Modern History

Full Texts Multimedia Search Help

Selected Sources Sections Studying History Reformation Early Modern World Everyday Life Absolutism Constitutionalism Colonial North America Colonial Latin America Scientific Revolution Enlightenment Enlightened Despots American Independence French Revolution Industrial Revolution Romanticism Conservative Order Nationalism Liberalism 1848 Revolutions 19C Britain British Empire History 19C France 19C Germany 19C Italy 19C West Europe 19C East Europe Early US US Civil War US Immigration 19C US Culture Canada Australia & New Zealand 19C Latin America Socialism Imperialism Industrial Revolution II Darwin, Freud, Einstein 19C Religion World War I Russian Revolution Age of Anxiety Depression Fascism Nazism Holocaust World War II Bipolar World US Power US Society Western Europe Since 1945 Eastern Europe Since 1945 Decolonization Asia Since 1900 Africa Since 1945 Middle East Since 1945 20C Latin America Modern Social Movements Post War Western Thought Religion Since 1945 Modern Science Pop Culture 21st Century
IHSP Credits
Modern History Sourcebook:
Père du Halde: Chinese Punishments, c. 1680

No crimes pass unpunished in China. The bastinado is the common punishment for slight faults, and the number of blows is proportionable to the nature of the fault. This is the punishment which the officers of war immediately inflict upon the soldiers who, being placed as sentinels in the night time in the streets and public places of great cities, are found asleep. When the number of blows does not exceed twenty, it is accounted a fatherly correction, and not an infamous. The emperor himself sometimes commands it to be inflicted on great persons, and afterwards sees them and treats them as usual. A very small matter will incur this correction; as having taken a trifle, said opprobrious things, given a few blows with the fist. If these things reach the mandarin's ears, he immediately sets the battoon at work. After the correction is over, they are to kneel before the judge, bow their bodies three times to the earth, and thank him for the care he takes of their education.

The instrument wherewith he inflicts the bastinado is a thick cane, cloven in two, and several feet long. The lower part is as broad as one's hand, and the upper is smooth and small, that it may more easily be managed. It is made of the bamboo, which is a wood that is hard, strong, and heavy. When the mandarin sits in judgment, he is placed below a table upon which is a case full of small staves about half a foot long and two fingers broad, and he is surrounded with tall footmen with battoons in their hands. At a certain sign that he gives by taking out and throwing down these staves, they seize the criminal and lay him down with his face towards the ground, and as many small staves as the mandarin draws out of the case and throws on the ground, so many footmen succeed each other, every one giving five blows with a battoon on the guilty person's bare skin.

However, it is observable that four blows are always reckoned as five, which they call the grace of the emperor, who as a father has compassion on the people, always subtracting something from the punishment. There is another method of mitigating the punishment, which is to bribe those that apply it, for they have the art of managing in such a manner that the blows shall fall very lightly and the punishment become almost insensible. It is not only in his tribunal that the mandarin has power to give the bastinado; it is the same thing in whatever place he is, even out of his district, for which reason when he goes abroad he has always officers of justice in his train who carry the battoon.

As for one of the vulgar, it is sufficient not to have alighted if he was on horseback when the mandarin passed by, or to have crossed the street in his presence, to receive five or six blows by his order. The performance of it is so quick that it is often done before those who are present perceive anything of the matter. Masters use the same correction to their scholars, fathers to their children, and noblemen to punish their domestics, with this difference that the battoon is every way less.

Another punishment, less painful, but more infamous, is the wooden collar which the Portuguese have called cangue. This cangue is composed of two pieces of wood, hollowed in the middle to place the neck of the criminal in. When he has been condemned by the mandarin, they take these two pieces of wood, lay them on his shoulders, and join them together in such a manner that there is room only for the neck. By this means, the person can neither see his feet nor put his hand to his mouth, but is obliged to be fed by some other person. He carries night and day this disagreeable load, which is heavier or lighter according to the nature of the fault. Some cangues weigh two hundred pounds, and are so troublesome to criminals that out of shame, confusion, pain, want of nourishment and sleep, they die under them. Some are three feet square and five or six inches thick; the common sort weigh fifty or sixty pounds.

