09 May 2011

Torture in Ancient China

Torture has been practiced by nearly every civilization at some point. It is mostly used as a punishment for a crime or to extract information or a confession. In Ancient China (2100 BCE - 200 BCE) torture was frequently practiced.

Some of the best recored torture practices were known as the Five Punishments, used in ancient China up until the Han Dynasty. They are divided into 3 categories; Five Punishments for Slaves, Five Punishments for Serfs, and Five Punishments for women. Most of these punishments could be remitted by paying a fine.

Five Punishments for Slaves

Qíng (黥) meaning tattooing or branding. The offender would be tattooed on the face as a mark for their crimes.

Yì (劓) meaning to cut off the nose. Obviously this would cause you horrible disfigurement.

Yuè (刖) meaning to cut off one or both of the feet. This would greatly hinder your ability to work and provide for your family.

Gōng (宫) today known as Yāngē (阉割) or castration. I have a whole post dedicated to this here.

*Dà Pì (大辟) lit. "Great Provision", the death penalty.

Five Punishments for Serfs

Chī (笞) Caning. The more severe the crime, the more lashes.

Zhang (杖) The same as Chī, but with a larger stick.

Tú (徒) Slavery or Penal servitude for a given period. I guess the equivalent would be "community service"

Liú (流) Exile. The more severe the crime, the more remote and farther away the exile location.

*Sĭ (死) Death

Five Punishments for Women

Xíngchōng (刑舂) The offender was forced to grind grain. So in other words, a typical day for a women in ancient China.

Zǎnxǐng (拶刑) To crush the fingers slowly.

Zhàngxing (杖刑) To beat with a wooden plank.

Cìsǐ (赐死) The gift of death, permission to commit suicide. (I don't get it either)

Gongxing (宫刑) Although it had the same name, Gong for women was solitary confinement rather than castration.

*Execution was carried out in various ways depending on the time period, including boiling, quartering, decapitation, strangulation and two very unique methods described below.

One famous form of torture/execution was by bamboo. In World War II and Vietnam, the Japanese and Vietnamese would force strips of bamboo under POW's fingernails which I imagine hurt like hell. But in ancient China bamboo was used in a different way. The victim was suspended over a bamboo shoot, and since bamboo grows so fast, the shoot would grow into and out of the victims torso over several days, causing a slow and painful death. It was even featured on Mythbusters.

Another famous practice was that of 殺千刀 (Shā qiān dāo) or "death by a thousand cuts". It was practiced from the Tang Dynasty until the fall of the Qing in the early 20th century. As the name implies, it involves slowly slicing into different parts of the victims body until they died. This punishment was seen as disgraceful to the victim because mutilating ones body was against Confucian ideals.


  1. oh fuck this is nasty

  2. I have begun a serious journey into Chinese history. A noted early 20th century Englishmen suggested that although bamboo thrashing punishments were common and individual punishments could amount to 200 strokes, he went on to say that the punishments were really a demonstration of authority and that the executor would look harsh and the recipient would feign the severity of the strokes. In comparison you would only need to look at the instruments of torture in our own English history to realise that the Chinese are undoubtedly more civilised. Like some other histories the harsher punishments were I think carried out when absolutist authority by Kings and Emperors was exercised.

  3. can you give the sources of your information?

    1. Certainly: http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/cn_zggk/2004-06/28/content_55223.htm

  4. These punishments were much less homoerotic than the Catholic punishments!

  5. My son is doing a project on Ancient China and one of his topics is government and his teacher asked "how are they judged". I am assuming the people who were being accused of a crime. Who gave the out the punishment? Was there a "court system"? Thanks