Shuzui 贖罪 or shuxing 贖刑 was in imperial China a legal method to buy oneself free from punishment. This was, of course, only possible for the higher social classes, mainly state officials who had a regular salary. The custom was introduced as early as the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and served to raise the state revenue, yet the chapter Shundian 舜典 in the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 already mentions a similar procedure (jin zuo shu xing 金作贖刑 "money to be received for redeemable offences", transl. James Legge). The prices were 600 "ounces" (100 huan 鍰, of copper) for tattooing (mo 墨), double for cutting off the nose (yi 劓), cutting off a foot (fei 剕) 3,000 ounces, castration (gong 宮) 3,600 ounces (600 huan), and the death penalty (dapi 大辟) 6,000 ounces (1,000 huan).
Another prove for the application of the method of buying off punishment is an inscription of a bronze vessel called the "Ying saucer" (Ying yi 𠑇匜), where there is talk of 300 huan of redemption for tattooing or flogging. During the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), the government also accepted objects for payment, as cuirasses and shields (xijia 犀甲, huidun 鞼盾, xiedun 脅盾, landun ge 蘭盾革) or polearms (ji 戟), as can be seen in the history book Guoyu 國語 or the statecraft book Guanzi 管子.
The possibility of buying freedom from being tattooed (shu qing 贖黥), castrated (shu gong 贖官), condemned to penal servitude (shu nai 贖耐) or convicted according to extraordinary verdict (shu qian 贖遷) is mentioned in the law codes preserved in the Qin-period 秦 (221-206 BCE) bamboo slips found in Shuihudi 睡虎地, close to Yunmeng 雲夢, Hubei (Yunmeng Qinjian 雲夢秦簡), which regulated redemption from death penalty (sixing 死刑), mutilation (rouxing 肉刑), penal servitude (tuxing 徒刑), or exile (qianxing 遷刑).
The biography of Emperor Hui 漢惠帝 (r. 195-188) in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, for instance, reports that it was possible to buy oneself free from the death penalty for a payment of a sum corresponding to the salary of thirty half-ranks of merit (mai jue sanshi ji 買爵三十級), which was worth 60,000 copper cash (qian 錢). Chao Cuo 晁錯 (d. 154 BCE) suggested to Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) to allow people to deliver grain to buy freedom from punishment. During the time of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) the price had risen to 500,000 qian. To buy off one month of exile for female delinquents cost 300 qian during the reign of Emperor Ping 漢平帝 (r. 1 BCE-5 CE). The Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE) even fixed prices for buying off various punishments. The price was not always paid in money, but could also be delivered in the shape of, for instance, 30 bolts of silk to avoid the death penalty, and 14 to buy freedom from mutilation.
The Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265) further standardized the penal law, with redemption as a regular possibility of punishment. There were eleven categories of redeeming oneself, one for the death penalty, four for shaving the head (kunxing 髡刑), and three for penal servitude (wanxing 完刑 or zuoxing 作刑). The Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) followed this precedent regulation, with small changes in the number of categories (and prices). Payment was accounted in gold, ranging between 1 and 2 jin 斤 (see weights and measures), in steps of 4 liang 兩, or in silk, ranging from 6 to 16 bolts (pi 匹), in steps of 2 bolts. The Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) used the regulations of the Jin.
The Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386-581) did not adopt ransom as a regular possibility of the catalogue of verdicts, but just saw it as a substitute for regular penalties. The Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577) canon, for instance, provided that the death penalty was averted by payment of 10 (bolts) of silk (shi juan 十絹) for each (jin) of gold, which means 400 bolts for the death penalty, and 92 for lifelong exile. Beating with the heavy stick (zhang 杖) "cost" one bolt of silk for 10 jin of gold, concretely spoken, ten bolts for 100 strikes. The Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581) decided that strikes with the heavy stick cost between 1 and 5 liang of gold, strikes with the whip (bian 鞭) between 6 and 10, penal servitude between 12 and 1 jin and 8 liang, exile 1 jin 12 and liang, and the death penalty 2 jin of gold.
The Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618), using 19 categories of penalty, but restricted the possibility to buy oneself free to officials of ran higher than 9. Strikes with the whip or the light stick (chi 笞) cost between 1 and 10 jin of copper (Tang period: 11 to 55), with the heavy stick (only Tang period) between 66 and 110, penal servitude between 20 and 60 jin (depending on the time), exile between 80 and 100 (depending on the distance), and the death penalty 120 jin. The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) adopted this system, with some refinements. Redemption of punishment by payment of copper bars was possible in all cases in which those having the right of deliberation, petition, or reduction of punishment, extending to officials of the ninth rank and above, and including the paternal grandparents, parents, wives, sons or grandsons in the male line of those whose official rank permitted them reduction of punishment, commit crimes punishable by life exile or less (Tanglü shuyi 唐律疏議, Art. 11, transl. Wallace Johnson); all cases in which concubines belonging to officials of the fifth rank and above committed crimes other than the ten abominations (shi'e 十惡), punished by life exile or less (Art. 13); if temporary officials (jiaban guan 假版官) committed crimes punishable by life exile or less (Art. 15); all cases involving those who had committed crimes while not holding office yet who did hold office when the offense was discovered (Art. 16); all cases in which office was used to replace penal servitude, where the punishment was light and did not cancel the office (Art. 22); all cases of those who were seventy sui of age or over, or fifteen sui of age or less, or disabled, who committed a crime punished by life exile or less; where those who were eighty sui of age or more, or ten sui of age or less, or incapacitated, who robbed or wounded people (Art. 30); all cases of accidentally killing or wounding a person, depending upon the circumstances of the offense (Art. 339); and all cases of doubtful offenses (zui yi 罪疑; Art. 502).
