China’s Nine Familial Exterminations

By Mike Devlin on Monday, October 28, 2013
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“Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared.” —Reflections on the Guillotine, Albert Camus

In A Nutshell

During the dynastic period of Chinese history, certain regimes resorted to an all-encompassing punishment to handle the worst offenders. Those accused of crimes like treason could be subjected to the “nine familial exterminations,” where not only was the condemned executed, but his entire family as well.

The Whole Bushel

In the film The Usual Suspects, the crime lord Keyser Soze is described as taking a terrible revenge upon his enemies: “He kills their kids, he kills their wives, he kills their parents and their parents’ friends. He burns down the houses they live in and the stores they work in, he kills people that owe them money. And like that he was gone.” While this might seem like a morbidly clever screenwriting turn, it actually has historic precedence. During China’s dynastic period, those accused of various crimes (including treason, libel, and even studying books) would be subjected to the “nine familial exterminations.”

This procedure was every bit as terrible as it sounds: Nine levels of the condemned’s family were gathered up, including parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, brothers- and sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, and the offender himself. Rules could be changed depending on who the emperor was at any given time. Some were more lenient than others, sometimes sparing children under a certain age, or allowing women to become slaves rather than suffer death. A common method of execution was lingchi, a death by a thousand cuts, where the victim was slowly sliced apart and dismembered.

Due to the severity of the punishment, it was rarely carried out, but in over 3,000 years of recorded history, several incidents were indeed reported. Perhaps the worst case fell on the shoulders of a scholar named Fang Xiaoru in 1402. Fang’s loyalty to the deposed Jianwen emperor (and his subsequent refusal to write an inaugural address for the succeeding Yongle emperor) earned him the threat of nine exterminations. Fang asked for 10, and the emperor added Fang’s students to the execution list. In all, 873 people were reportedly killed. Fang himself was cut in half at the waist.

Show Me The Proof

Fang Xiaoru – An Orthodox Confucian Scholar of the Ming dynasty
Cruel & Unusual Punishment: Lingchi
[Note: contains a link to a very gruesome photograph of lingchi. You have been warned.]