“The Logic of Lies: False Accusation and Legal Culture in Late Qing Sichuan”
Late Imperial China, Volume 35, Number 2, December 2014, pp. 27-55
Brief excerpt from Late Imperial China website:
False accusation [wugao] was a strategy deployed by a range of individuals in order to bring their complaints to the court for remediation. It lays bare the very real ways in which locals—including the poor—actively shaped formal disputation as it entered the courtroom. The study of false accusation exposes the sophisticated strategies Qing subjects employed to advance their interests in court, and makes clear that even among the rural poor there was a broad knowledge of the workings of the legal system. Indeed, many individuals resorted to cunning strategies to circumvent normal channels of local dispute resolution in order to avail themselves of state authority. Conversely, one also sees the state, as represented by the local magistrate, ignoring the maneuvering and manipulation of locals in order to intervene in local disputes, which were often economic clashes at their root. In this interaction between locals and the county magistrate, the state remained deeply relevant in local life even at the very end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912).
False accusation cases not only reveal the driving role for locals in the late Qing, but also expose an expanded sphere of state engagement. Instead of turning away cases based on hollow accusations, magistrates went out of their way to rule on the often-petty disputes that lay at their core. Why would they do this? A simple explanation suggests that this is what local governance looked like in the late Qing. Magistrates exhibit a surprising willingness to adjudicate, and turn a blind eye toward the false accusations that landed a case in court. The examination of false accusation cases exhumes an expanded role for the state at the local level. The county magistrate’s engagement with the communities he oversaw enhanced the Qing state’s vitality and legitimacy at the local level even near the dynasty’s collapse. In meaningful ways, the Qing state still worked at the end of the nineteenth century.
Moreover, given the number of non-elite and rural actors actively (and illegally) pursuing their interests in court, we must imagine an enlarged and rowdy legal culture at work in the county. This wider web of legal action tied local communities, local leaders, and common peasants to the authority of the state, inasmuch as the county court was the face of the state at the local level.
In these encounters between the local state and various communities within the county, the legal system acted as a conduit through which the state reached out into local society. This medium was also accessed by locals, and served as a system of exchange. In these exchanges, locals deployed a range of strategies to shape their interactions with state authority. False accusations often granted individuals access to state authority in cases that might otherwise not attract the magistrate’s attention. Local people were pushing their way into the courtroom by deploying a variety of shrewd strategies to guide the outcome of their interactions with state authority. The court, for its part, welcomed these engagements by turning a blind eye to the sometimes-illegal tactics employed to bring matters before the state’s authority.
Not only did the court not punish these transgressions, the magistrate commonly ruled on the underlying conflict, which was frequently economic. These cases demonstrate the degree to which ordinary people were able to navigate state institutions and effectively work the system by exploiting these illegal but customary practices of deception. These practices are especially surprising given the formal risks of lying in court. The Qing Code states:
In the case of anyone who falsely accuses another of an offense punishable with strokes of the light bamboo, sentence him to the penalty of the offense of which he falsely accused [the other], increased by two degrees. If the penalty is exile, penal servitude, or strokes of the heavy bamboo (regardless of whether it has been executed and the accused has gone to the place of punishment or not), add three degrees to the penalty for the offense falsely complained of. Each penalty is limited to 100 strokes of the heavy bamboo and exile to 930 miles. (Do not increase to the extent of strangulation.)
Yet, despite the threat…