The criminals find different ways to mitigate the punishment. Some walk in company with their relations and friends, who support the four corners of the cangue that it may not gall their shoulders. Others rest it on a table or on a bench; others have a chair made proper to support the four corners, and so sit tolerably easy. When, in the presence of the mandarin, they have joined the two pieces of wood about the neck of the criminal, they paste on each side two long slips of paper about four fingers broad, on which they fix a seal, that the two pieces which compose the cangue may not be separated without its being perceived. Then they write in large characters the crime for which this punishment is inflicted and the time that it ought to last; for instance, if it be a thief or seditious person or a disturber of the peace of families, a gamester, etc., he must wear the cangue for three months in a particular place. The place where they are exposed is generally at the gate of a temple which is much frequented, or where two streets cross, or at the gate of the city, or in a public square, or even at the principal gate of the mandarin's tribunal.

Then the time of punishment is expired, the officers of the tribunal bring back the criminal to the mandarin, who, after having exhorted him to amend his conduct, frees him from the cangue, and to take his leave of him orders him twenty strokes of the battoon, for it is the common custom of the Chinese justices not to inflict any punishment unless it be a pecuniary one, which is not preceded and succeeded by the bastinado, inasmuch that it may be said that the Chinese Government subsists by the exercise of the battoon.

Besides the punishment of the cangue, there are still others which are inflicted for slight faults. A missionary entering into a tribunal found young people upon their knees. Some bore on their heads a stone weighing seven or eight pounds; others held a book in their hand and seemed to read diligently. Among these was a young married man about thirty years old who loved gaming to excess. He had lost one part of the money with which his father had furnished him to carry on his business; exhortations, reprimands, threatenings, proved ineffectual to root out this passion, so that his father, being still desirous to cure him of this disease, conducted him to the mandarin's tribunal. The mandarin, who was a man of honor and probity, hearing the father's complaint, caused the young man to draw near, and after a severe reprimand and proper advice, he was going to have him bastinadoed, when his mother entered all of a sudden, and throwing herself at the mandarin's feet, with tears in her eyes besought him to pardon her son.

The mandarin granted her petition, and ordered a book to be brought, composed by the emperor for the instruction of the empire, and opening it chose the article which related to filial obedience. "You promise me," he said to the young man, "to renounce play and to listen to your father's directions. I therefore pardon you this time; but go and kneel in the gallery on the side of the hall of audience, and learn by heart this article of filial obedience. You shall not depart from the tribunal till you repeat it and promise to observe it the remainder of your life." This order was exactly put in execution. The young man remained three days in the gallery, learned the article, and was dismissed.

There are some crimes for which the criminals are marked on the cheek, and the mark which is impressed is a Chinese character signifying their crime. There are others for which they are condemned to banishment or to draw the royal barques. This servitude lasts no longer than three years. As for banishment, it is often perpetual, especially if Tartary is the place of exile; but before they depart, they are sure to be bastinadoed; and the number of blows is proportionable to their crime.

Unless in some extraordinary cases, which are mentioned in the body of the Chinese laws, or for which the emperor permits immediate execution upon the spot, no mandarin or superior tribunal can pronounce definitively the sentence of death. The judgments of all crimes worthy of death are to be examined, decided, and subscribed by the emperor. The mandarins send to court the account of the trials and their decision, mentioning the particular law on which their sentence is founded; for instance, "Such a one is guilty of a crime, and the law declares that those who are convicted of it shall be strangled, for which reason I have condemned him to be strangled."

These informations being come to court, the superior tribunal of criminal affairs examines the fact, the circumstances, and the decision. If the fact is not clearly proved or the tribunal has need of fresh information, it presents a memorial to the emperor containing the proof of the crime and the sentence of the inferior mandarin, and it adds, "To give a just judgment it seems necessary that we should be informed of such a circumstance; therefore we think it requisite to refer the matter to such a mandarin that he may clear up the difficulty that lies in our way." The emperor gives what order he pleases; but his clemency always inclines him to do what is desired, that a man's life may not be taken away for a slight cause and without sufficient proof. When the superior has received the information that it required, it presents a second time the deliberation to the emperors. Then the emperor either confirms the sentence or diminishes the rigor of the punishment. Sometimes he sends back the memorial, writing these words with his own hand, "Let the tribunal deliberate further upon this matter and make their report to me." Every part of the judicature is extremely scrupulous when a man's life is concerned.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 181-186.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.

© Paul Halsall, October 1998

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 28 August 2023 [CV]