Teaching Module

Ancient China

Legal and Political Status of the Infant [Legal Text]


This Qin-dynasty legal text (c. 217 BCE), written on bamboo strips, was excavated in China in 1975. According to Qin law, men guilty of killing children born to them were punished by becoming wall builders; the equivalent punishment for women was servitude as grain pounders. Next to the death sentence, these were most drastic forms of penal servitude. In addition, those found guilty were subject to mutilation through tattooing. The Qin law cited likely condemns killing or abandoning infants because these practices rob the state or some other proprietor of a child that is its due. This attitude is revealed in the Qin law that prohibited exposure and infanticide in cases where the infant was healthy, but permitted the disposal of deformed infants who would be of no future use to the state. The principal concern is not for the protection of individual rights but for the maintenance of a useful population, a human pool the emperor could rightfully tap for his army, farming and weaving enterprises, and treasury.

It is possible that the Shuihudi text may also specify that leaving a child to die was considered to be as culpable as actively killing it. This distinction is an important one, since early Chinese texts reveal that in addition to killing unwanted newborns, parents often abandoned infants. “Not to lift it up" may be understood to mean that the parent has dispensed with the ritual lifting up of the child whereby the child is formally acknowledged as a family member. Not lifting a child, then, means leaving it unattended to die rather than actively killing it.

The moral conflict inherent in abandonment in early China is often portrayed as one of competing familial directives. By rejecting a child, the head of the family could provide for older family members and the children he has decided to raise. In that way he can glorify his ancestors through the prosperity and high social standing that one less child will make possible. A child's gender also figured in the process of assessing the future impact of a newborn on the family's status. According to traditional thought, girls contributed to their husband's rather than their father's patrilineage, so female infants were perceived as extraneous, as weakening the prosperity of their natal families.

It is useful to point out that there may be nothing intrinsically "natural" in the West's current abhorrence of child abandonment. One finds a similarly casual attitude toward abandonment in early Western history. According to Confucian views, which prevailed in all dynasties that followed the Qin, the tendency to blame the ruler for the crimes of the common people committed under conditions of economic hardship fostered a more tolerant attitude toward the practice of abandonment and infanticide.


Kinney, Anne, trans. Based on Hulsewé, A.F.P, Remnants of Ch'in Law: An Annotated Translation of the Ch'in Legal and Administrative Rules of the 3rd Century B.C. Discovered in Yun-meng Prefecture, Hu-pei Province, in 1975. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985, 139. Chinese source: "Falü dawen." In Shuihudi Qinmu zhujian. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990, 109-10 (strips 69-70). Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

Unauthorizedly to kill a child is punishable by tattooing and being made a wall builder or a grain-pounder. When a child is newly born and its body is deformed or not whole, to kill it is not to be considered a crime. If when a child is born and the child's body is whole and not deformed--merely for the reason that one has too many children and does not wish that it should live, and consequently not to lift it up but to kill it, how is this to be sentenced? This is (a case of) killing a child.

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).