A clash of tradition and modern law: The pardon of assassin Shi Jianqiao

Society & Culture

She stood calmly at the scene of the crime. She distributed mimeographed booklets with poetry dedicated to her parents, a thorough explanation of her actions, and an apology for splattering blood on the walls of the shrine. All of this she signed, “Female avenger, Shi Jianqiao.”

This Week in China’s History: October 14, 1936

On October 14, 1936, Shī Jiànqiào 施剑翘 got away with murder.

Thirteen months earlier, she had walked into a Buddhist prayer meeting in Tianjin and approached Sūn Chuánfāng 孙传芳, leading the recitation, from behind. She shot the retired warlord three times in the head and back, then surrendered to authorities and confessed to having planned and carried out the killing. She even distributed pamphlets explaining what she had done, and in case there was any doubt that this has been long-planned, she had recently changed her name to Jianqiao — something like “sword-wielder.”

How was it, then, that a confessed, premeditated murder was pardoned?

Historian Eugenia Lean researched, retold, and analyzed Shi Jianqiao’s story in her masterful 2007 book Public Passions. (I’ve based most of what I’ve written here on that prizewinning study.) What she found — and I only scratch the surface; read the book for the full story! — was a case that provided insights into the nature of state power, law, and tradition in a country hurtling between eras.

Our eventual assassin was born in Anhui in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty, with the much gentler name Shī Gǔlán 施谷兰. In a small village with a farming family and bound feet, there was little exceptional about her early life. But China in the early 20th century was in the midst of change, and change came also to the Shi family. Shi Jianqiao’s father, Shi Congbin, rose to a high military rank, elevating the family’s social status. The military prestige, however, was fraught.

The collapse of the Qing in 1911 had been followed by what has come to be known as China’s “warlord period,” an era of weak and transient central government rule. After 1915, Beijing’s power seldom extended far from the capital. Moreover, Beijing itself changed hands regularly, and even knowing who held formal power was challenging. Most of the country was run by militarists, or “warlords,” who ruled domains of varying sizes — some as big as New England states, others equal to European countries — through personal relationships, armed force, and the vestiges of the Qing military hierarchy. Might made right; warfare was constant.

Shi Congbin was a lieutenant in the wars of the 1920s, serving one of the most brutal of the militarists, Zhāng Zōngchāng 张宗昌. In October 1925, Shi Congbin led a detachment of soldiers when he was captured in an ambush. A day later, he was summarily executed by one of Zhang’s rivals, who displayed Shi’s head on a pike outside the local railway station. The victorious warlord, Sun Chuanfang, followed this victory with a series of campaigns that left him in charge of nearly all of the central Chinese coast, which he governed from his capital at Nanjing.

Almost immediately, Shi Jianqiao began plotting to avenge her father. This was outlandish almost to the point of absurdity: a 20-year-old woman seeking vengeance against one of China’s most powerful warlords. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Sun Chuanfang did not enjoy his success for long. The Nationalist Northern Expedition swept up from Guangzhou to unify the country and put an end to the Warlord Era. Sun staved off defeat for several years. When he could flee no longer, in 1931, he retired from his military career and sought refuge in the British concession in Tianjin and a newfound Buddhist faith as lay clergy.

Shi Jianqiao tracked Sun’s movements through all of this. She moved to Tianjin and spent several months casing the recitation hall where Sun assisted with services and feigned interest in becoming a member, all the while learning Sun’s schedule and movements.

The opportunity arose on November 13, 1935, and by midmorning, Sun was dead. Shi Jianqiao stood calmly at the scene of the crime. As Eugenia Lean relates the story, Jianqiao declared, “I have avenged the murder of my father. Do not fear. I will not hurt anyone else, nor will I run away.” She also distributed mimeographed booklets, which included poetry dedicated to her parents, a thorough explanation of her actions, and an apology for splattering blood on the walls of the shrine. All of this she signed, “Female avenger, Shi Jianqiao.”

With a confession and many witnesses, the case moved quickly to trial. In an era of contrasts, the Shi Jianqiao trial was exceptional for the degree to which tradition and modernity were put so closely, and so creatively, in tension.

The dramatic scene immediately after the murder, complete with publicity packets, gives some indication of Shi’s public relations savvy, essential for a media spectacle that had simply not been possible just a few years earlier. Newspapers from several major cities sent reporters to cover the trial in person. The courtroom was open to the public. Photographers crowded outside the courthouse entrance. She played the roles of righteous avenger and pious daughter skillfully in newspaper interviews she gave from her jail cell, one of which led to a lengthy Q&A in one of Shanghai’s newspapers.

Juxtaposed with this unmistakably modern media environment was Shi’s defense, which was grounded in cultural tradition. There was no doubt that she had committed murder, but she claimed it was justified as an act of utmost filiality. Her defense team relied on a principle of judicial mercy for avenging a wrongful killing, justified by the canonical 3rd-century BCE Rites of Zhou (周礼 zhōu lǐ), and other classical texts. But while the defense turned to the ancients to prove that Shi had performed her filial duty, this was not presented as a rejection of modernity in favor of tradition. The Republican legal code required judges to take into account “mitigating circumstances deserving of judicial compassion.” The defense team did not propose eschewing law in favor of tradition, but instead insisted that law required recognition of tradition.

To the prosecution, the case was open and shut: premeditated, cold-blooded murder. The idea that Shi Congbin’s death — a soldier killed on the field of battle — was in any way unjust was laughable.

Illustrating the contentious nature of the claims, Shi Jianqiao’s case was tried not once, but three times. The first trial, in Tianjin, found Shi guilty and rejected the claim of “mitigating circumstances.” Judges sentenced her to “not less than 10 years in prison.”

This refusal to consider the circumstances was grounds for appeal. In Hebei’s appellate court, judges applied the statute limiting a sentence for “homicide out of righteous anger” to no more than seven years, and reduced the sentence accordingly.

This satisfied neither side. The defense wanted total exoneration, while the prosecution dismissed the notion of “righteous anger.” Moreover, public sentiment overwhelmingly sided with the filial vigilante, putting pressure on the courts for acquittal. The case went to the supreme court, in Nanjing.

There, the court affirmed the previous ruling and the reduced sentence of seven years, basing its leniency not on Confucian edicts, but on the notion of wrongful death. The judges ruled that Shi Jianqiao’s father had been wrongfully killed, and therefore her revenge was partly justified and thus subject to leniency. As Lean phrased it, the decision “grounded Shi Jianqiao’s righteous motive of passion in what they claimed was a moral right to due process and thereby turned the sensational event into an opportunity to reassert the foundational power of law.”

And then, two months after the supreme court ruling, the government issued an edict. Shi Jianqiao’s “murderous behavior,” the government declared, “constitutes a violation of criminal law. But if we consider that she was a lone woman acting upon filial thinking and with little regard for her own personal safety, then her intent merits commiseration and the extraordinary circumstances [of the crime] are forgivable.”

Lean made clear that “the very notion of modern law itself was at stake” in Shi’s trial. If that is true, then what was the outcome? Any lawyer knows that law and justice are not the same, but in this case it’s hard to know whether either — or both? — were served. Had Shi Jianqiao avenged her father, or flouted the law? Maybe Shi Congbin got what was coming to him, a soldier dying a soldier’s death, while Sun Chuanfang was the one wrongly killed, in cold blood while leading prayers?

Whatever the case, Shi Jianqiao not only won her pardon, she outlived the court that granted it, surviving war and revolution before serving in the Communist government after 1949. She died in 1979, 45 years after her revenge.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.