Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE) and his ministers, in hopes of eradicating crime and corruption, concocted a legal quagmire that came to be known as the Concealment Law. The premise was simple—it decreed that if crime went unreported and unpunished, then everyone involved in the failure of bringing the criminals to justice would be held responsible. Yet, there was a catch to the concealment law; failure to report and apprehend criminals was punishable by death. Emperor Wu’s Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), described the edict, writing, “the government promulgated the so-called concealment law, which stated: ‘If bandits arise and their presence is not reported, or if the full number are not arrested after their presence is reported, everyone responsible, from the 2,000 picul officials down to the lowest clerks, will be executed’” (Shi Ji 122). Although the purpose of the law was to spur on officials to hunt down criminals, the concealment law in actuality was said to have done the exact opposite. Due to the steep price of failure, officials reportedly decided that their lives would be more secure if they hid the existence of crimes rather than trying (and possibly failing) to round up all the wrongdoers. The aforementioned courtier, Sima Qian, continued in his analysis of the concealment law, stating, “the number of bandits began to gradually increase again, but both the higher and lower officials conspired to conceal the fact and sent false reports to the central government in order to save themselves from involvement with the law” (Shi Ji 122). Of course, people are not homogenous. Even if there were some officials who behaved as Sima Qian alleged, there were undoubtedly other law officers who pressed on with their duties despite the risk.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Duke Wen of Jin Recovering His State, Painted By Li Tang (c. 1070s–1150s), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.