An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

si 死 or dapi 大辟, the death penalty

Aug 26, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

The death penalty was one of the traditional five capital punishments (wuxing 五刑) in ancient China. Because it was the heaviest punishment, it was also called jixing 極刑 "highest punishment".

During the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), it was also known as dapi 大辟. The methods of bringing delinquents to death were multifarious. In antiquity, there were the roasting beam (paoluo 炮烙), disemboweling (poufu 剖腹, pouxin 剖心), making "dried meat" or "pickles" – mincing to death (fuhailu 戮), cutting in two (zhan 斬), burning (fen 焚), execution with exhibiting the corpse publicly (bo 踣), hanging up and strangulating (qing 罄, or 磬), tearing apart by carts (huan 轘), dismembering and public exhibition of the corpse (gu 辜 [later incineration], bo 搏 [naked], zhe 磔, or zhe 矺).

The Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and the state of Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) knew chiseling open the head (zaodian 鑿顛), boiling to death (huopeng 鑊烹), cutting off the muscles (chouxie 抽脅), tearing apart by several charts (chelie 車裂, huanlie 轘裂, chezhe 車磔), beating to death in a sack (nangpu 囊扑), beheading with public exhibition of the head (xiaoshou 梟首), cutting in two halves at the waist (yaozhan 腰斬), and execution with exhibition of the corpse on the market place (qishi 棄市). The three last became the common death penalties during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).

The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) called beheading zhusi 殊死. Strangulation (jiao 絞) was in 563 introduced into the canon of death penalties. The Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) reduced the range of capital punishments to beheading and strangulation, but the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) introduced the extremely cruel form of the "cold delay" (lingchi 凌遲, abolished in 1905) by making hundreds of small cuts and later cutting off tiny slices from the delinquent's body, to prolong suffering.

The Kitans made use of forms of punishment by hanging up a condemned head down (touxuanyai 投懸崖), shooting to death (sheguijian 射鬼箭), burying alive (shengyi 生瘗) and burning (paozhi 炮擲). The Jurchens knew the death penalty of "hitting the brain" (jixiong 擊脑).

Apart from these forms of bringing delinquents to death, there were also other, "irregular" means, mainly used for rebels, traitors and usurpers, like skinning (bopi 剝皮), drowning (dingsha 定殺, wuzhu 汙潴, chenyuan 沉淵, or shuiyan 水淹), beating or flogging to death (bangsha 棒殺, chisha 笞殺, zhangsha 杖殺, chuisha 棰殺), etc. Mutilation of the corpse was an expression of dishonouring a person and his descendants and relatives, as the remains could not be buried in a decent and appropriate way. Sometimes this desecration of a corpse included the public destruction of a prepared coffin. Strangulation preserved the corpse, and was therefore a less humiliating punishment than beheading. Hanging was apparently unknown in China.

The punishment of tearing apart by carts was carried out by five drivers. The head and the four limbs of the delinquent were each tied to a small horse cart. The famous legalist politician Shang Yang 商鞅 was executed in this way, and later the eunuch Lao Ai 嫪毐, lover of the First Emperor’s 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE) mother; further Ma Yuanyi 馬元義, a member of Zhang Jiao's 張角 Daoist rebel group; Zhang Jun 張俊, an official in the state of Wu 吳 (222-280); and Yang Xuangan 楊玄感 during the Sui period. The law code of the Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) also included this kind of execution.

Pu Jian 蒲堅 (1992). "Si 死", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中国大百科全书, Faxue 法学 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 553.
Lu, Hong & Terance D. Miethe (2007). China's Death Penalty: History, Law, and Contemporary Practices (New York: Routledge).