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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Performance of Power and the Administration of Justice: Capital Punishment and the Case Review System in Late Imperial China

  • Author(s): Poling, Kathleen Margaret
  • Advisor(s): Yeh, Wen-hsin
  • et al.

This study illuminates the spectacular rituals of Qing justice, the administration of capital punishment in particular, by focusing on the administrative, physical and performative work that made them possible. I approach this topic via a thematic history of the system of Autumn Case Review (sometimes called "the Autumn Assizes") in the 19th century. By considering government documentation from both local and central judicial authorities, I pay attention to the action that took place behind the scenes of execution in Qing China in order to both illuminate the paths that criminals and officials walked in the time between crime and punishment and to understand the lengths to which the Qing powers went to enact not blind, arbitrary, ritualized power but their own particular brand of justice. I argue that the purposes and values of the Qing death penalty are not simple, and that, when viewed through the lens of judicial administration, the late Qing can be seen as a complex and dynamic regime committed to performing both imperial power and imperial benevolence.

Following an introduction that places Chinese and Western interpreters of Qing justice in historical and theoretical context, chapter two describes the Case Review system in detail, outlining the flow of paperwork that made the emperor's review of capital cases possible. By looking at the unintentional death of prisoners, chapter three investigates one moment when this review system failed to either punish or release prisoners. Chapter four outlines the transfer of prisoners that helped on a quotidian basis to perform the empire's power and benevolence to an audience outside the bureaucracy. Chapter five considers the reduction and commutation of capital sentences in order to understand more clearly how the empire used un-executed criminals to emphasize the benevolent nature of its rule. Finally the conclusion returns to some of the historiographical questions that motivated this study to look at the way that Chinese punishment was perceived by Western (and some Chinese) critics at the beginning of the 20th century. Ultimately, I argue that the definition of justice in the Qing was based on a belief that punishment could be meted out properly, that benevolence was a constitutive part of that process and that the proper performance of the death penalty took place on and in many stages, stages that stretched well beyond the forbidding spectacle of the execution ground.

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