I first became aware of Judge Bao, the Song dynasty magistrate, in the 90s. I was one of the musicians in a Beijing Opera Judge Bao performance, part of an intensive months-long training program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I was able to work firsthand with professional teachers from China. It was a great experience, but to be honest, what struck me at the time was just how incredibly loud Chinese percussion instruments are. As a plucked-string player, I had to sit right in front of them. I’d been exposed to loud before, but this was one of the loudest, perhaps (along with Kathakali and Stevie Ray Vaughn) one of the top three loudest things I’ve ever experienced.
Recently, however, I’ve experienced good nostalgia. I’ve come across several Judge Bao stories, and what’s striking is the various ways these stories are presented. For those who want to stick to the more novel-oriented experience, there’s ‘Tales of Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants’. This is a translation of an 1879 Chinese novel derived from the oral narrative attributed to the Qing storyteller Shi Yukum. Similarly, ‘The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants’ is another novel about Judge Bao and his men who solve crimes, rescue maidens and pretty much seek justice anywhere and everywhere.
Closer to the source (and therefor of much more interest, at least to me) is ‘Judge Bao and the Rule of Law’, a series of eight ballad-stories on Judge Bao, dating from the period 1250-1450. These ballad-stories, the oral narratives on which later novels were based, are more straightforward, the experience more distinct, like reading Robin Hood ballads as opposed to movie tie-ins. There’s also an early Chinese play ‘Rescriptor-in-Waiting Bao Thrice Investigates the Butterfly Dream’ in the collection ‘Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals’.
Another way to experience Judge Bao is ‘Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix’, a graphic novel of his adventures. It’s important to keep your standards high when choosing a graphic novel to read, and this one looks to be quality work.
Finally, in the movie/TV section, there’s ‘Judge Bao’ and ‘The Return of Judge Bao.’ There are many more, no doubt. My guess is that watching these would be roughly analogous to watching Chinese versions of ‘Bonanza’, but I could be wrong. I hope to find a subtitled jingju (Beijing Opera) video, but if there are any out there, I haven’t come across them yet.