Nine familial exterminations

The nine familial exterminations or nine kinship exterminations (simplified Chinese: 株连九族; traditional Chinese: 株連九族; pinyin: zhū lián jiǔ zú; literally: "guilt by association of nine of a group/clan"; also known as zú zhū (族誅), literally "family execution" and miè zú (灭族/滅族), literally "family extermination" or "execution of nine relations") was the most serious punishment for a capital offense in Ancient China.[1][2][3] A collective punishment typically associated with offenses such as treason, the punishment involved the execution of all relatives of an individual, which were categorized into nine groups. The occurrence of this punishment was somewhat rare, with relatively few sentences recorded throughout history. There were also variants of the punishment found in ancient Korea[4][5][6] and Vietnam (the most prominent example being the family of Nguyễn Trãi).[7]

Historical records

The punishment by nine exterminations is usually associated with the tyrannical rulers throughout Chinese history who were prone to use inhumane methods of asserting control (compare with slow slicing, or "death by ten thousand cuts"). The first written account of the concept is in the Classic of History, a historical account of the Shang (1600 BC – 1046 BC) and Zhou (1045 BC – 256 BC) Dynasties, where it is recorded that prior to a military battle, officers would threaten their subordinates that they would exterminate their families if they refused to obey orders.[8]

From the Spring and Autumn period (770BC–403BC), there are records of exterminations of "three tribes"[2] (Chinese: 三族). A notable case where under the State of Qin, lawmaker Shang Yang's entire family was killed by order of King Huiwen of Qin,[9] while Shang Yang himself was sentenced to death in 338 BC by being drawn and quartered, an ironic occurrence as it was Shang Yang who formulated such a punishment into Qin law in the first place, being commonly recorded as a lawmaker who used excessive punishments.[10][11]

During the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 207 BC), punishments became even more rigorous under the first emperor of the unified China state, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC – 210 BC). In order to uphold his rule, strict laws were enforced,[12] where deception, libel and the study of banned books became punishable by familial extermination.[1] This increase in tyranny only helped to speed up the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty.[8] The Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), although it inherited the concept of family execution, was more moderate in inflicting such severe punishments. In many cases, the Han Emperor would retract the sentence, and so family executions were much rarer than under the Qin Dynasty.[13] During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the family punishment was not abolished, but it was only applied to those who plotted against the rule of the Emperor. By this time, the penalty had become more regulated and different; from the Tang Code, the sentence involved the death of parents, children over the age of sixteen, and other close kindred, and was only applied to the offenses of treason and rebellion.[1][14]

From the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) Dynasties onward, the extent to which those within the family were exterminated was increased. Under the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368 – 98), those committing rebellion and treason were punished by having their parents, grandparents, brethren (by birth, as well as "sworn brothers"), children, grandchildren, those living with the criminal regardless of surname, uncles and the children of brethren put to death, as well as death themselves by slow slicing or lingchi.[15][16] The number of sentences during the Ming were higher than that of the Tang,[17][18] due to the policy of "showing mercy beneath the sword" (Chinese: 刀下留情), while females were given the choice to become slaves rather than to be killed. A rare case was Fang Xiaoru (1357–1402), whose students and friends were also executed as the 10th family by the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402 — 1424), the only case where "ten exterminations" was officially sentenced and carried out. The punishment by family extermination during the Qing Dynasty was a direct imitation of the regulation under the Ming.[19]

The abolishment of the punishment by nine exterminations under the Qing occurred in 1905, where the punishment was officially repealed by the Qing government.


The punishment involved the execution of close and extended family members.[3][20] These included:

Confucian principles also play a major role in the outline of the punishment; regarding the killing of children, such an act is disapproved by Confucian ethics, under the Mencius "offspring is not a sinner" (Classical Chinese: 罪人不孥) principle, and so children under a certain age are often exempt from death.

There are different interpretations regarding the concept of group punishment in ancient times. Typically seen as an inhumane method of upholding rule, where innocent family members are killed for the crime of a relative, the punishment also acts as a deterrent against offenses such as treason, rather than as a punishment itself. As family members have the obligation to maintain the wellbeing of their family, such a punishment would prevent individuals from committing acts of treason. The punishment is also related to the ancient cultural tradition that the action of one shames the whole family, according to the works of Confucius and his disciples, so that in the case of an act of treason, by tradition the family bears the burden of punishment.

The "nine tribes"

In Ancient times, there were nine different relations (or guanxi) in which an individual had with other people, which were referred to as the "family" or "tribe" (Chinese: 族) during that period.[21] These relations, under Confucian principles, were bonded by filial piety. Because members of a family remained strictly loyal to one another, they were considered responsible for crimes committed by any member due to guilt by association. It also provided the argument that the entire family would be responsible in supporting each other in the case of a rebellion against a ruler.

