Visitors flock to Kaifeng to pay tribute to Bao Zheng, a champion of political justice
Kaifeng, in Henan Province, is one of the oldest cities in China. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the city population exceeded 1 million, and it prospered as both the capital and the world's largest city at the time.
Bao Zheng (or Pao Pun Jin as he’s known through the traditional Chinese courtroom drama), was governor of Kaifeng during China's Northern Song Dynasty in the 11th century and holds lasting appeal among Chinese people as an incorruptible hero who championed political justice.
At the edge of Bao Gong Lake in the old part of the city, the Memorial Temple of Lord Bao enshrines Bao Zheng, who is sometimes referred to as Bao Gong.
Although the temple was constructed in 1987, it was modelled after the architectural style of the Song Dynasty, and provides a solemn atmosphere that’s perfect for paying respect. Visitors walk through a garden to the main hall, where a bronze statue of a seated Bao stands nearly three metres tall. The formally attired governor sits squarely with a steadfast stare as if to say Bao will not overlook injustice.
A wooden panel emblazoned with four Chinese characters hangs above the statue. It reads “Zheng-da-guang-ming”, meaning just and honourable. Many visitors put their hands together or kneel in prayer in front of the statue. During our visit, a 36-year-old man from Heilongjiang Province gazing at the statue, told us, “I’ve admired Bao as a fair official since I was a child”.
A governor at the time would be responsible for duties performed by judges today. The popular image of Bao among Chinese people is that of an ally of the common man, who stood against cruel bureaucrats in deciding one difficult case after another. This image owes a lot to the influence of repeatedly broadcast TV dramas about Bao, which were drawn from theatrical plays and novels produced after the governor’s time.
Some are even moving to incorporate Bao’s spirit into current judicial education.
However, Yu Xiaoman, an associate professor at School of Act, Henan University, cautions that the historical figure Bao does not necessarily accord with the Bao of TV dramas. Bao was excellent in his studies and passed the difficult examination for government service to become a bureaucrat in his 20s, going on to become an elite official and climbing rapidly through the ranks.
According to Yu, although Bao was no doubt a man of integrity, there are no historical materials that attest to Bao being the heroic champion of justice TV drama viewers know.
“Bao was deified as an ideal public official in the people’s imagination during the Yuan Dynasty, a time when people’s lives were thrown into chaos by a rapidly changing society,” Yu says.
In the Memorial Temple of Lord Bao, there is a stone monument on which names of previous governors of Kaifeng are inscribed. Where Bao's name should be, the text is indented and nearly impossible to make out.
“This part was worn away by the many people who have touched Bao’s name to follow his example,” says Zhou Xiaoqing, a guide at the temple.
Bao’s deep-seated popularity may reflect popular dissatisfaction with corruption among bureaucrats and a non-transparent judiciary. Sun Xiuhua, 76, who claims to pay respect at Bao’s statue every day without fail, tells us proudly that Bao, who was free from corruption, was the people’s pride in Kaifeng.
Zhou shares one small piece of Bao’s legend. It is said that Bao installed a gate at the rear of one public office to allow people to pass through freely and convey their problems to Bao directly.
According to Zhou, entering from a back gate demonstrated open communication between the public and private sectors.
“It is ironic that entering through the back gate has come to suggest backdoor admissions to schools or using connections to get a job,” he says smiling sadly.