The possibility of buying oneself free from punishment was not open for persons accused of having committed one of the "ten abominations" or being sentenced to the "five kinds of life exile" (wu liu 五流, with varying distances from the home district; Art. 16) and in cases requiring penal servitude because of the accidental killing or wounding of relatives of a higher generation, or of the same generation but older than oneself within the second or closer degree of mourning, or one's maternal grandparents, one's husband, and one's husband's paternal grandparents, as well as those cases for which life exile was required because of intentional beating causing disablement, or because of men who committed robbery or wives who committed illicit sexual intercourse (Art. 11).
The "ten abominations" were plotting rebellion (mou fan 謀反), plotting great sedition (mou dani 謀大逆), plotting treason (mou pan 謀叛), contumacy (eni 惡逆), depravity (bu dao 不道), great irreverence (da bu jing 大不敬), lack of filial piety (bu xiao 不孝), discord (bu mu 不睦), unrighteousness (bu yi 不義), and incest (neiluan 內亂).
The Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) followed two principles in the adaption of the option to buy oneself free. The first was called regular redemption (lüshu 律贖), with prices regulated by law. The other one was named redemption according to precedents (lishu 例贖), and was based on archived precedent cases with sub-canonical status. The sums mentioned there could be altered.
The penal code of the Ming dynasty (Da-Ming lü 大明律) was extremely harsh towards state officials, and only in cases that an official had committed smaller offences in the public sphere (gongzui 公罪) the government accepted money as a possible redemption from punishment. This privilege was also given to persons older than 70 and younger than 15 sui, as well as for sick and ailing persons who were convicted to lifelong exile, and for persons older than 80 and younger than 10 sui who had committed robbery or accidentally injured or killed persons.
Redemption was not allowed for persons whose grandparents or parents were ill, or who had no younger brothers, or craftsmen, musicians, students in the Directorate of Astronomy (qintianjian 欽天監), and women, who had been convicted to penal servitude or lifelong exile. Their punishment was reduced to 100 blows with the heavy stick. The Ming discerned three types of redemption. The normal redemption (shou shu 收贖) cost 0.0075 tael/liang (7.5 cash) for ten blows with the light stick, and was granted to children, sick persons, students of the Directorate of Astronomy, and women, in case that lifelong exile was substituted by blows with the bamboo stick (zhe zhang 折杖). More costly was the redemption of punishment (shu zui 贖罪 or zhe shu 折贖), with a price of 0.1 tael per 10 blows with the light stick. The highest ransom was called na shu 納贖, and cost 0.25 tael per ten blows, and 0.3 for strong blows (chi shao you li 笞稍十有力). For some time, a fourth level was in use which was called juan shu 捐贖. It required special permission by the emperor. The price was 50 tael for blows with the stick, and 1,200 tael for decapitation (zhan 斬) or strangulation (jiao 絞). Officials of rank higher than 3 paid 600 and 12,000 tael, respectively.
In the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the Penal Code Currently Operative (Da-Qing xianxing xinglü 大清現行刑律) abolished the higher levels of redemption and did with one single regulation. In practice, redemption was not possible for females. Conversely, it was possible for insolvent persons to have a fine converted in practical punishment. Penal servitude, which cost normally 10-20 tael, could be punished with 2 tael, plus servitude (chai 差), and lifelong exile, redeemable by payment of 25-35 tael, cost alternatively 5 tael, plus servitude. Not convertible in this way were exile with penal servitude in the border regions (qian 遣), costing 35 tael, and of course the death penalty, redeemable for 40 tael.
It can be seen that the type of substitutional payment changed over time and reflected not just the economical and monetary situation, but also the actual needs of the imperial government. In ancient times the payment was copper, copper coins, or labour, from the Han period on grain, silks, gold, or copper coins. The Jin Dynasty 金 (1115-1234) of the Jurchens demanded horses or cattle, the Yuan 元 (1279-1368) payment in the official currency paper money. The last two dynasties applied a mixture of copper, copper cash, silver ingots, paper money, grain or horses (mainly for the military).