Huang Liuhong (Huang Liu-hung) was a district magistrate during the early Qing (Ch’ing) or Manchu dynasty (1644–1912), when Manchu values and behavior were being imposed on Han China. He was born in Xinchang (Hsin-ch’ang) at a time of civil conflict and great disorder. When he was 19 years old, Huang passed a civil service exam and earned the juren (chü-jen) degree. He was then able to travel throughout China, educating himself on the history of the provinces he visited. At the time, the ruling Manchu, after decades of violence and political strife, sought the cooperation of educated citizens in an attempt to assuage nationalist opposition. It was in these circumstances that, in 1670, Huang was made magistrate of the Tancheng (T’an-ch’eng) district. He also served as magistrate in other districts and learned enough from his experiences to write a book of guidelines for the office of magistrate. This book, A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence, became a manual for local governors in the Qing dynasty for several centuries.
In this manual, Huang describes types of suicide that were common at the time and distinguishes among the different sorts of intentions under which a person might commit suicide. Suicides committed because of suffering or abuse are to be pitied, he asserts, while those committed for other reasons, like a trivial grudge or to injure an enemy, cannot be condoned. Huang then explains methods he used in his district to lower the number of suicides being committed. This window into the practice of suicide, as well as attitudes about self-killing in 17th century China, gives some evidence of the Chinese assumption that others may play a causal role in suicides and provides a look at one official’s efforts—apparently effective—at suicide prevention.
Huang Liu-Hung, A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence: A Manual for Local Magistrates in Seventeenth-Century China, ed. and tr. Djang Chu. Topic 7, Administration of Justice: Chüan 14, Homicide (Part I); Chüan 15, Homicide (Part II). Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1984, pp. 319-320, 355-358.
from A COMPLETE BOOK CONCERNING HAPPINESS AND BENEVOLENCE
Homicide cases are of two kinds: genuine and counterfeit. Among the genuine homicide cases there are seven different categories: killing in a robbery (chieh-sha), killing by premeditation (mou-sha), killing by intent (ku-sha), killing in an affray (tou-sha), killing by error (wu-sha), killing in play (his-sha), and killing be accident (kuo-shih-sha). Counterfeit homicide cases involve people who hang themselves, drown themselves, or cut their own throats—those who are mistakenly considered as homicide victims but in reality are suicides.
Among the seven categories of homicide cases—aside from killing in a robbery—only the criminals who are convicted of killing by premeditation, killing by intent, or killing in an affray are subject to the death penalty. In each of these cases, however, the victim’s corpse must be examined to ascertain that there are death-causing wounds and the murder weapon inspected to see if the weapon tallies with the wounds. A murderer forfeits his life only when genuine homicide is proved. In the absence of an examination of the corpse and an inspection of the weapon, even if it is a genuine homicide case, the suspect’s life cannot be taken away arbitrarily without proof of guilt. This provision of the law is designed to prevent false accusations and to protect the life of the innocent.
Suicides who hang themselves or kill themselves by other means are generally prompted by temporary emotional outbursts or by the intention of harming their enemies. In such cases the victims take their own lives without serious consideration, and their deaths cannot be attributed to the intentions of their enemies. However, there are instances in which the victim commits suicide as a result of oppression and browbeating by his enemy. Such cases must be investigated thoroughly. On the other hand, there are also cases in which a person dies after a long illness and his relatives bring the corpse to the door of his enemy to make a false accusation of homicide with the intention of blackmailing him. This kind of false accusation must be severely punished to suppress the evil tendency of making false charges.
The ways to differentiate the seven categories of homicide and the essentials of conducting examinations of corpses are explained below for the reference of magistrates who wish to be cautious in making decisions in order to prevent injustice and to protect the lives of innocent people.
Suicide happens to both men and women. Among women who commit suicide, some kill themselves because of ill treatment at the hands of their parents-in-law, while others do so because of their husband’s cruelties. These unfortunate women deserve our sympathy. However, there are cases in which a woman, having a quarrel with her mother-in-law, having an occasional argument with her husband, or having exchanges of heated words with a sister-in-law or even a stranger, kills herself in a paroxysm of distress. This kind of self-destruction does not constitute a case for condolence. Often a girl commits suicide because of maltreatment by her stepmother or shame brought on her by an illicit liaison.
As to men who commit suicide, some suicides are due to dire poverty or suffering from extreme cold and hunger; others are the victims of private or official debts without means to repay. These people are entitled to our compassionate consideration. But there are those who sacrifice their lives because of insignificant grudges and choose to die in the homes of their enemies, their main purpose being to vent their spleen and let their relatives seize the enemies’ property on trumped-up charges. Such acts of depravity cannot be condoned.
