Bao Zheng today is honored as the cultural symbol of justice in Greater China. His largely fictionalized gong'an and wuxia stories have appeared in a variety of different literary and dramatic mediums (beginning with The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants), and have enjoyed sustained popularity. In mainstream Chinese mythology, he is often portrayed wearing a judge miter hat and a crescent moon on his forehead. Some Chinese provinces later deified Judge Bao, equating him to the benevolent war god Guan Gong.
Bao Zheng was born into a scholar family in Luzhou. Bao's family was in the middle class. Though Bao's parents could afford to send him to school, his mother had to climb up mountains to collect firewood just before she gave birth to him. As Bao grew up among low working class, he well understood people's hardships, hated corruption and strongly desired for justice.
At the age of 29, Bao passed the highest-level imperial examination and became qualified as a Jinshi. Bao was appointed as magistrate of Jianchang County, but he deferred embarking on his official career for a decade in order to care for his elderly parents and faithfully observe proper mourning rites after their deaths.
During the time Bao looked after his parents at home, Liu Yun (刘赟), Magistrate of Luzhou who was renowned as an excellent poetic and fair-minded officer, usually visited Bao. Because the two got along well, Bao obtained great influence from Liu Yun in respect of the love for people.
After his parents' demise, Bao Zheng, then 39, was appointed magistrate of Tianchang County not far from his hometown. It was here that Bao first established his reputation as an astute judge. According to an anecdote, a man once reported that his ox's tongue had been sliced out. Bao told him to return and slaughter the ox for sale. Soon another man arrived in court and accused the first man of privately slaughtering a "beast of burden", an offense punishable by a year of penal servitude. Bao bellowed: "Why did you cut his ox's tongue and then accuse him?" In shock, the culprit had to confess.
In 1040, Bao Zheng was promoted to the prefect of Duanzhou (modern Zhaoqing) in the south, a prefecture famous for its high-quality inkstones, a certain number of which were presented annually to the imperial court. However, Bao discovered that previous prefects had collected far more inkstones from manufacturers than the required tribute — several dozens of times more — in order to bribe influential ministers with the extras. Bao abolished the practice by telling manufacturers to fill only the required quota.
When his tenure was up in 1043, Bao left without a single inkstone in his possession. It was in Duanzhou that he wrote this poem:
Bao Zheng returned to the capital and was named an investigating censor in 1044. For the next 2 years in this position, Bao submitted at least 13 memoranda to Emperor Renzong of Song on military, taxation, the examination system, and governmental dishonesty and incompetence.
In 1045, Bao was sent to the Liao dynasty as a messenger. During an audience, a Liao official accused the Song of violating the peace by installing a secret side door in the border prefecture of Xiongzhou, so as to solicit defectors from Liao for intelligence. Bao retorted: "Why is a side door required for intelligence?" The Liao subject could not respond.
In the following years, Bao held the following positions:Fiscal commissioner of HebeiVice Director of Ministry of JusticeAuxiliary in the Academy of Scholarly Worthies (直集賢院)Vice Commissioner of Ministry of Revenue
Emperor Renzong's favourite consort had been Concubine Zhang, whom he had wanted to make empress but could not because of opposition by his (unknown to him, fake) mother, Empress Dowager Liu. Nevertheless, the concubine's uncle Zhang Yaozuo (張堯佐) was quickly promoted within a few years from minor local posts to high office, including the state finance commissioner (三司使). On July 12, 1050, Bao and 2 other censors together presented a memorandum, which in strong language accused Zhang of mediocrity and shamelessness, even attributing natural disasters to his appointments. Probably annoyed, Emperor Renzong not only did nothing to Zhang Yaozuo, he awarded Consort Zhang's sister with a title 4 days later. But Bao did not give up. In another memorandum submitted by himself alone, he wrote:
In all dynasties, family members of imperial consorts, even when talented, were not appointed office, to say nothing of a mediocre, talentless one... In prostration, your subject saw our nation-dynasty since its founders had always carefully selected intelligent ministers for appointments, even at times of overflowing treasuries... The current (financial) state is dire and dangerous from all directions, how could this man be appointed to that post and hold on to it, dashing the world's hopes and neglecting the world's matters? Your subject really and painfully feels sorry for your majesty.
