The autumn assizes (qiushen 秋審) were a system of judicial review concerning serious criminal cases demanding the death penalty (sixing zhong'an 死刑重案, dadian 大典, shenxing 慎刑, xuxing 恤刑) pronounced during the past twelve months in the provinces of the Qing empire 清 (1644-1911). Even if the judicial system of imperial China was everything else than humane, at least the death penalty was seen as such a serious punishment that specialized court officials had the duty to review the case and confirm judgment and sentence. The emperor would then give his consent.
The system had its origins in a similar procedure of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), the court assizes (chaoshen 朝審). Delinquents condemned to the death penalty were not immediately executed (li jue 立決), but waited in the prison (jian hou 監候) until autumn. The files of the case were marked with the word qiu 秋 "autumn". The idea to wait with executions is first attested in the ritual Classic Liji 禮記 (ch. Yueling 月令). Similar customs were carried out during the Tang period 唐 (618-907), when it was forbidden to carry out executions between the Chinese New Year (see calendar) and the solar term qiufen 秋分, the beginning of autumn. In the meantime, serious offenders had to wait in prison (jue qiu 決囚) until the verdict was reinstated by the Court of Judicial Review (dalisi 大理寺), after re-submittance of a report (fu zou zhi jue 復奏執決). Instead of prison (as in the West), the Tang Code Tanglü shuyi 唐律疏義 (ch. Duanyu 斷獄) provided penal servitude (tu 徒) during the waiting period.
The judicial systems of the Ming and Qing dynasties also knew the "heat assizes" (reshen 熱審). They were applied to lesser crimes or serious crimes with caveats and allowed that criminals sentenced to exile, servitude or blows with the light or the heavy stick were – because of the great heat usually prevailing between the solar terms xiaoman 小滿 and liqiu - punished less severely, for instance, the cangue.
The Ming system was only applied for criminals sentenced within the capital cities Beijing and Nanjing or the metropolitan region. The Qing dynasty expanded the system to all provinces (waisheng 外省, zhisheng 直省), and stipulated that the waiting period was not applicable for large-scale rebellion and grand robbers (dani dadao 大逆大盜). These were executed without delay. The "heat" and court assizes in the Capital were solved after the solar term shuangjiang 霜降. In the provinces, criminals waiting for judicial review were occasionally exposed on the market places.
The Ministry of Justice (xingbu 刑部) collected during the year the incoming case documents concerning death penalties and classified them. These files included the suggestions (ding ni 定擬) of the provincial courts whose experts had jointly investigated (hui kan 會勘) the case. Judicial cases requesting the death penalty went through a threefold process which first involved investigation by the district magistrate (zhixian 知縣), then investigation, trial and judgment by the prefect (zhifu 知府, zhizhou 知州), and finally confirmation by the provincial surveillance commissioner (anchashi 按察使) who prepared a memorial to the court which was, after being approved by the provincial governor (xunfu 巡撫) or governor-general (zongdu 總督), sent to Beijing.
The files were received by the respective experts of the Ministry of Justice (resp. the provincial bureaus, qinglisi 清吏司), the Court of Judicial Review, and the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院) - together dubbed the Three Judicial Authorities (sanfasi 三法司) - who studied them twice (writing notes in blue ink during the first, and in purple ink during the second process) and then submitted them, along with comments (kanyu 勘語), to the *Autumn Assizes Bureau (qiushenchu 秋審處) and the Codification Office (lüliguan 律例館) for second review. These two institutions wrote their remarks with black ink on stickers attacked to the papers. The files were finally handed over to the highest officials of the three institutions for study (cheng tang he yue 呈堂核閱), the so-called "ministerial discussion" (tangyi 堂議).
The persons in charge compared similar cases and noted down facts not corresponding with the proposals of the Ministry. After internal discussion in the departments, the case was discussed by the Manchu and Chinese Ministers (xingbu shangshu 刑部尚書) and Left and Right Vice Ministers of Justice (xingbu shilang 刑部侍郎), altogether six persons. The final judgment of these persons was then integrated into a file including all related documents of the case. Printed copies (kan shua zhaoce 刊刷招冊) were sent to the Nine Ministers (qiujing 九卿), the Household Administration of the Heir Apparent (chanshi 詹事), and the Supervising Secretariats of the Censorate (kedao 科道). The Ministry submitted a memorial in reply (fuzou 覆奏) to the emperor, who answered by rescript (zhi 旨). The answer was transmitted via the Ministry to the province in case.
The Code provided that the final judgment was to be made before the middle week of the fifth lunar month of the next year. The final auditing of the case was carried out within the 8th lunar month in the anti-chambers of the court (chaofang 朝房) west of the Gold Stream Bridge (Jinshui Qiao 金水橋) at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'an Men 天安門). They had two days' time, the first for the Court Assizes, and the second one for the provincial Autumn Assizes. Most cases were solved until the end of the tenth month.
If a final judgment was not made, the case might be handed over to the Emperor for decision. If the functionaries found out that the whole case was dubious, the original, local judgment was nullified and the judicial process re-initiated.
The judgments of the Assizes might be the following: qingshi 情實 (confirmation; decision within the 10th lunar month), huanjue 緩決 (indefinite delay because of factual reasons), jin 矜 or kejin 可矜 (mitigation because of moral reasons, usually commutation into exile or penal servitude, decision within the current year), liuyang chengsi 留養承祀 (mitigation because of social duties like "nourishing parents" or "duty of ancestral sacrifices", usually commuted into 2 months of cangue and 40 blows with the stick, or payment of 20 tael/liang to the victim's family), and yi 疑 or keyi 可疑 (doubts; further local inquiries necessary).
If the case was to be handled again, this was usually done by the Circuit Intendants (daoyuan 道員) close to the district of origin.
In 1767, the Qing court issued the code Bidui tiaokuan 比對條款 (in various editions called Qiushen tiaokuan 秋審條款 or Qiushen bijiao tiaokuan 秋審比較條款) which presented 40 guidelines for trials and judgments of the Autumn Assizes. The revised edition from 1784 presented 185 clauses in five chapters, namely Officials and mourning robes (Zhiguan fuzhi 職官服制; there is also the differentiation between cases involving mourning garments, fuzhi 服制, such committed by state officials, guanfan 官犯, and such by commoners, changfan 常犯), homicide (Renmin 人命), robbery and banditry (Jiandao qiangqie 奸盜搶竊), miscellaneous crimes (Zafan 雜犯) and comparative cases for mitigation (Qianhuan bijiao 矜緩比較). The regulations requested (apart from the fact described above) that the files from the provinces had to be submitted at certain dates, depending on the distance from Beijing. There were also regulations concerning certain procedures of the records and the treatment of the accused. The law reformer Shen Jiaben 沈家本 (1840-1913) found out that in fact, the code was not widely circulating in the provinces. On the other hand, there is quite a range of official and non-official collections of paragraphs related to decisions made during the Autumn Assizes (qiushen wenlei 秋審文類).