1402: Fang Xiaoru, of the ten agnates

Add comment July 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.

Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.

The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains in a monk’s robes.

Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”

Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.

But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.

  1. The criminal himself
  2. His parents
  3. His grandparents
  4. His children (and children’s spouses)
  5. His grandchildren
  6. The criminal’s spouse
  7. The spouse’s parents
  8. The criminal’s aunts and uncles
  9. The criminal’s cousins

We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.

All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.


An execution by “waist severing” delivers what it promises.

* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Power,Treason

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1947: Hisao Tani, for the rape of Nanking

Add comment April 26th, 2017 Headsman

Lieutenant General Hisao Tani was shot on this date in 1947 for his part in the Rape of Nanking.

Tani commanded a division that took part in the conquest and occupation of that Chinese city in 1937, and it was outside its gates — following a Chinese war crimes trial — that he took his leave of this world.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1946: Takashi Sakai

2 comments September 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Japan Gen. Takashi Sakai was shot by the World War II Allies at Nanking for war crimes.

Fifty-eight years old at his death, Sakai had built his career in the 1920s and 1930s manning various commands in the occupation of China.

Hours after Japan struck the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, Sakai commenced an attack on Hong Kong, then under British control but defended with only a token force that had no odds against the Japanese.

Sakai’s forces committed numerous summary executions and other cruelties on troops captured from the overwhelmed garrison before Hong Kong finally surrendered on Christmas Day.

The whole operation was much more protracted and difficult than Japan had anticipated and perhaps as a result Sakai was relieved of responsibility for the (similarly brutal) occupation of Hong Kong, and eased into retirement back on the mainland.

His next visit to China would occur under very different circumstances — where he would find himself obliged to dissociate himself from the atrocities that his men had authored in the capture of the city. His war crimes tribunal was not impressed.

The Tribunal dismissed the accused’s plea that he could not be held responsible for the above violations because they were perpetrated by his subordinates and he had no knowledge of them. The Tribunal’s findings were as follows:

That a field Commander must hold himself responsible for the discipline of his subordinates, is an accepted principle. It is inconceivable that he should not have been aware of the acts of atrocities committed by his subordinates … All the evidence goes to show that the defendant knew of the atrocities committed by his subordinates and deliberately let loose savagery upon civilians and prisoners of war.

The principle that a commander is responsible for the discipline of his subordinates, and that consequently he may be held responsible for their criminal acts if he neglects to undertake appropriate measures or knowingly tolerates the perpetration of offences on their part, is a rule generally accepted by nations and their courts of law in the sphere of the laws and customs of war.

(Conversely, Sakai’s attempt to cite superior orders as defense against charges for his part in initiating the war also got short shrift. So in terms of the chain of command, he got it coming and going.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1864: Li Xiucheng, Taiping Rebellion general

2 comments August 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1864, Qing commander Zeng Guofan had executed his opposite number in the destructive Taiping Rebellion, previously surveyed in these pages.

Stephen Platt‘s acclaimed 2012 history Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War depicts this war along with Li, the illiterate peasant farmer whose brilliance in command flowered as the Taiping undid ossified class hierarchies.

Li’s generalship kept the Taiping in the fight for a long, long time: the war spanned 14 years, with some 20 million estimated killed. In July of 1864 the central government finally overran the rebel capital of Nanking/Nanjing and put that city to a frightful sack. Here’s Platt on Li’s fate:

Zeng Guofan seeded his reports on the fall of Nanjing with fabrications, claiming that a hundred thousand rebel soldiers had been killed in the fighting, inflating the glory of his family and his arm, masking their looting and atrocities against cvilians. He kept careful control over what the cout would know. To that end, from the day he arrived in Nanjing he took over the interrogation of Li Xiucheng for himself. The Hunan Army commanders had already secured a long confession from Li Xiucheng in the weeks since he had been captured — pages upon pages detailing his origins and the history of the war and explaining the tactical decisions he had made, many of which they still did not understand. The honor of beginning the questioning had fallen to Guoquan, who had taken to the job with undisguised relish; his primary tools were an awl and a knife, and he managed to cut a piece out of Li Xiucheng’s arm before the others made him slow down.

When Zeng Guofan took over the interrogations on July 28, at last the two hoary, weatherbeaten commanders in chief of the civil war faced each other in person for the first time: square-shouldered Zeng Guofan on the one side, the weary-eyed scholar, his long beard turning gray;wiry, bespectacled Li Xiucheng on the other, the charcoal maker who had risen to command the armies of a nation. It would be no Appomattox moment, however. There was no wistful air of regret and respect between equals. For the defeated, it was no prelude to reconciliation, to twilight years on a rolling plantation. This war ended not in surrender but in annihilation. Zeng Guofan would spend long hours of the following evenings editing his counterpart’s fifty-thousand-word confession, striking out passages that didn’t paint his own army in a good light and having it copied and bound with thread for submission to the imperial government, before casually ordering Li Xiuceng’s execution — in spite of orders he knew were coming from Beijing, that the rebel general be sent to the Qing capital alive.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1407: Chen Zuyi, Zheng He’s prisoner

6 comments October 21st, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date this month in 1407, a Sumatran pirate was put to death in Nanking (or Nanjing) to the glory of the Yongle Emperor.

The day’s subject is not the corpse, but Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho or Ma Sanbao), the Muslim Chinese eunuch-mariner whose early 15th century expeditions to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond* pointed the way to a sea-striding colonial future that his country turned its back upon.

On the first of Zheng’s seven expeditions, his enormous fleet did battle with Chen Zuyi, whose own substantial armada based in Palembang controlled the strategic Strait of Malacca.

Five thousand pirates are said to have gone to Davy Jones’ locker in Zheng’s victory; his captured enemy got a ride back to the Chinese capital to be made an example of.

But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.

He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time.

Though the pat story of Chinese isolationism might be a tad overstated, hindsight from New World locales with Spanish or English or French names rather than Chinese ones still can’t help but see the aborted age of discovery as a turning point.

An enormous, wealthy, centralized state on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, with the baddest seafaring flotilla around. If you had to pick the world’s probable leading colonial power of the coming centuries, you’d probably have put your money on China in October 1407.

Chen Zuyi sure would have.

* To America ahead of Christopher Columbus? To Italy to launch the Renaissance? To 1955 to inspire Chuck Berry? Hey, whatever pays the bills.

Point. Counterpoint.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Indonesia,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power

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