Modern Asian Studies

Abolishing ‘Cruel Punishments’: A Reappraisal of the Chinese Roots and Long-term Efficiency of the Xinzheng Legal Reforms

Jérôme Bourgon  a1

a1 Institut d'Asie Orientale, CNRS


The 24th of April 1905 is a date of no particular significance in the current historiography of China. However, the memorial submitted this day by the Imperial Commissioners in charge of legal reforms, Wu Tingfang and Shen Jiaben, entailed the immediate suppression of so-called ‘cruel punishments’ (kuxing), such as dismemberment (lingchi), exposure of the head (xiaoshou) and desecration of the corpse (lushi). Judicial torture and bamboo flogging were suppressed straight after. From then on, cruelties of the past were illegal, and prohibited in practice, even though a penal code conforming to modern standards was not completed before 1928. China thus entered into the age of uneven and uncertain eradication of illegal but recurrent practices of torture. Though spectacular outbursts of violence occurred in contemporary China, with the complicity or under instigation of the highest authorities, those were not openly authorized by law, and they were eventually denounced, and some of their authors prosecuted. The shift from cruelty openly legitimized and practiced by the state to its official prohibition and ashamed toleration is an epochal change, which stems from the April 24th 1905 memorials.