Murderers, Outlaws, and Magistrates in Traditional Chinese Literature

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures

Module overview

This module surveys a variety of literary texts from premodern China to introduce students to popular depictions of law and (in)justice. We first examine the theories and methods developed to study the relationship between law and literature. After this foundation is established, students then consider questions such as: how was law and the formal legal process portrayed by literary authors in various eras and regions? to what extent were various literary genres used as a form of public critique of law and legal procedure? and how were notions of justice and injustice articulated in literature? To answer these questions, students will read a variety of texts such as ancient records of idealised laws and law-bringers, Chinese dramas and short stories about famous judges, tales of hero outlaws, and Chinese novels containing subtle critiques of corruption within the legal process.

This module does not require knowledge of a modern or Classical Chinese.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. discuss some of the basic theories related to law and literature;
  2. discuss and analyse various themes related to law and justice in a variety of traditional Chinese texts;
  3. demonstrate  knowledge of the research skills necessary to engage in sinological study of law and literature;
  4. compose essays critically analysing a specific theme in traditional Chinese legal literature;
  5. compile bibliographic data related to traditional Chinese legal literature.


Total taught hours : 20 hours. 1 hour of lectures and 1 hour of seminars per week for 10 weeks.

Independent study : 130 hours

Total hours for module : 150 hours

Scope and syllabus

The following is an example syllabus and contents may change based on student interests and staff availability.

  1. Introduction to Module / Introduction to Law and Literature
  2. Idealised Visions of Law in Antiquity
  3. Overview of Legal Personnel and Procedures in Imperial China
  4. Law as Literature: The Text(s) of Law
  5. Tang and Song Legal Literature
  7. 'Judges' in Yuan and Ming Drama
  8. Outlaws as Law-breaking Heroes
  9. Law and the Chinese Novel
  10. Judge Dee as Novel 1
  11. Judge Dee as Novel 2

Method of assessment

  • Bibliographic Essay (1000 words) 30%
  • Short Essay (2500 words) 50%
  • Quizzes (varied) 20%

Suggested reading

Core Reading

  • Hegel ed., Writing and Law in Late Imperial China. Washington 2007.
  • Ward, Law and Literature. CUP 2008.
  • Miller, Structures of Law and Literature. McGill 2013.
  • Idema. Judge Bao and the Rule of Law. World Scientific 2013.
  • Hayden. Crime and Punishment in Medieval Chinese Drama. Council of Asian Studies 1978.
  • Van Gulik. Crime and Punishment in Ancient China. Orchid 2007.
  • Van Gulik. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. Dover 2003.
  • Liu / McKnight. Enlightened Judgements: Ch'ing ming chi. SUNY 1999.

Additional Reading

  • Hawkes/Cao. Story of the Stone vols. 1-5. Penguin.
  • Hegel. True Crimes in eighteenth century China. Washington 2009


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules