On 17 November, 1874, the Peking Gazette – which published official statements from the Chinese court – made the following announcement:
“The Court of Censorate forwards another appeal lodged on behalf of a woman of the Yuhang District in Zhejiang, complaining that her husband has been falsely accused of murdering a man named Ge Pinlian, the accuser being his wife, who had in reality poisoned him herself. Appellant’s husband having been apprehended on this false charge, he has been compelled under torture to confess the act. A previous appeal has already been lodged and referred back for a fresh enquiry; but the Prefect has slurred over the affair. Referred to in the usual manner.”
The surprise about this seemingly ordinary domestic murder case – a woman accused of killing her husband had implicated another man, whose wife was now protesting his innocence – was that the Gazette was bothering with it at all. But in fact this was already a celebrated news story, eventually romanticised in novels, opera and cinema as “The Tale of Little Cabbage and Yang Naiwu”, one of nineteenth-century China’s most notorious legal cases.
It all began in April 1872 at Yuhang, a small town outside Hangzhou city, with the marriage of Ge Pinlian to sixteen-year-old beauty Bi Xiugu. Ge was a juren, a scholar who had graduated at the provincial level, but he had never won an official position and worked at a tofu factory. His wife was affectionately known as “Little Cabbage”, perhaps because she liked to wear green and white clothing.
In May the same year, the couple took rooms in a vacant wing of the house belonging to Yang Naiwu and his wife. Though his family raised silkworms for a living, Yang was an aspiring scholar studying for the juren qualification.
Ge Pinlian worked long hours, leaving his wife alone through the day. He gradually became convinced that she and Yang Naiwu were having an affair, but despite spying on them discretely only saw Yang teaching his wife how to read. Ge told his mother-in-law, who was scandalised after seeing Bi, unchaperoned, sharing a meal with Yang Naiwu. Gossip soon spread through the neighbourhood that “the ram was dining on cabbage” (Yang’s name means “ram”).
To calm the rumours, in July 1873 Ge Pinlian and his wife moved into new lodgings. But that October, Ge beat Bi for serving dinner late; furious, she cut her hair short and threatened to become a nun. Relatives calmed the quarrel, but scolded Ge for losing his temper over such a trivial matter. He admitted to still being angry about Bi’s supposed affair.
On 26 November, Ge fell ill. Two days later he was so sick he had to leave work early, and was seen by friends and neighbours vomiting after eating a bun from a snack stall. Arriving home, he gave Bi money to buy long’an and ginseng to make a medicinal tea. His mother-in-law found him in bed, being cared for by Bi, but a short while later the neighbours heard Bi screaming for help and, despite the attentions of a doctor, Ge died soon afterwards. As friends and relatives gathered at the house, a consensus grew that Ge’s death was suspicious, so his mother wrote to the local authorities requesting an autopsy.
Informed of local opinion that Bi had murdered her husband, magistrate Liu Xitong began an investigation. The county coroner examined the body, found blood dribbling from the mouth and nostrils, and concluded that Ge died from an opium overdose (which could have been accidental). But his assistant pointed out black welts on Ge’s belly, claiming they were a sign of arsenic poisoning. Further tests with a diagnostic silver needle were inconclusive. Unsure, the coroner simply stated that Ge had died from poisoning.
But Liu Xitong wanted a clear result. He had Bi arrested and tortured until she confessed to having an affair with Yang Naiwu, and agreeing to murder her husband if Yang would marry her afterwards. Yang had supplied her with arsenic on 24 November, and she had duly poisoned Ge.
Yang, however, denied having anything to do with Ge’s death. As a juren he couldn’t be arrested, so Hangzhou’s governor, Chen Lu, revoked Yang’s degree at Liu Xitong’s request. Yang kept to his story despite being tortured. His relatives protested that Yang was out of town on the 24th, on his way home from taking his juren degree at Hangzhou, so that Bi’s accusation must be a lie.
Taken back to Hangzhou and tortured again, Yang finally admitted to buying arsenic from a pharmacy, having claimed he needed it to kill rats. Liu Xitong’s investigators visited the pharmacist, who apparently confirmed Yang’s story. Bi and Yang signed confessions of guilt, and Ge’s mother changed her statement too, saying that the couple had confessed to her before even being arrested. Zhejiang’s provincial governor, Yang Changjun, sentenced them to death: Bi by slow slicing and Yang by decapitation. The pharmacist was to be given eighty blows with a staff. As was usual, the guilty parties were held in prison while their sentences were referred to the Board of Punishment at Beijing for approval.
At this point – January 1874 – the story was taken up by the populist Chinese-language newspaper Shen Bao, which relished the melodrama of the case: a beautiful young woman, a lecherous scholar, a murdered husband. Shen Bao was owned by British entrepreneur Ernest Major, but its content was supplied largely by readers, who often larded their stories with a good deal of sensationalist rumour. Because Shen Bao operated out of Shanghai’s International Settlement, it could report critically on Chinese affairs without fear of official censorship.
In May, Yang Naiwu’s family appealed the case at Beijing. They claimed that Bi had accused Yang because she hated him: she hadn’t wanted to marry Ge Pinlian in the first place, but Yang had convinced her family it was a suitable match. They also questioned why, if the couple had confessed immediately after the murder, Ge’s mother hadn’t simply denounced them, instead of requesting an autopsy first. Besides, the pharmacist had only confirmed Yang’s story after being interviewed by Liu Xitong’s men; and witnesses could prove that Yang wasn’t around when he was supposed to have handed over the arsenic.
The appeal was rejected – there wasn’t much sympathy at court for a sordid case involving an obscure provincial scholar – so the family began to canvas support amongst Hangzhou’s wealthy elite. This gave them the official contacts they needed at the capital, and on their second appeal the case was earmarked for re-examination.
It is also likely that Beijing officials were becoming aware of growing public criticism. Shen Bao – echoed by the Peking Gazette – had stopped focusing on the case’s soap-opera qualities, and had instead begun highlighting its flaws. Magistrate Liu Xitong’s investigation seemed riddled with inconsistencies, and by rubber-stamping his verdict, governors Chen Lu and Yang Changjun were possibly guilty of aiding a miscarriage of justice. At the same time, the English-language North China Herald editorialised that Yang Naiwu was widely known to be innocent, but that the officials were all trying to cover up for each other’s mistakes.
Empress dowager Cixi – regent for the underage emperor Guangxu – ordered an fresh investigation in May 1875, with the stern order “Let there be no shelter given to colleagues in office”. This advice was patently ignored by Literary Examiner Hu Ruilan, who blandly claimed that the evidence was too complex for him to unravel, and therefore the original verdict should stand. But a fellow-official, Bian Baoquan, denounced Hu Ruilan’s equivocal waffle: Hu had pretended to be impartial, but it was well-known that he was friends with governor Yang Changjun and had always intended to confirm his decision. Bian requested that a truly independent commission should look into the case.
Cixi now allowed the Board of Punishment to review the evidence. Perhaps more in tune with wider public opinion than Hu Ruilan, the board found “a very great discrepancy between the depositions now forwarded and the original records of the case. A new trial is therefore recommended”. They were backed by twenty-eight native Zhejiang officials resident in Beijing, who alleged that the pharmacist’s statement had been coerced by Liu Xitong’s henchmen, that dates in official records had been falsified to undermine Yang’s absentee alibi, and that “witnesses” to the alleged adultery between Yang and Bi had not even been called to give evidence.
Cixi approved a retrial, and on 26 February 1876, Yang Naiwu and Bi departed Hangzhou under guard for Beijing. By this time the pharmacist had died – according to the North China Herald, after eating a meal with the officers taking him to court so that he could retract his statement. The paper also reported that a physical examination of Bi showed evidence of illegal torture, including scars from burning and scalding. Conspiracies abounded: one claimed that Liu Xitong’s son had wanted Bi as a lover, but that Yang Naiwu had driven him off. After Ge’s death, Liu’s son saw his chance to be revenged on Yang for interfering, and persuaded his father to arrest him for murder.
The trial began in October 1876 and lasted four months. Errors in the original autopsy soon came to light, and so Ge Pinlian’s corpse was exhumed and brought to Beijing for re-examination. All the soft tissue had decayed, but as no abnormal colouration was detected in the bones, the unanimous verdict of twenty court physicians was “that death in this case was caused by disease and not by poison” (though the North China Herald opined that relying on bone colour to detect the presence of arsenic was “blatant twaddle”).
On the last day in February, 1877, the Peking Gazette published the Board of Punishments’ final judgement, invalidating all others and fully exonerating Yang and Bi. A few weeks later, the Imperial Censor declared dismay at “the duplicity, partiality and disregard for the interests of justice” shown by the officials in the case, who had demonstrated “flagrant audacity, contempt for the law, and deceit towards their sovereign”. He recommended that stiff punishments be handed out.
Liu Xitong was exiled to the remote Amur district, on China’s northeastern border with Russia, with no option of buying himself a pardon. Hangzhou governor Chen Lu, provincial governor Yang Changjun, and Hu Ruilan were all stripped of rank and dismissed from public service. Thirty other officials were also implicated and demoted.
Despite having been tortured and held in prison under sentence of death for over three years, Yang and Bi were themselves included in this final round of punishments, flogged for having made false accusations against each other in court. Yang was also criticised for his lax morals in socialising with Bi while her husband was absent, leading to rumours of an intrigue between them – the original cause of all the trouble. Perhaps this final sting was for showing up government officials to be embarrassingly incompetent, thus undermining public faith in the whole judicial process.
Yang Naiwu and Bi Xiugu were finally released in April 1877. Yang’s literary degree was never restored – he could hardly have been rewarded by the very system he had discredited – and he spent the rest of his life in the family silkworm business. He died in 1914, aged 74, and was buried near Yuhang’s west gate. Bi became a Buddhist nun, took the name Jingxiu, and retired to a small temple outside the town. She died in 1930.