Judge Bao, the Chinese Sherlock Holmes Who Became a Legend

Judge Bao, the Chinese Sherlock Holmes Who Became a Legend

How did a humble government official during the reign of Emperor Renzong (AD 1010 – 1063) of the Northern Song dynasty of China, become a legend, and achieve immortality in Chinese operas as a god status? Such a man was Bao Zheng. Bao Zheng took on many different posts before he was promoted to the position of prefect of the Song capital, Kaifeng, and enjoyed a reputation as fair and virtuous judge after his appointments. Although at a glance this seems to be just another long and  impressive resumé of a successful public servant, Bao Zheng became an exceptional character as his cases evolved into many legendary acts of justice such as impeaching an uncle of Emperor Renzong's favorite concubine, punishing powerful corrupted families and even sentencing his own uncle. Not only moving within the circles of the rich and powerful, Bao Zheng was also known to have initiated many legal reforms to better address the grievances of the people.

Lord Bao Memorial Temple. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lord Bao Memorial Temple. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Becoming a Legend and a God

By 1250, legends concerning Judge Bao’s insights and fairness had become material for the professional bards and found their way into early printed literature. A series of eight ballads about Judge Bao, dating from 1250–1450, not only describe the abuse of power and corruption in the courts and bureaucratic services, they also show Judge Bao as the character who applied the rule of law to everyone - even the emperor himself.


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