The Chinese character can be translated by its original definition of "clan" or "tribe", or it can have the additional meanings of "kinship", "family" (as in 家族) or "ethnicity" (as in 民族).

See also


  1. 1 2 3 “株连九族”的历史演进 – 新华网 "The history and evolution of '株连九族' (Nine exterminations)" – Xinhua
  2. 1 2 "中國古代立法與司法". Retrieved 17 April 2009. "Ancient Chinese law and judiciary", from the Research Institute of Chinese Culture (中國文化研究院)
  3. 1 2 The Nine Exterminations (族诛) Definition of "族诛" at the China Encyclopedia
  4. Pankaj Mohan (2005). "The Uses of Buddhist and Shamanistic Symbolism in the Empowerment of Queen Sŏndŏk". International Association for Buddhist Thought and Culture. 5–8: 133. The hostility of the aristocracy manifested itself in a conspiracy against the throne hatched by Yichan Chilsuk and Achan Sŏkpum. The plot was revealed in 631, and Chilsuk's entire family and relatives to the ninth degree were executed.
  5. "Samjok (삼족 三族)" (in Korean). Doosan Encyclopedia. In ancient China and Korea, when someone committed a big crime, the three sets of relatives were annihilated for the principle of guilt by association which was referred to as 'samjok myeolmun jihwa', 고대 중국·한국 등에서는 어떤 사람이 큰 죄를 범하면 '삼족멸문지화(三族滅門之禍)'라고 하여 혈연의 삼족을 형벌에 연좌(緣坐)시키기도 하였다.
  6. "Chilsuk's Rebellion (칠숙의 난)". Samguk Sagi (in Korean). Korea Culture & Content Agency. In May Summer, Chilsuk the Inchan officer plotted to rise in rebellion along with Seokpum the Achan officer. As the king (of Silla) knew this, he captured and beheaded Chilsuk at the Eastern Market and then annihilated his nine sets of relatives. (夏五月, 伊(阿)湌柒宿與阿湌石品謀叛, 王覺之, 捕捉柒宿, 斬之東市, 幷夷九族)
  7. BIOGRAPHY Nguyen Trai (1380–1442) "A close adviser of two successive kings, he was finally suspected to have plotted for regicide. His family was harmed by traitors to the court. He and entire family were executed."
  8. 1 2 什么是“族诛” "What is 'Mie Zu'?" from the Primary School learning resources network (小学语文资源网)
  9. pg 80 of Classical China, ed. William H. McNeill and Jean W. Sedlar, Oxford University Press, 1970. LCCN: 68-8409
  10. 商鞅 为强秦奠基,为自己掘墓 "Shang Yang – The mighty lawmaker of Qin, digs his own grave" from Chinadaily "Shang Yang learned to read from a young age, and later created a series of reforms, his laws in excess of severity... However, the powerful state of Qin does not comply with the interests of all, bear the brunt of the old aristocracy. In the cancellation of privileges, they become the sworn enemy of Shang Yang."
  11. 商鞅究竟“做错”了什么 为何会被残忍分尸 "Shang Yang's mistakes and the reasons behind his merciless laws" – Phoenix TV report
  12. 张辉:秦制千年到红朝 "Qin system a millennium of red mornings" – China Report Weekly
  13. 晁智囊千慮一失被族誅(西漢)(圖) "Thousand worries of the extermination of a family (Western Han)" from the Chinese Civilisation network of the Chinese economic net (華夏文明——中國經濟網)
  14. 湖北第二师范学院:“株连九族” "History of Familial Extermination" from Hubei Normal College II (湖北第二师范学院)
  15. 中国死刑观察--明初酷刑 "Examination of China's death penalty – torture from the Ming" – Chinamonitor
  16. 倪正茂, 比较法学探析, 中国法制出版社, 2006 (Google Books)
  17. 《明大诰》(档案界) "Letters of Ming" from "The Archive Domain" (档案界 档案界门户网站)
  18. 汉字趣编(之十四)(刑) "Notable compilation 14 – Punishment" from Secondary school resources (中学语文教学资源网)
  19. Tianting Zheng, 清史 鄭天挺編著 (Google Books)
  20. 古代刑罰:"株連九族"酷刑的歷史演進 "Ancient punishments: The history of the torture of 'Nine Exterminations'"
  21. "ZDIC.NET 汉典網". Retrieved 17 April 2009. ZDIC definition of "族"

Further reading

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