This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China

Larry Holzwarth - December 29, 2018

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
Chinese courts were swift and the punishments meted out often severe throughout the dynastic period. Wikimedia

8. Chinese punishment for criminal behavior was harsh and swift

As with all of the ancient civilizations, a criminal element emerged in China, and authorities both local and national enacted policies and procedures for dealing with it. Those suspected of committing crimes could be induced into providing the authorities with a confession through the use of torture, and several ingeniously cruel methods of conducting it were developed. The ancient Chinese also used torture against prisoners of war. Children were subject to various tortures or maiming as well as adults, the binding of girls’ feet being just one example. It was common among the urban poor to castrate males at birth, similar to the idea of circumcision in the west, in order that they may serve as eunuchs in the homes and palaces of the wealthy.

Judges often ordered torture during the course of a trial, conducted within the courtroom, using a variety of methods including twisting the victim’s arm around an upright pole in an agonizing manner while officers of the court beat the victim with whips or poles. A victim which persisted in a plea of not guilty to whatever crime he was charged with merely increased the severity of the beating until he collapsed. Few prevailed in court. Sentences for the guilty included maiming, restraining in collars and stocks, beatings, ritual executions, or exile to remote areas of the empire, enslaved for the remainder of his life.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
During the Tang Dynasty (as well as other periods of Chinese history) women were views and treated as commodities by the law and social norms. Wikimedia

9. Women were considered a commodity during the Tang Dynasty

During the Tang Dynasty (seventh to tenth centuries CE) the role of women in Chinese society changed in many ways. Legally a man could have but one wife at a time, and wives were not supposed to be sold into slavery, but in practice both wives and daughters were sold into brothels, where the girls took the name of the madam as theirs. In addition, under the law, a man could retain a wife and as many concubines as his finances would allow. Young girls sold as concubines were trained in several areas, such as reading of poetry and developing conversational skills, and performed services as courtesans which were similar to those of the geishas of Japan. Courtesans remained the property of the brothel’s madam unless they were released, or through marriage to a customer.

Because the courtesans were required to converse intelligently with customers, perform songs, and read poetry, the education of women became a matter of good business. During the Tang Dynasty, young girls saw opportunities open up for them which had been denied to those of earlier generations. Young women developed skills in weaving, considered an art form as well as a business. Women became street artists and storytellers, relating their stories through acting them out. Both Buddhist convents and Taoist priestesses emerged. Women began to work as assistants to government functionaries, serving as secretaries within the bureaucracy, though not as civil servants themselves. Tang households often paid their taxes in the form of bolts of silk, paid by the male master of the house from silk woven by its women.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
Song Dynasty emperor Song Taizu oversaw some changes in the way that women and girls were viewed in China. Wikimedia

10. The rise of neo-Confucianism during the Song dynasty restricted women and girls

From the onset of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1269 CE) the rights of women and girls in Chinese society grew more restricted. Essentially neo-Confucian beliefs supplanted the achievements which had been made by women, and they were further diminished in Chinese life. Chastity became a virtue preached by male philosophers toward women, and it became taboo for a widow to remarry, with remaining faithful to her late husband taking priority over even financial concerns. It was believed that a poor widow was better off dying in poverty than marrying again and thus betraying her late husband. It also became taboo for women to discuss men or the affairs of men whenever they were outside of the home.

It was in the Song Dynasty that the practice of binding of girls’ feet began and expanded across China, which had an obvious deleterious effect on women dancing and performing street acts of stories, as they had in earlier days. Singing and the reading of poetry soon declined as well. Leading philosophers of the dynasty developed the belief that women were inferior to men in all ways, and should be largely kept separate from them. Women became the inner (yin) and men the outer (yang) and women were believed to be made to remain indoors, within their home, not to come out unless with their father or husband from the age of ten.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
Taoist art by Fan Kuan entitled Sitting Alone by a Stream, indicating the need to flow with the universal spirit. Wikimedia

11. Ancient China was subject to the philosophy of Confucius and the religion of Taoism

Confucianism – the following of the philosophy of Confucius – was widespread in China, but was not a religion as much as it was an ethical system. Taoism is a religion which recognized many gods and goddesses. Its followers believed that there is a natural flow which is universal, and that it is necessary to allow oneself to accept it unresistingly, essentially simply going along with the flow. In addition to worshiping the many different gods and goddesses the Chinese worshiped their own ancestors, to the point of households containing shrines at which prayers and offerings were made to the dead of their family, in the belief that from the afterlife the dead could assist the living.

