid Chinese scholars. It was first revised into The Three Heroes and Five Gallants (三俠五義) and then again as The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants (七俠五義), which is how it is known today.

In this rambling tale, the Judge has a personal secretary, a doctor named Gongsun Ce, who has been compared to Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson. The leader of the Seven Heroes (and Judge Bao’s bodyguard is Zhan Zhao (展昭), known as the “Southern Hero,” and also bears the title of the “Royal Cat” for his martial arts skills.

The “Five Gallants” are also known as the “Five Rats,” each possessing a special skill : Lu Fang, the “Sky-PenetratingRat,” Xu Qing, the “Earth-Piercing Rat,” Jiang Ping, the “River-Overturning Rat,” Xu Qing, the “Mountain-Boring Rat,” and Bai Yutang,

The book produced numerous sequelsand the exploits of the heroic Judge would continue with many Chinese operas, 36 movies, and 50 TV series’ in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore!


And yet, as much an integral part of Chinese culture and mythology as Judge Bao is, he is not as well known in book form in the West as another gong’an crime fighting judge, Judge Dee. There will be moreon him in later posts.