Have you ever met a cook who minced his customer’s flesh to a paste, then used that as filling for his famous steamed buns?
Have you ever met a doctor who performed a surgery on his love rival and turned him into a pig, then locked him up in a pen like common livestock?
Have you ever met a man raised by bats who then sucked human blood for sustenance?
I have. All of them, and more.
My name is Song Yang. Officially, I am the Chief Consultant of the Public Security Department in Province H. My real profession, however, is a Traditional Coroner.
You might wonder: What does a Traditional Coroner do?
Well, it is in fact an ancient profession with a long and illustrious history. In Ancient China, a Traditional Coroner was a government official who would examine dead bodies and investigate crimes. Over time, they developed a unique body of knowledge, complete with sets of skills and techniques, that aid and guide their practice.
Rice wine, silver needles, red umbrellas, rosins – these might just be normal everyday objects to the common folk, but to a Traditional Coroner, these are tools to be used to pry open the secrets of the dead and gather the clues to pin down the murderers.
In the thirty years that I have worked with the Public Security Department, I have relied on the techniques of a Traditional Coroner that had been passed down from one generation to the next in my family to crack the hardest, most puzzling cases in China’s history. Some cases were debauched, some were horrifying, some were utterly inhumane, and some were so ghoulish they could curdle your blood just hearing about it.
I take pride in my profession. So, in order to make sure that the generations to come learn of this ancient profession of mine, I have decided to chronicle my life and experiences as a Traditional Coroner here for everyone to read.
Due to the confidentiality policy of the Public Security Department, though, I have changed the names of the people and the cities involved.
Now, back to the main subject!
I was born in a small provincial town in the South. I have no memories of my own parents. Instead, I was raised by my grandfather, and we lived in an old house on an old plot of land that the Song family had been inhabiting for countless generations before us.
Though I was orphaned, Grandpa loved and spoiled me more than enough to fill the void that my deceased parents might have left. I never felt that I lacked anything — I lived a full life and had a wonderful childhood.
All my life, Grandpa had only ever demanded one thing of me.
“My boy,” he said, “remember this: I will not stop you from doing whatever you want when you grow up. I only ask you to never enter into these three professions – never become a government official, never become a police officer, and never become a medical examiner!”
I was only a young boy at the time, so I didn’t have a clue what a medical examiner was. But all the same, I nodded my head to show my obedience.
As I grew older though, suspicion gradually crept up on me – I began to suspect that Grandpa was not just the cut-and-dried old man that I knew him to be.
Why? Because Grandpa never seemed to work a day in his life – he almost never even stepped out of our house! And yet, he had no problem raising me, providing me a comfortable home to grow up in, feeding me good food, and sending me to good schools.
What was even more curious was how I distinctly remember a man of high position along with an entourage of police officers paying my grandfather regular visits. Their were highly respectful around Grandpa. They would often give him lavish gifts, gifts like expensive aged liquors, premium brand cigars, and the like.
Every time Grandpa received special guests like that, they would all be huddled up in a room, talking and discussing, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes even for a whole day. By then I had also noticed an odd pattern about these visits – usually, a few days after the visits, I would hear of horrific murder cases in the news, infamous cases like the “Hell Money Murder in a Sichuan Restaurant” and the “Crushed Body in Xinan University”. Each of these cases rocked the whole country and became the talk of the town, so much so that even ordinary townsfolk would gossip about them.
That got me connecting the dots. I knew then that Grandpa must’ve had something to do with those cases, but I could just never get a word out of him about it.
Because of Grandpa’s mysterious connections with the higher-ups, the whole family benefited from it. My aunt opened her own business in town and it had always flourished. Once, a truck of her goods was wasted due to a car crash on a highway, but for some reason the police spent a whole day collecting those goods and sent them back to her in a neat package.
Even I benefited too. My grades in the middle school entrance exam were a few dozen points short, but I was still accepted into a prestigious middle school regardless.
When I was twelve, the town council had decided to build a new highway, and according to the blueprint it would pass through our old Song family estate which stood there for generations. Our neighbours all succumbed to the bribery and intimidation of the contractors and they all left their homes. Only Grandpa refused to give up the land that had belonged to the Song family for generations. He would not give in, even if it meant that our house would end up as an isolated pocket of land in the middle of the highway.
The head contractor of the highway project was a match for Grandpa’s tenacity though. Once the bribes and persuasion didn’t work, he knew he had to turn to a more violent approach. To demonstrate their power, he drove a bulldozer right into our gates and crashed straight through our walls!
I was there at the time, and that commotion terrified me so much that I almost buckled under my knees and broke into sobs.
Grandpa, on the other hand, simply let out a heavy sigh, picked up the phone, and dialled a number. In a calm voice, he spoke to the person on the line, and a few minutes later, the bulldozer rushed back to where it came from.
The very next day, a group of local leaders and that same contractor from before paid us a visit, bearing gifts and full of apologies. That contractor even offered us a hundred thousand yuan for the damages. In a small town like ours, that amount of money was no measly sum at all, but Grandpa merely waved his hand indifferently and declined the gift.
