An introduction to Magistrate Zhu of The Balance of Heaven and Earth and Philip Ye of The Willow Woman.
In 1976, BBC TV showed a Japanese series dubbed into English entitled The Water Margin. The series was loosely based on one of the four great novels of Chinese literature, Outlaws of the Marsh, set in the Song Dynasty, the story revolving around the exploits of 108 heroes reborn who become outlaws against the corrupt government of the time. The TV series, still available today on DVD (in the U.K. at least), is full of acrobatic sword fights and kung fu and is remarkable for its mixture of pathos, humour and displays of common humanity in the worst of circumstances.
One of the most memorable characters from the TV series – for me at least – was that of Song Jiang, The Honest Judge, who did his utmost to work within the corrupt system and yet still bring justice and the rule of law to the people until even he was left with no choice but to abandon his post and join up with the outlaws.
More than thirty years later, when searching for a subject to write about, I remembered the character of The Honest Judge and on my notepad quickly jotted down this list:
Horse – Senior Constable
Fast Deng – Constable
Slow Deng – Constable
Little Ox – Constable
Where the names came from and how they came to me so easily, I do not know, but on the spur of the moment I suddenly decided to write a mystery set in ancient China – a task made difficult as, even though I owned stacks of history books, I had for some reason never read anything about China.
And so I started to read….
And I discovered, to my great amazement, that the truth – as is often the case – was much more fascinating than the TV series that had so excited me more than thirty years before.
An Emperor could not administer an empire all alone. So, in China, by the Song Dynasty, scholar-officials, mostly graduates of the notoriously difficult Civil Service Examinations, were sent far from their home towns and families – in an effort to avoid corruption – to serve as magistrates in often very remote districts, to govern in the name of the Emperor and to command a gaggle of clerks who needed constant oversight and a posse of local constables who in many instances were hard to distinguish (in dress and behaviour) from criminals. It was not uncommon for the magistrate to have no clue as to local conditions until he arrived in the district over which he was to preside – or even necessarily understand the local dialect. The magistrate was essentially alone. And it was not unknown – in the best High Noon fashion – for a magistrate to have to take up his sword against local bandits even after being abandoned by the clerks and the constables. The magistrate was, after all, there not only to be the ‘voice of the Emperor’ but also to act as the ‘father and mother’ to the people, not only to collect taxes and enforce the rule of law, but also – in the best Confucian fashion – see to the people’s needs and their welfare. The punishments were severe for any magistrate who failed to enforce the law justly or properly perform his duty.
This is not to say that magistrates were all good men. They were not. But it is difficult not to be impressed by these who often had to travel for many months and many miles to take up a post far from all that they knew and then govern sometimes by force of personality alone.
It was when I understood this that Magistrate Zhu was finally born and I could put him down on paper as he needed to be: a hero, if a little flawed, who feels the full weight of his responsibilities on his shoulders, and who believes – as many of his fellow magistrates did – that he is in his post to care for the people of his district, that any mistake of his would not only bring down upon him the wrath of his superiors but also, perhaps, upset the balance of Heaven and Earth and bring untold natural disasters and suffering upon the people.
Fortunately for Magistrate Zhu, though the people of Tranquil Mountain might not be as respectful as he might wish, he has more support than he expects: from the constables, who are not short of enthusiasm; from the clerks, who are not all useless; and especially from the heroine Jade Moon, who, though she has reason to fear him, takes more than a liking to Magistrate Zhu….
Now bounce forward more than 900 years, past the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and Imperial China, past the tumult of the Warlord Era, past the violence of the Japanese invasion and the Second World War and the Civil War, past the taking power of the Communist Party of China in 1949, past the chaos and lawlessness of the Cultural Revolution, past the great reforms and opening up of the late 1970s, until we reach modern times, where China has become the second largest economy in the world, where every new technology is quickly embraced and 600 million people are connected to the internet, where the Communist Party of China is still in power, where China remains a one-party authoritarian state where there is but one truth and one history, where corruption is endemic, where the Communist Party of China influences the justice system at every level, and where a new kind of investigator – a new kind of hero – is needed.
This man is a homicide detective, much less morally forthright than Magistrate Zhu, a man who sees spirits, who is comfortable negotiating the shadowy corridors of power, who is heir to an international business empire, who is a scion of a famous Chengdu family fallen into political disgrace, an almost impossibly handsome bi-racial man trapped between two cultures who can see China both from without and within, and a man who – though he need not work as his family is rich enough – chooses every day to do what he can to bring justice to the grief-stricken and bereaved: Superintendent Philip Ye of the Chengdu Public Security Bureau.
Philip Ye prefers to work alone.
Philip Ye prefers the company of his own thoughts.
However, in a country of almost 1.4 billion even Philip Ye cannot distance himself forever:
There is a woman from his past he does not remember, Xu Ya, a talented prosecutor for the People’s Procuratorate, dedicated to upholding the Rule of Law (with Chinese characteristics, of course); her trusted investigator, Fatty Deng, who is much more comfortable out on the streets than in any shiny new office building; Constable Ma Meili, not long arrived in the city from the country, naïve but determined to serve the people; and last but far from least the spirits who come to him when least expected, looking for some justice of their own….