The Tang Penalty

Brief introduction

The Tang Penalty was the general name of the Shang Dynasty law, because it was named after Tang in honor of the founding monarch, Tang.

According to “Zuo Zhuan – Zhao Gong 6 years”, “Shang had a chaotic government, and made Tang punishment”, it is known that it was made because there was a chaotic government in the country, mainly to suppress slaves or civilians who rebelled against the regulations. However, the Chronicle of the Bamboo Book says: “In the twenty-fourth year of Zu Jia, the Tang punishment was re-made”, which shows that although the Tang punishment was made, it was not published. This is because both slave owners and nobles thought: “If the punishment is unknowable, the power is unpredictable”.

It was later used by the court at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty. Xunzi also advocated that “the name of punishment should be from Shang”. The main form of Tang punishment is customary law, according to the test has not been published in the written book of punishment, the punishment extended with the Xia five punishment and some gains and losses, its details are difficult to determine.

The Tang punishment

During the reign of Pan Geng, he found that the reason for the nobles’ reluctance to move was because the reigning ministers were not right in their words and deeds, so he decided to rectify the legal system at that time by using the code handed down from the previous king.

During Zu Jia’s reign, he also revised the “Tang Penal Code”. According to the Chronicle of the Bamboo Book, “In the twenty-fourth year of Zu Jia’s reign, he reworked the Tang Penal Code”, and this revision made the Tang Penal Code more complete.

According to the documentary record, the “Tang Punishment” was a basic law of the Shang Dynasty, which was applied throughout the Shang Dynasty. Since the “Tang Punishment” has been lost, its content cannot be examined.

The Book of Shang, as quoted in Lü’s Spring and Autumn Period – Filial Conduct, says: “The punishment is 300, and the most serious crime is unfiliality.” In the Eastern Han dynasty, Gao Bo notes, “The law made by Shang Tang is also.” That is to say, according to the legend, the “Tang Punishment” formulated by Shang Tang had as many as 300 articles, and the most serious one was the crime of “unfiliality”.


The emergence of the state marked the establishment of a new society, and to maintain this order, there is a need for a complete legal system. As a result, customary law, formed by the customs of some primitive societies, eventually developed into a codified code of laws. There are many legal systems, but criminal laws play an important role among them, and the “Tang Penalty” is an important criminal law promulgated in the Shang Dynasty.

When we talk about the Tang Penal Code, we have to talk about the Yu Penal Code. The Zuo Zhuan says: “The Xia had a chaotic government, and made the Yu punishment; the Shang had a chaotic government, and made the Tang punishment.” The “Yu Punishment” is the general name of the laws of the Xia Dynasty, named after Yu. It is said that this law of the Xia Dynasty had as many as three thousand articles. It initially established the names of five kinds of punishments, mainly customary law, namely, dapu (killing the head), wakes (cutting the nose), gong (mutilating reproductive organs and destroying reproductive functions), amputation (breaking the feet), and ink (cutting open the upper forehead and filling it with black). We do not know much about the content of the “Yu Punishment” because of the lack of historical data.

The Shang Dynasty, which succeeded the Xia, established a criminal law at the beginning of the state, namely the Tang Penalty. This law, which was made by Tang in the capital city of Xi Bo, was revised during the time of Zu Jia. It was a penal code for slavery in its infancy, a codified law.

The “Tang Penal Code” is a successor and development of the “Yu Penal Code” in terms of legislative ideology. The Tang Penal Code contains 300 articles of crimes, and the most serious one is unfiliality. As Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals says, “Of the three hundred crimes, the most serious is unfilial piety. To a certain extent, this began to pay attention to the mutual reference between “ritual” and “punishment” represented by “filial piety”.

People used to think that the “Tang Punishment” was mainly a tool for slave owners to oppress their slaves, which was actually a misunderstanding. The greatest threat to the earliest rulers of the Shang dynasty was not the slaves, but the slave owners, large and small. Therefore, an important part of the content of the “Tang Punishment” was actually the official punishment, that is, the “Tang Punishment” was mainly applied to officials at all levels. The Zuo Zhuan records this: “His constant dancing in the palace is called witch wind.” It means that if the officials indulged in singing and dancing, the official style was not correct and they should be punished.

In the Xia Dynasty, there was already a special prison for prisoners. Xia Jie had imprisoned Shang Tang in Xia Tai (also called Jun Tai, in the territory of Yuzhou City, Henan Province), which was a prison directly managed by the Xia king.

The Shang dynasty inherited the prison system of the Xia dynasty and forced the imprisoned prisoners to serve hard labor. The punishment prescribed in the “Tang Penalty” was so cruel that if someone discarded ashes on the fair, he was to have his hands chopped off. This punishment was intensified by King Zhou, the fallen king of the Shang Dynasty, and the documented punishment of cannon branding, for example, literally sends shivers down one’s spine.

Xunzi, a thinker during the Warring States period, advocated that “the name of the punishment should follow that of Shang”, which illustrates the significant influence of the “Tang Punishment” in history.

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