The highway did get built eventually, only that when it neared our house, the highway turned in a sharp curve, completely circumventing our land and house.
This incident stood out vividly in my memory. It left a strong impression on my younger self, and it roused my suspicion of Grandpa even further. The thought began to nag at me – how could an old man like him have so much power and influence?
When I was fifteen, I accidentally found an old, wooden chest in an old section of our house. Two tattered, yellowed books spilled out of it. One of them was called Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified, written in 1247 AD by someone called Song Ci. The other one was titled Chronicles of Grand Magistrates, but the date it was written in and the author’s name were both missing.
Based on my limited knowledge of classical Chinese at the time, I had great difficulty understanding the contents of the books. At first, all I could do was study the diagrams which detailed the anatomy of human bodies and the methods of examining corpses.
I didn’t know why, but I felt a strange magnetic pull towards the books. The moment I started flipping through them, I was entirely absorbed into their world and just couldn’t put them down. So, I sunk my teeth into it and kept on trying to decipher the books little by little. And just as even dripping water could hollow out a stone, by slowly working on word by word, then page by page, I eventually learned the entire contents of those books.
To me, these two books worked like a gateway that transported me to a new and exciting unknown world. Although the books discussed the work of a Traditional Coroner, basically chronicling the methods of dead body examination and different approaches to crime-solving, I did not feel even a trace of fear or repulsion, only an intoxicating mix of excitement and intellectual fascination.
The year I turned sixteen was the first time an opportunity quite literally landed at my door, an opportunity that would allow me to utilize what I had learned from those books in real life.
It was one of those dog days at the height of summer, and Grandpa had some business to attend to outside so he wasn’t home. School was off, so I stayed lazing around at home with nothing to do. To kill time, I stuck a piece of sticky rubber to a long bamboo pole and used that to chase and catch some birds in the trees.
Then suddenly, a black Volkswagen Jetta sedan screeched to a halt outside of our door.
A big burly man almost exploded out of the car with urgency. His face was square and angular, his eyebrows were bushy and his eyes big and piercing, his skin had been baked by the sun until it had the sheen of copper. He strode headlong into our courtyard with obvious hastiness. I recognized him as one of the special guests of Grandpa’s – a policeman, in fact. Wasn’t his surname something like… Sun?
Officer Sun was not in uniform that day. Instead, he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and in his hand he carried a black briefcase. He was soaked in sweat, and I could almost see steam rising from his head due to the heat.
“Hey kiddo,” he yelled when he saw me, “is your grandpa home?”
“Nope,” I answered. “He’s out.”
Officer Sun’s expressions turned sour and creases started to appear on his forehead.
“This damned heat,” Officer Sun grumbled, “I could get roasted alive at this rate!”
“Why don’t you come inside?” I asked. “You can cool off here for a bit with a glass of drink.”
“That’s a good boy!”
Without skipping a beat, he then sauntered through the front door, and once he got inside, he pulled a chair out and made himself comfortable as if he was in his own house.
What a character, I thought.
I then brought him a tall glass of iced soda. He grabbed it and gulped down the contents of the glass in seconds. Then he sighed contentedly and wiped his lips with the back of his hand before lighting himself a cigarette.
“Are you in high school now, kiddo?” he asked me.
“I’m a freshman,” I replied.
“And how are your grades?”
“Anyone bully you at school?”
“If anyone tries to do it with you, just give me a call,” said Officer Sun. “I’ll go deal with the rascals myself!” He then burst into laughter.
I sensed that an opportunity to learn more about Grandpa had just fallen my lap, so I decided I wasn’t going to waste it.
“Uncle-Officer,” I said, “how do you know my grandpa?”
“Your grandpa?” replied Officer Sun. “Why, he’s a genius that only comes once in a century! Too bad his temper is just as singular! Did you know how many people in the higher rungs have been inviting him to work with the government all these years? And he refused them all! Just last year a certain department director offered him a deal, where he had only to work with the police for one short year and he’ll be getting fifty thousand yuan of pension a month! But even that didn’t move the old man. That is why we have to co-operate with him in this manner instead.”
“Co-operate?” I asked. “How? What do you mean?”
Just as Officer Sun was going to answer, he suddenly stopped himself as if realizing that he’d spoken too much.
“Oh boy,” he said, one hand grabbing at his belly, “looks like I gulped down that cold drink too quickly, now my stomach is complaining! Where’s the toilet, kiddo?”
“Over there,” I said, pointing at the direction. “Near the backyard.”
Officer Sun clutched at his belly with both hands and rushed to the toilet like a gust of wind. Not long after I could hear the sound of water flowing coming from that direction.
Unbeknownst to him, as he threw his briefcase onto the table in his rush to get to the toilet, the button that kept it closed had come undone, and from there a photograph tumbled out, immediately drawing my eyes towards it.
I made sure that I was alone and reached out my hand to get the photo, but I could feel my heart thumping my chest like a drum. I knew that looking at classified police documents without permission is a crime, but on the other hand, the photograph was almost screaming at me to look at it.
It’s fine, I told myself. I’ll just take a quick glance, that’s all. Nothing’s going to happen.
