An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

yaozhan 腰斬, cutting in two at the waist

Jan 21, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Cutting persons in two at the waist (yaozhan 腰斬, occasionally written 要斬) was a corporal punishment in ancient China. It was already applied in pre-imperial times and is mentioned in the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 (part Qiuguan 秋官, ch. Zhangliao 掌戮), where it is said that delinquents were executed with an iron axe (tieyue 鐵鋮). The execution method was therefore also called tiezhi 鐵鑕, tieyue 鐵鉞 or fuyue 斧鉞. The glossary Shiming 釋名 from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) likewise mentions this execution method, and it is referred to in the Classic Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 (Zhaogong 昭公 25). The biography of Confucius in the universal history Shiji 史記 points at a case in 500 BCE, when obstreperous vassals (yinghuo zhuhou 熒惑諸侯) were executed in way that "hand and feet [were found] in different places" (shou yu yi chu 手足異處).

In order to absorb the stroke with the axe, the centre of the body of the delinquent was posed on a special wooden board (zhenzhi 椹質).

The punishment was extensively applied in the regional state of Qin 秦 and during the reign of Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE) over the whole of China. The biography of Shang Yang 商鞅 (c. 390-338 BCE) in the Shiji explains that the punishment was applied for people not reporting plan of insubordination (bu gao jian zhe 不告奸者). Counsellor-in-chief Li Si 李斯 (d. 208 BCE) ordered to carry out this execution method in the market place of the capital Xianyang 咸陽. The Han dynasty adopted the punishment by cutting at the waist for the execution of rebels like Luan Da 侯欒 (d. 112 BCE), Tian Ren 田仁 (d. 91 BCE) or Qu Mao 屈氂 (d. 90 BCE). During the period of division, only the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581) used this execution method. The statecraft encyclopaedia Tang liudian 唐六典 reports that Cui Hao 崔浩 (381-450) of the Northern Wei empire fixed four types of death penalty (dapi 大辟), namely dismembering persons by several carts (huan 轘, chelie 車裂), cutting in two at the waist (yaozhan 腰斬), beheading (shusi 殊死), and execution on the market place with ensuing presentation of the corpse or just of the head (qishi 棄市, xiaoshou 梟首).

The Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) abolished it, but it was occasionally used during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) and was applied regularly by the Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125). In 965, it was finally abolished.

Jiang Yonglin 姜永琳 (1990). "Yaozhan 腰斬", in Tang Chunxi 楊春洗 et al., eds. Xingshi faxue da cidian 刑事法學大辭書 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 597.
Wang Zhaotang 王召棠, Chen Pengsheng 陳鵬生, eds. (1988). Jianming fazhishi cidian 簡明法制史詞典 (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe), 84.
Wu Shuchen 武樹臣, ed. (1999). Zhongguo chuantong falü wenhua cidian 中國傳統法律文化辭典 (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe), 124.