The only options?
"Experience" and "theory" in debates over forensic knowledge and expertise in early twentieth-century China
in Historical epistemology and the making of modern Chinese medicine
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Recent scholarship on Qing forensics has focused on the ways that forensic knowledge was wielded and produced by private secretaries, officials involved in forensic inquests, and literati specialists. Less is known about the wuzuo – low-level functionaries who actually examined the body under supervision of a magistrate or other local official. Renamed “inquest officials” at the start of the 20th century, wuzuo continued to assist judicial officials and police in their investigations of deaths, often with technologies of forensic examination developed during the Qing. Focusing on the career of Yu Yuan, a senior inquest official in Republican Beijing, this paper examines how inquest officials negotiated their position as possessors, practitioners, and producers of forensic knowledge. While proponents of forensic reform branded them as possessing outdated knowledge not grounded in the scientific principles of anatomy and pathology, their knowledge-claims continued to be used in the practice of criminal investigation alongside those of police detectives, judicial officials, and other forensic experts. Likewise, local authorities valued the ability of inquest officials with “experience” (jingyan) to perform examinations of decomposed remains, viewing this as a form of specialist expertise.

Editor: Howard Chiang

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