How the Chinese developed forensic science in the 12th centuryS

The fascinating legend of the Shitz duzhe extended all over China in the twelfth century: the Shitz duzhe came from a lineage of forensic judges, allegedly escaped from the fires of hell, whose supernatural powers allowed them to see through flesh, commune with the spirits, and solve the most mysterious crimes. For centuries the Shitz duzhe, or Corpse Readers, were loved and feared at the same time. Only the emperor and his intimate circle knew the secret to their prodigious powers.

Nowadays we know that these forensic judges, headed by Song Cí (1186-1249), were ahead of their time in establishing methods of forensic investigation of such absolute precision and so advanced that they keep astounding the world even now.

Their use of chemical products capable of revealing invisible wound marks, the employment of refrigerating techniques to preserve limbs, the application of forensic entomology, fingerprint comparisons, post-mortem analysis, making facial clay masks to assist in cadaver identification, the developments of specific instruments or the cataloging of different types of death, are only a small sample of the arsenal these cadaver readers—also forensic judges, investigators and forensic experts—secretly developed for a new way to fight crime.

Song Cí dedicated his life to investigate, compile, revise, compare, order, break down into categories, and correct a large amount of documentation in order to build the basis for criminal forensic investigation. The result of such extraordinary enterprise was his famous forensic treatise “Xi Yuan Ji Lu” or “Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified,” five volumes containing information that enabled forensic Chinese investigators to put into practice protocols similar to the ones employed nowadays in a C.S.I.

The first volume listed the laws affecting forensic judges, the bureaucratic procedures employed, the number of investigations to be carried out per crime and who was in charge of carrying them out, jurisdictions, behavioral protocol for inspectors, the drawing up of forensic reports, and the punishments forensic experts might receive if they made incorrect judgments. The first volume also advocated using a standard procedure when it came to examining corpses, including stipulating the necessity of sketching the various findings on palimpsest sheets.

The second volume detailed the stages of corpse decay, the variations in these according to the time of year, the washing and preparation of corpses, the examination of disinterred corpses, the exhumation of corpses, methods for examining corpses at an advanced stage of decomposition, forensic entomology, the analyses to be carried out in the case of a strangling or suffocation, the differences when looking at female corpses, and the examination of fetuses.

The third volume examined in depth the study of bones, wound traces on skeletons, bodily vital points, suicides by hanging, simulated suicides, murders and drownings.

The fourth volume covered deaths caused by punches or kicks or by blunt instruments used for stabbing or for cutting, suicides committed using sharp objects, murders by several wounds in which the death blow needed to be identified, cases of decapitation or cases in which the torso or the head were not present, burn deaths, deaths caused by spillages of boiling liquids, poisoning, deaths caused by hidden illnesses, deaths caused by acupuncture or moxibustion, and the registration of deaths by natural causes.

Finally, the fifth volume dealt with investigations into the deaths of prisoners; deaths caused by torture; deaths caused by falling from great heights; deaths caused by crushing, asphyxiation, horse or buffalo stampedes, and crashes; deaths by lightning strikes; deaths caused by wild beast attacks; deaths by insect, snake, or reptile bites; deaths due to internal wounds because of overeating; deaths due to sexual excesses; and, finally, the procedures for the opening up of corpses as well as the methods for dispersing stench and carrying out resuscitations.

Among these techniques, advanced methods like paternity tests carried out on cadavers are fascinating. In cases of inheritance claims by non-recognized family members, blood would be extracted from the presumed family member to pour over the deceased bones. If the blood relationship proved to be real, the drops of blood would be absorbed by the bones. If it was not it would slide off the bones. Also of note was the use of chemical developers to test if bone fractures had happened before or after the victim’s death. Such developers were obtained by boiling bones with a mixture of vinegar, salt and white plums in a clay pot on red hot coals.

But this treatise not only dealt with the chemical compounds used to reveal invisible scars, ways of differentiating wounds, how to distinguish natural deaths from those from other cases, methods to distinguish suicides from murders, the effects of poison on cadavers and the use of the “silver needle” to reveal poison, the number of participants in a crime and even the intents to disguise them. Song Cí also worked in detailing important legal aspects, like the establishment of “Death Limits,” meaning establishing the time periods within which a death could be attributed to wounds suffered in a criminal act, or if the death was due to other causes. It also established the responsibility of the forensic judge during the interrogation of the accused, given that a confession from the accused would be required to condemn him. Torture was allowed as long as it didn’t kill the accused. In the event of a death by torture the judge would be severely punished and discharged from his judicial career.

Equally rigorous was the justice meted in forensic mistake cases. In order to avoid them, each crime was analyzed by two different forensic experts. If their opinions differed they had the opportunity to reconsider them only one more time. Should they continue to have a difference of opinion, the most detailed exam would prevail and the judge whose opinions had proved wrong would be severely punished.

Autopsies always took place in the presence of family members. The tests were catalogued and ticketed for later analysis, tests and counter tests. To protect the scene of a crime from any manipulation, a circle of lime powder was placed around the victim. To avoid his investigations and judgments being influenced by the proximity of family and friends, a forensic judge could never serve in the city of his birth.

An official sealed report with the results of the investigation was made and a copy delivered to the victim’s family to be utilized during the trial. Witnesses’ accounts as well as forensic findings during the autopsies were written down. Beginning in 1204 an official report detailing the corpse’s ventral and dorsal exterior lines and the position and extension of the wounds was incorporated.

If the investigation solicited by a member of the victim’s family was not acted upon, the negligent responsible functionary would be punished with 100 cane strokes. The same punishment would take effect if the functionary took more than 8 hours to initiate it (depending on the location of the cadaver). If an error was committed in the judgment, the judge would receive 100 cane strokes. There is a precedent in which a forensic expert made a mistake in his findings, establishing that a man had died of knife wounds when in reality he had died as the result of severe lashings. That forensic expert was condemned to 3 years of slavery. The punishment for a mistake during a reinvestigation was the functionary’s loss of status and privileges, with no possibility of reduction or commutation of the penalty.

The life of a corpse reader was indeed a dangerous one. Ultimately, if it was determined that the official in charge of a criminal investigation had made a mistake knowingly or had accepted bribery amounting to more than 25 silk measures, and had sentenced the accused wrongly, he would be executed by strangulation.

About Antonio Garrido

A native of Spain, a former educator, and industrial engineer, Antonio Garrido has received acclaim for the darkly compelling storytelling and nuanced historical details that shape his novel The Corpse Reader (AmazonCrossing; May 28, 2013; $14.95/Trade Paperback Original; $9.99/E-book).

The Corpse Reader is the fictionalized account of the early life of Song Cí, the Chinese founding father of forensic science, represents the author’s years of research into cultural, social, legal, and political aspects of life in the Song Dynasty, as well as his extensive study of Song Cí’s own five-volume treatise on forensics.

In 2012, The Corpse Reader received the Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain and the novel has already been translated into more than fifteen other languages. Antonio’s previous novel, La Escriba, was published in 2008. Garrido currently resides in Valencia, Spain.