Corpse Readers in Song Dynasty China

During the turbulent Song dynasty (960 — 1279), a young man without resources somehow managed to become the first forensic scientist in history. Song Cí was the first of a league of super-elite judges, able not only to investigate tracks and footprints, but also to unravel the secrets hidden beneath the wounds of the dead. His incredible tenacity and his revolutionary methods gave him the gloomy title "Corpse Reader," a position he held upon the completion of degrees as a doctor and a judge, studies which were, at that time, incompatible. He created a valuable legacy of hundreds of crimes solved, joined by his amazing scientific treatises that laid the foundations for current forensic doctrine.

Modern methods such as using chemical developers for obtaining hidden marks and traces, entomological studies of cadaveric fauna, labeling and custody of the findings, the imaging scale of the bodies of the victims, gross inspection of the organs, or the time of death, among others, were already in use by Song Cí in thirteenth century China. Every murder or violent death was investigated by two different judges whose opinions would have to coincide. If they differed, the judge who erred was punished severely.

In Europe, we would have to wait more than five hundred years to find the first western treatises by the hands of surgeons Fodéré and Johann Peter Franck.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Pere Mata i Fontanet, a native of Reus, Spain, started the practice and dissemination of forensic science, which led to the creation in 1915 of the National Body of Coroners, first designated as the Forensic Anatomical Institute, and finally, in 1996, the Institutes of Legal Medicine.

The Corpse Reader is a fictionalized account of the early life of Song Cí.

Below are photos from an autopsy in which I participated.

I would like to thank D. Payo Juan José Barroso, the coroner and Director of the Institute of Legal Medicine of Alicante, for his invaluable assistance. He not only responded with patience and wisdom to each and every one of my questions, but also allowed me to accompany him during the actual practice of an autopsy. Without his cooperation, aspects that go beyond the imagination could not have been faithfully reflected in this book.


Bodies waiting their turn for autopsy

Surgical instruments

>Section scalp

Skull prepared for opening

Calvarial section

Examination of organs extracted

Closing cavities and reports

Excerpted from THE CORPSE READER by Antonio Garrido, Copyright 2013. Published By AmazonCrossing.

That afternoon a group of students and their professor came to the cemetery. Seeing them coming, Xu told Cí how they would sometimes have visits from Ming Academy. For a fee, they were allowed to examine any unclaimed corpses. Luckily, there were three there at the time. Xu was exultant.

“Get dressed,” he said. “These youngsters are so easy to get money out of, if you don’t mind groveling a bit.”

Cí did as he was told, the thought of Third spurring him on.

He watched from a corner, waiting for Xu’s signal. The professor, a bald man dressed in red who seemed somehow familiar, arranged the students around the first body. Before they began, he reminded them of their responsibilities as future judges: respect for the dead and honor in their judgments were of utmost importance. Then he lifted the sheet covering the corpse, revealing a baby girl, a few months old perhaps, who had been found dead in a canal that morning. The professor embarked on a round of questions for the students to discern the cause of death.

“Drowned, no question,” said the first, a fresh-faced youth with a smug air. “Swollen belly, no other marks.”

The professor nodded, inviting the next student to speak.

“A typical case of drowned child. The parents threw her in the canal to avoid caring for her.”

“They might not have been able to,” chided the professor. “Anyone else want to say anything?”

Cí saw that the professor noticed one of the students—Cí had overheard him called Gray Fox, a fitting name given his gray-streaked hair—kept yawning, but the instructor said nothing. He covered the baby’s corpse and asked Xu to bring the next. Xu took the opportunity to bring Cí in and introduce him as the resident necromancer. The students looked at his outfit with disdain.

“We’re not interested in tricksters,” said the professor. “None of us here believe in necromancy.”

Cí withdrew, disconcerted. Xu whispered to him to take off the mask and stay alert. The next corpse was an ashen old man who had been found dead behind a market stall.

“Death by starvation,” said one of the students, looking closely at the corpse with its protruding bones. “Swollen ankles and feet. Approximately seventy years old. Natural causes, therefore.”

Again, the professor agreed with the evaluation, and everyone congratulated the student. Cí saw how Gray Fox went along with it but was clearly being insincere in his praise. Xu and Cí brought the third corpse in a large pine coffin. When they removed the lid, the students at the front recoiled, but Gray Fox came forward, immediately quite interested.

“Looks like a chance for you to show your talents,” said the professor.

The student replied with an ironic smile and approached slowly, his eyes glittering as though the coffin contained a treasure. Cí watched as the student took out a sheet of paper, an inkstone, and a brush. His approach was very similar to the one Cí had seen Feng take in examinations.

