The celebrated fictional character of Judge Dee is about a Chinese Magistrate who lived during the Ming Dynasty. Dee, a magistrate of Poo-Yang, who is newly appointed, is expected in the novel to pass a sentence regarding a rape-murder case. He believes that the suspect is actually innocent, and this fact makes me believe that Judge Dee is more for Confucianism, additionally, it is implied in the novel that he is not fond of Buddhist. Judge Dee was famous for his ability in solving mystery cases; he has a characteristic of wanting to delve deeper and understand more of the cases before he passes his judgment. His skepticism leads him to finding more and looking past the obvious to be able to unravel what any other man would have deemed an impossible case. It can be said that Judge Dee’s methods are effective; however there are many areas of his characteristic which create him to be such a complex character. Asking whether Dee is for Confucianism or a Legalist is very closed-ended and too narrow to conclude. He shows characteristics for both types of philosophies, and puts methods from both to practice.
The Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was known for his wise sayings, and upon these were the bases of Confucianism based on. The values of this philosophy are heavily based on piety as well as respect for others, especially towards elders and honoring ones ancestors. The beliefs of Confucianism also rely on relationships within society and their natural order between families. Judge Dee would not have become a magistrate if it weren’t for his studying under the Confucianism teachings; going together with the beliefs of Confucianism, education is vital for everyone to be able to live and build relationships in society. Therefore, Judge Dee lived what he learned and put in to practice what he believed. It has been said that this philosophy was a “benchmark” for one to become a statesman, other than that Confucianism was mentioned a number of times in the novel, enough for one to believe that the novel revolved around it. Coinciding with the teachings of Confucianism, the role models were very much evident in the novel, and they were given of great importance. This made us realize that Judge Dee had a certain level of respect for the elders, or those of higher position; he acknowledged hierarchy and displayed a great amount of respect, something heavily taught in Confucianism beliefs. Dee understood the mechanics of social status and structure; this was evident not only in his court, but how he saw other people outside his work.
Judge Dee’s characteristics and roots in Confucianism are portrayed in his sentencing of Dr. Tang, evident in this statement:
“But in deference to your great achievements in the field of scholarly researches, I shall free with this public reprimand, enjoining you henceforth to devote all your time to your own literary studies. You are strictly forbidden ever again to engage in the teaching of young students.” (qtd. Van Gulik, pg. 208).
Judge Dee deemed Dr. Tang responsible for the actions of his student, Hsu Deh-tai. Hsu was the young man who had committed adultery as well as murder. Because of Dr. Tang’s higher status, achieving a Doctorate status in education, his punishment was less severe than that of someone who would not be of that status. This is seen in his execution of Hsu, who was sentenced to be strangled to death. The “meritorious services rendered to the State by the said Hsu Deh-tai’s father and grandfather” (pg. 214) was recognized by Judge Dee, and this reflects his example of piety and his respect for social hierarchy. The references in which Judge Dee’s subjects, or assistance would call themselves portrays the ideal social order seen in the book, something which is reflective of Confucianism beliefs. It can go without saying that Confucianism did play a great role in the book, however it would be too quick to say that Judge Dee is a Confucian.
Legalism plays a minor role in the novel, as well. This is an ideology which believes that men are all born with evil in them and that to be able to control these evil men, certain laws are supposed to be put into action and restrictions are to be made. Judge Dee definitely believes in the power of harsh punishments, and how they are needed in society to keep people from doing evil things to each other. If Legalism was not part of Judge Dee’s characteristic, he would not display the level of authority he had and would not have imposed the punishments he had. Dee had power and control in the novel, there is no doubt about that. This reflects his beliefs in Legalism and he exercises this through his power and control, something not of Confucianism beliefs – where respect and honor are more in play. Even though Judge Dee uses his power and authority for sentencing and his punishments, he does not overuse this power given to him, and he uses his status in society justly. Judge Dee is seen throughout the novel to use his position and authority to intimidate people through interrogations, again putting Legalism into practice.
Judge Dee shows characteristics for both Confucianism and Legalism. The book shows both of these ideologies come into play in its characteristic of being a crime novel, and about solving mysteries. The setting of the novel puts in cultural characteristics into play, making Confucianism the center of the novel. Even though Confucianism was very evident in the novel it is more of a social belief and a cultural idea in the book, Judge Dee is Legalist. I would have to say that Judge Dee did follow the beliefs of Confucianism, and he did practice them, however his identity, being a magistrate and practicing his power, Judge Dee is a Legalist living in a Confucians society.