STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Long before Sherlock Holmes, a celebrated Chinese detective was cracking complicated cases in the seventh century. That legendary sleuth, Judge Dee, lives on today in movies, operas, plays and crime novels. And as Judge Dee tracks down his villains, he helps to inform ordinary Chinese people's understanding of law and justice. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINS CLANKING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (shouts in foreign language)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In the latest movie from veteran Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, a young man named Di Renjie befriends a prison medic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: He is amazed that Dee seems to know everything about him, even though the two haven't previously met. Dee explains that it's all about deduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Judge Dee) (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The first rule of sleuthing, Dee tells the medic, is that you need a photographic memory. The second is that you need to closely observe people's speech and facial expressions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING)

KUHN: Dee doesn't mention it, but in his case, you also need top-notch kung fu skills to whoop the bad guys and deal with the occasional sea monster. I asked Tsui about how he tries to portray Dee in his films.

TSUI HARK: (Through Translator) So we wanted to see how much we could exaggerate his persona, basing the story on the historical background, while creating a heroic figure from our mind's eye.

KUHN: The real Judge Dee actually served twice as prime minister during the Tang Dynasty under Empress Wu Zetian, the first woman to ever rule China. Zhang Guofeng is an expert on detective literature at People's University in Beijing. He says Dee is famous for having a close but rocky relationship with the Empress, and for counseling her to scale back her ruthless political purges.

ZHANG GUOFENG: (Through Translator) The empress was trying to consolidate her political power. She had many opponents. So she employed a lot of brutal officials who would extract confessions through torture and accuse people of plotting rebellions. But Judge Dee would often correct the miscarriages of justice she caused.

KUHN: Zhang says that stories about Judge Dee were passed down from generation to generation by oral storytellers. And they still are. Wang Fengchen is a young storyteller who performs both in traditional teahouses, and on the radio. Here he performs for us a section from a story called "The Nail Murders." In this scene, Judge Dee orders a coroner to re-examine the body of a victim whose cause of death is not clear.

WANG FENGCHEN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Especially, examine the deceased's skull and nostrils. Yes sir. The coroner knew just what to do. He slid the forceps into the man's nostrils. He gently turned it when, all of a sudden - ah. His forceps bumped into something. He delicately pulled the object out to examine. Ah. Sir, look. What - what is it?

FENGCHEN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The oral stories were not written into a novel until the 19th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing in foreign language)

KUHN: Whether it's an opera, like this one, a TV drama, or a movie, all of them interpret and embellish Judge Dee's stories, adding to his legend. But Professor Zhang Guofeng cautions us that Dee is part of an ancient legal culture that's incompatible with any modern rule of law. Traditionally, China never had a distinct legal profession. The real Judge Dee was actually a county magistrate who functioned as detective, prosecutor and judge all rolled into one. And when Dee couldn't get his suspects to confess, it was standard procedure to torture them until they did.

GUOFENG: (Through Translator) The popularity of this kind of fiction shows that China still has a long way to go to achieve the rule of law. The ideal of the upright official is not about relying on the law. In the end, it just represents a reliance on officials to solve problems.

KUHN: In other words, the hunger for justice that makes Judge Dee stories so popular won't be satisfied until heroes like Judge Dee are replaced with impersonal laws and institutions. Anthony Kuhn.

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