Forensic Science & Cultures of Expertise in China, 1800-1949


A review of Dead Bodies and Forensic Science: Cultures of Expertise in China, 1800-1949, by Daniel Asen.

Hidden modesty bones, putrid flesh, and silver needles are among the things Daniel Asen brings to life in this sophisticated study of conflicting regimes of forensic expertise in Qing and Republican China. At the core of this topic is an odd configuration of social forces. At a time when most intellectuals and state reformers scorned inherited knowledge, Republican coroners who relied on Qing forensic practices—for instance the recording of visible wounds on charts derived from the thirteenth-century Washing Away of Wrongs (WAW)—enjoyed an epistemologically unearned yet impregnable authority over forensic inquests thanks to their entrenched position in the judicial system. This unique matrix generated many of the documents Asen analyzes, and it stimulates his best insights.

Asen distances himself from the historiography—often represented by the pioneering work of Jia Jingtao—that sees “traditional legal medicine” as a “pre-modern” remnant that “modern” medico-legal science long struggled to supplant. Rejecting this lingo and the narratives it implies allows Asen to detect more intriguing dynamics. The boundaries of the “modern” and the “scientific” were constantly redrawn and negotiated according to the political and cultural needs of rival groups of forensic experts. Both modernity and science were hybrid projects.

Asen is conversant with a wide array of scholarship on legal medicine, laboratory practices, and scientific epistemology throughout the world. He draws particular inspiration from Stefan Timmermans’ monograph on modern American forensics and Steven Shapin’s work on technicians in seventeenth-century western science, as well as from more theoretical studies on expertise (Eric Ash) and professionalization (Andrew Abbott).

Part 1 concerns the bureaucratic control of forensics in the late Qing and Republican periods. Chapter 1 argues that under the Qing, forensic authority was derived not from medical expertise, but from conforming to bureaucratic procedure. The bureaucratic case file and the chart of the human body were “technologies” (a nod to Francesca Bray) that turned corpses into manageable objects of knowledge. Despite their lack of medical or forensic specialization, Qing officials could––indeed, had to––use these textual and graphic statements to decide homicide cases throughout the empire. They also sought the help of skilled coroners in difficult or contested cases (Chapter 2). Because of the length of reviews and appeals, these coroners often had to re-examine skeletal remains, and they did so with steaming techniques that Asen explains in detail. Officials who criticized the inconsistencies of WAW often cited the findings of these accomplished coroners as authoritative support for their revisionist claims––women did not have an extra modesty bone! Asen’s general point here is that this Qing “expertise” in postmortem examinations was the unintended outgrowth of a forensic regime that was still chiefly bureaucratic in purpose and procedure.

Republican governments kept using bone-steaming, checklists of wounds, and other Qing forensic practices (Chapter 3). Asen argues that despite their ostensibly non-modern credentials, coroners still served some of the purposes of “judicial modernity” (Xu Xiaoqun). Yet they remained mere operators of forensic technologies, dependent on judicial officials and lacking “enforceable boundaries of expert authority” (p. 124). As such, they did not fit in the new landscape of professional associations that were trying to extend their autonomy in the name of scientific epistemologies. Chapter 4 shows how late imperial forensic practices were integrated into “a new form of modern urban governance” (p. 145) in which deaths were investigated by the new Beiping Metropolitan Police Board. Because of the high demand for inquests in this “heavily policed city” (p. 177), coroners once again served the purpose of modern institutions.

In Part 2 Asen dissects the strategies that medico-legal experts deployed to impose their authority on forensics, with a view to showing how “science” and “modernity” are constituted by specific social practices and interests. He cites Rebecca Nedostup’s work on Republican religious policies and particularly Tong Lam’s study of the Republican state’s fascination with “social facts” as useful in this endeavor. Accused of flouting scientific “theory,” leading coroners like Yu Yuan tried to subvert the argument by assigning positive meaning to the rival notion of “experience” (Chapter 5). Asen argues that such discursive shifts created a new conceptual framework for understanding forensic expertise. Lin Ji, who led the Research Institute of Legal Medicine in Shanghai, insisted for his part that the only way to ascertain the cause of death was to dissect a corpse to examine its inside (Chapter 6). But because dissection-based appraisals were given legal force only when judicial authorities deemed it desirable, Lin’s laboratory-based epistemology never became the main source of forensic authority in Beiping.

Lin Ji proved that some key aspects of old forensics were scientifically unsound, hoping that such demonstrations would discredit coroners (Chapter 7). The silver-needle test for poisoning was notably worthless, because silver tarnishes not on contact with poison but on contact with sulfur, a common byproduct of decomposition. But Lin’s strategy of “professional boundary drawing” (p. 281) failed to undercut coroners’ authority, because judicial officials only used laboratory work to supplement, not supplant, old inquest techniques. Meanwhile coroners incorporated “common knowledge in legal medicine” (fayixue changshi) into their own training, trying to use science to enhance their own authority (Chapter 8). Asen’s point is not only that “Republican forensics was characterized by a plurality of epistemologies, ways of legitimating forensic knowledge, and conceptions of expertise” (p. 289), though he shows that too, but that modern science and old forensics produced each other, and that forensic science was therefore inherently hybrid.

Asen concludes that the actors of the time, no matter whose interests they represented, lacked the tools to articulate the “routine hybridities of professional knowledge” (p. 313). His work is a promising attempt to refine these tools for our own purposes. Conceptually ambitious and sturdily grounded in a rich assortment of primary documents, his book will enhance scholarship on professions, expertise, and scientific epistemology, and will be of particular interest to students of Republican governance who strive to understand the intricate avatars of Chinese modernity.

Fabien Simonis
Independent scholar

Primary Sources

– Beijing Municipal Archives
– Qing legal and judicial compilations, including official editions of the Washing Away of Wrongs
– Writings by defenders of both old forensic practices and modern legal medicine
– Medico-legal journals from the 1930s
– Newspapers from Beijing and Shanghai

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 336 pp. Primary Advisor: Madeleine Zelin.


Image:  Xu Lian 許槤. Xiyuan lu xiangyi 洗冤錄詳義 (Detailed Explanations of the Meaning of the Washing Away of Wrongs). Hubei guanshu chu 湖北官書處, 1890 (1854), 1.51a.

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