The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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The “Rebirth” of Woman Yang: Law and Society in 18th-Century China

Principal Investigator

PUK Wing Kin

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

“The ‘Rebirth’ of Woman Yang” is a research project studying the interaction among the legal-administrative system of the state, the dynamics of local society and the impact of popular culture in 18th-century Qing China. It argues that judicial torture, a ubiquitous element in the legal system, was unintentionally reinforced by the administrative reform in the Yongzhen era (1723-1735). For officials, judicial torture was almost both their first instinct and last resort in settling lawsuits, whether or not they realized or cared about its limit and danger. For feuding parties in local society, judicial torture explained their strategic behavior in what could be described as a quintessential “game theory” context. Judicial torture also loomed large in popular culture, fueling popular fantasy on good and evil and “Karma”.

In Macheng County of Hubei, in early 1730, a woman Yang 楊, wife of a Tu 涂, was reported missing. Fourteen months later, a corpse was found. The Yangs claimed that the it was exactly the murdered woman Yang and the murderers were the Tus. The Tus vehemently denied the accusation. The lawsuit between the two lineages soon triggered an administrative-legal battle among the government officials involved in the case. Tang Yingqiu 湯應求, the Macheng County Magistrate, concluded that the corpse was an unidentified male. However, Gao Renjie 高人傑and Li Zuoshi 李作室, the two County Magistrates newly appointed to investigate the case, concluded that the corpse was woman Yang. They accused Tang of being bribed by the Yangs and having the corpse falsified as a male. After repeated appeals, forensic investigation, judicial torture of suspects (including Tang himself) and retrials that lasted for nearly four years, Tang was convicted of accepting bribe and sentenced to death, together with Tu Rusong, husband of the woman Yang, who was convicted of murdering her.

The case took the most dramatic turn when, in mid-1735, Chen Ding 陳鼎, the new Macheng County Magistrate, found that the woman Yang was alive. Apparently her brother hid her while accusing the Tus of murdering her. Tang Yingqiu and Tu Rusong thus narrowly escaped death. Tang was rehabilitated, his rivals in the government punished, while two Yangs were sentenced to death. The case was brought to a formal end in 1737, when more than one hundred people were trialed and at least eight died of judicial torture.

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