An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

dalisi 大理寺, the Court of Judicial Review

Mar 17, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

The Court of of Judicial Review (dalisi 大理寺) was the highest judiciary power in imperial China. It belonged to the Nine Courts (jiusi 九寺), and its Ministers to the highest dignitaries of the central government.

During the reign of Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE) of the Former Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), the Chamberlain for Law Enforcement (tingwei 廷尉, lit. "court defender"), an office hailing from the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE), was renamed dali 大理 "[minister] of the great order". The Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE) and the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420-589) used the ancient term tingwei, and the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557) chose the designation "Autumn Minister" (qiuqing 秋卿) for its head because important verdicts were usually pronounced in that season.

The Northern Qi dynasty 北齊 (550-577) founded the Court in its later form. It was presided by a Minister (dalisi qing 大理寺卿), who was assisted by a Vice Minister (dalisi shaoqing 大理寺少卿). The staff consisted of directors (zheng 正), supervisors (jian 監), case reviewers (pingshi 評事), as well as judicial erudites (lü boshi 律博士), law clerks (mingfa yuan 明法椽), supervisors of prisoner carts (jianche du 檻車督), various clerks (yuan 椽), rectifiers (sizhi 司直) and law graduates (mingfa 明法).

In 662, under the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), the Dalisi was renamed Court for Reviewing Punishments (xiangxingsi 詳刑寺), and in 684, during the regency of Empress Wu 武則天 (regency 684-690, ruler 690-704), *Court for Supervision of Punishments (sixingsi 司刑寺). The original name was restored in 704. It was headed by a chief minister of rank 3B who was assisted by two Vice Ministers of rank 5B. Their staff consisted of two *Directors (dali zheng 大理正), aides (cheng 丞), recorders (zhubu 主簿), overseers (lushi 錄事), *office managers (fu 府), scribes (shi 史), prison aides (yucheng 獄丞) with assistants (yushi 獄史), managing clerks (tingzhang 亭長), clerks (zhanggu 掌固), one hundred inquisitors (wenshi 問事), rectifiers (sizhi), and case reviewers (pingshi). Verdicts on exile and the death penalty were presented to the Ministry of Justice (xingbu 刑部) and then on to the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) and the Chancellery (menxiasheng 門下省).

The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) exempted the Court from the duty of carrying out investigations on its own, but instead, it was given the authority to review serious cases from throughout the empire. The revised verdict was then presented to the emperor. From 1078 on, the staff consisted of a Minister and two Vice Ministers, two directors, four investigatory aides (tuicheng 推丞), sentence evaluators (duancheng 斷丞, xiangduanguan 詳斷官), rectifiers (sizhi), case reviewers (pingshi), and recorders (zhubu).

The Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234) ethnically diversified the staff of the lower echelons by appointing 6 Chinese officials, 4 Kitans, and 4 Jurchens for each important function. During the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368), the duties of the Court were taken over by the Ministry of Justice.

The Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) put the Court under the direction of a Minister (qing, tangguanqing 堂官卿) and a Left and Right Vice Minister (zuo shaoqing 左少卿, you shaoqing 右少卿), who presided over two departments (zuosi 左寺, yousi 右寺) under directors (sizheng 寺正, sicheng 寺丞) and vice directors (sifu 寺副). Four left (zuo pingshi 左評事) and eight right case reviewers (you pingshi 右評事) shared responsibility over cases from the metropolitan region and the thirteen province. The Ming-period Court of Judicial Review had the main duty to reexamine cases (fushen 復審), mostly after first judgment by the Ministry and the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院, before the Ming yushitai 御史臺) or the Five Armies (wujun 五軍).

The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) staffed all functions with Chinese and Manchus alike, with 2 Ministers, 2 Vice Ministers, case reviewers, heads of the General Services Office (siwuting 司務廳), left and right directors (zuosicheng 左寺丞, youshicheng 右寺丞), left and right case reviewers, Manchu and Chinese bithesi clerks (Ch. bitieshi 筆帖式).

Table 1. Core staff of the Court of Judicial Review (dalisi 大理寺) during the mid-Qing period
1+1 Ministers (rank 3A, 1 Manchu, 1 Chinese)
1+1 少卿 Vice Ministers (rank 4A, 1 Manchu, 1 Chinese)
1 堂評事 *ministerial case reviewer (rank 7, 1 Manchu)
1 左評事 left case reviewer (1 Chinese)
1 右評事 right case reviewer (1 Chinese)
1+1 司務廳司務 Heads of General Services Office (1 Manchu, 1 Chinese)
1+1+1 左寺丞 left directors (rank 6A, 1 Manchu, 1 Chinese Bannerman, 1 Chinese)
1+1+1 右寺丞 right directors (rank 6A, 1 Manchu, 1 Chinese Bannerman, 1 Chinese)
4+2 筆帖式 bithesi clerks (4 Manchus, 2 Chinese Bannerman)

The responsibility of the Court of Judicial Review was to pass judgment on extraordinary cases and critically review verdicts and sentences. The administrative handbook Tang liudian 唐六典 explains that this was done with the help of five types of hearing and observation (wuting 五聽), namely the respiration (qiting 氣聽), the facial complexion (seting 色聽), the expression of the eyes (shiting 視聽) and the voice (shengting 聲聽), and from the statements of summoned persons (citing 詞聽). Judgment was made on the base of three considerations (sanlü 三慮), namely cautious clarification (ming shen 明慎) to decide over difficult cases (yan yiyu 讞疑獄), a sense of pity (aijin 哀矜) to nullify unjust verdicts (xue yuanyu 雪冤獄), and public and fair trials (gongkai 公開), in order to interrogate during all types of lawsuits (ju shuyu 鞫庶獄). The Court had a prison (dalisi yuan 大理寺獄) whose personnel (yuli 獄吏) also had the duty to supervise the enacting of exile and penal labour, as well the initial beatings with the stick and public shaming by wearing the cangue.

Apart from difficult cases and cases involving the death penalty, the Court of Judicial review was particularly entrusted with the interrogation and pronouncement of verdicts concerning state officials and persons residing in the capital city having committed crimes punishable with penal servitude or higher penalties. The latter means that the Court was not just the highest judiciary power, but also took over certain functions of a local court, but only in correspondence with the Ministry of Justice and the Censorate, together called the three Three Judicial Offices (sanfasi 三法司). These three institutions cooperated intensively for the so-called autumn assizes (qiushen 秋審) and court assizes (chaochen 朝審). The judgment of death penalty had to be confirmed by the emperor.

In 1906, the institution was renamed Supreme Court of Justice (daliyuan 大理院).

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