An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

xiaoshou 梟首, public presentation of an executed criminal's head

Feb 23, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Presentation of the head (xiaoshou 梟首) of an executed person was a capital punishment in ancient China. The expression is derived from the resemblance to an owl (xiao 梟) of a human head attached to ("hanging at") a pole. There was also popular belief that a mother owl, when becoming old and blind, was eaten up by her own breed, until only her skull was left over on the top of a tree.

The heads of delinquents were presented on market places in order to impress or warn the masses (xiao shou shi zhong 梟首示眾). The punishment method was extensively applied under the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE). The rebel Lao Ai 嫪毐, for instance, and his adherents, were punished by this method. It was adapted by the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), but only used for the most serious cases of rebellion of unfilial persons (bu xiao zhe 不孝者). In 130 BCE, for example, when Empress Chen 陳氏 was demoted because of sorcery, her supporters were beheaded and their skulls presented in public. In 90 BCE, Counsellor-in-chief Qu Mao 屈氂 was executed for rebellion by cutting him apart at the waist (yaozhan 腰斬), while his wife was beheaded and her head put on a pole. Qu's body was presented to the public as well (qishi 棄市).

The punishment method was mentioned in the law codes of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420), Jinlü zhu 晉律注 (mentioned in the Tang-period encyclopaediay Beitang shuchao 北堂書鈔) and Lianglü 梁律. The Northern Qi dynasty 北齊 (550-577) knew five grades of capital punishment, of which beheading with ensuing public presentation of the head was in the second position. In the law code of the Northern Zhou dynasty 北周 (557-581), it ranked in the fourth position. The custom was first abolished in 581, but was still applied occasionally thereafter. If was officially reintroduced in the Liao empire 遼 (907-1125) with the term xiaozhe 梟磔 and applied by the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). The official abolition was with the end of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911).

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