From Wu, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and in the US. Tsui Hark’s forthcoming Dee movie is out in Asia next month. You can never have enough films about Empress Wu, and in depicting Dee as a young man, they’re leaving things way open for many sequels.
Another loyal official was the popular magistrate Judge Dee (Di Renjie). Posted to the remote western Gansu region, he had enjoyed the support of both Chinese colonists and the local population of non-Chinese. His career suffered a series of setbacks due to the enemies he made at court, and by the late 680s, he was serving as a magistrate in a remote southern posting. Judge Dee arrived to find a prefecture in chaos, with many administrative personnel carted away for show trials, while armies of secret police terrorised the population.
Wu’s secret police might have been behaving like storm troopers, but this was not necessarily with her knowledge or approval. In secret, Judge Dee wrote a letter to Wu herself, complaining that he was witness to daily persecutions of innocent citizens, but that if he protested, the secret police would be sure to frame him for an imagined crime. If, however, he remained quiet, then he would be doing a disservice to Empress Wu, since she would be held ultimately responsible for the crimes that were being committed in her name. Instead of reacting with the umbrage that her enemies would have us suspect, Empress Wu ordered for the release of many of the unjustly accused, and commuted the sentences of less clear-cut cases from execution to banishment.
Judge Dee would continue to fight for justice against some of the worst of Wu’s hatchet men. When a military governor took over the province, Judge Dee stood up to him directly. His case, like that of Xu Yugong’s back in the capital, was that the people were being punished for the actions of a handful of aristocrats. In fact, in the case of his own locality, peasants who had been oppressed and victimised by would-be rebels, forced on pain of death to carry out their bidding, were now being similarly pressured by the investigators. In fact, Judge Dee went so far as to suggest that the secret police were doing more damage in his region than the rebels ever had. With bullish predictability, the governor wrote to Empress Wu, claiming that Judge Dee was guilty of corruption. He was thus rather surprised when the reply came back, ordering him sent away to a distant and unpleasant posting, while Judge Dee was promoted with a summons to serve at the court of Luoyang itself.