The Nuts and Bolts of Redemption

Sima Qian (146-86 BC)

The great Chinese historian Sima Qian became a eunuch at age 46. After disputing the emperor’s criticism of a military officer, Sima Qian was sentenced to castration at the Inner Palace Office.

However, there was one possible recourse: Sima Qian could offset his crime for 20 liang (approx. 310g) of gold.

Chinese legal records have a term for this transaction: 贖 (shú), or redemption. Payment is voluntary, because it’s a choice to atone for your sins. This is different from a fine (罰 ), which implies coercion. Even the death penalty could be “redeemed” for 620 grams of gold.

Paying your way out of castration doesn’t seem like an elective transaction, but the goal was to make redemption seem accessible, even if not always affordable. Sadly, Sima Qian could not afford to redeem his crime1.

Ancient Chinese wealth transfers placed strong emphasis on noncompulsion. The earliest documented tax system (ca. 2070 BC) was called 貢 (gòng), which means “gift”. Citizens were expected to volunteer contributions to the government as an expression of gratitude. This stands in contrast to the early Germanic system of weregild, where a debt was imposed under threat of state-sponsored violence.

Weregild is supposed to feel coercive, because punishment deters misbehavior. It’s like the angry Old Testament God versus the compassionate New Testament God. Except that here, the difference between coercion and persuasion is entirely a function of wealth. Big banks have billion-dollar litigation reserves: They knowingly do bad things, they’ve done it often enough to know the price for getting caught, and their lawyers and accountants can perform a cost-benefit analysis before engaging in criminal behavior. For rich people, a financial penalty is like paying for indulgences.

For the less well-off, even an accusation is coercive.

Two years ago, a judge in Alabama gave criminal offenders a choice between donating blood or paying a fine. It was a clever homage to the origins of blood money! But the judge was suspended after the SPLC filed a complaint: Most of the criminal defendants were indigent, thus the blood donations constituted extortion.

For whatever reason, our society deems it necessary to give poor people fewer choices, not more. And if the lower class is forced to accept compulsory fines, then we should make it look like rich people are being forced into them too. Or at least their shareholders are. The only difference between extortion and bribery is marketing.

1. To put numbers in perspective: The average laborer earned about eight copper coins per day, and one liang of gold represented 72 days’ work.

See Also:
Anthony J. Barbieri-Low and Robin D.S. Yates. Law, State, and Society in Early Imperial China, 2015.

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