True Case of Murder in Ancient China
The Clue of the Ants
For most of China’s history, there was no police force. The District Magistrate, the bottom rung on the governmental pyramid, was the detective and judge in criminal cases. He had to investigate a crime, arrest, and judge the guilt or innocence of the suspect, then pronounce sentence. Without forensic science, he relied on his knowledge of human behavior, his skill at questioning witnesses, and his own ability to draw conclusions from clues. Eventually, if he performed well, he may be promoted to Prefect, and oversee ten or so Districts.
Yen Tsun was known as an able magistrate during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), and was subsequently promoted to Prefect of Yang-chou. One quiet afternoon, he gathered his lieutenants and set on a tour of the countryside. The loud crying of a woman sent the group to a small dwelling where they found her .
The wailing woman gasped that her husband had died in a small fire. His body, partially burned, lay on the floor.
The Prefect made two critical observations. First, the woman, while lamenting loudly, had no tears. In fact, it seemed to the official that she was crying more in fear than in grief.
Second, although there were no obvious injuries on the body, and, although no blood was visible due to the charring, some ants had congregated on the top of the man’s head.
Although the record doesn’t reflect the details of his examination of the body, the Prefect probably also noted no soot in the man’s mouth.
Suspecting foul play, Prefect Yen ordered one of his men to keep a eye on the woman until the coroner could do a thorough autopsy.
(During the Han Dynasty, autopsies were mostly external examinations of a washed corpse and, on occasion, they followed procedures to detect poisonings. Coroners were usually local apothecaries and/or funeral directors, so had keen knowledge of poisons and signs of injury.)
While waiting for the coroner to be notified, the woman slipped away. She was followed discreetly by the lieutenant to a neighboring hut where a man waited for her. This increased the Prefect’s suspicion.
Soon, the coroner, observing the clustering of the ants, found a nail had been driven into top of the man’s head. I suspect the husband had been drugged so wasn’t able to object to his wife’s
Eventually, both the wife, and the man she had slipped off to meet, pled guilty.
Based on this old case, a “nail in the husband’s head” was a common theme in ancient Chinese plays and novels. It’s been used in Asian fiction ever since.
In fact, it forms the basis for The Chinese Nail Murders (1963). one of the Judge Dee stories by Robert H. van Gulik, The author credits this case with the idea for the mystery.
Recently, I spotted it on an English-subtitled Netflix series from China, Miss Truth (2020), where a young woman (actress Zhou Jieqiong ) solves the murder of a merchant by using ants to discover a nail in the man’s head.
Since this was just the first episode, I’ll have to binge watch the rest to see if more ancient cases are covered.
Thorough research demands sacrifice.
Crime and Punishment in Ancient China, T’ang-Yin-Pi-Shih, translated by R.H. van Gulik, cases compiled in 1211 CE by Kuei Wan-jung, of the Southern Sung Dynasty
The Chinese Nail Murders, by Robert van Gulik, 1963, Harper & Row Publishers
Miss Truth, movie on Netflix, 2020, viewed in part May 5, 2021.
Official in T'ang Dynasty - Common Usage
There are often quotations on this platform from witty and wise people that are presented as life-altering for the reader. Words of encouragement and commonsense from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, to modern day Physicists and Playwrights are offered as signposts to becoming a better writer or a more accomplished human being.
These don’t fall into that category.
But they sparkle with at least a grain of truth, and are valuable for writers of any age.
1. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are either well written, or badly written.”
The public idea of morality seems to change with each generation. In my youth, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence was the height of immorality.
I know because certain pages were torn out and secretly passed around by the boys in my fifth grade class. We didn’t do that for mere classics, like The Iliad or The Odyssey..
Ulysses, often called the greatest novel of modern times, was banned in the United States for its “prurient content.” I don’t know if James Joyce found that amusing or irritating, but I feel Wilde would have roared with laughter.
Happy endings were rare in Wilde’s life.
2. “The good ended happily, and the bad ended unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
Not all fiction is Pollyanna, of course.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy doesn’t end happily at all, except for the villain. Nearly everyone else is terminated, no matter if they’re good or bad.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, a series by Patricia Highsmith, has the scheming villain victorious, becoming rich and loved after murdering several people.
Flannery O’Connor made a living writing pieces that ended unhappily for good people, and universities have whole semester courses in literature based on dreary endings.
3. “No great artist sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”
This is a great first line to present to a creative writing class. To me, it implies great writers see the world differently than the normal person. Wilde expanded a corollary of this view with
4. “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament.”
Wilde’s behavior reflected a distain for current fashion and mores. Convicted of gross indecency with men, he spent two years at hard labor in prison and later produced The Ballad of Reading Gaol. one of his most famous poems. And he picked up some life lessons from his time behind bars.
5.“ One of the many things one learns in prison is, that things are as they are and will be as they will be.”
Oscar Wilde lived a free-wheeling lifestyle, but not quite as wild as many later writers.
It was William Faulkner, who famously said,
“All great writers are driven by demons. The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”
Stephen King, once a tippler himself, called this the “Hemingway Defense.”
“Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.”
Newspapers and critics were subject to Wilde’s cutting barbs.
6. “By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”
Oscar Wilde had a dim view of newspaper writers in his time. Many people in the United Kingdom were illiterate and the paper had to be read to them. The language was, therefore, simple and unadorned.
Not like the literature Wilde wrote.
7. “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. The function of the artist is to invent, not to chronicle.”
As a playwright, poet, and novelist, Wilde put literature on a pedestal.
8. “Literature must always rest on a principle, and temporal considerations are no principle at all. Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.
His sarcastic wit often included other writers.
9. “Anyone can write a three volume novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature.”
Always in need of money, Wilde lamented the poor pay of those who rose above the hard-working ink-spattered scribblers of his day.
10. "The best work of literature is done by those who don’t depend on it for their daily bread, and the highest form of literature, poetry, brings no wealth to its singer."
Two final quotes are attributed to Oscar Wilde as he lay dying penniless in a rooming house in Paris,
“This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”
“I am dying beyond my means. I can’t even afford to die.”
If this master quipster didn’t say either of them, and last quotes are often unreliable, Oscar Wilde would have wished he had.