The so-called Five Punishments (wuxing 五刑) were the capital punishments in ancient China. According to legend either the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, or the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th - 15th cent. BCE) adopted these as common penalites used by the southern Miao tribes 苗. The Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" (chapter Lüxing 呂刑) says that when Chi You 蚩尤 brought chaos onto the earth, the Miao tribes created the five punishments: "They made the five punishments engines of oppression, calling them the laws. They slaughtered the innocent, and were the first also to go to excess in cutting off the nose, cutting off the ears, castration, and branding." (transl. James Legge) They were nevertheless adopted by the early rulers and dynasties of China: "It is the duty of the Minister of Crime, to use the five punishments to deal with their offences." (ch. Shundian 舜典) "Are there not the five punishments, to be severally used for that purpose?" (ch. Gao Yao mo 皋陶謨) Yet Emperor Shun 舜, for instance, "enacted banishment [liu 流] as a mitigation of the five inflictions" (ch. Shundian).
The Xia dynasty allegedly made use of the "Punishment of Emperor Yu" (Yu xing 禹刑, see Zuozhuan 左傳, ch. Zhaogong 昭公 6). The reason for this was because "the agency of virtue had become weak", and was replaced by the application of corporal punishment (rouxing 肉刑, roubi 肉辟, kuxing 酷刑, see Hanshu 漢書, ch. Xingfa zhi 刑法志). The Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) encyclopaedia Fengsu tongyi 風俗通義 explains that Yu the Great 大禹 had invented corporal punishment.
During the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) periods the five punishments consisted of tattooing (similar to "branding", mo 墨, also called qing 黥), cutting off the nose (yi 劓), cutting off the foot or removing the patella or knee-cap (yue 刖, also called fei 剕, diao 𠚥 or bin 臏, allegedly a replacement of the earlier punishment of cutting off the ear, er 刵), castration (gong 宮, also called zhuo 椓), and execution (dabi 大辟).
For each of the five forms of corporal punishment, the law code Lüxing 呂刑, created by Marquis Fu 甫侯 (or Marquis Lü 呂侯), listed one hundred crimes to which this certain type was to be applied as a punishment. The reason for its creation is narrated in a separate chapter of the Shangshu.
In 536 the counsellor of the regional state of Zheng 鄭, Zichan 子產, had a large bronze tripod cast inscribed with the penal law code (xingding 刑鼎). In 513 the state of Jin 晉 followed suit, and the code promulgated by the regent Fan Xuanzi 范宣子 was cast into iron.
A penal tattoo was applied to the front of the delinquent, so that everyone was able to recognize the person as a criminal. It was often used for slaves, cutting a certain symbol into their front with a knive. The wound was afterwards coloured with ink. The most famous convict suffering a penal tattoo was the philosopher Mozi 墨子. Castration was also called fuxing 腐刑 or canshixing 蠶室刑 ("penalty of the silkworm chamber", meaning, the delinquent was 'made a woman'). The most famous convict suffering castration was the historiographer Sima Qian 司馬遷. The term bin 臏 is known as a sobriquet of the famous military writer Sun Bin 孫臏.
In the regional state of Lu 魯, corporal punishment was graded according to intensity (daxing 大刑, executed with military weapons; ci daxing 次大刑, executed with an axe; zhongxing 中刑, executed with a sword; ci zhongxing 次中刑, executed with a needle; and boxing 薄刑, executed with a whip; see Guoyu 國語).
The definition of the Five Punishments in the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 deviates from the above-mentioned and attributes each one to one administrative field: "field punishment" (yexing 野刑) in case of agricultural matters, "military punishment" (junxing 軍刑) for military affairs, "village punishments" (xiangxing 鄉刑) concerning local administration, "officials punishment" (guanxing 官刑) related to state officials, and "national punishments" (guoxing 國刑) for matters of state ritual.
Another method of punishment used throughout imperial history was the extinction of three generations (sanzu 三族) as a form of collective responsibility.
From the early Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) on, corporal punishment was given up, and more humane punishments were implemented, like wearing the cangue, wipping, flogging, banishment, detention or fines. Yet in practice, the ancient five punishments continued to be applied. And in the end, flogging might also lead to the death of the chastised. As late as the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the highest capital punishment was the "cold retardation" (lingchi 凌遲), which meant slicing to death. Another penalty of death used in late imperial China was beheading (xiongshou 梟首). "Granting death" (cisi 賜死) was an imperial order to high officials to commit suicide, in order to spare them the humilitating ritual of execution.