2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Xi-chengdan-chong: A Fresh Examination of Terms of Servitude during the Qin and Han Dynasties

Yi-Fei You

Department of History, National Taiwan University

This article argues that the phrase “xi-chengdan-chong” (繫城旦舂), which appears in the Han legal codes, universally refers to finite terms of servitude, as opposed to lifetime servitude implied by the term “chengdan-chong” (城旦舂).  Evidence from sources heretofore largely overlooked will be examined to address several important questions relating to terms of servitude in the Qin and Han periods.  “Xi-chengdan-chong” appears in three different circumstances in the Qin and Han codes.  The first refers to using a limited term of manual labor to compensate for some monetary fine or labor that a convicted criminal was unable to afford.  This was not only a boon for the impecunious, but also a valuable source of labor for the government.  The second refers to an adjusted sentence, adopted in order to accommodate the differing severity of punishments between the Qin and the Han.  Adjusted sentencing accurately reflects the most important function of “xi-chengdan-chong.”  The third usage is as a general term for this kind of sentence, employed in order to define the relative degree of the above two meanings of “xi-chengdan-chong” collectively when compared with other punishments.  Its use as a general term codified the phrase as the name for a specific sentence and signified the overall trend in the Han codes toward a system of limited terms of servitude.

Before the legal reforms of the Western Han Emperor Wen, sentences of lifetime servitude and terms of servitude existed synchronously without conflict.  Therefore, the wholesale elimination of lifetime servitude brought about by the Wen Emperor’s reforms represented quite a sharp break with the criminal codes of the past.  During the Eastern Han, frontier exile (徙邊) was established as the second most severe punishment, after only execution, a precedent to which the Five Levels of Criminal Sentencing (五刑) in the Tanglü (唐律) can be traced.  The effects of the establishment of terms of servitude were far-reaching and remain an important topic in the history of Chinese legal institutions.


Keywords: xi-chengdan-chong, imprisonment {????}, terms of servitude, Western Han Emperor Wen, Qin and Han legal systems, Shuihudi-Qinlü, Zhangjiashan “Legal Text of Year 2”