Chinese crime literature has a very long and unabating tradition which can be dated back to the 13th century and includes diverse forms such as dramatic and operatic plays, novels and short stories. Traditional Chinese detective fiction shows characteristics and peculiarities that differ conspicuously from its Western counterpart. The paper aims to highlight various functions and facts underlying the narrative text in detective story collections of the late-Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In these stories the use of vernacular instead of classical Chinese, the occasional use of captioned illustrations, the presence of admonitions or excerpts of law passages alongside the text and the moralistic tone of the verdicts in the text make them products not solely written for entertainment. An analysis of these texts reveals, firstly, a shift from elite culture to moderately literate readership; reflecting a more composite society and the emergence of new social powerful classes such as rich merchants. Secondly, there is an attempt to spread a basic knowledge of the extremely complicated system of law, jurisprudence and punishment outside the narrow circle of judges and legal officials. Finally, there is an indirect, but nonetheless stinging, criticism of bullying officials and the widespread corruption of the late-Ming era. Another worth considering feature of gong’an fiction is the extensive use of riddles, cunundrums and enigmas in the resolution of the criminal cases. What I intend to highlight is how the very characteristics of the Chinese language allow and foster this strategy, with examples taken from a late-Ming collection of detective short stories titled Criminal Cases Brilliantly Judged and [Solved] with Perspicacity by the Officials of the August Ming Dynasty, dated 1598.
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