25 Western Depictions of Crime and Punishment during Qing Dinasty

A series of depictions of punishment during Imperial China.

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Chinese tortures

This collection of 51 images on crime and punishment in late Imperial China is gleaned from the 19th century Westerners’ China travelogues at the George Peabody Library.

Chinese tortures, prisons and punishments had been constant themes of Western sinological attention for well over four centuries. Accounts of the Chinese judicial practice including the tortures and punishments utilized date back to the very beginning of the modern contacts between China and the West. In late Imperial China, the Chinese judicial system was an object of immediate and observable knowledge. Westerner travelers often watched or participated in its workings, in court or on the street, either as spectators or as prisoners. They documented such experiences with detailed descriptions and vivid illustrations.

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These images depicted various forms of judicial torture and punishment in Qing Dynasty as well as torture apparatuses, including flogging, bastinado, finger squeezing, cangue, shackling, torment on the rack, and beheading, etc. In imperial Chinese law, torture ( 刑xing) was a blanket term that consisted of two forms of legally sanctioned physical violence, torture as an investigative tool used in the course of a legal proceeding , and torture as corporal punishment meted out to culprits after conviction. These torture imagery include both interrogative torture and retributive punishment. A notable pictorial depiction is Major George Henry Mason’s The Punishments of China/Les Punitions des chinois, which was a bilingual thematic volume published in 1801, featuring 22 colored plates accompanied by author’s notes and preface.

Plate 1 - A Culprit Before a Magistrate

Description from the book: It is the custom of China, for a Mandarin of justice to administer it daily, morning and evening, in his own house, where he is attended by his secretary, or clerk, and by inferior officers, some of them bearing iron shackles, and others, pan-tsees. Upon his right hand stands the Prosecutor, or Informer; and before him is a table with a covering of silk, and the implements of writing for the secretary to take down the depositions and defence. These having been written in black ink, the magistrate signs them with red, and seals them with the same colour. On the table there are, also, a number of small sticks, tipped with red; these are kept in open cases, and are used in the following manner: if a culprit is convicted of a petty offence, the magistrate causes him to be immediately chastised, and released. The usual punishment, upon such occasions, is the pan-tsee, or bastinade, and the number of blows to be inflicted is signified by the magistrate's casting some of the above mentioned small sticks upon the floor: each stick denotes five blows. The culprit, who, during the examination, has awaited the decree upon his hands and knees, is then seized by the attendants, and punished as will be seen in a subsequent Plate. After the magistrate has thrown the sticks, he talks of other affairs, drinks his tea, or smokes his tobacco.
It is only for trivial breaches of the Chinese Laws, such as drunkenness, cheating, squabbling, boxing, pilfering, insolence or inattention towards a superior, or the like, that any magistrate is empowered to administer punishment in a summary manner. Whenever the crime is of such a description as to call for severer notice, it is generally examined into by five or six tribunals, who not only require their particular information concerning the charge, but scrutinize with minute exactness, into the characters and manners of the accusers.
Their proceedings in capital accusations are thus protected in China, lest any man should be unjustly deprived of the inestimable benefits of honour or life: and no criminal can be executed, until his trial has been sent to court, and his sentence has been confirmed by the emperor.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 2 - A Culprit Conveyed to Prison

Description from the book: An iron chain, fastened by a padlock, is put around his neck, and, if he refuses to proceed, inferior officers of justice compel him, after the manner described.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 3 - A Culprit Conducted to Trial

Description from the book: He is preceded by a man, who strikes upon a gong, in order to draw upon the offender the notice of the public. Two others walk after him, one of whom is employed in keeping up his face with a bundle of cleft canes. A little red banner is fastened on each side of the culprit, to render him more conspicuous; and his hands are tied behind his back.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 4 - An Offender Undergoing the Bastinade

Description from the book: He is thrown flat upon his face, and held in that position by one, or more, if necessary, of the magistrate's attendants kneeling upon his back, whilst another applies the pan-tsee to his posteriors.
The pan-tsee is a thick piece of split bamboo cane, the lower end of which is about four inches in width, and the upper end small and smooth, to render the instrument more convenient for the hand. Mandarins of power have usually some persons in their train, who attend them with their pan-tsees, whenever they travel, or go into public, and who are ready, at the nod of their master, to exercise their office in the manner described. After this ceremony, it is customary for the delinquent to return thanks to the Mandarin, for the good care he takes of his education.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 5 - Twisting a Man's Ears

Description from the book: He is held securely by two men, in the service of a tribunal, who are instructed to give pain by a particular method of twisting the cartilages of the ears.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 6 - Punishment of the Swing

Description from the book: This man is suspended by his shoulders and ankles, in a very painful situation: at intervals, two attending officers afford some trifling alleviation of his sufferings, by supporting him with a bamboo, passed under his breast. Pencil, ink, and paper, are ready, to note down whatever he may say. This punishment, together with the preceding one, is chiefly inflicted upon such merchants as have been detected in committing frauds, impositions, or any other unwarrantable tricks of trade.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 7 - Punishing a Boatman

