The History of Punishment and Torture in Ancient China

Last updated on July 22nd, 2022 at 06:59 pm

Ancient China was a land of great intrigue. A place where emperors and dynasties rose and fell, and the borders shifted with the winds. It is also a place where punishment and torture kept the population in line.

This blog post will explore the history of punishment and torture in Ancient China, from the earliest times until the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Ancient China Established a System of Torture

China is a country with a long and rich history. One of the most interesting aspects of Chinese history is how it has punished criminals throughout the ages. Historically, ancient China has some of the most gruesome torture methods used on criminals. The government created these methods to keep their citizens in line, and as many witnessed, these methods were quite effective at controlling crime.

In the early 17th century, Jesuit missionaries visited Beijing and commented on how low the crime rate was in the country compared to their home in Europe. This was due to the Chinese methods of torture and punishment, which many would consider barbaric. Nevertheless, people obeyed the law or suffered the consequences; there was no in-between; this was no more apparent than the victims of these torture methods.

Once you were arrested and found guilty of your crimes, there was no hope for you. Usually, a confession of wrongdoing was pulled out of the unlucky victims by torture; the only real way to save someone was to have an influential family member. Ideally, if your influential family member intervened in the process, you could be acquitted of your crimes. Yet, this occurrence was quite rare, and unfortunately, there was no concept of defense.

The ancient Chinese didn’t believe in the idea of defense, meaning there was no prosecution, no defense lawyers, and no jury. Each town would have what is known as a ‘yamen’ or an office building where an Imperial magistrate would exact his punishment on criminals. The building had living accommodations for the magistrate, prison cells to detail criminals, and a courtroom. The process was straightforward, primarily involving witnesses presenting their evidence to the magistrate and giving his verdict.

An appeals system did exist, but officials did not intend to prove innocence or guilt; once a magistrate made his determination, they would not change it. The magistrate would base his punishment on five basic categories of punishment. An offender would be subject to:

  • Light beating
  • Heavy beating
  • Servitude
  • Exile
  • Death

Punishable Crimes of Ancient China

The government couldn’t just punish people for anything; a strict set of crimes led to different forms of punishment. Some crimes were considered more severe than others and would lead to harsher penalties. During the Tang Dynasty, the absolute worst crimes, the Ten Abominations, were divided into four major categories.

The Four Main Categories of Crimes

The Ten Abominations included specific crimes to avoid confusion; ignorance of the law was not an excuse. The four main categories of crimes were:

  • Crimes Against the Emperor – these crimes may include the threat of rebellion and doctor malpractice, especially if practitioners didn’t follow the proper formulas.
  • Crimes of Treason – these crimes included killing a superior, betraying a city, and switching allegiances.
  • Crimes Against the Family – these crimes included murdering a family member, selling them into slavery, or failing to provide support for an elderly family member.
  • Laws Against Poisoning – these crimes were specific to harming someone with something known as Gu Poisoning. This method used a concoction made from venomous centipedes, scorpions, spiders, snakes, and toads. Criminals administered the concoction to an unknowing victim whose organs would be destroyed and vomit blood.

Punishment Was Swift and Cruel in Ancient China

Because of the criminal element, the streets of ancient China were not always safe. To combat this, the punishment had to be swift and act as a deterrent to would-be criminals. As we mentioned, any trials that criminals endured were quickly decided without the opportunity to defend themselves. Afterward, the punishments came, and the victim’s age or gender didn’t sway the magistrate’s decision.

The brutality of the Chinese criminal system was shocking but compelling. Often, Chinese authorities resorted to painful physical and mental punishments that left even the most hardened criminals begging for death. Some of these punishments include:

  • Slow Drip Torture – this was a very slow, sometimes painful, and mentally destabilizing form of torture. The incessant and regular water dropping never stopped, and it got worse. It’s not clear why officials did this, but sometimes the drops would contain acid. The acid would slowly burn through the skin and into the brain; the victim would eventually go insane.
  • Maiming – ancient Chinese would also torture their criminals in other ways like branding with hot irons and amputating limbs or genitals. Slicing off one’s nose without an anesthetic was a common punishment that even had a character in their language.
  • Cangue – this was a large wooden collar placed around the necks of offenders. In addition, the criminal would have to wear the cangue, which could weigh depending on the severity of their crimes. A list of their past crimes would be attached to the wooden collar most of the time.
  • Beatings – this was probably the most common form of punishment. For example, offenders could be whipped with bamboo rods or canes. The number of blows would also depend on the severity of the crime. After heavy beatings, death was all too common.
  • Neck Tower – this was a very tall and narrow tower that the offender would be locked inside. The criminal’s hands and feet were shackled, and they could only stand on a tower of rocks. Each day, someone removed one or two stones, and before long, the offender died of strangulation.
  • Death By a Thousand Cuts – this was a long and painful form of execution reserved for the most severe crimes. The criminal would be tied to a post, and authorities cut incisions on their body. The punishment involved flaying pieces of skin, removing muscles, and even body parts to maximize the pain. The sentence kept the organs functioning and ranged from 8 to 120 cuts. 


The ancient Chinese judicial system was brutal and didn’t discriminate against offenders. Instead, the punishments were creative and designed to be as painful as possible to act as a deterrent for crime and create subordinate citizens. While some of these punishments may seem barbaric by today’s standards, they were considered adequate.

While most of these punishments ended around 1912 during the foundation of the Republic, China’s historical roots still act as the foundation for its modern-day judicial system. Although the methods may have changed, the Chinese government still demands absolute authority and look unfavorably at citizens who question or challenge the lawmakers.

Modern Chinese citizens are hesitant to express themselves openly or actively question their government out of fear of repercussions. Even today, China’s history of torture and punishment keeps its citizens in line and reminds them of the consequences of disobedience.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top