Home: Chinese Society and Culture: Punishment in Chinese Culture

Chinese Punishment

Information About Chinese Punishment

Let's see....

Boiling to death, drawing and quartering, the rack, thumb screws, stocks, pillory, dunking in water, burning at the stake, bridles in women's mouths, tarring and feathering, coffin torture, burned within a brazen bull, forced drinking, the list goes on…

Ancient Chinese punishment, you say? No, all Western! That's not to say that the ancient Chinese weren't pretty creative at torture themselves.

Ancient Chinese Punishment

Twenty-two hundred years ago, two men, Han Fei and Li Si helped usher in something called "legalism" in China. What that meant was that breaking the law would incite extreme punishment from the state. There were plenty of ways to do that. Here are some kinds of Chinese punishment that westerners witnessed in the 17th century.

Whipping the sole of the feet

For petty crimes, like falling asleep on a night watch, the Chinese perpetrator would be bastinadoed (soles of the feet are hit with an object such as a stick, rod or club). A good thrashing of twenty lashes was standard fare and considered well-intended, fatherly correction.

Chinese emperors often used this method on "great persons" and unruly public officials. I wonder whether or not today this might not smooth the cogs of government in many countries. Chinese teachers bastinadoed students, fathers children, and the well-to-do their servants.

The wooden collar

When we get to the wooden collar, called a cangue by the Portuguese, things begin to sound a little more, "oriental," if you will. The cangue was a large wooden square, sometimes weighing as much as two hundred pounds, that was made in two pieces with the center cut out.

The criminal (well, we hope he was a criminal!) would have to put his head through the center. Then the two pieces would be strapped together with leather. The person would then be unable to see his body or touch his face, not even to eat.

Sometimes these cangues were so heavy that the person couldn't even stand up and would instead have to sit down or be braced in some fashion. Not surprisingly, this Chinese punishment was public.

Other Punishment in Chinese Society

Limbs twisted around a pole and beaten, confinement through a chain with a heavy ball at the end would be put around the person's neck. Of course there was lesser Chinese punishment, such as memorizing Confucian passages regarding filial piety, and writing lengthy confessions detailing every mistake and character flaw. You probably know from the movies that this carried through to modern times.

Capital Punishment in China

But let's get on to capital punishment in China. Ling-chee. There, I've said it, words designed (in ancient China) to strike fear to every would-be traitor or otherwise criminal heart.

Ling-chee meant cutting a person into pieces while still alive.

(Unwitting carp, tuna, and mackerel still get this treatment!) There were standard numbers of cuts that the "surgeon" would use - 24, 36, 72, or 120. (If there were extenuating circumstances surrounding the crime, the perpetrator might only have to be sliced into eighths.)

There was also a standard order for the dismemberment. First the eyebrows, then the shoulders, the breasts, arms, legs, and heart, all exacts weights and time documented carefully, of course.

Modern Chinese punishment is pretty boring by those standards, but corporal punishment is still accepted at home and in schools.

Return from Chinese Punishment
to Chinese Society and Culture.