29 October 2012

Executed: In the Tang Dynasty

by Jeannie Lin

Despite many tantalizing stories about cruel and unusual punishments in ancient China, for instance the practice of lingchi, also known as slow slicing or death by a thousand cuts, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) actually had one of the most detailed and systematic punishment systems in the ancient world.

The Five Punishments detailed how various crimes should be sentenced. Though not every magistrate necessarily adhered to this code, it prescribed a systematic way for the judicial system to hand down punishment.

The punishments continued to evolve from ancient times and by the Tang Dynasty, the five levels were the following:
  1. Caning with the light rod
  2. Beating with the heavy rod
  3. Penal servitude (forced labor)
  4. Exile
  5. Death
Punishment for women differed from men however and female criminals were subjected to their own Five Punishments.
  1. Forced labor grinding grain
  2. Squeezing of fingers between sticks
  3. Beating with a wooden staff
  4. Permission to commit suicide
  5. Confinement
Punishments were determined by a magistrate at a tribunal
 It's surprising to see that at one point during Tang Dynasty, the death penalty was actually abolished. During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, only the emperor could sentence a convict to death. This resulted in a low number of executions throughout the empire, with only 24 executions in 730 and 58 executions in 736. In the year 747, the emperor abolished the death penalty altogether. However, after his reign was toppled by the An Lushan rebellion, the death penalty was brought back.

But it's no fun to read about how people weren't executed in the Tang Dynasty.
The two most common methods of execution were strangulation or beheading. Of the two, beheading was considered to be more cruel since it rendered the body incomplete and unfit for reincarnation.

The cruelest punishment involved not merely execution, but what was known as the nine familial exterminations. This practice was in effect long before the Tang Dynasty and originally dictated the extermination of a criminal's clan or tribe, which constituted an extended family. During the more "humane" times of the Tang Dynasty, the nine familial exterminations were limited to only executing parents, children above sixteen years of age, and other close relatives. Family executions were reserved for the worst of criminals: traitors to the state.

No matter what the law dictated, the one person who was above the law was the Emperor. Surprisingly, one of the cruelest executions in the Tang Dynasty was not sentenced by an Emperor. Rather, it was an execution ordered by an Empress who was going against the Emperor's wishes.

Portrait of Empress Wu Zetian
Empress Wu Zetian (625 - 705 AD) had her rivals, the former Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, accused of witchcraft  and imprisoned in the palace. When the Emperor came to see them, the two women begged for mercy and asked him to remember their past together. The Emperor showed signs of wavering and promised to release them, which only angered Empress Wu more.

She had the two women caned and then cut off their hands and feet. Then she ordered them put into two large wine jars. The two women remained in the jars for days before dying there.

Empress Wu was vilified by later generations as a usurper who tried to start her own Zhou Dynasty in the middle of the Tang Dynasty and so it's possible that stories of her cruelty might be exaggerated, but the story of having two of the Emperor's ex-wives thrown into a wine jar is an execution fit for the ages.

There is a final Halloween twist to the tale: Consort Xiao cursed the Empress before dying, threatening to be reincarnated as a cat and the Empress a mouse so she could, for ever and ever, grab her throat. The Empress banished all cats from her palace after that and was said to be plagued by nightmares of the two woman appearing with tangled hair and bloody limbs to try to kill her.

Vengeful Ghost
The moral of the story is: If you're going to be executed, come up with a curse. And make it a good one.

Happy Halloween! 

Jeannie Lin writes historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China. Her next release, THE SWORD DANCER (June 2013), explores crime and punishment and rip-roaring revenge in imperial China. Her current release, MY FAIR CONCUBINE, is currently available from Harlequin Historical. For more information about her books, go to http://www.jeannielin.com