Bao Gong An
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Bao Gong An
The character Judge Bao in a 2009 Sichuan opera performance in Chengdu, Sichuan, China.

Judge Bao (or Justice Bao ()) stories in literature and performing arts are some of the most popular in traditional Chinese crime fiction (gong'an fiction). All stories involve the Song dynasty minister Bao Zheng who solves, judges and sentences criminal cases.

Literary tradition

Plays from the Yuan and Ming dynasties

In the Yuan Dynasty, many plays (in the forms of qu and zaju) have featured Bao Zheng as the central character.[1] These plays include:

Story Collections from the Ming dynasty

In 1594, the Yupan tang () bookstore owner An Yushi () published the first Judge Bao-themed short story collection Cases of A Hundred Families Judged by Dragon-Design Bao ().

  • Cases Judged by the Dragon-Design (?) by anonymous, which includes several chapters from the previous book.
  • "Lady Qin's Ghost Return to Exile Shimei" (?), Ch.26, which tells the story of a heartless man Chen Shimei betraying his loyal wife Lady Qin for power and wealth.
A Peking opera performance featuring Bao Zheng (seated) and his officers to his back.

Judge Bao stories in other collections include:

Chantefables from the Ming dynasty

In 2010, the scholar Wilt Idema published an annotated translation of eight ballad-stories (chantefable) from a late Ming dynasty collection printed in Beijing in the late Ming and which had recently been found in a tomb. [2]

Novels from the Qing dynasty

Famous cases

Sculptures inside the Lord Bao Memorial Temple, a tourist attraction in Kaifeng, Henan, China. In this scene, a fearless Bao Zheng takes off his official headwear to challenge the empress dowager, in order to execute the prince consort Chen Shimei.

All of these cases have been favorites in Chinese opera.

  • The Case of Executing Chen Shimei (): Chen Shimei had two children with wife Qin Xianglian, when he left them behind in his hometown for the Imperial examination in the capital. After placing first, he lied about his marriage and became the emperor's new son-in-law. Years later, a famine forced Qin and her children to move to the capital, where they learned what happened to Chen. Qin finally found a way to meet Chen and begged him to help at least his own children. Not only did Chen refuse, he sent his servant Han Qi to kill them to hide his secret, but Han helped the family escape and killed himself. Desperate, Qin brought her case to Bao Zheng, who tricked Chen to the court to have him arrested. The imperial family intervened with threats, but Bao executed him nonetheless.
  • Executing Bao Mian (): When Bao Zheng was an infant, he was raised by his elder sister-in-law, Wu, like a son. Years later, Wu's only son Bao Mian became a magistrate, and was convicted of bribery and malfeasance. Finding it impossible to fulfill both Confucian concepts of loyalty and filial piety, an emotional Bao Zheng executed his nephew according to the law and later tearfully apologized to Wu, his motherly figure.
  • The Case of Two Nails (): Bao Zheng investigated a husband's suspicious death whose cause had been ruled natural. After an autopsy, his coroner confirmed the earlier report that there was no injury throughout the body. At home, the coroner discussed the case with his wife, who mentioned that someone could force long steel nails into the brain, leaving no other traces on the body. The next day, the coroner found a long nail indeed, and the widow was arrested and confessed to adultery and mariticide. Afterwards, Bao Zheng began to question the coroner's wife and learned that the coroner is her second husband, as her first husband had died. Bao ordered his guards to go to the cemetery and unearth her first husband's coffin. Sure enough, there was also a nail in the skull.
  • The Case of the Black Basin (): A silk merchant by the name of Liu Shichang was on a trip home when he decided to ask for food and overnight lodging at the place of Zhao Da, the owner of a pottery kiln. Greedy over the riches carried by Liu, Zhao killed him by poisoning his dinner, and burned Liu's remains with clay in his kiln to make a black basin, in order to destroy the evidence. An old man named Zhang Biegu, whom Zhao owed a debt to, soon took the basin from Zhao as an alternate of cash payment. Zhang eventually encountered the ghost of Liu, who had been possessing the basin ever since his demise, and was told the story of the latter's cruel death at Zhao's hands. Determined to put the suspect to justice, Zhang soon brought the black basin to Bao Zheng's court in Kaifeng and after several attempts, finally persuaded Liu's ghost to tell the judge everything. As a result, Zhao was finally arrested and executed for murder.


  1. ^ West, Stephen H.; Idema, Wilt L. (2010). Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals: Eleven Early Chinese Plays. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
  2. ^ Idema (2010), p. Introduction.


Further reading

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