For what reasons were people imprisoned in Tang Dynasty China and what were conditions like for them?
Being sent to prison is something to be avoided for everyone; being sent to prison in China would be the stuff of nightmares for most. Yet the tradition of imprisonment in China is not necessarily one of punishment or misery. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), most prisons – and there were nearly 2,000 of them, albeit most of them small enough that only a few prisoners could be incarcerated at any one time – were simply places to hold suspects after they had been arrested and before their sentence, if any, was passed. The punishments involved usually did not involve prison sentences so much as corporal punishment, fines or forced labour.
The prisons themselves were made from three stone walls, which remained in place, together with one wooden wall which also functioned as a door. It seems that it would not be too difficult to escape and that is the reason why prisoners had to wear chains, wooden fetters or the clangue – two wooden planks with a semi-circular hole cut in each so that the two could be fastened around the prisoner’s neck – he or she would then find it very difficult to move around, pass through or a doorway or to avoid immediate identification as a prisoner. Complex regulations established which categories of people were required to wear which kind of fetters. Pregnant women, prisoners of 80 years or older and people designated as “dwarfs” were among those who were free from wearing any kinds of chains or clangue, for example. Additional regulations laid out who would be located where inside the prison, since segregation kept men and women and rich and poor apart in various ways.
Then as now, relatives were expected to feed prisoners since the state did not provide free food or, indeed, free anything. Some wives were reduced to begging or prostitution to support their husbands who were kept in prison for extended periods. Prisoners were forbidden to own anything which might be used to bribe guards or assist in an escape: gold, weapons, pens, paper and alcohol all fell into this category. Boredom must have been a problem as much as anything else.
The crimes for which people could be arrested and held in prison are in most part familiar to those which still apply in the twenty-first century: acts of violence or theft, indebtedness or fraudulent behaviour, for example. The worst of crimes were the so-called Ten Abominations and most of these related to threatening the health or wealth of the emperor in some way. Then as now, the law was one of the means used to keep the poor in their place.
For more details, see Charles Benn’s China s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty.