Research Project


The Relationship between Prognostication and Law as Reflected in Mantic and Legal Manuscripts from the Qin Dynasty

Dr. Ulrich Lau

Several hemerological and legal manuscripts figure most prominently among the manuscripts that have been excavated from tombs of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). Hemerological manuals like daybooks (rishu) were used in the same way and alongside legal texts such as statutes, models for investigation, and records of criminal proceedings as burial objects in the tomb of judicial officials. My project has been devoted to the issue of whether and how important fields of early Chinese knowledge such as hemerology and law were interrelated. This raises the question of how much influence hemerological and related mantic manuals had on the administrative and legal decisions made by officials.

While some aspects of daybooks have been relatively well studied, in-depth research on the legal issues within these daybooks is still a desideratum. First, I examined whether the days on which offenders chose to abscond were selected on the basis of prescriptions and prohibitions concerning auspicious or inauspicious days in the Rishu from Shuihudi tomb 11 and Fangmatan tomb 1. For this purpose, I relied on Qin and early Han time records of criminal cases and other legal manuscripts. There are only two references to the time of absconding. This evidence is insufficient and inconclusive.

In the next step, I examined whether hemerological prescriptions of the daybooks were followed by officials when initiating criminal proceedings, arresting suspects, or passing judgment. The two Qin and Han period collections of criminal case records, Zou yan shu and Wei yu deng Zhuang, provide nearly 50 precise dates for the time when persons suspected of having committed an offence were reported or presented to the authorities and cases were decided. I compiled all of these dates from the criminal case records and compared them with the auspicious and inauspicious days for different legal acts listed in daybooks. The investigation revealed that the hemerological prescriptions of the daybooks concerning auspicious and inauspicious days were not followed by common people or officials in criminal cases from Qin times when initiating criminal proceedings or passing judgment. In addition, I compared the terms used in the daybooks and the legal manuscripts for the different stages of the criminal procedures. My results show that they in fact differ significantly.

As a further step in my project, I searched for indications of whether the mantic methods recommended in the daybooks for detecting and catching a burglar were applied in Qin criminal cases by investigating officers. The hemerological predictions were based on the twelve Chinese zodiac animals with which the twelve earthly branches as date indicators were associated at the time. I compared these predictions with some illustrative examples of criminal investigations against robbers and burglars from Qin criminal cases. The analysis of the sources indicates that law enforcement officers did not attach any particular importance to the resemblance of the suspected offender to those zodiac animals which were associated with the branch of the day on which the theft was committed.

The last topic of my research at the IKGF concerned the semantic analysis of terms which are used both in legal manuscripts and exorcistic texts. In particular, I focused on the semantic interpretation of jie which Donald Harper has translated as “spellbinding”. On the basis of this interpretation, Harper has developed a concept of the historical development of the written testimony from older magical practices to the use of written testimony in judicial proceedings of the Qin dynasty. A thorough analysis of the references to the term jie in the legal manuscripts from Shuihudi and the Yuelu Academy failed to confirm the existence of magical conceptions or practices within criminal proceedings of the Qin and early Han periods. The recording of testimonies is better interpreted as a form of complying with prescribed bureaucratic procedures.

There is no clear evidence that hemerological and related mantic manuals directly influenced legal decisions during the Qin dynasty. Although the officials buried with manuscripts had expertise both regarding hemerology and legal issues, these fields of knowledge do not seem to have been interrelated to any meaningful extent. The available evidence suggests that mantic and hemerological consultation did not figure among the official duties of judicial secretaries.

back to "Notions of Fate and Prognostication and their Taxonomies" overview