Partly to appease protests by Bao and others, the emperor relieved Zhang Yaozuo from the state finance commissioner, but instead appointed him a concurrent four-commissioner position: commissioner of palace attendant, military commissioner of Huainan, Qunmu military commissioner-in-chief (群牧製置使), and commissioner of Jingling Palace (景靈宮). In a memorandum dated December 26, Bao voiced his strong protest and wrote:
The situation right now is, if your majesty is determined to appoint Yaozuo, then expel this advisor; if your majesty is to listen to this advisor, then (your majesty) must remove Yaozuo.
In the next court meeting to authenticate these posts, there was a heated argument in court led by 7 ministers including Bao, which resulted in the removal of commissioner of palace attendant and commissioner of Jingling Palace from Zhang's appointment. A few decades later, Zhu Bian (朱弁, 1085–1144) wrote a humorous account in his Anecdotes from Quwei (曲洧舊聞), which probably contributed to the development of future legends:
One day, when the emperor was about to hold audience, Wencheng (Concubine Zhang's posthumous name) sent him off all the way to the door of the palace court, caressed his back and said: "My husband, don't forget, commissioner of palace attendant today." The emperor said, "OK, OK." When he issued his edict, Bao Zheng asked to speak. Bao spoke at length on reasons to oppose, spoke hundreds of sentences repeatedly, his voice so loud and agitated that spittle spattered the emperor's face. The emperor, to stop him, gave up (on the edict). Wencheng, ... on receiving (the emperor), bowed and gave thanks. The emperor, wiping his face with his sleeve, said: "... All you know is ask for commissioner of palace attendant, commissioner of palace attendant. Don't you know that Bao Zheng is the vice censor-in-chief?"
During his years in the government service, Bao had thirty high officials demoted or dismissed for corruption, bribery, or dereliction of duty. In addition, as the imperial censor, Bao avoided punishment despite many other contemporary imperial censors had been punished for minor statements.
In 1057, Bao was appointed the magistrate of the capital city of Bian (now Kaifeng). Bao held the position for a mere period of one year, but he initiated several material administrative reforms, including allowing the citizens to directly lodge complaints with the city administrators, thereby bypassing the city clerks who were believed to be corrupt and in the pay of local powerful families.
Although Bao gained much fame and popularity from his reforms, his service after the tenure as Magistrate of Bian was controversial. For example, when Bao dismissed Zhang Fangping (張方平), who concurrently held three important offices, Bao was appointed to these offices as Zhang's successor. Ouyang Xiu (欧阳修) then filed a rebuke against Bao.
Bao had also been the Minister of Finance. Despite his high rank in the government, Bao led a modest life like a commoner.
Apart from his intolerance of injustice and corruption, Bao was well known for his filial piety and his stern demeanor. In his lifetime, Bao gained the name "Iron-Faced Judge" (鐵面判官) and it was also said among the public that his smile was "rarer than clear waters in the Yellow River".
Due to his fame and the strength of his reputation, Bao's name became synonymous with the idealized "honest and upright official" (清官), and quickly became a popular subject of early vernacular drama and literature. Bao was also associated with the god Yanluo (Yama) and the "Infernal Bureaucracy" of the Eastern Marchmount, on account of his supposed ability to judge affairs in the afterlife as well as he judged them in the realm of the living.
Bao died in the Capital City of Bian. It was recorded that he left the following warning for his family: "Any of my descendants who commits bribery as an official shall not be allowed back home nor buried in the family burial site. He who shares not my values is not my descendant." Built in 1066, his burial site in Hefei contains his tomb along with the tombs of family members and a memorial temple.
Bao Zheng had two wives: Lady Zhang and Lady Dong. Bao had only one son, Bao Yi, who died at a relatively young age while being a government officer. Bao then adopted a new son, Bao Shuo, who also died prematurely. However, when a young maid in Bao Zheng's family became pregnant and Bao dismissed her, Bao Yi's wife, knowing that the maid was pregnant with her husband, secretly saved the maid and her son, enabling the continuation of Bao's family line.
Bao Yi's wife was greatly praised in the official sources for her devotion to the protection of family line. This story was very influential to the formation of the legend that Bao Zheng was raised by his elder sister-in-law, whom he called "sister-in-law mother" (嫂娘).
Bao Zheng's stories were retold and preserved particularly in the form of performance arts such as Chinese opera and pingshu. Written forms of his legend appeared in the Yuan Dynasty in the form of Qu. Vernacular fiction of Judge Bao was popular in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. A common protagonist of gong'an fiction, Judge Bao stories revolve around Bao, a magistrate, investigating and solving criminal cases.
