The penal law of Marquis Lü (Lüxing 呂刑) is known from a chapter of the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents". The chapter dates from the time of King Mu 周穆王 (trad. r. 1001-947) of the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) and refers to the Minister of Law (sikou 司寇), a certain Marquis of Lü. The latter's suggestions were adapted by the king, in order to have a tighter control over his officials and the regional rulers.
The law was an expansion of earlier texts, allegedly dating as far back as the Xia period 夏 (21th - 17th cent. BCE).
|五刑之疑有赦，五罰之疑有赦，其審克之！簡孚有眾，惟貌有稽。無簡不聽，具嚴天威。||When there are doubts as to the infliction of any of the five punishments, that infliction should be forborne. When there are doubts as to the infliction of any of the five fines, it should be forborne. Do you examine carefully, and overcome every difficulty. When you have examined, and many things are clear, yet form a judgment from studying the appearance of the parties. If you find nothing on examination, do not listen to this case any more. In everything stand in awe of the dread of the majesty of Heaven.|
|墨辟疑赦，其罰百鍰，閱實其罪。劓辟疑赦，其罪惟倍，閱實其罪。剕辟疑赦，其罰倍差，閱實其罪。宮辟疑赦，其罰六百鍰，閱實其罪。大辟疑赦，其罰千鍰，閱實其罪。||When in a doubtful case the infliction of branding is forborne, the punishment of branding (mo 墨) is forborne, the fine to be laid on instead is a hundred huan 鍰 (i.e. 600 ounces of copper); but you must first have satisfied yourselves as to the crime. When the case would require the cutting off the nose (yi 劓), the fine must be double this - with the same careful determination of the crime. When the punishment would be the cutting off the feet (fei 剕), the fine must be (3,000 ounces) - with the same careful determination of the crime. When the punishment would be castration (gong 宮), the fine must be 600 huan (3m600 ounces) - with the same determination. When the punishment would be death (dapi 大辟), the fine must be 1,000 huan (6000 ounces) - with the same determination.|
|墨罰之屬千。劓罰之屬千，剕罰之屬五百，宮罰之屬三百，大辟之罰其屬二百。五刑之屬三千。||Of crimes that may be redeemed by the fine in lieu of branding there are 1,000; and the same number of those that would otherwise-incur cutting off the nose. The fine in lieu of cutting off the feet extends to 500 cases; that in lieu of castration, to 300; and that in lieu of death, to 200. Altogether, set against the five punishments, there are 3,000 crimes.|
Transl. Legge (1865).
The basic method of government and administration was still a kind of "moral education" (dejiao 德教), for which reason the application of penal matters was deliberated very seriously before pronouncing a judgment. The spirit of benevolence was also seen in the tendency to use harsh penalties only in the most serious cases. The old regulations for the death penalty were therefore reduced from 500 articles to 200. As a further alleviation, the king allowed to buy oneself free from punishment (see shuzui 贖罪), and for this purpose, detailed amounts of gold serving as fines (fajin 罰金) were recorded. Yet this mode of commutation was only applicable in case of doubt.
A particular paragraph was dedicated to the five misdoings (wu guo zhi ci 五過之疵) of state officials, namely the abuse of power, private grudge, female solicitation, bribery, or "lobbying". All of these were to be punished severely. Even if the verdicts were extremely harsh according to modern standards, the codification of the law and the enforcement of a kind of lawsuit made law of these times more reliable and constitutional.