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cisi 賜死, imperial order to commit suicide

Dec 28, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The imperial order to commit suicide (cisi 賜死), literally "granting death", was a surrogate for the death penalty, which was usually not applied to members of the aristocracy or higher social ranks. The ritual Classic Liji 禮記 (chapter Quli 曲禮) explains that "[corporal] punishment is not applied to Grand Masters" (xing bu shang dafu 刑不上大夫). The custom is attested in the collection Kongzi jiayu 孔子家語 (chapter Wuxing jie 五刑解). Asked by a disciple about the fact that the [death] penalty was not used for Grand Masters (dafu 大夫), which were often distant relatives of a ruling house, Confucius replied that if a Grand Master was guilty of a serious offence, he asked for a court audience, faced northwards to the throne (which was the common direction into which officials looked, while the ruler was facing to the south), bowed before the ruler, and then knelt down and cut open his bowels (zi cai 自裁). In this way, the lord was not forced to order the execution of a high official.

During the Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE), the imperial order to commit suicide was applied only to princes and officials of high standing (gongchen 功臣), for instance, the Heir Apparent Prince Fusu 扶蘇 or the generals Bai Qi 白起 and Meng Tian 蒙恬.

The penal code of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), Tanglü shuyi 唐律疏義, stipulated this type of punishment for officials of rank 5 and higher, but only, if their crime was not rebellion or treason. Modes of "self-execution" in imperial China were cutting off the throat (ziwen 自刎), hanging oneself (shangdiao 上吊) or taking poison (fudu 服毒).

Source:
Jiang Yonglin 姜永琳 (1990). "Cisi 賜死", in Yang Chunxi 楊春洗 et al., ed. Xingshi faxue da cidian 刑事法學大辭書 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 55.