Ancient Chinese Forensic Medicine

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Song Ci (1186 - 1249), a forensic medical expert in the Song Dynasty wrote a book titled Xi Yuan Ji Lu ( Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified through Forensic Science). In the book, Song Ci said, “A forensic medical doctor must be serious, conscientious, and highly responsible, and must also personally examine each dead body or that of a wounded person. The particulars of each case must be recorded in the doctor’s own handwriting. No one else is allow to write his autopsy report. A coroner must not avoid performing an autopsy because he detests the stench of corpses. A coroner must refrain from sitting comfortably behind a curtain of incense that mask the stench, let his subordinates do the autopsy unsupervised, or allow a petty official to write his autopsy report, leaving all the inaccuracies unchecked and uncorrected.” He also said, “Should there be any inaccuracy in an autopsy report, injustice would remain with the deceased as well as the living. A wrongful death sentence without justice may claim one or more additional lives, which would in turn result in feuds and revenges, prolonging the tragedy. In order to avoid any miscarriage of justice, the coroner must immediately examine the case personally.” In summary, Song Ci maintained that a coroner must always personally perform each autopsy himself.

Song Ci served as a presiding judge in the Chinese high courts for many terms. During his post at a criminal court in Hunan Province, Song Ci would personally examine the crime scene each time he encountered a difficult case of homicide or physical assault. Song Ci combined many historical cases of forensic science with his own experiences and wrote the book Xi Yuan Ji Lu with an eye to avoiding miscarriages of justice. The book was esteemed by generations of forensic scientists. Eventually it was translated into English, German, Japanese, French and other languages.

Song Ci’s serious attitude toward autopsy had a tremendous influence on later generations. A judge in the Qing Dynasty, under Song Ci’s influence, insisted on examining the crime scene, and successfully solved a very difficult case of murder. Here is a summary of the story:

A man was murdered with “dozens of slash wounds from a sickle.” The case could not be solved due to lack of evidence. The certain judge who performed the autopsy personally visited the crime scene and learnt that the victim had argued with a person about a loan that he was trying to collect from that person. He secretly investigated the whereabouts of the suspect. When he had obtained sufficient evidence, he suddenly confiscated all sickles in that area, and made it clear to all that failing to comply with the order [to hand over all sickles] will result in a charge of obstruction of justice upon the owner of the sickle. All the sickles were handed in. There were seventy or eighty sickles. “It was the middle of a summer. One of the submitted sickles attracted many flies. The prosecutor asked for the owner of that sickle. One person claimed to be the owner, and he was the man who refused to repay the overdue loan. He was detained for interrogation but he refused to admit to the crime. The judge told him to look at his sickle. None of the other sickles were able to attract any flies while his sickle attracted all the flies. The judge told him that it was because that sickle still had the scent blood on it and the flies were lured by the scent of blood. “How can you deny Xi Yuan Ji Lu, “Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified Through Forensic Science II.”)

The moral of the story is that autopsies and investigations must be conducted conscientiously and meticulously. Only with irrefutable evidence will there be justice for the false will be accused. Only with concrete evidence will the murderers admit their crimes.

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