During the dynastic periods it was accepted that the emperor was selected by the universal force which governed all things, and thus religion and government were conjoined. The Chinese believed that the emperor, to comply with the Tao (the way), was meant to be benevolent in his dealings with his subjects, and that natural disasters were an indication from the universe that all was not as it should be. Too many natural disasters were an indication revolution was needed. Despite the focus on benevolence and acceptance, warfare was common across the lands which comprise modern China and with its neighbors, based on ethnic, religious, and political disputes. Numerous weapons, including explosives, the crossbow, and a manual of military tactics called The Art of War, emerged during the dynastic period, evidence that the belief in a benevolent universe did not extend to international disputes.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
Ancient Chinese merchants were regarded as the bottom of the social class system, even below rural peasants. Wikimedia

12. Merchants in ancient China were held in contempt at the bottom of society

In ancient and early dynastic China the social classes were clearly defined. Despite peasants being the largest social class in terms of population, they were held in regard by the other four distinct classes as they were mostly farmers or laborers which produced items of use for the remainder of the people. Merchants did not produce anything, they merely acted as middlemen for a profit, and occupied the bottom of the societal pyramid. Because occupations were for the most part hereditary, the son of a merchant was likely to be doomed to a life at the bottom of the pile, unless he was fortunate enough to obtain a civil service position. Merchants included those who sold goods and services, loaned money, or were breeders of animals.

Because of their low social status, merchants were not allowed to ride in carriages when they moved about the streets, nor were they allowed to wear silk. Although it was possible to attain wealth through trading and money lending, the government ensured that the wealth accrued did not equate to power through heavy taxation of merchants. Taxes were levied by the emperor on a sliding scale. Merchants were also subject to conscription into the army at the whim of the emperor. Members of the merchant class were not allowed to marry out of their class, though the daughters of merchants could become concubines of the upper classes. Traders outside of the cities were able to avoid some of the restrictions on their class, their wealth buying influence with corrupt officials.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
Ancient Chinese artisans created pottery, furniture, utensils, and other items for the use of the people. Wikimedia

13. The artisans were a class above merchants, though usually poorer

The artisans were considered to be socially above the merchants in Chinese society, though they typically were paid for commissioned works and made less money than all classes other than the peasants. Artisans made products such as furniture and outbuildings, working as carpenters and woodworkers. They also created pottery, cooking pots, products from bamboo, products from iron, products from paper, pens for calligraphers, and essentially were the industrial base for the Chinese people. Though they were selling their services, it was for the purpose of benefits being realized by their customers rather than themselves, which elevated them above the merchant class in the eyes of Chinese society.

As with the other classes, the general rule and way of life was that the son of a carpenter became a carpenter, the son of a painter learned to paint, and the son of a potter learned the art of pottery from childhood, to practice it as an adult. Artisans too were subject to conscription, but not as readily as peasants and merchants, since there were fewer of them than of the former and the services they provided were beneficial and often essential to the rest of the community. Artisans also made the weapons which armed the professional warriors and in times of warfare the peasant army, often under supervision of the civil servants who held sway in their community.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
China’s Great Wall was completed by joining several shorter walls which had been built over the centuries. Wikimedia

14. Building Chinese infrastructure required forced labor

The emperors of China’s long dynastic period built a large and self-sustaining infrastructure to help strengthen and unify their empire, including dams and canals, roads and bridges, fortifications which included the Great Wall (which was completed by connecting several smaller walls built by feudal leaders), irrigation systems, and fortified cities. They also built imperial palaces for their residences in multiple cities and temples to various gods, parks and gardens, and other places of resort for the moneyed classes of the civil servants and their own families. All of the construction was performed by forced labor, some by captive slaves and prisoners of war.

The rest were conscripted from the lower classes, though they were compensated for their work. Peasants, being the largest class of Chinese society, were the most frequently conscripted for forced labor, and were paid in either coin or food rations. Labor on all projects was long and hard, and often dangerous for the workers. The emperors of the Qin Dynasty (the first great Chinese empire, though it lasted only about 15 years) used forced labor under the supervision of prelates and warriors to complete various government projects, and harsh punishments awaited laborers who did not complete their allotted work on schedule. Working on what were essentially government projects was often a death sentence, as poor food, dangerous working conditions, and the abuse of workers through beatings and other motivational tools took their toll.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
The Da Yu Ding inscriptions included charges of excess against preceding governments. Wikimedia

15. The Five Punishments of Ancient China

For nearly 1,000 years the five punishments for slaves evolved across several Chinese dynasties, until about the time of the beginning of the Western Han. The five punishments had by then become applicable to all Chinese men, and included the death penalty, which could be applied for several crimes and which could be executed in a variety of ways. The remaining four punishments were intended to mark the person upon whom the penalty was applied. The most minor was the tattooing of the nature of the crime committed upon the forehead of the guilty. It was used as punishment for a wide variety of crimes, and marked the criminal as such for the rest of their life.

Next was the removal of the criminal’s nose. The third was the forced amputation of either or both feet, which according to some also included the removal of the kneecap. Fourth was sentencing the criminal to work in the emperor’s palace as a eunuch, which required the emasculation of the criminal via castration. The sentence could be given for the crime of adultery, promiscuity, or licentiousness, despite Chinese society recognizing a man’s right to keep concubines. When the maximum penalty was assigned, death was brought about in several ways, including the victim’s body being torn apart by chariots, beheading, boiling in water or oil, and by inflicting numerous slices which led to the victim dying from slowly bleeding to death (death from a thousand cuts).

