Forensic Pluralism and the Dead Body in Early 20th-Century China

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Modern forensic medicine was introduced into China during the first decades of the 20th century. The members of China’s first generation of medicolegal experts were soon advocating that medical expertise play a greater role in police and judicial officials’ investigations of suspicious death and homicide cases. While forensic reform in China had parallels with developments in other contemporary societies in which physicians were pushing for a greater role in the law, this process unfolded in China in unique ways, against the backdrop of an older tradition of forensic science that had developed under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Central to this tradition was the Records on the Washing Away of Wrongs, a handbook of forensic practice that was written in the 13th century and saw numerous editions and expansions over subsequent centuries. Death investigation in early 20th-century China was defined by “forensic pluralism,” a situation in which the different body examination methods and standards of forensic proof associated with the Washing Away of Wrongs and modern forensic medicine were both accepted by officialdom and society. This article untangles the complexities of forensic practice during this period through the rather unexceptional exchange over a case of suspected drowning that occurred between local officials in Hebei province and Lin Ji (1897-1951), director of the Beiping University Medical School Institute of Legal Medicine. This case reveals the different regimes of forensic knowledge and practice that were used in China during this period as well as the sites at which they interacted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-51
Number of pages11
JournalAcademic Forensic Pathology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


  • China
  • Drowning
  • Forensic pathology
  • History
  • Putrefaction


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