Torture is commonly supposed to be practised by Chinese officials upon each and every occasion that a troublesome criminal is brought before them. The known necessity they are under of having a prisoner's confession before any "case" is considered complete, coupled with some few isolated instances of unusual barbarity which have come to the notice of foreigners, has probably tended to foster a belief that such scenes of brutality are daily enacted throughout the length and breadth of China as would harrow up the soul of any but a soulless native. The curious part of it all is that Chinamen themselves regard their laws as the quintessence of leniency, and themselves as the mildest and most gentle people of all that the sun shines upon in his daily journey across the earth--and back again under the sea. The truth lies of course somewhere between these two extremes. For just as people going up a mountain complain to those they meet coming down of the bitter cold, and are assured by the latter that the temperature is really excessively pleasant--so, from a western point of view certain Chinese customs savour of a cruelty long since forgotten in Europe, while the Chinese enthusiast proudly compares the penal code of this the Great Pure dynasty with the scattered laws and unauthorised atrocities of distant and less civilised ages.
The Han dynasty which lasted from about B.C. 200 to A.D. 200 has been marked by the historian as the epoch of change. Before that time punishments of all kinds appear to have been terribly severe, and the vengeance of the law pursued even the nearest and most distant relatives of a criminal devoted perhaps to death for some crime in which they could possibly have had no participation. It was then determined that in future only rebellion should entail extirpation upon the families of such seditious offenders, and at the same time legal punishments were limited to five, viz.: bambooing of two degrees of severity, banishment to a certain distance for a certain time or for life, and death. These were, however, frequently exceeded by independent officers against whose acts it would have been vain to appeal, and it was not until the Sui dynasty (589-618 A.D.) that mutilation of the body was absolutely forbidden. It may, indeed, be said to have survived to the present day in the form of the "lingering death" which is occasionally prescribed for parricides and matricides, but that we now know that this hideous fate exists only in words and form. When it was first held to be inconsistent with reason to mete out the same punishment to a highway robber who kills a traveller for his purse, and to the villain who takes away life from the author of his being, a distinction was instituted accordingly, but we can only rest in astonishment that any executioner could be found to put such a horrible law into execution as was devised to meet the requirements of the case. First an arm was chopped off, then the other; the two legs in the same way. Two slits were made transversely on the breast, and the heart was torn out; decapitation finished the proceedings. Now, a slight gash only is made across each collar-bone, and three gashes across the breast in the shape of the character meaning one thousand, and indicative of the number of strokes the criminal ought properly to have received. Decapitation then follows without delay. The absurd statement in the Shanghai Daily News of the 16th January last, that this punishment "is the most frightful inflicted, even in any of the darkest habitations of cruelty, at the present day," is utterly unworthy of that respectable journal, but only of a piece with the general ignorance that prevails among foreigners generally on topics connected with China and the Chinese. At the same time, it may fairly be pleaded that the error in question was due to disingenuousness on the part of the translator from the Peking Gazette who, mentioning that such a sentence had been lately passed upon two unhappy beings, adds that, "they have been publicly sliced to death accordingly, with the usual formalities,"--which certainly might lead a mere outsider to conclude that the horrible decree had actually been put into execution. We may notice in passing that this so-called "lingering death" is now almost invariably coupled with the name of some poor lunatic who in a frenzy of passion has killed either father or mother, sometimes both. Vide Peking Gazette, two or three times every year. This is one of those pleasant fictions of Chinese official life, which every one knows and every one winks at. In nine cases out of ten, the unhappy criminal is not mad at all; but he is always entered as such in the report of the committing magistrate, who would otherwise himself be exposed to censure and degradation for not having brought his district to estimate at their right value the five[*] cardinal relationships of mankind.
[*] Between, (1) sovereign and subject, (2) husband and wife, (3) parent and child, (4) brothers, and (5) friends.
Under the present dynasty the use of torture is comparatively rare, and mutilation of the person quite unknown. Criminals are often thrust into filthy dungeons of the most revolting description, and are there further secured by a chain; but except in very flagrant cases, ankle- beating and finger-squeezing, to say nothing of kneeling on chains and hanging up by the ears, belong rather to the past than to the present. The wife and children of a rebel chief may pass their days in peace and quietness; innocent people are no longer made to suffer with the guilty. A criminal under sentence of death for any crime except rebellion may save his life and be released from further punishment, if he can prove that an aged parent depends upon him for the necessaries of daily existence. The heavy bamboo, under the infliction of which sufferers not uncommonly died, has given place to the lighter instrument of punishment, which may be used severely enough for all practical purposes while it does not endanger life. The Emperor K'ang Hsi, whose name is inseparably connected with one of the most valuable lexicons that have ever been compiled, forbade bambooing across the upper part of the back and shoulders. "Near the surface," said this benign father of his people, "lie the liver and the lungs. For some trivial offence a man might be so punished that these organs would never recover from the effects of the blows." The ruling system of bribery has taken away from the bamboo its few remaining terrors for those whose means are sufficient to influence the hand which lays it on. Petty offences are chiefly expiated by a small payment of money to the gaoler, who lets the avenging bamboo fall proportionately light, or assists the culprit by every means in his power to shirk the degradation and annoyance of a week in the cangue.[*] These two are the only ordinary punishments we hear much about; torture, properly so called, is permitted under certain circumstances, but rarely if ever practised.
[*] A heavy wooden collar, taken off at night only if the sentence is a long one, or on payment of a bribe.