First Gray Fox inspected the corpse’s clothes: the undersides of the sleeves, inside the shirt, trousers, and shoes. Then, having removed the clothes and scrutinized the body, he asked for water, which he used to clean the blood-spattered skin thoroughly. Next he measured the body and announced that the deceased was at least two heads taller than an average man.

He began examining the swollen face, which had a strange puncture on the forehead that exposed a bit of the skull. Instead of cleaning it, the student extracted some mud, saying the puncture was most likely the result of a fall, the head having struck the edge of paving stones or cobblestones. He made a note and then described the eyes, which, half open and dull, were like those of a dried fish; the prominent cheekbones; and the wispy mustache and strong jaw. Then he mentioned the long gash that ran from one side of the throat, across the nose, and all the way to the right ear. He looked closely at the edges of the cut and measured the depth. Smiling, he wrote something else down.

He moved on to the muscular torso, noting eleven stab wounds; then he scanned the groin; the small, wrinkled penis; and the thighs and calves, which were also muscular and hairless. Cí helped him turn the corpse over; aside from the bloodstains, the back was unmarked. The student stood back, looking ever more pleased.

“So?” said the professor.

The student took his time before answering, looking at each person individually. He clearly enjoyed performing. Cí raised an eyebrow but paid attention.

“This is obviously an unusual case,” began the student. “The man was young, very strong, and ended up stabbed and with his throat slit. A shockingly cruel murder, which seems to point to there having been a very vicious fight.”

The professor gestured for the student to continue.

“At first glance we might think that there were several assailants—there would have been several of them to overcome a hulk like this—and the many stab wounds attest to that. The number of injuries indicates the fight lasted some time, before someone delivered the decisive wound to the throat. After that, the victim fell forward, causing the strange rectangular mark on the forehead.” Here the student paused for effect. “And the motive? Perhaps we ought to think of several: from a simple tavern brawl to an unpaid debt or old feud or even a dispute over some beautiful ‘flower.’ But the most likely motive is robbery, given the fact the body’s been stripped of all valuables, including the bracelet that should have been…here,” he said, pointing to a tan mark at the wrist. “A magistrate would have done well to order the immediate vicinity searched, paying particular attention to taverns and any troublemakers either showing wounds or throwing money around.” The student closed his notebook, covered the corpse, and stared at the group, waiting for his applause.

Cí remembered what Xu had said about the possibility of tips if they groveled, and went over to congratulate the student, but the student looked at him with disdain.

“Stupid show-off,” muttered Cí, turning away.

“How dare you!” Gray Fox grabbed his arm.

Cí shrugged him off and squared up to the student, ready to argue, but before he could reply, the professor was between them.

“So, it seems the sorcerer thinks we’re loudmouths,” said the professor. Looking at Cí more closely, his face changed. “Do I know you?”

“I don’t think so, sir. I haven’t been in the capital long,” he lied. As he said it, though, he realized the professor was Ming, the man to whom he’d tried to sell his copy of the penal code at the book market.

“Are you sure? Well, anyway…I think you owe my student an apology.”

“Or maybe he owes me one.”

At Cí’s impertinence, a murmur went around.

Xu stepped in. “Please, sir, forgive him. He’s been quite out of sorts lately.”

But Cí wasn’t backing down. He wanted to wipe the smile off the conceited student’s face.

He turned to Xu and whispered, “Put a bet on me. Everything you’ve got. It’s what you know best, right?”


Professor Ming resisted betting at first, but once he admitted a bit of curiosity, his students urged him on, and he agreed to the challenge. Xu skillfully upped the bets, making a show of worrying that he’d lose everything.

“If you mess this up,” warned Xu, “I swear I’ll sell your sister for less than the price of a pig.”

Cí wasn’t daunted. He asked the group to give him some space and took out instruments for his examination: a small hammer, forceps made from bamboo, a scalpel, a small sickle-like object, and a wooden spatula. Beside these he placed a washbasin, gourds containing water and vinegar, paper, and a brush.

Cí had some doubts about Gray Fox’s inspection, and Cí was ready to see if he was right.

He went first to the corpse’s nape, working his fingers from there up along the scalp to the crown of the head, and then inspecting the ears with the help of the little spatula. Then he went downward from the neck, examining the muscular shoulders, upper arms, elbows, and forearms, stopping at the right hand and paying particular attention to something at the base of the thumb.

A circular callus.

He made a note.

He checked the spine, the buttocks, and the legs for injuries before cleaning the face, neck, and torso—properly, with water and vinegar. He spent a good deal of time on the stab wounds, measuring and probing, and then concluding that at least three were fatal.

Just as I suspected.

