Bronze cart model provides insight into ancient Chinese criminal punishment

Updated: Dec 5, 2023 Print
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The box-shaped six-wheeled bronze cart adorned with a criminal with a severed left foot guarding a garden for keeping animals, Spring and Autumn Period, from the collection of the Shanxi Museum [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Shanxi Museum]

Dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), the cart, likely crafted as a toy for the aristocracy, exhibits an ingeniously designed mechanism and intricate bronze casting craftsmanship.

It features a boxy body and six wheels. At the center of the cart’s top face, there is a monkey-shaped handle, surrounded by four small birds, each filled with lead and mounted on a fixed axis. When the handle is lifted, the surface can be opened along its median, and the birds rotate as a result of the gravitational pull.

Four beasts cling to the four corners of the cart, and a small door is set on the rear side, with a keeper standing beside it. He is naked, with a severed left foot, holding a cane in his left hand for support. The door latch passes under his right armpit. Apart from the two large cartwheels, two crouching tigers are positioned to hold the four smaller wheels within their bellies.

The bronze cart serves as a significant confirmation of the historical penalty of punishing criminals by severing their feet so that they could guard gardens in which aristocrats kept animals, as recorded in the Rites of Zhou.

Excavated from a tomb of the Shangguo site, Wenxi county, Shanxi province, in 1989, the cart is now in the permanent collection of the Shanxi Museum.

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