Description from the book: A species of correction appointed for boatmen, or, as they are termed in England, watermen. Having been convicted of some misbehavior, he is compelled to kneel: one of the officers of justice prevents him from flinching, whilst another grasps his hair, and bestows a certain number of blows upon each side of his face, with a sort of double battledore, made of thick leather.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 8 - Punishing an Interpreter

Description from the book: A large piece of bamboo cane is placed behind his knees; this is trampled upon by two men, one standing on each end, and who convey more or less pain, as they approach to, or recede from, his person. A punishment, decreed against interpreters, detected of wilful misinterpretation.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 9 - The Rack

Description from the Book: This horrible engine of barbarity and error is not peculiar to Roman Catholic countries, it is used even in China, for the purpose of extorting confession. The method of employing it, in torturing the ankles, is exhibited in this Plate. The instrument is composed of a thick, strong plank, having a contrivance at one end to secure the hands, and at the other a sort of double wooden vice. The vice is formed of three stout uprights, and held fast by two men. The chief tormentor then gradually introduces a wedge into the intervals, alternately changing sides. This method of forcing an expansion at the upper part, causes the lower ends to draw towards the central upright, which is fixed into the plank, and thereby compresses the ankles of the wretched sufferer; who, provided he be fortified by innocence, or by resolution, endures the advances of the wedge, until his bones are completely reduced to a jelly.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 10 - Torturing the Fingers

Description from the Book:

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 11 - Burning a Man's Eyes with Lime

Description from the Book: A small quantity of unslacked lime is put into pieces of cotton cloth, and closely applied to the organs of sight.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 12 - A Malefactor Chained to an Iron Bar

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 13 - Punishment of the Wooden Collar

Description from the Book: This punishment is very disgraceful. The collar is formed of heavy pieces of wood, closed together, and having a hole in the centre, which fits the neck of the offender, who, when this machine is upon him, can neither see his own feet, nor put his hands to his mouth. He is not permitted to reside in any habitation, nor even to take rest for any considerable length of time; an inferior officer of justice constantly attending, to prevent him. By night and by say, he carries this load, which is heavier or lighter, according to the nature of the crime, and the strength of the wearer. The weight of the common sort of these wooden collars, is only fifty or sixty pounds, but there are those which weight two hundred, and which are so grievous to the bearers that sometimes, through shame, pain, want of proper nourishment, or of natural rest, they have been known to expire under them. The criminals find various methods, however, of mitigating this punishment: by walking in company with their relations and friends, who support the corners of the collar, and prevent it from pressing upon the shoulders; by resting it upon a table, a bench, or against a tree; or, according to the representation in the accompanying Plate, by having a chair constructed for the purpose, with four posts of equal height to support the machine. When this ponderous incumbrance is fixed upon an offender, it is always before the magistrate who has decreed it; and upon each side, over the places where the wood is joined, long slips of paper are pasted, upon which the name of the person, the crime which he has committed, and the duration of his punishment, are written, in very distinct characters; a seal is likewise stamped upon the paper, to prevent the instrument from being opened. Three months is the usual time appointed for those to bear about this collar, who have been convicted of robbery. For defamation, gambling, or breaches of the peace, it is carried a few weeks; and insolvent debtors are sometimes ordered to bear it, until they have satisfied their creditors.

When the offender is to be liberated from the collar, it must be in the presence of the magistrate who has imposed it; he then generally orders him a few blows of the pan-tsee, and dismisses him, with an exhortation to comport himself more regularly in the future.

Near the figure in this Engraving, are represented the basin and the sort of spoon, by which persons in that situation are supplied with food.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 14 - A Man Fastened to a Large Block of Wood

Description from the Book: A strong ring of iron is passed through one corner of a short, heavy, piece of timber. From this ring, a weighty chain is continued round the neck of the man, and fastened, by a padlock, upon his breast.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 16 - Punishment of the Wooden Tube

Description from the Book: A piece of bamboo can is provided, which nearly corresponds with the height of the criminal, and is of considerable circumference. This bamboo, being perfectly hollow, admits the passage of a large iron chain, one end of which is riveted round a stake, the other encircles his neck, and is confined there by a padlock. His legs are fettered by a few links of chain.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 17 - Hamstringing a Malefactor

Description from the book: This punishment is reported to have been inflicted upon malefactors, who have endeavored to make their escape. A vessel containing Chunam, a species of mortar, is at hand, to be applied, by way of syptic, to the wounds. It is said, that this punishment has been lately abolished, the legislature considering that the natural inclination for liberty merited not a chastisement of such severity.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 18 - Close Confinement

Description from the book: This criminal is fastened, at full length, upon a sort of bedstead, a chump of wood serving for a pillow. His hands and feet are loaded with iron manacles and fetters; his neck is chained to a post, and fastened by two padlocks.

