China isn't the only country to use torture, yet it's often the one that first springs to mind, mostly because of the Communist regime during the Cold War and the mass media coverage. Like other countries, east and west, China has used torture as judicial punishment and a means to gain knowledge for thousand of years.
Why Chinese torture? Why torture as a topic at all? It's an indisputable part of our history, there's no getting around it, and by studying it we learn more about the culture, time, and people. It's fascinating, in a morbid and terrible kind of way, but it goes lengths to identifying a civilization and its place in history.
In China, as most other countries, torture was also highly political. It was used to gain information, confessions, or implications against a rival. Since Chinese history goes back thousands of years, in narrowing this down I focused on the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911).
Not really narrowed down, is that.
According to an uncredited faculty member at the Catholic University of America, there was no distinction between criminal and civil law. Penal sanctions occasionally applied to crimes that, today, would be covered by civil law. Disputes dealing with family matters or land were generally settled through mediation conducted by the village elders who applied customary rules and concepts of morality to reach harmony.
During the late years of the Qing Dynasty (1890s-1911) efforts were made to modernize the system, because the harsh punishments of criminals were looked down upon by other countries and by those revolutionaries within China. It failed largely because those with the power, the aristocrats, the imperials themselves, and various governors and such, were unwieldy and corrupt.
Before any of the modernized laws could be put into effect, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.
Harsh treatment of criminals?
According to A History of Torture by George Riley Scott, much of China's reputation as a country who did nothing but torture is unwarranted. However, not all of it. Compression of the ankles (mostly but not always for males) and feet (mostly but not always for females) were popular forms to force witnesses to speak or alleged criminals to confess.
According to F. Alvarez Semedo's History of China, 1655, "For the feet they use an instrument called the Kia Quen. It consisteth of three pieces of wood put in one traverse, that in the middleis fixt, the other two are movable, between these he feet are put, where they are squeezed and prest..."
This is confirmed in Sir George Staunton's work, including Fundamental Laws of China, 1810. Both say that if the first application fails to achieve results, "it is lawful to repeat the operation a second time."
There were rules, even in ancient and semi-modern (before the end of the Qing Dynasty) China. Torture of the ankles and feet were unlawful to those accused criminals under 15 or over 70, the diseased, or crippled. I guess they didn't see the point in crippling the already lamed individual even more.
That was only judicial torture. There were also methods of punishment. For instance, according to B. Picart's Religious Ceremonies, 1737, Vol. IV, fornication by a monk was treated most severely. A hole was bored with a hot iron through his neck, one end of a chain about 60 feet attached through the hole and secured. The other end? Held by another monk as they walked--the fornicator was naked--through the city collecting tributes for the monastery.
They also used a pillory, much like Western Europe. It's probably a popular form of punishment for minor offenses worldwide. The Chinese version was The Tcha or Kea.
Capital punishment (execution) included strangulation, decapitation, and Torture of the Knife--Ling-chy. Usually reserved for punishment of parricide, it was commonly known as Death by the Thousand Cuts or Cutting into Ten Thousand Pieces. It's just what it says it is.