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
As Buddhism took hold in China many of the methods of punishment from earlier times were modified. Wikimedia

16. The Five Punishments were modified during the Western Han Dynasty

During the Western Han Dynasty the five punishments practiced by preceding dynastic rulers were modified to make some of them more humane, at least in the eyes of the emperors and their courts. Tattooing was abolished, as was the practice of amputating limbs. Beating became a preferred means of punishment for what were considered crimes of a less severe nature, with the number of strokes to be delivered determined by the law. The beatings known as Chi were administered with bamboo poles upon the buttocks, though they could be avoided by paying a fine which corresponded to the number of prescribed strokes. More severe beatings were called Zhang, and were administered with a heavier cane upon the victim’s back.

The modification introduced the concept of penal servitude, often as a laborer in a government project such as the building of dams and fortifications, and the length of time assigned was determined by the severity of the crime and the whim of the judge. Known as Tu, up to three years of penal servitude could be given, accompanied with a prescribed number of beatings in the manner of Zhang. The final punishment other than death was exile, to a remote location within the empire, also accompanied with a beating. An exile could be sent to one of three differing distances away from his home (to a maximum of just over 900 miles).

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
A wall painting of both men and women circa the Han Dynasty. Wikimedia

17. Women had their own scale of punishments in ancient China

For women who committed the same crimes as men a different scale of punishments evolved, and the manner in which they were carried out differed as well. All were forms of torture, and though women could be sentenced to death they were not ordinarily subject to public execution and humiliation. When women were sentenced to death they were required to take their own lives in a forced suicide, the manner of which was up to the offender and completed in private, after which it was confirmed by the prelate. In that manner the Chinese avoided the societal taboo of killing a woman, which was not because women were considered sacred, but because all women were the property of someone. Even a widow was the property of her late husband.

The mildest form of punishment for transgressing women was being forced to grind grain for a predetermined period of time, or a predetermined amount of grain. Since grinding of grain was by hand it was hard labor. More serious offenses led to the individual fingers of the hands being pressed between wooden planks or sticks to inflict pain, a process repeated several times until the sentence was deemed to be complete. Fourth was a beating upon the back, using heavy wooden bars, with the number of blows determined by the judge. The punishment for behaviors for which men faced the rest of their lives as eunuchs was for women what is now known as solitary confinement, for a length of time ordered by the judge.

This is What it was like Growing up in Ancient China
A collection of oriental coins including from ancient China, where copper coins were needed to evade corporal and capital punishments. Wikimedia

18. The ancient Chinese could buy their way out of even the death penalty

All of the prescribed sentences in ancient Chinese society could be avoided through the payment of fees to the court, which ultimately went to the emperor. The payment was cash in the form of copper coins. Even the death penalty could be averted by the payment of a fine in copper. That even capital crimes could be resolved by the transfer of the equivalent of hard currency is a clear indication of the lack of hard cash at all levels of Chinese society. The amount of the fines charged to avoid corporal and capital punishment varied with each crime, and changed over the years. Thus in ancient China, wealthy criminals escaped the courts and the consequences of their crimes far more readily than the poor.

Even for the wealthier Chinese, the amounts of the fines were huge for the day, and the majority of those convicted from all classes suffered the physical punishments, rather than the financial. It was a harsh and brutal life. A child born into Chinese society entered into it unaware that he or she was limited by circumstances over what could be accomplished during life, and many lived their entire lives within a few hundred feet of the place where they had been born, dying many years later as a venerated elder, to be worshiped by succeeding generations in the same house for centuries. In many Chinese families, they remain venerated today, despite the many changes to China and its people.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Confucius”. Melvyn Bragg, In Our Time, BBC Online. November 1, 2001.

“Daily Life in Ancient China”. Emily Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 27, 2016

“Marriage in Ancient China”. Ray Erwin Baber, The Journal of Educational Sociology. November, 1934

“Ancient China’s Education System”. Julie Kromenacker, Prezi. November 25, 2014

“Why Footbinding Persisted in China for a Millennium”. Amanda Foreman, Smithsonian Magazine. February, 2015

“China’s long history of female infanticide”. The Times of India, June 14, 2016

“Ancient China”. Anne Kinney, Children and Youth in History. Online

“Archaeologists have found proof that an ancient Chinese dynasty used foreign slaves”. Ilaria Maria Sala, Quartz. June 22, 2017. Online

“China: A History”. John Keay. 2009

“The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han”. Mark Edward Lewis. 2010

“Ancient China Law”. Alyce Miles, Prezi. October 3, 2013

“Life in a Golden Age: The Status of Women in China’s Tang Dynasty”. Alexis Rapozo. 2016. Online

“The Story of China: Women in the Song”. Public Broadcasting System, Learning Media. Online

“Reconciling Taoism and Confucianism”. Shawn Ford, Horizons Magazine. 1998

“Confucius and the Scholars”. Charlotte Allen, The Atlantic. April 1999

“The Great Wall of China is Under Siege”. Brook Larmer, Smithsonian Magazine. August, 2008

“Crime and Punishment in Ancient China and its Relevance Today”. X. Zhang, et al. November, 2017