The Washing Away of Wrongs

The spiritual fathers of modern forensic medicine are considered to be the Renaissance greats Fortunato Fedele (1550 – 1630) and Paolo Zacchia (1584 – 1659). Fedele produced his De Relationibus Medicorum in 1602, thereby developing the concept of medical legal testimony in court, and Zacchia published his masterpiece Quaestiones Medico-Legales in seven volumes from between 1621 and 1635 (with a further two volumes published in 1666), which became the standard forensic text in Europe until the beginning of the 19th Century.


However, over three centuries earlier, a judge in China wrote the first specifically forensic text anywhere in the world and should properly be remembered as the true father of forensic medicine. His name was Song Ci (Sung T’zu) (1186-1249) and his book the Xi Yuan Ji Lu (Hsi Yuan Chi Lu) – often translated as The Collected Writings on The Washing Away of Wrongs – was published in 1247 during the Song Dynasty. Unfortunately, that first edition is now lost to history and the oldest extant copy of the book dates from the following Yuan Dynasty.


The text of The Washing Away of Wrongs was based on a long history of forensic assessments in China as far back as the Qin Dynasty (221-207BCE). Bamboo slips have been unearthed from that period that describe how officials went out to visit the scenes of death by hanging to view the placement of the corpse and interrogate all those who might have knowledge of the event. This was done to ascertain whether the hanging was in fact a homicide rather than a suicide. Later, in the Western Han period (206-87BCE) we start to see other practices associated with inquests, and terminology used during the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE) in regard to inquests that would come to be used during the Song Dynasty. But in writing the The Washing Away of Wrongs, Song Ci appears to draw most of the details from practices used during the Five Dynasties (907-960CE) and the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). Though my Magistrate Zhu was operating centuries before Song Ci’s seminal work, I still have him operating to similar guidelines because the practices described in the text were almost certainly very much in use.


The earliest extant version of The Washing Away of Wrongs from the Yuan Dynasty runs to about 80 pages and has sections covering such subjects as: the administrative regulations in regard to inquests; advice to coroners; techniques on the examination of corpses, for distinguishing between pre-mortem and post-mortem injuries, and for determining cause of death; the creation of preparations to reduce unpleasant odours; and prescriptions and techniques for saving the lives of those close to death.


The Washing Away of Wrongs became the standard reference text on forensic medicine in China. It was used by officials from the Song Dynasty onwards until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. The text also became very influential in Korea, Japan and Vietnam.


From the Song Dynasty onwards, how an inquest would be conducted in practice is as follows: once a report of wrongful or suspicious death had been received at the district magistrate’s yámén (administrative office and/or residence), the magistrate would usually send an investigating official (usually the local sheriff) to the scene to conduct an inquest and write a report. As can be imagined, this was a duty no official wanted, not only because it was not pleasant to view a decaying corpse but also, if the investigating official reached the wrong conclusions, severe punishment could be incurred. The actual examination of the corpse was not conducted by the official himself, but in his presence by a man skilled in this task (often an undertaker) called a wu-cuo (wu-t’so) – a term often translated as ‘coroner’, though this can be misleading as these men were quite lowly individuals and did not have the powers of those men established as coroners in England in the latter part of the 12th Century who were agents of the crown (the title coroner from ‘crowner’). Interestingly, men did not conduct the examination of a woman’s corpse. This was done by a local old woman, whose usual role was often that of a midwife.


Three copies of the inquest report were made: one sent to Judicial Intendent in charge of the circuit of which the district was a part, one to be held by the district itself, and the last – surprisingly – for the family of the deceased. It is important to note that the examination of the body was usually conducted in some public place with the relatives of the defendant present as well as (in the cases of suspected homicide and if caught) the accused. Presumably this was done to increase the psychological pressure on the accused to confess their crime.


If the determination of the cause of death was homicide then it was standard procedure to order a re-inquest. This was done because it was not unknown for the relatives of a suicide to accuse someone they had a grudge against of murder and faking injuries to a body or manipulating the scene so it looked like a violent homicide had taken place. For a re-inquest, the investigating official had to be appointed from a neighbouring district. Now, if being ordered to conduct an inquest was not a happy assignment for an official, imagine what an official would feel if ordered to conduct a re-inquest. Not only would the body be in an advanced state of decay by the time the official from a neighbouring district arrived (he might have had to travel many miles), but that official might then be put in the unhappy position of either being asked to cover-up a fellow official’s mistakes or, indeed, report him for committing those mistakes. It should be noted that by the end of the Song Dynasty these re-inquests had become so unpopular that the law was modified so that during the hottest months of the year the re-inquest could be conducted by another official from the same district in which the body had been found!!


Discrepancies between the first inquest and the re-inquest were a perennial problem for the authorities and could result in real legal complications. It should also be noted that some magistrates were so suspicious of inquest reports they would choose not to rely on them in reaching their judgements. Moreover, because discrepancies between the two reports could create serious difficulties in the disposing of a legal case, it was not unknown for officials to collude so that the two reports were ‘harmonised’.


Song Ci’s motivation in writing The Washing Away of Wrongs seems to be that he wanted to help guide officials through the complicated set of procedures in regard to the examinations of bodies. Even though his text was added to, and out-dated procedures removed as the years went by, the fact that the text was the standard reference until 1911 (the guide that every official sent to examine a body always kept at their side) demonstrates its great success.


Finally, it is interesting to note how the history of Chinese forensic medicine deviated from that in the West. It was physicians in the West who conducted forensic examinations, and it was through the use of autopsies that forensic knowledge was advanced. Centuries before the Italian Renaissance and the work of Fortunato Fedele and Paolo Zacchia, autopsies were being carried out in China. But for some reason the practice in China died out (fears of impeding the travelling of the departed to the afterlife through dismemberment of the corpse, perhaps?). Moreover, as has been already stated, quite lowly individuals conducted the examination of corpses in China. Physicians in China saved their expertise for use on the living and were usually not invited to consider the dead – and so the chance of gaining useful medical and forensic knowledge in China through the examination of bodies and autopsies was lost.

Article by Laurence Westwood

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