When a suicide case is reported, the magistrate should go to the place where it happened and examine the corpse immediately. When real grievances of the deceased can be ascertained, the person who has caused his death should be punished with heavy blows and levied a fine to pay for the burial expenses and to pacify the spirit of the deceased. On the other hand, if the suicide is committed without provocation or valid reason, the magistrate should order the relatives to have the corpse buried and no innocent people should be implicated in the case. Thus the evil trend of false accusation can be suppressed and the people will know how important it is to value their own lives.
When I was the magistrate of T’an-ch’eng and later Tungkuang, there were many suicide cases, especially in T’an-ch’eng. As the land was unproductive, the people lived in abject poverty, with few pleasures in life. Furthermore, the social trend was toward militancy and ruthlessness; the inhabitants habitually enjoyed fighting one another and paid little attention to the maxims of etiquette and courtesy. Not infrequently father and son living in the same household turned into enemies on the spur of the moment, and relatives and neighbors in the same village got into fist fights while entertaining and feasting. Suicides by hanging were daily occurrences and self-destruction by cutting one’s own throat or drowning in the river were common events.
I became alarmed at the situation and said to myself, “The lack of education on the part of youthful delinquents is the fault of their parents. Not heeding the instruction of their parents is the mistake of the youth themselves. If I teach them first and punish them later in accordance with the provisions of the law, they cannot complain about the severity of judgments.” Accordingly, I issued a proclamation that was written in the form of popular doggerel rhymes and ordered copies posted in all villages and city wards. In doing so I hoped the ignorant females would understand the importance of practicing filial piety and kindness as well as the shame of being vixens and shrews; and that people in all walks of life—merchants, peasants and artisans—would be proud to be law-abiding citizens and would recognize it as disgraceful to be belligerent and quarrelsome. The main purpose, however, was to eliminate the causes for committing suicide as well as to admonish potential suicides of the legal consequences of taking such futile action.
I said in essence, “Those males who hang themselves from rafters or drown themselves in water will become wandering ghosts, hovering under the roofs or drifting with the waves. If the officials fail to bury their bodies, they will be infested with and consumed by flies and maggots. Who is there to have pity on them? Those females who hang themselves with rope or sashes will become specters haunting narrow alleys and dark rooms. When an inquest is ordered their naked bodies will be exposed to prying eyes. Did they not possess a sense of shame when they were living? The human body is not only a bequest of one’s parents but also a result of countless cycles of reincarnation. That anyone can be degraded enough to destroy it with his own hands and regard it no more important than that of a pig or a dog is something I detest most vigorously. Why should I value the body bequeathed to someone by his parents if he does not value it himself? Why should I refrain from treating it as if it were that of a pig or a dog if he himself treats it that way? From now on, anyone who uses a case of suicides to falsely accuse another of a crime shall be subject to the punishment the alleged crime would have merited. Anyone who gathers a mob to rob others on the pretext of avenging a suicide shall be punished according to the law on robbery in broad daylight. Would not this make the one who commits suicide with such a vile scheme in mind sacrifice his life in vain? This magistrate always back up his words with deeds! Ye multitudes, reflect on this and realize what is at stake!”
During my tenures of magistracy I strictly ordered all village headmen and local elders to report suicide cases with accurate descriptions and to designate them as such. Whenever a case was reported, I would ride to the locale immediately to examine the corpse. If it was a genuine suicide case without any suspicious implications, I would investigate the cause of the suicide; those who were involved were punished with blows or fined for burial expenses. If the suicide was committed without adequate reason and did not deserve sympathy, the relatives of the deceased were ordered to bury the corpse and to sign a statement acknowledging that it was a suicide.
On such occasions I would not issue warrants for arrests and would not bring a large number of runners to the examination. No matter how far away the place was, I would bring my own ration and would not oblige the family of the deceased to furnish even a cup of tea. I would order the clerk of the criminal section to record the appearance of the corpse and take down the testimonies of relatives. No mat shed would be installed for this purpose. All I needed was a stool and a mat to sit on. Not a single cash would be spent by the family of the deceased, and they would not be required to appear at the yamen. The case would be concluded in a day, not even postponed overnight.
If there were unruly people gathering a group of followers, armed with cudgels and weapons, to create disturbances, they would immediately be arrested and punished. The ringleaders would be brought back to the yamen and put in the cangue, then led back to the locality, under the supervision of the village elders, for public exposure.
After I had implemented this policy for half a year, the inhabitants of the district began to get my message and the number of suicide cases decreased dramatically. After one year no more cases were reported. Many unnecessary deaths were avoided and I was spared many unpleasant trips. Who can say that public education and law enforcement do not produce the desired effect in an isolated district?