Is Justice Bao’s Face Really ‘Black’?

Is Justice Bao’s Face Really ‘Black'
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By Jonathon Ang

Justice Bao is often portrayed as a dark-skinned Chinese man, but did he really have a ‘black’ face, according to legend?

Before we discuss his skin tone, for the uninformed, let us find out how he became so popular, at least to local people here.

In 1974, Taiwan’s Chinese Television System Inc. (华视) produced a TV serial drama called ‘包青天’, translated as ‘The Legend of Justice Bao Zheng’.   It aired in Taiwan and Singapore.

It was so well-received that what was originally a 30-episode drama stretched to 350 episodes.  Those who had watched it might still be able to recall its immensely popular theme song.

The story of Justice Bao was such a big hit that it was remade many times over, in 1987, 1993, 2003, 2008, and 2010.  What captivated the audience?  Did this man really exist in history?

And oh, did he really have a crescent moon on his forehead?

Who Is Justice Bao?

First, let’s find out who he is.  Yes, he is a real historical figure.  Named Bao Zheng (包拯), he was born in Hefei, Anhui, China.   He lived from 11 April 999 to 20 May 1062, over a thousand years ago, during the Song Dynasty (宋朝).

Born low to middle class, Justice Bao grew up sympathetic of the hardships ordinary people had to go through.  But he was diligent, and at age 29, he received a PhD degree in China.

Well, back then, the degree he obtained was called Jinshi (進士), the highest attainment in the imperial examination system, which took place only once every three years.  In modern terms, Jinshi is equivalent to a Doctor of Literature degree.

Bao Zheng held numerous high-level government posts throughout his career.  He was Vice Minister of Finance, Vice Minister of Defence, and Governor of the capital city of Kaifeng (开封府).  Very impressive, don’t you think?

Did Justice Bao Have A ‘Black’ Face?

No.  On the contrary, he was a fair-skinned scholarly person (白面书生), not dark-toned as portrayed in Chinese operas, TV dramas and movies.

According to historical records such as the Luzhou Journals (庐州府志), he had simple but elegant looks, and grew a white beard.

What about the crescent moon birthmark on his forehead?   That merely symbolised brightness and purity.  Let me explain.

There is a Chinese idiom 皓月当空 (hào yuè dāng kōng), which literally means ‘the bright moon hung high in the sky’.  The crescent moon characterised Bao Zheng’s righteous and upright character.  He shone where there was darkness.

In Chinese folklore and the literary works that followed, creative and dramatic expressions darkened his facial skin tone to encapsulate Bao Zheng’s mighty personality and imprinted a crescent moon on his forehead to represent his righteous and upright character.

Bao Zheng was said to preside over judicial matters in the day and also in the netherworld at night.   A super-judge indeed!  No injustice ever escaped him.

Why Is Bao Zheng So Popular?

Bao Zheng is the cultural symbol of justice, as portrayed in Chinese folklore and historical records.

Did he really preside over those judicial cases that formed the storylines of numerous Chinese operas and TV dramas?

Well, some of those cases were real, while some were made up.  Let’s find out more.

The Chen Shimei Case – Beheading the Emperor’s Brother-in-Law

As the story goes, Bao Zheng beheaded the emperor’s brother-in-law Chen Shimei (陈世美) despite tearful pleas from the empress and the princess.

What crime did Chen Shimei commit?

Story has it that Chen had a wife Qin Xianglian (秦香蓮) and two children in their hometown before making his way to the capital city to sit for the imperial examinations.   He did well and later married the emperor’s sister, thus becoming the emperor’s brother-in-law (驸马).

Chen soon forgot about his wife and children back in his hometown. However, times were bad, so Qin and their two children made their way to the capital city to look for Chen.

Not only did the heartless Chen refuse to acknowledge them, he also sent someone to kill them.  Fortunately, they escaped death at the mercy of the killer.

