Zhang Tang was born in the region of Du (modern Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China) sometime in the 2nd century BCE. His family was humble, but had ample possibilities for mobility. This was in large part due to his father’s work as an aid to a government official in Chang’an, the Capital City of the Han Dynasty. While his father was away, young Zhang Tang was tasked with watching over the family home.
Even with the passage of time, great leaps in technology and significant cultural changes, the children of ancient eras played and behaved almost the same as the children of today. Therefore, just as modern kids enjoy using their imaginations to pretend to be doctors, or soldiers, or super-heroes, so too did little Zhang Tang enjoy acting out his dream job—an imperial law official of the Han Dynasty. According to peculiar pieces of folklore preserved by Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), young Zhang Tang was disturbingly serious about his play sessions as a pretend judge.
One bizarre tale about Zhang Tang’s childhood was set during one of those spans of time when he was appointed as the honorary man of the house while his father was off working in Chang’an. In particular, the commuting father was strict about the security of his pantry—if anything was missing from the larder, nothing would save Zhang Tang from his father’s wrath. Unfortunately, although young Zhang Tang had obsessively learned everything he could about imperial law, he was in no way a skilled watchman or guard. Therefore, to the boy’s horror, a stealthy rat had sneaked into the home and had made off with a prized cut of meat while he was distracted.
When the exhausted father returned home, he immediately realized that something was missing. He must have been really looking forward to eating the stolen morsel, for the father was reportedly so furious that he cruelly gave Zhang Tang a beating for his negligence. Later on, the boy was clearly still dwelling on the rat and the beating when he decided to play his next session of imaginary lawman. Fully throwing himself into the role, young Zhang Tang devoted himself to hunting down the greatest criminal living in the confines of his family’s estate—the thieving rodent.
Acting as an investigator, Zhang Tang tracked down the hole where the rat lived. To the horror of his family, the boy then excavated the rat den and captured the thief. He even discovered evidence of the crime—there were still scraps of the prized meat that were uneaten. With the rodent and evidence in his possession, Zhang Tang had everything he needed to launch the greatest make-believe law case of his bizarre childhood.
Following imperial law and court etiquette to the letter, the boy charged the rodent with committing a heinous crime and put it on trial. It was an incredibly thorough procedure. According to the tale, he even interrogated the rodent and recorded its squeaks as a confession. Sima Qian brilliantly and vividly described the uncanny, disturbing scene: “He then proceeded to indict the rat, beat it until it told its story, write out a record of its words, compare them with the evidence, and draw up a proposal for punishment. After this he took the rat and meat out into the yard, where he held a trial, presented the charges, and crucified the rat” (Shi Ji 122). When the boy’s father heard of his son’s odd trial and subsequent execution of the poor rodent, he was not concerned in the least. Instead, according to the peculiar piece of folklore, the father was extremely impressed.
As Sima Qian presented it, this was the event that set off Zhang Tang’s career in law. When the boy’s father saw his son’s interest and skill in court proceedings, he sent Zhang Tang to study legal documents. As he grew up, Zhang Tang went on to become a successful member of the Han court, reaching positions such as commandant of justice and imperial secretary to Emperor Wu. He gained a reputation as a wise, albeit manipulative, government official. Zhang Tang became one of the emperor’s favorite counselors, but he ultimately committed suicide in 116 BCE after being accused of corruption.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Funerary Sculpture of an animal (rat) of the Twelve-Year Chinese Zodiac (Shengxiao), c. Yuan Dynasty, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.