This essay explores the recurrent and essential literary techniques of district magistrates who prepared homicide reports in Qing dynasty China. The analysis is based on close textual readings of reports in the following categories: fratricide, spousal murder, and murder related to incest or adultery. These homicide reports display a wide range of narrative strategies from embellished testimony to dissonant structure. As representatives of imperial legal justice, magistrates recognized the need to abide by existing imperial laws. I argue that they relied on literary techniques to reflect points of sympathy in their judgments, thereby finding new ways of expressing their opinions without challenging imperial authority. Through these literary techniques, they negotiated tensions, in particular between laws and compassion, present in the practice of composing case reports. These magistrates generated narrative dissonance between reports and proposed punishments; subsequently, the reviewers, understanding the need for the emperor’s final endorsement, were guided to take special circumstances into account and make necessary amendments to sentences even when not mandated by imperial laws.
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