In the Yuan Dynasty, many plays (in the forms of qu and zaju) have featured Bao Zheng as the central character. These plays include:Rescriptor Bao Cleverly Investigates the Circle of Chalk (包待制智勘灰闌記) by Li QianfuRescriptor Bao Thrice Investigates the Butterfly Dream (包待制三勘蝴蝶夢) by Guan Hanqing, English translation can be found in Yang & Yang 1958Rescriptor Bao Cleverly Executes Court Official Lu (包待制智斬魯齋郎) by Guan Hanqing, English translation can be found in Yang & Yang 1958 (as The Wife-Snatcher)Rescriptor Bao Sells Rice at Chenzhou (包待制陳州糶米), English translation can be found in Hayden 1978Ding-ding Dong-dong: The Ghost of the Pot (玎玎當當盆兒鬼), English translation can be found in Hayden 1978Rescriptor Bao Cleverly Investigates the Flower of the Back Courtyard (包待制智勘後庭花) by Zheng Tingyu, English translation can be found in Hayden 1978
Also discovered from this period include some ballads which had been translated by Wilt L. Idema in 2010.
The 16th-century novel Bao Gong An by An Yushi (安遇時) (partially translated by Leon Comber in 1964) increased his popularity and added a detective element to his legends.
The 19th-century novel The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants by the storyteller Shi Yukun (石玉昆) (partially translated by Song Shouquan in 1997 as well as Susan Blader in 1997) added a wuxia twist to his stories.
In Pavilion of Ten Thousand Flowers (萬花樓), Five Tigers Conquer the West (五虎平西), Five Tigers Conquer the South (五虎平南) and Five Tigers Conquer the North (五虎平北), four serial wuxia novels composed by Li Yutang (李雨堂) during Qing Dynasty, Bao Zheng, Di Qing and Yang Zongbao appear as main characters.
In What the Master Would Not Discuss (子不語), a Qing Dynasty biji by Yuan Mei (袁枚), Bao Zheng as well as the belief that he was able to judge affairs of both human beings and supernatural beings is featured.
In opera or drama, he is often portrayed with a black face and a white crescent shaped birthmark on his forehead.
In legends, because he was born dark-skinned and extremely ugly, Bao Zheng was considered cursed and thrown away by his father right after birth. However, his virtuous elder sister-in-law, who just had an infant named Bao Mian (包勉), picked Bao Zheng up and raised him like her own son. As a result, Bao Zheng would refer to Bao Mian's mother as "sister-in-law mother".
In most dramatizations of his stories, he used a set of guillotines (鍘刀, "lever-knife"), given to him by the emperor, to execute criminals:The one decorated with a dog's head (狗頭鍘 or 犬頭鍘) was used on commoners.The one decorated with a tiger's head (虎頭鍘) was used on government officials.The one decorated with a dragon's head (龍頭鍘 or 火龍鍘) was used on royal personages.
He was granted a golden rod (金黄夏楚) by the previous emperor, with which he was authorised to chastise the current emperor. He was also granted an imperial sword (尚方寶劍) from the previous emperor; whenever it was exhibited the persons surrounding, irrespective of their social classes, must pay respect and compliance to the person exhibiting as if he were the emperor. All guillotines of Bao Zheng were authorised to execute any persons without first obtaining approval from the emperor, whilst some accounts stating the imperial sword was a license to execute any royals before so reporting.
He is famous for his uncompromising stance against corruption among the government officials at the time. He upheld justice and refused to yield to higher powers including the Emperor's Father-in-Law (國丈), who was also appointed as the Grand Tutor (太師) and was known as Grand Tutor Pang (龐太師). He treated Bao as an enemy. Although Grand Tutor Pang is often depicted in myth as an archetypical villain (arrogant, selfish, and cruel), the historical reasons for his bitter rivalry with Bao remain unclear.
Bao Zheng also managed to remain in favour by cultivating a long-standing friendship with one of Emperor Renzong's uncles, the Eighth Imperial Prince (八王爺).
In many stories Bao is usually accompanied by his skilled bodyguard Zhan Zhao and personal secretary Gongsun Ce (公孙策). Zhan is a skilled martial artist while Gongsun is an intelligent adviser. When Sherlock Holmes was first translated into Chinese - Watson was compared to Gongsun Ce.There are also four enforcers named Wang Zhao (王朝), Ma Han (馬漢), Zhang Long (張龍), and Zhao Hu (趙虎). All of these characters are presented as righteous and incorruptible.