Then the terrible throat wound: shaking his head, he measured it and made a note of the tears at the edges. Last came the face. Using the forceps inside the nose and mouth, he extracted a whitish substance. He made another note.

“We’re waiting,” warned the professor.

But Cí refused to be hurried. A hundred facts were swirling in his mind, and he still hadn’t quite come to the answer. He returned to the face, where, now that it was clean, he noticed some small scratches on the cheeks. He moved to the mark on the forehead, which he concluded couldn’t have been caused by an impact at all; the edges of the rectangular mark were too neat to be anything but an incision. The mud stuck in the flesh was a red herring, he decided.

Now he was getting somewhere.

He went back to the arms and hands, finding new scratches, then again to the head, parting the hair very carefully and inspecting the scalp. His suspicion confirmed, he turned to the professor. The game was won, and only he knew.

Gray Fox smiled. “So, sorcerer, anything to add?”

“Not really,” he said timidly, dropping his head and looking at his notes.

Laughter broke out among the students, who began clamoring for Xu to pay up. Xu looked nervously to Cí, who was still consulting his notes. Xu cursed and was about to begin paying on the bets, when Cí piped up.

“Not so fast.”

They will be the ones to pay once I am done.

“What are you saying?”

Gray Fox came up to him. “If you think you can mock us and get away with it…”

But Cí ignored him and looked to the professor for permission to present his conclusions. Ming nodded, seeming interested to hear what Cí had to say.

“Your student has carried out a superficial examination. Blinded by his ego, he ignored the value of what seemed to him banal facts. Just as a race over a thousand li can only be achieved one step at a time, examining a corpse requires patience and attention to the most minute details.”

Before his opponent could object, Cí continued. “The victim’s name was Fu Leng. Convicted of serious crimes, he was condemned to serve as a soldier at the Xiangyang outpost, on the River Han border, but he recently deserted. He came to Lin’an hoping to embark on a new life, but his violent personality was an obstacle. Yesterday afternoon, as so often, he fought with his wife and then beat her. Later, when he sat down to eat, she came up behind him and slit his throat. The unfortunate woman, should you be interested in speaking to her, will be found in her house, which is close to the walls where the body was found. Ask at the Yurchen shop near the north jetty. They’ll know where she lives—if she hasn’t killed herself already.”

Everyone was silent—even Xu, who just stared back when Cí told him to take their winnings. Gray Fox stepped forward and, out of nowhere, slapped Cí.

“I thought I’d heard it all, but this is unforgivable. You should be ashamed. Listen—”

“No, you listen. It isn’t my fault you’re inept. You even cleaned the body before checking for evidence.”

Astounded, Gray Fox looked to Professor Ming, who instructed him to keep calm and told the others that it wasn’t quite time to pay Xu.

“As I’ve said many times, having conviction is important in this line of work, but on its own it is never enough. That’s why we have tribunals rather than just taking the word of an accuser.” Ming turned to Cí. “Your words have a convincing edge, but you also show insolence, and above all, your assertions lack evidence. Without the evidence, the only conclusion can be that this is a flight of fancy. Either that, or you were actually present at the crime.”

Cí had known this presentation would be different from one to a group of mourners. The best investigators were trained at the Ming Academy, but if he explained his logic, they’d know he had medical training, which could give away his identity.

So he said that if they really needed proof, all they had to do was go to the scene of the crime. At this, Ming threatened to report him to the authorities.

Cí pressed his fists together and bowed. The risk was worth taking to prove he was right.

“Very well, we’ll begin with the cause of death. He didn’t die in a fight; there were neither several assailants nor numerous beatings. He died when his throat was slit, and the incision point and direction of the cut demonstrate that this happened from behind. Given that he was so tall, he must have been seated when he died. Otherwise, the killer wouldn’t have been able to cut down to up like this. The stab wounds on the torso were all delivered by the same weapon, from the same position, and with the same intensity—that is, by the same person. Three of them are mortal, which means that all the others, including the slit to the throat, were unnecessary. So we can discard the story of the attack squad.”

“Pah! Pure supposition,” said Gray Fox.

“You sure?”

Cí seized the wooden spatula as if it were a knife and rushed at Gray Fox. The student leapt backward, holding his arms up to parry the thrusts. Cí kept on coming, eventually cornering him. But as much as he tried to get at Gray Fox’s torso, he never managed to get past the raised arms.

Then, just as suddenly as he’d begun his attack, Cí stopped.

Gray Fox didn’t launch a counterattack, but looked around incredulously. No one had come to his aid, and Professor Ming had watched the whole thing impassively.

“Master!” squealed Gray Fox.

But the professor’s only response was to give the floor to Cí once more.