Qin sought justice from Bao Zheng, who prosecuted Chen for his inhumane denial of his wife and children, his lie to the emperor regarding his marital status, and the premeditated murder of his wife and his own children.

Bao Zhen decisively beheaded Chen using his famous guillotine, despite Chen being the emperor’s brother-in-law – a VIP.

But did Chen Shimei and Qin Xianglian really exist in history?

Well, no.  Surprise, surprise!

Is the Chen Shimei Case Fictitious?

Yes.  But why am I so certain?

First, there is no Chen Shimei in all of China’s historical records, not even any similar character.  Note that Chen was supposed to be the emperor’s brother-in-law.  This is a prominent official status that would have gone into court records, if indeed Chen existed.

Second, the guillotine that Bao Zheng used did not exist in his time, the Song Dynasty.  Such apparatus came into the picture only in the Yuan Dynasty, which is the dynasty after Song.

The Chen Shimei case is not ‘fake news’.  It is simply fiction.  But why does this story sound so real, as if the two characters Chen Shimei and Qin Xianglian indeed existed?

The Real Chen Shimei

There was a government official in the Qing Dynasty, China’s last dynasty, called Chen Shumei (陈熟美) and he had a wife named Qin Xinlian (秦馨蓮).   They existed in history, as they are found in court records.

Chen Shumei was an upright official who did not succumb to the less-than-upright practices of other officials.  Over time, he became their public enemy as he did not cave in to temptations.

In order to slander and smear Chen Shumei and his wife Qin Xinlian, these corrupt official crafted two fictitious husband-and-wife characters called Chen Shimei and Qin Xianglian, by changing the middle characters of their real names.

They cooked up the story of how Chen Shimei was not faithful to Qin Xianglian, disowning his family and having them killed so that Chen Shimei could live his life as the emperor’s brother-in-law.

The best part of the smear campaign was that they brought Bao Zheng into the story to accentuate the degree of evilness in Chen Shimei’s crime and the consequence he should endure – an oblique reference to the real Chen Shumei.

So Chen Shimei was a synthetically generated avatar for Chen Shumei for the sole purpose of maligning him.

The Righteous Spirit of Bao Zheng

Chinese operas on Bao Zheng feature a repertoire of cases, with a mixture of real and fictitious stories.

In subsequent articles, The Epoch Times will investigate some of these cases.  But now, it is important to appreciate the virtues that so symbolically characterise Bao Zheng.

Bao Zheng was once governor of Duan Zhou (端州), which was famous for inkstones (砚台).  So famous were these inkstones that they were offered as tributes to the emperor regularly.

Many officials made a fortune by receiving more inkstones from the craftsmen and giving only a portion to the court as tribute, harbouring the remaining for personal gains.

When Bao Zheng assumed governorship, he instructed that the quantity received should be the quantity given as tribute, no more and no less.

When his tenure ended, Bao Zheng was so upright that he did not take any single inkstone with him.   Instead, he wrote the following poem, which was a direct reminder to the governing officials:

The essence of governing is to have a cleansed heart,

The strategy of life is to follow upright ways.

An elegant stem will eventually turn into a pillar,

Refined steel cannot be bent into a hook.

Rats and sparrows are overjoyed when the granary is full,

Rabbits and foxes worry when the grassland dies.

History books contain teachings by those deceased,

Don’t leave your descendants with only embarrassment!

Here is the original version in Chinese:

清心为治本 (qīng xīn wèi zhì běn)

直道是身谋 (zhí dào shì shēn móu)

秀干终成栋 (xiù gàn zhōng chéng dòng)

精钢不作钩 (jīng gāng bù zuò gōu)

仓充鼠雀喜 (cāng chōng shǔ què xǐ)

草尽狐兔愁 (cǎo jǐn hú tù chóu)

史册有遗训 (shǐ cè yǒu yí xùn)

毋贻来者羞 (wú yí lái zhě xiū)

Justice Bao was a remarkable man for steadfastly upholding the virtues he subscribed to.

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