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Families that hang together
By Yao Lao (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-05-17 08:45

In today's modern societies, the idea that an individual should be held responsible for his own criminal acts has been widely accepted as a basic legal principle.

However, in ancient China the cruel measure of killing a whole family in retribution for one family member's fault or crime prevailed widely over thousands of years.

In many TV series which tell stories of ancient times, viewers can still occasionally witness a scene in which a family is severely punished, perhaps even executed, because of a single family member's rebellion against the emperor.

Such a system is called lianzuo or zhuolian in Chinese pinyin, and the earliest record of the penalty appeared in the Shang Shu, China's first historical record, reflecting China's earliest forms of social existence. The book records that during the Xia Dynasty (c.21 century- 16th century BC) and Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC), soldiers who failed to obey orders would be killed along with their sons.

Radical reform

This severe punishment was reinforced as a criminal penalty during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), when Shang Yang launched a radical reform in the Qin Kingdom.

In this reform, Shang Yang emphasized severe punishments, believing that draconian penalties helped to prevent crimes.

Shang Yang not only encouraged people to report suspects and crimes by offering rewards, he also implemented the system of lianzuo to crack down on crimes.

According to historical documents, the reforms required that every five to 10 households were registered as a group, with each household having the duty of overseeing its neighbours in the group. A crime by one family would result in punishments for the others in the group.

The system was extended to soldiers and officials. Soldiers were grouped into units of five, if one fled in the war, the other four would be punished.

Shang Yang's reforms, with their cruel penalties and other measures, have been considered vital to the flourishing of the Qin Kingdom, greatly contributing to the Qin's final unification of China through the conquest of its six competitor kingdoms.

The establishment of Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) was the beginning of China's imperial history, which lasted for 2,000 years.

Legalist's creed

For quite a long time, historians and experts have believed that although Confucianism had long been the dominant ideology of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and prevailed throughout China over the subsequent millennia, China's ancient societies also remained attached to the Legalist's creed, which upheld the sovereignty of the law and its attendant severe punishments.

Shang Yang was also listed as a legalist because of the severe penalties stressed in his reform.

The lianzuo system, also called zuxing meaning "family penalty", may also be seen to have a close connection to traditional Chinese culture, which stressed the value of the family above that of the individual.

In China, an individual's interests and rights were usually attached to the superior interests of a family. Many things and matters were carried out or fulfilled under the name of a family.

A marriage was not a couple's own concern, but rather the association of two families. Achievements attained by a person were also considered to honour the whole family. Thus, it is not hard to explain why a family had to accept punishment for one of its member's wrong-doing.

Shang Yang's new measures strengthened Qin power, yet he also created a lot of enemies through the reforms. The reformer was finally executed - and his family were also included among the victims.

Although the lianzuo system was maintained in following dynasties, it gradually accumulated further rules and definitions.

The penalty was later reserved for a small number of crimes, such as rebellions. Married woman were only to be punished for the crimes of her husband's family, not those of her family of birth. Women relatives, grandparents and grandsons would not be killed, but instead suffer some lesser punishment.

Shangguan Wan'er, dubbed as one of "the four most talented women" in ancient China, held a status amounting to that of a woman "prime minister" during the regime of Empress Wu Zetian.

Shangguan's grandfather and father were both important officials, yet both were killed because of her grandfather's opposition to Wu's power grab. Shangguan herself was demoted to a slave together with her mother, but later she won the empress' appreciation.

However, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the family penalty was expanded further, with even more people in danger of being killed for "family" crimes. The death of Fang Xiaoru was one extreme case.

Fang was a top scholar in the country during the early Ming Dynasty. He was executed because of his objection to Zhu Li, who grabbed imperial power by deposing his nephew.

The wrathful emperor not only killed Fang's family and relatives, but also killed his students. The victims in the tragedy totalled more than 800.

The lianzuo system was finally annulled in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1905, yet abolition was not complete.

In the later regime of the Kuomintang, the government also introduced a similar measure in villages in some provinces, registering 10 households as a basic unit, with the 10 families bound together to shoulder each other's responsibilities.

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