An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

zhang 杖, beating with the heavy stick

Aug 26, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Beating with the heavy stick (zhang 杖) was a common means of corporal punishment in ancient China and belonged to the five capital punishments (wuxing 五刑). The stick consisted of a bamboo cane or a bundle of rods of the thornbush (da jingtiao 大荊條) and was beaten on the back, the buttock, or the back side of the legs of the delinquent. The heavy and light bamboo (chi 笞) were used as penal instruments, along with the whip (whip 鞭), since ancient times, but only during the Liang period 梁 (502-557) the heavy bamboo stick became part of the penal law canon and was from then on the second-lightest of the five capital punishments.

In the "Statute on flogging and beating" (Chuizhang ling 箠杖令) the heavy stick was decribed as follows: made of fresh thornbush rods, 6 chi 尺 (see weights and measures) long, and with three different widths, namely 0.8 to 1.3 cun 寸 for the great heavy stick (dazhang 大杖), 0.5 to 1.3 cun for the "standard heavy stick" (fazhang 法杖), and up to 1.1 cun for the small one (xiaozhang 小杖). The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) began combining the heavy bamboo with other penalties, like lashes with the whip, penal servitude (tu 徒), exile (liu 流), and the death penalty (si 死).

The Northern Qi dynasty 北齊 (550-577) used three grades of punishment with the heavy stick, namely 10, 20, and 30 blows. In their neighbour state, the Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581), two more grades were known, with 40 and 50 blows. Yet both states allowed to redeem the punishment by payment of money (shuzui 贖罪).

The Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) abolished the whip penalty and replaced it by the heavy stick, and the latter by beating with the light stick. The five grades were 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 blows, which were partly used as a commutation of more than 50 blows with the light stick. The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) defined the measures of the heavy stick. The bamboo was polished to even out all nodes. The stick was 3.5 chi long. The "interrogation stick" (xunqiu zhang 訊囚杖) was between 2.2 and 3.2 fen 分 thick, the normal stick (changxing zhang 常行杖) between 1.7 and 2.7 fen, and the light stick (chizhang 笞杖) between 1.5 and 2 fen. Judges were allowed to choose, according to the gravity of the crime, between beating on the back, the legs, or the buttocks.

The combination of the stick with other penalties was expanded during the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Exile of three years, for instance, was aggravated by 20 blows with the heavy stick on the back, before being set off. The judicial system of the Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) applied blows of the heavy stick between 50 and 300, yet in all cases above 50 blows, a leather bag filled with sand (shadai 沙袋) was attached (?) to a wooden club to beat the delinquent. Alternatively, a wooden sword (mujian 木劍) was used for beating, with between 15 and 30 blows, or a red-hot iron mace (tieguduo 鐵骨朵), with between 5 and 7 blows. The Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234) had delinquents beaten on the buttocks with thorn rod bundles, between 20 and 200 blows. Emperor Xizong 金熙宗 (r. 1135-1148) allowed also to beat on the back, and reduced the highest number of blows to 100. Yet the back soon became a taboo zone because it was "too close to the heart and the womb". The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) had quite a peculiar system of grades, with 67, 77, 87, 97, and 107 blows.

The Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) revived the bundle of thronbush rods, applied in steps of between 60 and 100 blows. It was 3.5 chi long and had two different sizes, a large end (datou 大頭) of 3.2 fen thickness, and a small one (xiaotou 小頭) with 2.2 fen of diameter. All delinquents sent into exile or convicted to penal servitude were beaten before entering their sentence period. Servitude for one year was aggravated by 60 blows with the heavy stick, and three years with 100 blows. Exile was, regardless of the distance, begun with a series of 100 blows. Ten blows with the light stick could be commuted into five with the heavy stick.

The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) replaced the thornbush rods by a bamboo stick with a length of 5.5 chi. Its large end was 2 cun wide, the small one 1.5 cun, and the weight should not surpass 2 jin 斤. In his reform of the penal law, the Kangxi Emperor 康熙 (r. 1662-1722) changed the commutation rule: 60-odd blows with the light stick were commutable into 20 with the heavy bamboo, 70-odd blows with the light bamboo into 25 with the heavy one, and so on.

Pu Jian 蒲堅 (1992). "Zhang 杖", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中国大百科全书, Faxue 法学 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 740.