Dead Bodies and Forensic Science: Cultures of Expertise in China, 1800-1949

Daniel Asen

Dead Bodies and Forensic Science: Cultures of Expertise in China, 1800-1949
Asen, Daniel
Thesis Advisor(s):
Zelin, Madeleine
Ph.D., Columbia University
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In late imperial China the forensic examination of dead bodies in homicide cases was a sophisticated field of technical practice which developed through the collaboration of coroners, legal specialists, and literati-officials. After the fall of the Qing empire (1644-1911), successive governments of the Republican period (1912-1949) adopted the late imperial state's technologies of forensic examination in their attempts to institute a modern court system. This dissertation investigates the process through which modern police, coroners, legal officials, laboratory scientists, and urban publics debated, reimagined, and ultimately accepted this long-standing field of technical practice as a foundation for the modern Chinese state and its legal order. The first half of this dissertation examines the forensic practices of the Qing empire and the ways in which they were integrated into Republican statecraft after 1912. Chapters One and Two argue that the late imperial bureaucracy successfully implemented a centralized system of forensic examination that shaped the ways in which coroners and local officials throughout the empire inspected dead bodies, analyzed causes of death, and documented their findings. Relying on the wide distribution of minimal amounts of forensic knowledge and skill, this arrangement made possible high degrees of consistency in examination practices while facilitating central authorities' bureaucratic supervision over local forensic cases. While the "expertise" of individual coroners could become important under certain circumstances, it was not necessary for the legitimation of forensic evidence or knowledge in routine homicide cases. Rather, the bureaucracy expected that officials and coroners would simply follow official procedure, a way of legitimating inquest findings that could be used effectively across local jurisdictions despite uneven levels of forensic knowledge and skill among local officials and coroners. Chapters Three and Four turn to the important role that these forensic practices played in Republican Beijing for the dual projects of administering the city and constructing a modern court system. Through a case study of the forensic work of police, coroners, and judicial officials in the city and around north China, these chapters argue that by adopting the bureaucratized examination practices of the late imperial state, the Republican court system facilitated modern procurators' professional jurisdiction over a crucial area of the administration of justice while facilitating the integration of forensic evidence and judicial investigation. It is in this sense that coroners and their forensic practices came to play a crucial role in the emergence of a modern legal order. The second half of the dissertation explores the ways in which new conceptions and practices of scientific expertise were reconciled with the older, yet still authoritative, practices of late imperial forensics. Chapter Five explores the ways in which a new discourse of professional knowledge and expertise based on conceptual distinctions between "experience" and "theory" led to a complex reconceptualization of the epistemological status of late imperial forensic knowledge. While this new discourse served to legitimate new forms of forensic expertise based on scientific medicine, it also provided coroners and others invested in late imperial forensic practices with possibilities for reimagining older conceptions of knowledge in new, epistemologically authoritative ways. Chapters Six and Seven turn to the ways in which anatomic-pathological dissection and laboratory science were integrated into the forensic investigation of deaths in Republican judicial practice. Chapter Six argues that the implementation of forensic autopsies in Republican Shanghai and, to a lesser extent, Beijing did not in fact challenge judicial officials' and coroners' professional authority over the forensic inspection of dead bodies. Chapter Seven examines the ways in which a new community of medico-legal scientists in 1930s Shanghai and Beijing attempted to extend their forensic expertise from the laboratory into local courtrooms. By tracing the itineraries of the physical evidence examined in the first medico-legal laboratories, this chapter shows that the local coroners who collected the evidence for testing played a crucial role in the establishment of legal medicine in China. Chapter Eight turns to the ways in which coroners themselves made use of modern science to legitimize their own, older forensic practices. By exploring the ways in which legal officials, coroners, and medico-legal scientists made use of popularized science in their attempts to update late imperial forensic practices, this chapter demonstrates that "science" had diverse meanings, could legitimate disparate forms of knowledge and expertise, and could support different professional causes - not simply that of professional legal medicine. Far from passive objects of forensic examination, the dead bodies that populate this dissertation are active agents: they challenged examiners with mysterious wounds, ambiguous anatomy, or the tendency to decay away along with the evidence. As sensational objects of media coverage or simply reminders of the unjustly dead, the cultural and social meanings of corpses influenced the actions of those who examined them, demonstrating in the process the dialogue that science always maintains with culture and society. By foregrounding the ways in which "experts" of all kinds engaged with the material challenges and legal and cultural meanings of the dead body, this study demonstrates the dynamic interrelatedness, or co-production, of experts and objects of expertise, of social power and natural knowledge, and of statecraft and science.
World history
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Suggested Citation:
Daniel Asen, , Dead Bodies and Forensic Science: Cultures of Expertise in China, 1800-1949, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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