Stories about incorruptible and upstanding public officials have been passed down orally from generation to generation as a means of preserving ethical values deemed to be essential, for instance, noble-mindedness and a sense of justice, which are as rare today as they were in the days of our ancestors. The following story was handed on to me as a child and (as I have yet to come across a published version of it) for the benefit of my children’s children and their children, here is my own retelling of Magistrate Wu’s moral dilemma…
MAGISTRATE WU was a happy man, for the woman he had married was a matchless beauty – even if she was a widow.
His kinsfolk, of course, had strenuously objected to his choice of spouse. It was shameful, degrading and totally unbecoming of man of his professional stature to marry a widow. Why, he had the pick of any virgin he fancied in the village. He ought to know that only a man too poor to attract a reputable virgin would settle for a widow. They warned him that widows were generally believed to bring bad luck, unless they happened to be wealthy heiresses – but it was common knowledge that this widow’s late husband had been an incompetent fool and left her nothing.
Nonetheless, Magistrate Wu was so utterly captivated by the widow’s charms that he went ahead and married her. Was he not, after all, known to be a man of independent judgement?
Years went by (as they are wont to do) and all was well with the Magistrate and the beautiful Madam Wu. By now she had won the acceptance, even the admiration, of the entire Wu clan; and the others in the village had long since stopped referring to Madam Wu as “the widow.”
As nothing much ever happened that was out of the ordinary in this remote village, Magistrate Wu was inwardly quite excited to learn one morning that his next case was going to be a murder trial. The accused was led in: a fine-looking young woman whose husband had died suddenly. Poison was suspected. The victim’s brothers testified that only their sister-in-law had been present when her husband expired – and that he had seemed in excellent health when they had last seen him a few days ago. They were convinced that she had deliberately opted for widowhood, She was a wicked and ill-tempered woman from a distant village – an orphan with no kith or kin to attest to her character.
Magistrate Wu ordered the accused be kept in custody while the case was under investigation. This was to ensure her safety, for her accusers seemed a violent and vengeful lot. Then, accompanied by two physicians, the Magistrate proceeded to the home of the deceased to examine the corpse. There was not a moment to lose, as the burial was already due. The funeral rites had been going on for three days and nights – and that was all the family could afford.
The physicians were baffled: careful examination of the body had disclosed no sign of struggle, no wound or even a scratch. No evidence of poisoning either. Victims of poisoning were usually found to have discoloured fingernails, and the face of the corpse would often be contorted with agony and the complexion would be blotchy.
Magistrate Wu spent many days interrogating the young widow, her accusers, and everyone else who had known the victim and his family. He learnt that the deceased had generally been regarded as a spineless fool who ran errands for his brothers. He was, in fact, at their beck and call from dawn to dusk, and received no share of their earnings apart from his meals. His young wife had also been turned into an unpaid slave by her brothers-in-law, and deeply resented her position. Her husband had apparently been too stupid to realise that he was being cruelly exploited, but the wife was clearly of high intelligence, so much so that the other womenfolk displayed signs of envious hostility towards her.
However, this background knowledge shed no light on how the man had died. Was it case of murder or death through unknown circumstances? Night after night Magistrate Wu paced his bedroom floor, ceaselessly stroking his goatee, brow furrowed in thought. He could see how the young wife might have suffered humiliation to the point of committing murder. Widowhood was at least a form of liberation, for in those days a wife simply did not divorce her husband; such an act was unthinkable! More unthinkable than murder? But if she had done the deed, what means had she used? And such a comely young widow, with a spirit and intelligence to match! But he could easily acquit her, since no cause of death had been discovered, and therefore no crime could be established. Yet a man had died suddenly and mysteriously – and it was his duty to see that justice was satisfied.
Dark rings of sleeplessness began to form under Magistrate Wu’s eyes. Madam Wu could not bear to see her husband in such a state. She had been a sympathetic listener, thus far offering no opinions of her own. But now she blurted out: “You ought to have examined the skull of the dead man!”
Magistrate Wu looked at his wife in utter astonishment. Then he put on his hat and rushed from the bedchamber, summoned his staff and his sedan chair, and ordered that the young widow’s brothers-in-law be awoken and the murder victim be exhumed at once.
In ancient China, the nails used by carpenters had no heads and, when hammered into soft wood, disappeared almost entirely from view. Such a nail was found embedded in the skull of the deceased, hidden by his thick, dark hair.
For an instant, Magistrate Wu was elated by this macabre discovery. At last, the cause of death was known and the murder weapon found! Then his mind clouded with a dreadful suspicion. How could his lovely wife, Madam Wu, possibly have known about the nail? Good heavens! She had been a widow too and her husband had also been a fool. What if? Was his own life in jeopardy? How could he even begin to think such a thought? His dearly beloved, dutiful, affectionate wife?
Nevertheless, the truth had to be ascertained. Justice must prevail, whatever the cost. With utmost discretion, Magistrate Wu arranged for the exhumation of his wife’s deceased husband. Only the Magistrate and his most trusted investigators were present when the bones were disinterred.
With a quickening heartbeat, Magistrate Wu watched as the skull was subjected to close scrutiny. No! There was a tiny aperture at its apex… and he could hear a dull rattle… and lo! They found the nail.