On Wikipedia, there is a snippet that reads:

The Hongwu Emperor flayed many servants, officials and rebels.[5][6] In 1396 he ordered the flaying of 5000 women.[7]

The problem is that the second sentence is the only information I can find about such an episode; the single citation is to a Chinese book:

陈学霖(2001). 史林漫识. China Friendship Publishing Company.

I don't have access to this book (by Hok-lam Chan), and the only English results online go right back to the reference on flaying, so none explain why the execution was performed. Although the lack of references suggests this may be a hoax, it is not out-of-character, as Hongwu and his successor Yongle were both noted for paranoia and cruelty, with the latter torturing 2800 ladies-in-waiting to death.

Can someone with access to the sources check whether this really did happen, and if so what the reason was?

  • 1
    Sorry for my English but what meaning of the verb "flay" is meant? Removing the skin or flagellation?
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 5:22
  • 2
    @Anixx Removing the skin.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 5:45
  • @Anixx - Both, actually - depends on the context :). Flagellation is a very frequent method of achieving that result, therefore people frequently use the term " flay" specifically to refer to whipping until skin is removed (it's the third of 3 meanings in thesaurus). But the original meaning is any skin removal, by any method.
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 10:48
  • Is the evidence for Yongle torturing to death 2800 ladies better than for Hongwu and his 5000? Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 19:02
  • @FelixGoldberg It's worse. That figure is only found in the Korean The True Record of the Joseon Dynasty.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 23:06

1 Answer 1


The claim is sourced from 明興野記, lit. Unofficial Records of the Rise of Ming, by the contemporary Yu Ben. It was originally titled 紀事錄, lit. Chronicles, but a certain Zhang Da Tong later changed it because it wasn't fancy enough. Zhang also inserted some editorialising, especially to defend the emperor, as well as an abstract introducing Yu's work as "credible".

Yu Ben was a veteran from Emperor Hongwu's campaigns to overthrow the Mongols. He joined the future Hongwu Emperor's body guard unit in 1357, and fought under various commanders for the next forty odd years. Consequently, Yu's work is valued as an uncensored first-hand account of the Ming Dynasty's founding.

In this case, Yu reports that the Hongwu Emperor suspected his palace staff of unauthorised liaisons. Therefore, in a characteristic display of paranoia and brutality, he ordered the flaying of more than 5,000 palace servant girls and those eunuchs who were supposed to watch the gates.


His majesty suspected them of liaisons with outsiders, so he ordered over 5,000 women be flayed, stuffed with straws, and put on display. The eunuch gatekeepers met the same fate.

As far as I can tell, there seems to be no other source to corroborate Yu's account. However, his writing is generally considered credible, and this is completely in character for the emperor.

  • What do you mean with "liasons" here?
    – o0'.
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 7:34
  • 5
    @Lohoris They had contact with the outside world. It's not absolutely clear what kind of contact, but in the culture of 男女授受不親 it was kind of presumed to be sexually scandalous.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 8:08
  • 1
    @RobertGrant I'm not sure why you think it's incorrect, but you are being a tad over sensitive if you're serious about that "agenda". I don't know who you mean by "we", but if you think this medieval Confucian soldier-scholar was writing with an "anti-patriarchy" agenda then all I can say is you are not even wrong.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 14:37
  • 2
    @Semaphore - totally off-topic but thanks for the link to Rational Wiki - fascinating! Sorry 5000 servant girls had to be flayed for me to get there!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 0:22
  • 1
    @Lohoris: "Liaisons" in this context refers to "dating."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 1:04

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