Historical Figures: Bao Zheng, Symbol of Justice and Fairness

December 10, 2014 Updated: December 17, 2014

Bao Zheng (A.D. 999–1062) was a well-known official and judge in the Northern Song Dynasty. During his service, he fought vigorously against corruption, solved many complicated cases, and punished corrupt governors, abusive relatives of high-ranking officials, and crafty businessmen.

Bao won wide respect and popularity from the people in the regions he served. His uprightness, selflessness, and impartial judgment earned him the nickname “Bao of the Clear Sky (Bao Qingtian).”

Justice Through Investigation

Bao Zheng was distinct from other magistrates and imperial officials who often used torture to force confessions, which resulted in many innocent people being wrongly convicted.

As a righteous and intelligent judge, Bao Zheng solved cases involving both commoners and aristocrats by means of thorough investigation. He relied on his sharp observation skills, deduction, wits, and patience rather than torture.

Best known as a wise judge who could crack any case, Bao Zheng became a legendary figure and the first, and probably most famous, Chinese detective.

Legends about Lord Bao and his cases have been passed on for thousands of years through popular culture, such as storytelling, novels, stage drama, TV shows and movies.

The stories of Bao Zheng and his cases established the classical Chinese literary genre “gong’an,” which is the Chinese version of a detective series in the form of chapter novels.

The lasting impact of Lord Bao and the gong’an tradition can even be seen in 21st-century modern Chinese detective stories mixed in with the formula of western detective novels such as “Sherlock Holmes.”

The most famous and popular is Zheng Xiaoqing’s “Huo Sang Tan’an,” which is set in early 1900s Shanghai.

Today, as a popular character in various forms of performing arts, Bao Zheng is often portrayed as a stern black face with a light crescent-shaped birthmark on his forehead, with a few outstanding martial artists at his service.

Filial Piety Before National Service

Bao Zheng was born into a scholar family and studied diligently as a youth. Ultimately, he passed the imperial civil service examination at the age of 29, and was soon offered a government job as a county magistrate.

However, his aged parents were in poor health at that time and Bao Zheng decided to put filial piety first. He resigned from the prestigious position and returned home to take care of his parents for nearly a decade until they both passed away.

Bao Zheng then returned to government and served as a local official. Being honest and judicious, he was soon promoted to be magistrate of the Song capital, Kaifeng, which was a most challenging place to govern as many aristocrats and powerful families lived there.

However, by implementing a series of reforms, Bao Zheng turned it into an orderly place in just over a year. For example, traditionally, a plaintiff had to prepare a claim in writing and pass it on to the court through the clerk officials. Often, powerful families would bribe the clerks to drop or block a lawsuit.

Bao Zheng decided to allow people to make oral complaints without having to complete paperwork. In this way, poorly educated people could avoid some injustices exerted by officials who would manipulate the facts in the paperwork.

This new approach greatly improved public order in the capital, as any serious complaint, no matter who was involved, would be dealt with fairly and impartially by Judge Bao. The stalwart magistrate also came to be known as the “Iron-faced Judge.”

Committed to Justice for All

Once, the town of Kaifeng flooded and Bao Zheng’s investigation revealed that the cause stemmed from the numerous gardens and pavilions illegally built over the river by powerful families that blocked the water from flowing freely through.

Bao Zheng ordered that they be demolished by a certain deadline. One of the trespassers ignored the order and, when questioned, presented a deed for the land, claiming that he owned it.

Bao Zheng thoroughly inspected the deed and found a flaw that proved it was counterfeit. Despite protest from the powerful family, he ordered that the garden be immediately demolished, and reported the matter to the emperor. Soon, the flood receded.

Bao Zheng was disciplined, upright, and impartial to all. Once, one of his uncles broke the law and was sued by the victim in the local court. Bao Zheng summoned the contemptuous uncle to the court and had him beaten with sticks 100 times as punishment.

Bao Zheng was very strict with his family and, despite his high position, he lived a simple life. Under his influence, his children were also frugal, and usually wore simple and plain clothes except when visiting friends or attending parties.

In his old age, Bao Zheng set a family rule: “Among my children who serve in government, if any breaks the law or becomes corrupt, he shall not return to our hometown, nor shall he be buried in the family cemetery. I will disown those who do not heed these words.”

Later, after Bao Zheng passed away, several of his sons passed imperial court examinations and became officials. They all mirrored Bao Zheng’s virtues, and were praised by people as upright officials.

Due to his uncompromising dedication to upholding the law, Bao Zheng has become the cultural symbol of justice and retribution in the Far East.