I slid the photograph out of the briefcase, and immediately recognized a dead body in it. I had seen countless corpses in films before, but I knew that those were just props. This was different. Seeing the real thing for the first time actually sent a shiver down my spine.
The corpse in the photograph was that of an adult male. He was wearing a business suit with a white collared shirt underneath, although it was already stained red with blood. The corpse was leaning on an opened safe, his head hung lifelessly from his neck while his eyeglasses still clung to him by his right ear. There was a deep and long gash on his throat where all the blood spilled out from.
A huge number of banknotes scattered about the corpse, each of them also stained red with blood.
My total concentration was honed in to the photograph, and I was not afraid of the grisly scene in front of me at all. Instead I felt an inexplicable exhilaration surging up inside me, like what a starving person might feel when they got a whiff of delicious food, or when a pervert saw a luscious woman pass by – okay, I know that they might be inappropriate metaphors, and that I should be more respectful towards the dead, but there it is! It was just how I truly felt.
Just when my mind was completely sucked into the picture, a big strong hand appeared from behind me, and violently snatched the photograph away.
I spun around and saw Officer Sun standing behind me, staring at me with those scrutinizing eyes.
“Who gave you permission to look at my things, you little brat?” he barked. “Don’t you know what you’re doing is against the law?”
“B-But I was just…” I struggled to explain, completely shaken. “I was just glancing at it… Just a quick look, I swear!”
Officer Sun narrowed his eyes, and suddenly a sly smile materialized on his lips.
“How about this,” he began. “I’m going to test you, and if you can answer my question, then I’ll let this go. But if you can’t, then I’m afraid you’ll have to spend a few days of your summer vacation in jail!”
Those words calmed me down straight away, because I knew exactly what he was going to ask me.
“Okay then,” began Officer Sun, “what was the murder weapon used to kill this man?”
Just as I expected.
“Give me that photograph.”
He handed it to me. I swept my eyes over it for a moment, then I was ready to give my answer.
“That cut on the throat was the fatal wound,” I said confidently. “Based on its conditions, I’d say it was caused by a sharp object, but if it was just a knife, a dagger or any other ordinary weapon like that, I’m sure you wouldn’t waste your time asking me this question. Therefore, the murder weapon must be something extraordinary!”
“Not bad at all, kiddo!” exclaimed Officer Sun. “Then why don’t you tell me what you think it is?”
I handed the photograph back to him and said, “It’s right there, in the photo.”
Officer Sun stared at the photograph, he blinked and blinked before turning back to me and said, “In here? You’d better not be kidding me, kiddo! I led the investigation myself and we’ve scoured every inch of the crime scene and found nothing! We’ve even got the prime suspect, but without the murder weapon…”
He stopped suddenly, then cleared his throat and looked straight at me.
“Out with it, kiddo!” he said. “Tell me where the murder weapon is!”
“The banknotes on the floor.” I replied casually. “These banknotes, to be precise.”
“Those banknotes?” he asked incredulously. “But that’s impossible!”
“Why not?” I replied. “Just bind a stack of banknotes together tightly and you can fashion a blade that’s sharp enough to cut someone’s throat. And when the job’s done, just scatter them all over the floor and the murder weapon is gone!”
Officer Sun drew a sharp breath.
“Impressive! Not bad at all!” he exclaimed. “As expected from Song Zhaolin’s grandson!”
What Officer Sun didn’t know was that I didn’t exactly solve the crime with my own deduction. Instead, this case had reminded me of something I read in The Chronicles of Grand Magistrates, where there was a murder committed using a knife made of paper. Based on what Officer Sun had said, the police had probably found the perpetrator, but couldn’t make a good case against the suspect in court because they couldn’t find the murder weapon, which was why Officer Sun had rushed here to get Grandpa’s help.
“Well, kiddo,” said Officer Sun, “thanks to you, I won’t be going back empty-handed! Anytime you’re in the city, just give me a call, you hear? I owe you a meal at KFC. Oh, and my daughter’s around your age, you’re welcome to come hang out with her. I’m sure you’ll both be friends in no time.”
He then put the photograph back into his briefcase and was preparing to leave, although I could still hear him mumbling something to himself.
“That old man Song Zhaolin!” he said. “Always saying no member of the Song family will ever work as a Traditional Coroner ever again. Who would’ve thought that he’s been secretly training his grandson all this time? Still, it’s good to know that there will be a successor from the Song family after him!”
“Sun Laohu! What successor are you talking about?”
That thundering voice came from outside the door. I turned around and almost jumped out of my skin when I saw Grandpa standing there. Cold sweat beads began to form on my forehead. I knew my ass was going to get whooped because A, Grandpa had always forbidden me to get involved in these kinds of things; and B, he didn’t know that I had secretly read those books!
Grandpa’s penetrating eyes slowly turned from Officer Sun to me, and he looked as if he’d figured everything out. Words could not describe how petrified I was in that moment!
1. Roughly about 15 000 USD.
2. This book .
3. So does the .
4. Roughly about 7000 USD.
5. His name literally means tiger, so he was in fact Officer Tiger.