Photo Credit: Gary Lee Todd, via Wikimedia Commons
From forbidding crying to enforcing fish-naming etiquette to ink-drinking punishments—these are the weirdest laws from Chinese history

For imperial Chinese dynasties, maintaining order in the realm was often the most essential task for governments constantly menaced by wars, rebellions, and uprisings.

No wonder, then, that Chinese emperors and officials devised vast and complex legal systems to govern their empire and their subjects’ behavior. In Mencius (《孟子》), a collection of stories compiled during the fourth century BCE, about the Confucian scholar of the same name, the famous philosopher is quoted as saying: “Nothing can be accomplished without rules and standards (不以规矩,不能成方圆).”

But not all laws and regulations throughout China’s imperial history were fair, just, or rational, and some were just bizarre. From regulating astronomers’ employment opportunities to forbidding men from crying, here are some of the weirdest laws from Chinese history:

Short and Innocent

In today’s China, minors under the age of 12 cannot bear criminal responsibility, but back in the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BCE), it was height rather than age that determined a person’s status before the law. According to the “Eighteen Laws of Qin,” a set of legal codes written on bamboo slips unearthed in Hubei province in 1975, men under six chi eight cun (around 1.5 meters) of height, and women under six chi two cun (1.43 meters), couldn’t be convicted of crimes.

Apparently, this was because the household registration system, known as the hukou today, was incomplete at the time, so it was often impossible to verify a person’s age. Instead, the government used height to determine when a person had reached adulthood. Furthermore, Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin dynasty, apparently only reached 1.5 meters tall when he was 22 years old, so he allegedly believed that his subjects could only be defined as adults once they grew taller than that.

Qin Boys Don’t Cry

If you were male, and tall enough to be regarded as an adult, you needed to be extra careful of your emotions. The same bamboo records showed that Qin laws prohibited men from crying. If an adult man was found shedding tears, his beard and eyebrows would be shaved off as punishment. The Qin dynasty is well-known for its worship of “martial spirit” and warrior traditions, so perhaps crying was seen as a sign of weakness in men.

Three’s a (Drunken) Crowd

In the Han dynasty (206 BCE ­– 220 CE), having a few drinks with friends could be risky. The law stated that if three or more people got together to drink, the participants would be fined four taels of gold. The only exceptions were gatherings such as weddings, funerals, or festivals.

Many rulers and dynasties attempted to regulate the consumption of alcohol, in part because making alcohol requires grain—rice, sorghum, or millet—that was often in short supply. Rulers also feared that drunken citizens could easily turn into a disorderly and violent rabble disturbing the peace. In Stratagems of the Warring States (《战国策》), a text on diplomacy and strategies compiled during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 25 CE), Yu the Great, the legendary king who supposedly initiated the Xia dynasty around 4,000 years ago, is quoted as declaring, “In the future, there will definitely be a country destroyed because of alcohol.”

Litterbugs Beware

If you thought Chinese cities’ garbage sorting regimes were strict today, with fines in place for incorrect disposal of different types of trash, spare a thought for those living in the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE). According to the Han Fei Zi (《韩非子》), a philosophical and legal text by Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE) scholar Han Fei (韩非), Shang laws called for chopping off a person’s hand if authorities caught them throwing rubbish on the roads.

Write Neat or Drink Ink

During the Sui dynasty (581 – 618), China’s imperial examination system, the keju, took shape, theoretically allowing anyone in the country to become a government official. But failing the test was not without consequences, especially if you weren’t neat. According to the Book of Sui (《隋书》), the official historical records of the Sui dynasty (581 – 618), Sui laws stipulated that examinees with bad handwriting would be punished by being forced to drink one sheng (around 200 milliliters) of ink. Since the exam answers were in theory written to the emperor (though in practice his officials would generally do the marking), bad handwriting indicated disrespect to the Son of Heaven.

Respect Carp...

While the carp today is used jokingly on social media to express good luck, talking about the fish the wrong way could get you into big trouble in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). Carp (鲤 lǐ) had the same pronunciation as the surname of the Tang emperors (李 lǐ) in Chinese. According to the The Miscellany of Youyang (《酉阳杂俎》), a record of legends, folk customs, and herbal remedies compiled in the Tang dynasty, the carp had to be referred to as “Lord Red Carp (赤鲤公)” to show respect to the imperial family. Also because of this homophone, “those who happen to catch carps should relieve the fish immediately; it is not acceptable to eat them…and those who sell carp will be flogged 60 times.”

However, like all legal provisions, this law was only as good as its enforcement. Judging by the amount of Tang poets who wrote about catching and eating carp without any record of punishment, it seems this law was loosely administered.

...And Chickens Too

Emperor Renzong of the Yuan dynasty (1206 – 1368) had a similar idea as his Tang predecessors. Yuan dynasty historian Yang Yu (杨瑀) recorded in his historical notes Shanju Xinyu (《山居新语》) that during Renzong’s reign, “people in the capital were not allowed to hold chickens upside down. Offenders would be convicted, probably because the emperor’s zodiac sign was the chicken.” How exactly people got around this law–holding the chicken by the neck perhaps, or cradling it—is unknown, but it would certainly have been inconvenient.

Studying the Heavens is for Life

In ancient times, the emperor was known as the “Son of Heaven.” The imperial government would regularly reinforce the idea of the emperor’s divine right to rule with stories and symbolism that appeared to indicate Heaven’s pleasure at the emperor’s policies. Much of this was linked to astronomy, with the study of the objects in heaven often equated to divining the future of the empire and its rulers. Since the Qin dynasty, governments had special departments to observe celestial phenomena, draw up calendars, and produce advice based on the position and whims of heavenly observations.

When Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), came to power, he decided that laws were needed to control the imperial “bureau of astronomy (钦天监)” more tightly. He promulgated a rule that bound all officials in the bureau to their posts, forbidding them from transferring to other departments. What’s more, their descendants were also bound to astronomy and forbidden from engaging in other fields of work. The punishment for ignoring the law was exile.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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