Wang Wenshu was a prominent government official who filled various high-ranking law enforcement roles in the late 2nd century BCE. He served Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), who deployed the official on an as-needed basis to regions or positions that the emperor felt had been infested by crime or conspiracy. Wherever Weng Wenshu was appointed, a bloodbath of executions usually followed, driven by the official’s unusually high arrest rates and the merciless ancient Chinese legal codes that determined the fates of his prisoners.
Weng Wenshu’s prowess as a crime fighter largely derived from his innovations in the use of tip lines and informants. Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a historian employed by Emperor Wu, commented on some of Weng Wenshu’s simpler methods, stating, “He put out boxes in which people could deposit accusations and reports of crimes, for which the accusers would receive a reward, and set up chiefs in villages and rural communities to watch for and arrest bandits” (Shi Ji, 122). Besides these watchmen and tip boxes, Weng Wenshu developed his own brand of crime eradication by recruiting vulnerable criminals to implicate their colleagues, employers, and contacts in crimes. In regards to these criminal informants, the aforementioned Sima Qian claimed that Weng Wenshu “ferreted out all of their secret crimes, but overlooked what he had found and put them in charge of capturing the bandits in the region. So long as they did as he wished and brought in the bandits he wanted captured, he did not press charges against them, even though they might be guilty of 100 crimes” (Shi Ji, 122). Through the use of these knowledgeable informants, Weng Wenshu could quickly piece together a network of the criminal activities and enterprises that were going on in the regions that he was governing. Intelligence was only one aspect of his law enforcement process, however, for he also was said to have used beatings and torture to interrogate the people that he arrested. With his informant-driven information and his torture-inspired confessions, Weng Wenshu was able to present compelling (but not necessarily accurate) lists of accused criminals to his employer, Emperor Wu.
The most famous, or infamous, mass trial and sentencing that Weng Wenshu carried out occurred when he was serving as the governor of Henei. As the story goes, the governor’s methods of tips, informants, and interrogations led to 1,000 individual families in that region being implicated in varying degrees of crimes. When the names were presented to the throne, Weng Wenshu reportedly recommended a sentence of execution for every single person on the list. Criminals accused of lesser crimes would face execution alone, but for the criminals guilty of the highest crimes, Weng Wenshu suggested that their entire families be put to death, too. Perhaps most enticing of all to the emperor, however, was a proposal from Weng Wenshu that whether or not the relatives of the criminal were executed along with their loved one, the properties of the condemned should all be seized by the crown. These recommendations and the emperor’s response were recorded by Sima Qian:
“He sent a letter to the throne asking that the major offenders be executed along with the members of their families, the lesser offenders put to death, and all their estates confiscated by the government to compensate for the illegal gains which they had gotten in the past. He forwarded the letter by means of the post horses he had stationed along the way, and in no more than two or three days an answer came back from the emperor approving his proposal. He proceeded to carry out the sentence at once, and the blood flowed for miles” (Shi Ji, 122).
There is no telling how many people were executed in that mass-execution. At the minimum, 1,000 people would have been sentenced to death on Weng Wenshu’s list from Henei. For those who were deemed to have committed major crimes, their families were also executed, a grim punishment that was often extended to three generations of the accused criminal’s clan. Ironically, Weng Wenshu would eventually join many of his victims in sharing the fate of a mass execution. Around 104 BCE, after being discovered attempting to help a friend evade conscription into the poorly orchestrated military campaign against the Kingdom of Dayuan (in the Ferghana valley area near modern Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan), Weng Wenshu came under investigation and was sentenced to execution. He took his own life, but it did not spare his family. Weng Wenshu’s father, mother, wife, two brothers, and all relatives of each of these five people were executed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting described as General Yue Fei’s son, Yue Yun, being taught fighting techniques in his sleep, dated 18th or 19th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Warsaw).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.