Huang Liu-Hong and A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence

In my modern Chinese detective novel The Willow Woman, a real-life magistrate from the 17th Century, Huang Liu-Hong, makes an appearance, albeit fleetingly. A legal hero for my fictional public prosecutor Xu Ya, Huang is famous for writing the instructional manual for magistrates ‘A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence’, which became a standard reference work for local officials until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.


Very little is known about Huang’s life. He does not appear in the standard biographical works of the Qing Dynasty. However, short biographies of him were printed in those counties in which he served as magistrate, and fortunately a much fuller biography published in the 1924 edition of the local gazetteer for Wuxian, now part of the city of Suzhou, which is about 60 miles north-west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province.


Huang was born in the year 1633 in a very turbulent period of China’s history, just as the Ming Dynasty was about to fall. In 1644, China was conquered by the Manchus and they instituted the Qing Dynasty. Huang’s father, who was himself a magistrate in the year 1644, was unable to leave his post in Shandong because of the political crisis and the battles raging all around the province. So it was up to Huang, at the age of 11, to lead his family back to their native home in Jiangxi Province. In 1651, at the age of 18, Huang took the Civil Service Examination in Jiangxi and gained his juren (provincial) degree.


Huang then embarked on a grand tour of China, wanting to learn as much as he could, to study the historical and strategic significance of every place he visited. He told his friends that ‘a person who had not read ten thousand books and travelled ten thousand li could not consider himself an accomplished gentleman’ – a li historically considered to be equivalent to one-third of a mile but now standardised to one-half of a kilometre.


Soon enough the Manchus realised that they could not properly govern the great expanse that was China without the help of the Chinese elite. So, as part of the mass recruitment of Chinese back into official posts, in 1670 Huang was appointed at the age of 37 as a magistrate to Tancheng Country in Shandong Province – one of 1550 magistrates in post throughout the Qing Empire. He presided over Tancheng Country until 1672, whereupon he resigned on the death of his father so he could observe the customary three-year mourning period. In 1675 he was appointed magistrate to Dongguang County in Hebei Province where he served a three year term. By all accounts, his administrations in both Tancheng County were successful and he was much appreciated by the people for his unswerving pursuit of bandits and the reduction of excessive tax levies.


After leaving Dongguang County he took to travelling about China again. He then began the metropolitan stage of his career when he was appointed a departmental censor (an investigating official) to the Board of Rites and then in 1691 he was promoted to be a supervisory departmental censor to the Board of Public Works. It was at the Board of Public Works than he submitted a number of recommendations via a series of memorials in regard to irrigation and river embankments, all of which were approved by the Emperor Kangxi. Unfortunately, though, Huang’s official career ended by illness in 1693 when he was aged 60.


Historically, not just during the Qing Dynasty, it was a common problem that those who had just passed the Civil Service Examination – an exam that focused mainly on the study of the classics rather than problems of a practical nature – were often totally unprepared for (and probably overwhelmed by) what they might have to face when appointed to their first official posts. So, on his retirement in 1693, Huang decided that an instruction manual was sorely needed. From his sick-bed, he dictated all 761 pages of A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence, finishing it in the winter of 1694. Publication of the book was finally completed in 1699. Further editions were published subsequently. That an edition was published at late as 1893 attested to the remarkable popularity and continued usefulness of the book.


A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence covers a wide range of subjects including: all aspects of taking up office; the controlling of clerks and constables; how properly send memorials to superiors; the collection of taxes; all aspects of the administration of justice such as the rendering of judgements, management of prisons, and the investigation of homicides and thefts; the organising of local militias; the proper conduct of rites and ceremonies; famine relief, and so on.


Here is my favourite quote from the text that I think gives some real insight into the type of man Huang was:


I have known many magistrates whose only preoccupations were the collection of taxes and the administration of justice. No other functions received their attention. They did not seem to understand that seemingly minor matters as cultivation of fruit trees, planting mulberry and elm trees, prohibiting improper worship, eliminating heterodox religious cults, showing respect for the elderly and the virtuous, administering relief to the solitary and the indigent, establishing potter’s fields, repairing roads and pathways, constructing ceremonial structures, refurbishing official buildings, keeping surveillance over ferries and paths, prohibiting infanticides, establishing orphanages, prohibiting women from visiting temples, forbidding masters to beat servants and slave girls or to keep them in confinement, and other such duties are closely related to the maintenance of good social order.  A successful magistrate cannot afford to neglect such matters.

 Huang Liu-Hong (1699)


(translated and edited by Djang Chu,

University of Arizona Press, 1984)


It is known that Huang was summoned to an audience in 1705 by the Emperor Kangxi, but by then he was far too old to re-enter the world of imperial politics. He retired first to his son-in-law’s house in the city of Suzhou and then, tiring of urban life, to a villa in the country outside of the city. It is said, of his final years, that he was often seen wandering the countryside dressed in the robes of a Daoist priest.


The date of his death is unknown.


Article by Laurence Westwood

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