In Chinese, there is an idiom “十恶不赦”, meaning “ten crimes so wicked punishment should never cease”. Though today it is used as an adjective to describe heinous criminals, originally, this phrase referred to “ten unpardonable crimes”.
The concept of the ten major crimes first appeared in the law of the Qi Kingdom in the North and South Dynasty, regulating that people having committed certain crimes could not receive amnesty. In the later Sui and Tang Dynasties, these ten crimes were officially titled the “Ten Abominations”.
- Plotting a rebellion (谋反)
Conspiracy against the realm is always up there in terms of crimes, and as you might expect the punishment for it was most severe. The key word for this item is “plot”, not commit. Even if you didn’t actually take up arms or go through with the assassination, you’re still on the hook for one of the worst crimes in the book. In truth, it’s pretty hard to prove “plotting”, but throughout the whole Chinese history it was always an excellent excuse for the emperor to kill a senior official.
In the early Han Dynasty, all the “Three Famous Generals”, who all contributed greatly to founding the dynasty, were killed for “plotting rebellions”. The first was Han Xin, a household name even today and a brilliant military genius. Han helped Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, win the Chu-Han contention and build the new dynasty. Han’s achievements were fully recognized by Liu, but Liu feared Han Xin’s growing influence and began to gradually reduce his authority. In 196 BC, Han was accused of participating in a rebellion, lured into a trap, and executed in a gruesome manner on the orders of Liu’s wife, Empress Lü. Han Xin’s clan was exterminated as well.
Peng Yue’s story was kinda of similar to Han. Liu Bang heard rumors that Peng Yue was intending to rebel and had Peng arrested. Peng Yue was demoted and exiled to a remote county. Along the way, Peng Yue encountered Empress Lü. Peng pleaded with her to save his life and let him return to his hometown. The empress pretended to agree, but when Peng Yue was brought back, he was summarily executed along with his clan. His corpse was then minced and salted like meat, a punishment called “醢刑”.
The last one was Ying Bu, who saw the tragic end of the previous two and decided to raise a rebellion after all, and was defeated and killed.
- Planning “great betrayal”(谋大逆)
“大逆” literally means “great betrayal”; in the Qin and Han dynasties, this term didn’t refer to any specific crimes, just generally vicious crimes. But in the Tang Dynasty, the law clearly regulated three specific offences that were regarded as serious as plotting a rebellion: damaging the royal ancestral temples, damaging the royal mausoleums, and damaging the royal palaces. Since all these were symbolic of imperial power, any intention to destroy them was a challenge to authority.
The law of the Tang regulated that people who committed this crime would be beheaded…And that’s just the start. Fathers and sons over 16 would be hanged; wives, concubines, mother, sons under 15 years old, daughters, daughters-in-law, siblings, and grandparents and grandchildren would be sentenced to be menial servants. Paternal uncles and nephews would be exiled and the offender’s property would be confiscated. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the punishment could even bring lingchi, death by a thousand cuts.
- Plotting treason (谋叛)
Sensing a theme? Of course treason is a crime, but sometimes it also includes surrendering to the enemy. In the Tang Dynasty, when An Lushan took up a rebellion, many officials switched their sides to An. Unsurprisingly, after the Tang government recaptured the lost cities, 39 officials were executed for treason.
- Evil disobedience (恶逆)
This one means murdering or assaulting elder family members including parents, grandparents, elder siblings, paternal siblings and their spouses, husbands and the husband’s elder family members. Clearly, the people writing the laws favored filial piety (and were probably old).
Zheng Man, an official in the Ming Dynasty, was accused of clubbing his stepmother and raping his sister by his political enemies. Zheng was sentenced to death by 3600 cuts. In the end, it turned out to be a frame up.
- Immoral behavior (不道)
By immoral, this refers to cruel and inhuman crimes. Most of them are pretty nasty, like killing three or more people of a same family who are not guilty of a capital crime or dismembering a body. But, it also included killing a person by performing sorcery or with Gu poison, traditionally identified with poison involving venomous creatures such as snakes, scorpions, spiders.
What today seems like superstition was taken very seriously in the past. In the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, Empress Chen was once found hiring someone to perform sorcery to curse others and infuriated the emperor. As a result, more than 300 people involved were killed and the empress herself was deposed.
Later, Emperor Wu’s second empress supposedly died due to witchcraft. Her son, the crown prince was falsely accused by his political enemy of performing sorcery. The crown prince couldn’t prove himself innocent so he was forced into a failed rebellion and in the end took his own life, his mother following suit. The case had a huge influence on society and witch hunts became more commonplace; tens of thousands of people were incriminated.
- Great irreverence (大不敬)
Yes, this item means you will be punished if you don’t show enough respect to the emperor or the imperial family. Offenses included but were not limited to stealing sacrificial objects, stealing imperial property, forging imperial artifacts and seals, endangering the emperor’s life by serving him contaminated food, or bad medicine.
In the reign of Emperor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty, Nian Gengyao, a senior military general once wrote a typo in a letter dedicated to the emperor. Because the typo made a respectful word into an irreverent one, Nian was convicted of “great irreverence” and then executed. Of course, the typo was just an excuse and there were many more reasons why the emperor wanted to kill him.
- Lack of filial piety (不孝)
This one’s a bit tricky because there’s no real definition for “lack of filial piety”, but the law was pretty specific. It included cursing one’s grandparents or parents, stealing from them, failing to support them, falsely claiming their death, and not mourning for them properly after they died. The mourning periods should be about three years – during which time the bereaved children shouldn’t play any music, enjoy any concerts, wear inappropriate colorful clothes, or have weddings.
- Improper behavior (不睦)
This generally involves killing or abusing relatives and suing elder family members – including your husband. Yes, if a woman sued her husband, whether her husband was guilty or not, the woman would be punished first.
Li Qingzhao, a famous female poet of the Song Dynasy, accused her second husband of having cheated in the imperial exam in order to appeal for a divorce. As a result, her husband was exiled and the divorce was permitted, but she herself also paid a price: 9 days behind bars, a pretty light sentence down to her reputation and powerful social circle.
- Unrighteous behavior (不义)
If people killed their own prefecture magistrates, senior provincial government officials, or county head magistrates; if soldiers killed their commanders; when officials killed their own department superiors; if people killed their own teachers; if upon hearing the news of their husband’s death women hid the fact or didn’t mourn properly; if widows married another man during the mourning period – all would be guilty of “unrighteous behavior” and be in very big trouble.
- Incest (内乱)
Fornicating with a family member or a relative is a serious crime, even if it was with one’s grandfathers’ or father’s concubines. The penalty was hanging
So, don’t make the government angry, be nice to your folks, try not to have sex with your grandfather’s concubine, and, at all costs, try very hard to not be a woman.
Cover image from bus84.net