In further support of this most heterodox position, we beg to offer a translation of two chapters from "Advice to Government Officials," a native work of much repute all over the Empire:--
"The infliction of the bamboo is open to abuse in various ways. For instance, the knots in the wood may not have been smoothed off; blows may be given inside the joints, instead of above the knees; the tip end instead of the flat of the bamboo may be used; each stroke may be accompanied by a drawing movement of the hand, or the same spot may be struck again after the skin has been broken, whereby the suffering of the criminal is very much increased. Similarly, the "squeezing" punishment depends entirely for its severity on the length of the sticks employed, whether these are wet or dry, as well as upon the tightness of the string. Such points should be carefully looked to by the magistrate himself, and not left to his subordinates. At the time of infliction still greater precautions should be taken to prevent the possibility of any accident, and where the offence was committed under venial circumstances, some part of the punishment may be remitted if it is considered that enough has already been inflicted. Such punishments as pressing the knees to the ground, making prisoners kneel on chains, or burning their legs with hot irons, adopted under the specious pretence of not using the "squeezing" torture, are among the most barbarous of prohibited practices, and are on no account to be allowed."
"Lu Hsin-wu says, There are five classes of people who must be exempted from the punishment of the bamboo. (1) The aged. (2) The young. (3) The sick. [It is laid down expressly by statute that the aged and the young must not be thus coerced into giving evidence, but there is a danger of overlooking this in a moment of anger.] (4) The hungry and naked. [For thus to punish a beggar half dead with cold and hunger and destitute of friends to nurse him afterwards, would be equivalent to killing him outright.] (5) Those who have already been beaten. [Whether in a brawl or by other officials. A second beating might result in death for which the presiding magistrate would be responsible.]
"There are five classes of people not to be hastily sentenced to the bamboo. (1) Members of the Imperial family. [The relatives of his Majesty, even though holding no rank, are not, says the statute, to be hastily punished in this way. The case must be laid before the proper authorities.] (2) Officials. [However low down in a scale, they are still part of the scheme of government; besides, it affects their good name ever afterwards.] (3) Graduates. (4) The official servants of your superiors. [Look out for the vase when you throw at the rat. Though you may be actually in the right, yet the dignity of your superiors might be compromised. A plain statement of the facts should be made out and privately handed to the official in question, leaving punishment in his hands. But to refrain from such a course through fear of the consequences would be weak indeed.] (5) Women.
"There are also five cases in which temporary suspension of punishment is necessary. (1) When the prisoner is under the influence of excitement, or (2) anger. [The working classes are an obstinate lot and beating only increases their passion, so that they would die rather than yield. Arguments should first be used to show them their error, and then corporal punishment may be used without fear.] (3) Or drink. [A drunken man doesn't know heaven from earth, how can he be expected to distinguish right from wrong? Besides he feels no pain, and further there is a risk of his insulting the magistrate. He ought to be confined until he is sober and then punished; but not in a cold place for fear of endangering his life.] (4) Or when a man has just completed a journey, or (5) when he is out of breath with running.
"There are also five instances in which it is well for your own sake to put off punishment for a time. (1) When you are in a rage. (2) When you are drunk. (3) When you are unwell. [For in the latter case the system is heated, and not only would you be more liable to improper infliction of punishment, but also to lose your temper; and thus injury would be done both to yourself and the prisoner.] (4) When you can't see your way clearly as to the facts of the case. (5) When you can't make up your mind as to the proper punishment. [For in difficult cases and when the prisoner in question is no ordinary man, it is just as well to look forward a little as to how the case is likely to end before you apply the bamboo. It would never do to take such measures without some consideration, or you might suddenly find that you had by no means heard the last of it.]
"There are three classes of people who should not be beaten in addition to what they are to suffer. (1) Those who are to have their fingers squeezed. (2) Those who are to have the ankle frame applied. (3) Those who are to be exposed in the cangue. [For if previously beaten they might be almost unable to move, or their sores might not heal, and death might perhaps ensue. The statute provides that they shall be beaten on release, but this might easily be forgotten in a moment of anger.]
"There are three instances in which compassion should save the prisoners from the bamboo. (1) When the weather is extremely cold or hot. (2) When a festival is being celebrated. (3) When the prisoner has lately been bereaved. [A man who is mourning for his father, mother, wife, or child, should not be punished corporeally; it might endanger his life.]
"There are three cases in which a beating deserved should nevertheless be remitted. (1) When one of the litigants is considerably older than the other, he should not be beaten. (2) When one of the litigants is an official servant, the other should not be beaten. [For although the former may be in the right, his opponent should be treated with leniency, for fear of people saying you protect your Yamen servants; and lest in future, when the servant is in the wrong, no one will dare come forward to accuse him.] (3) Workmen and others employed by the magistrate himself should not be bambooed by him, even if they deserve it.
"Three kinds of bambooing are forbidden. (1) With the greater bamboo. [One stroke of the greater bamboo is counted as ten; three with the middle-sized, and five with the smaller. Officials are often too free with, never too chary of, their punishments. With the smaller bamboo, used even to excess, life is not endangered. Besides, if the punishment is spread over a longer time, the magistrate has a longer interval in which to get calm. But with the heavy bamboo, there is no saying what injuries might be done even with a few blows.] (2) It is forbidden to strike too low down. (3) It is forbidden to allow petty officers to use unauthorised instruments of punishment. These five preceding clauses refer to cases in which there is no doubt that punishment ought to be inflicted, but which officials are apt to punish too indiscriminately without due investigation of circumstances, whereby they infallibly stir up a feeling of discontent and insubordination. As regards those instances where punishment is deserved but should be temporarily suspended, a remission of part or the whole of the sentence may be granted as the magistrate sees fit. The great point is to admit an element of compassion, as thereby alone the due administration of punishment can be ensured."