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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?

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    Sorry for my English but what meaning of the verb "flay" is meant? Removing the skin or flagellation? – Anixx Apr 14 '15 at 5:22
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    @Anixx Removing the skin. – Semaphore Apr 14 '15 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 Apr 14 '15 at 10:48
  • Is the evidence for Yongle torturing to death 2800 ladies better than for Hongwu and his 5000? – Felix Goldberg Apr 14 '15 at 19:02
  • @FelixGoldberg It's worse. That figure is only found in the Korean The True Record of the Joseon Dynasty. – Semaphore Apr 14 '15 at 23:06
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+100

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.

《俞本·紀事錄》上疑其通外,將婦女五千餘人,俱剝皮貯草以示眾,守門宦者如之

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'. Apr 14 '15 at 7:34
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    @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 Apr 14 '15 at 8:08
  • If this is the case, then presumably the "5000 women" statement is incorrect, unless there's an agenda (e.g. it was 5000 women and 10000 eunuchs, but we only show the first number to be on message with patriarchal=anti-women rather than autocratic=anti-people). – Robert Grant Apr 14 '15 at 13:48
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    @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 Apr 15 '15 at 0:22
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    @Lohoris: "Liaisons" in this context refers to "dating." – Tom Au Apr 15 '15 at 1:04

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