“As you can see, for all I tried, I couldn’t get past his defense. Now, picture the situation: If I’d had a knife, instead of this wooden spatula, your arms would have cuts all over them. If I had landed a blow on your body, the angles of the cuts, and how deep they went, would all have been very different.”

To this Gray Fox gave no answer.

“But,” said Professor Ming, “that hardly leads us to the idea that the killer was a woman, or his wife, or that he was an escaped convict—nor any of the rest of your conclusions, or fabrications, I should perhaps say.”

Cí went calmly over to the corpse, inviting the group to look closely at the wound on the forehead.

“The result of a fall? Wrong. If your classmate had carried out his examination properly, he would have seen that this section of skin, which he thought came away because of an impact, was in fact pulled off with the very same knife that slit the throat. Look at the edges of the wound.” Cí ran his gloved fingers along them. “He didn’t bother to clean the wound, so he missed that the edges of the wound are sharp and clearly defined. The precise rectangular shape of the wound can mean only one thing.”

“A demonic ritual?” asked Xu.

Please, Xu, not now.

“No,” said Cí, clearing his throat. “It was an attempt to remove something that would have identified the corpse, because it was something that would have identified the man, beyond doubt, as a dangerous criminal, convicted for the worst of crimes.” He paused, turning to Professor Ming. “It wasn’t any old piece of skin that was removed; it was where the tattoo they put on murderers was placed. Fortunately, in this case, the killer either forgot or didn’t know that murderers are also tattooed on the crown of the head.”

From their expressions, Cí could see the students’ attitudes were rapidly changing from disdain to astonishment.

“And the idea that he deserted Xiangyang?”

“It’s well known that our penal code sets out execution, exile, and enforced labor as punishments for murder. This corpse was alive only yesterday, which leaves exile or enforced labor.” He held up the corpse’s right hand. “And the circular callus at the base of the thumb proves, without a doubt, that this man was wearing the bronze ring with which the flexor tendon is tightened.”

“Let me see,” said the professor, coming closer.

“It is also well known that our army forces are concentrated in Xiangyang because of the incursions by the Jin invaders.”

“And that’s why you think he deserted.”

“Basically. In a state of war, no one is allowed to leave the army, but this man did so to return to Lin’an. And not long ago, either, judging by his tan.”

“His tan?” asked Ming.

“Look at this faint horizontal mark,” said Cí, indicating a line across the forehead. “There is a very slight difference between the color of the skin here, compared to a little higher.”

The professor checked this.

“A head scarf,” continued Cí. “In the rice fields, the workers call them two-tones. But here there is only a very slight difference in coloration, indicating he only recently began using the head scarf to hide his tattoo.”

The professor frowned, seeming to weigh his next question.

“And the whereabouts of the woman? What were you saying about asking at the Yurchen shop?”

“Oh, I was lucky there. There was so much leftover food matter in his mouth that I could only deduce he died while eating.”


“The Yurchen shop, yes. Look.” He picked up the gourd in which he’d deposited the leftovers. “Cheese.”


“Surprising, yes? A very unusual thing to eat around here, but common among the northern tribes. As far as I know, the only place bringing cheese into Lin’an is Old Panyu’s exotic food shop. I’m certain they’d remember the few customers who had recently bought such disgusting fare!”

“Which he perhaps developed a taste for during his time in the army…”

“Perhaps. They have to eat whatever they can find.”

“But you still haven’t explained the key element—that his wife killed him.”

Cí consulted his notes. Nodding, he lifted one of the corpse’s arms.

“These,” he said, pointing to some faint scratches. “The same as on both his shoulders. They showed up when I washed the body with the vinegar.”

“And these lead you to conclude…”

“That she’d been beaten badly earlier in the day and tried to fight back. She couldn’t take the abuse anymore, so when he sat down to eat, she came up behind him and slit his throat. And when he was down, she went into a rage, straddled him, and stabbed him in the torso. When she calmed down, she removed anything that might identify the body or link it to her. But because he’s such a big man, she wouldn’t have been able to carry him very far. Therefore the killer is still in the vicinity of where the body was found.”

“Truly fantastic,” said Ming.

Cí bowed in thanks.

“No, I mean fantastic as in you’ve created a huge fantasy based on scant findings. Anyone could find any number of holes in your argument—for example, why the wife and not a sister? If the skin from the forehead is gone, there’s no way of being certain it had a tattoo on it, let alone what it said.”


“Enough. You’re smart, no question about it, but you’re not as brilliant as you think.”

“And…the bet?” said Xu.

“Mmm.” The professor took out a purse and handed it to Xu. “That should settle it.”

Excerpted from THE CORPSE READER by Antonio Garrido, Copyright 2013. Published By AmazonCrossing.