This Plate appears to represent a section of the cage described in Plate XV.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 19 - Conducting an Offender into Banishment

Description from the book: A person, sentenced to transportation, is thus led, by an officer of justice, into the country appointed for his future residence. He carries a mat to serve him as a bed, and a leaf of a palm-tree, to protect him from the weather. Upon his back, his crime, his sentence, and his name, are displayed in conspicuous characters.

This punishment is inflicted upon those, who have struck an elder brother; who have incurred debts by gaming, which they are unable to pay; and for such other offence as appear to render the perpetrator unworthy to continue in his native country.

When offenders are thus conducted into some distant province, they are to be recalled, but, if into Tartary, their banishment is perpetual.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 20 - A Malefactor Conducted to Execution

Description from the Book: The convict is fettered, and, if he uses abusive or inflammatory language, gagged. His arms are pinioned behind his back, and he bears a board, on which are written his name, his crime, and his sentence. If he hesitates to proceed, he is driven to the place of execution by some inferior officers of justice.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 21 - The capital Punishment of the Cord

Description from the Book: The usual capital punishments in China are, strangling and beheading. The former is the most common, and is decreed against those, who are found guilty of crimes, which, however capital, are only held in the second rank of atrocity. For instance, all acts of homicide, whether intentional or accidental; every species of fraud, committed upon government: the seduction of a woman, whether married or single; giving abusive language to a parent, plundering or defacing a burying-place; robbing with destructive weapons; and for wearing pearls. It would not, perhaps, be possible to form any probable conjecture of the motive, which has induced Chinese legislators to attach the pain of death to the wearing of a precious gem. The fact is, therefore, only stated from the information for various writers, and remains to be explained by some future commentator.

Criminals are sometimes strangled with a bow-string; but on general occasions a cord is made use of, which fastens the person to a cross, and one turn being taken round his neck, it is drawn tight by an athletic executioner.

Men of distinction are usually strangled, as the more honourable death; and where the Emperor is inclined to show an extraordinary mark of attention towards a mandarin condemned to die, he sends him a silken cord, with permission to be his own executioner.

Title: The punishments of China : illustrated by twenty-two engravings: with explanations in English and French.

Plate 39 - Punishment of the Tcha, or Cangue

Title: Picturesque Representations of the Dress & Manners of the Chinese

Plate 48 - Punishment for Insolence to a Superior

Title: Picturesque Representations of the Dress & Manners of the Chinese

Thanks to

Hopkins Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Archives

References
Abbink, J. and Göran Aijmer. Meanings of Violence:A Cross Cultural Perspective. New York: Berg, 2000.
Brook, Timothy, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue. Death by a Thousand Cuts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Hegel, Robert E. and Katherine Carlitz. Writing and Law in Late Imperial China:Crime, Conflict, and Judgment. Asian Law Series. Vol. 18. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.
Nancy Park. "Imperial Chinese Justice and the Law of Torture." Late Imperial China 29, no. 2 (2008): 37-67.

Additional Resources (also includes a few listed above): The following list of resources would be useful for researchers interested in other primary and secondary materials related to this subject available at the Sheridan Libraries.

Brook, Timothy, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue. 2008. Death by a Thousand Cuts. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Dutton, Michael Robert. 1992. Policing and Punishment in China : From Patriarchy to "the people". Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, John Henry, and William Gow Gregor. 1878. China: A History of the Laws, Manners, and Customs of the People. London: Macmillan and Co.

Head, John W., and Yanping Wang. 2005. Law Codes in Dynastic China: A Synopsis of Chinese Legal History in the Thirty Centuries from Zhou to Qing. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.

Hegel, Robert E., and Katherine Carlitz. 2007. Writing and Law in late Imperial China: Crime, Conflict, and Judgment. Asian Law Series. Vol. 18. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

2007. Writing and Law in Late Imperial China : Crime, Conflict, and Judgment. Asian Law Series. Vol. 18. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lu, Hong, and Terance D. Miethe. 2007. China's Death Penalty: History, Law, and Contemporary Practices. Routledge Advances in Criminology ; 2; New York: Routledge.

MacCormack, Geoffrey. 1990. Traditional Chinese Penal Law. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Matignon, J. -J. 1902. Superstition, Crime et Misére en Chine, (souvenirs de biologie sociale). 4 éd [rév et augm ed. Lyon,Paris: A. Storck.

Qu, Tongzu. 1961. Law and Society in Traditional China. Le Monde d'outre-mer, Passé et Présent. Première Série, Etudes. Vol. 4. Paris: Mouton.

Sommer, Matthew Harvey. 2000. Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China. Law, Society, and Culture in China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Zhu, Qingqi, Derk Bodde, and Clarence Morris. 1967. Law in Imperial China: Exemplified by 190 ch'ing dynasty cases. Harvard Studies in East Asian law. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Topic: ancient Chinese punishments,Chinese punishments