Due to his strong sense of justice, he is very popular in China, especially among the peasants and the poor. He became the subject of literature and modern Chinese TV series in which his adventures and cases are featured.
All of these cases have been favorites in Chinese opera.The Case of Executing Chen Shimei (鍘美案): Chen Shimei had two children with wife Qin Xianglian, when he left them behind in his hometown for the Imperial examination in the capital. After placing first, he lied about his marriage and became the emperor’s new brother-in-law. Years later, a famine forced Qin and her children to move to the capital, where they learned what happened to Chen. Qin finally found a way to meet Chen and begged him to help at least his own children. Not only did Chen refuse, he sent his servant Han Qi to kill them to hide his secret, but Han helped the family escape and killed himself. Desperate, Qin brought her case to Bao Zheng, who tricked Chen to the court to have him arrested. The imperial family intervened with threats, but Bao executed him nonetheless.Executing Bao Mian (鍘包勉): When Bao Zheng was an infant, he was raised by his elder sister-in-law, Wu, like a son. Years later, Wu's only son Bao Mian became a magistrate, and was convicted of bribery and malfeasance. Finding it impossible to fulfill both Confucian concepts of loyalty and filial piety, an emotional Bao Zheng was about to reluctantly execute his nephew. In the end, the real suspects were forced to confess and Bao Mian's sentence was commuted.Wild Cat Exchanged for Crown Prince (狸貓換太子): Bao Zheng met a woman claiming to be the mother of the reigning Emperor Renzong. Dozens of years prior, she had been Consort Li, an imperial concubine of Emperor Zhenzong's, before falling out of favour for supposedly giving birth to a bloody dead wild cat. In reality, the jealous Consort Liu had plotted with eunuch Guo Huai (郭槐) to secretly swap Li's infant with a skinned wildcat minutes after the birth and ordered palace maid Kou Zhu to kill the baby. However, Kou gave the baby to chief eunuch Chen Lin (陳琳), who secretly brought the child to the Eighth Prince, a younger brother of Emperor Zhenzong. Kou was later tortured to death by Guo when Consort Liu began to suspect that the infant had survived. The child was raised by the Eighth Prince as his own son and was subsequently selected to succeed Emperor Zhenzong, who had died heirless. Due to the passage of time, gathering evidence was a challenge. With the help of a woman dressed as Kou's ghost, Bao dressed himself as Yama, lord of Hell, to play on both Guo's fear of the supernatural and guilt, thereby extracting his confession. When the verdict was out, the emperor was reluctant to accept Consort Li. Bao then admonished the emperor and ordered that he be beaten for lack of filial piety. The emperor's Dragon Robe was beaten instead. Emperor Renzong eventually accepted his mother and elevated her as the new empress dowager.The Case of Two Nails (雙釘記): Bao Zheng investigated a man's suspicious death whose cause had been ruled as natural. After an autopsy, his coroner confirmed the earlier report that there was no injury to the whole body. At home, the coroner discussed the case with his wife, who mentioned that someone could force long steel nails into the brain without injuring the body. The next day, the coroner indeed found a long nail, and the dead man's widow was arrested; she confessed to adultery and mariticide. Afterwards, Bao Zheng began to question the coroner's wife and learned that the coroner is her second husband, as her first husband had died. Bao ordered his guards to go to the cemetery and unearth her first husband's coffin. Sure enough, there was also a nail driven into the skull.The Case of the Black Basin (烏盆記): A silk merchant by the name of Liu Shichang was on a trip home when he decided to ask for food and overnight lodging at the place of Zhao Da, the owner of a pottery kiln. Greedy for the riches carried by Liu, Zhao killed him by poisoning his dinner, burying his remains with clay in his kiln to make a black basin in order to destroy the evidence. An old man named Zhang Biegu, whom Zhao owed a debt to, soon took the basin from Zhao in lieu of cash payment. Zhang eventually encountered the Liu's ghost, who had been possessing the basin ever since his murder, and was told the story of the latter's cruel death at Zhao's hands. Determined to bring the suspect to justice, Zhang soon brought the black basin to Bao Zheng's court in Kaifeng and after several attempts, finally persuaded Liu's ghost to tell the judge everything. As a result, Zhao was finally arrested and executed for murder.