A woman shot four of her elderly relatives with a gun in Quarry Bay Park in Hong Kong last month, in an attack that left two dead and two wounded. The news was shocking not only because gun violence of this kind is rare in Hong Kong, a city with very strict laws regulating the possession of firearms, but also because in a Chinese society such as Hong Kong, the family is sacrosanct. Having said that, the Chinese are not exactly strangers to intra-family bloodletting, especially when a great deal is at stake.

Unlike the recent incident, apparently over an HK$8 million flat in Hong Kong, the rewards in the past usually involved a bigger prize: the throne.

Filial piety: does every parent deserve it?

Shangchen was the eldest son and heir apparent of King Cheng of Chu, a powerful state that controlled large swathes of central and southern China. In the year 626BC, when Shangchen heard that his father wanted to strip him of his title and name one of his brothers heir apparent, he had his father’s compound surrounded by palace guards and demanded that he take his own life.

Hoping to buy time to allow troops loyal to him to come to his rescue, Cheng requested a final meal of bear’s paw, a delicacy in ancient China. “It is difficult to prepare bear’s paws, cooking them takes a long time,” his son replied, and Cheng hung himself there and then. Having as good as murdered his own father, Shangchen ascended the throne and ruled Chu for the next 12 years.

But it was not just parents who were killed for the throne, and although the idea of murdering one’s own child is deeply disturbing, especially if that child is an infant, it is even more repugnant when a mother kills her own child simply to further her political ambitions.

In AD654, a favourite consort of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang dynasty gave birth to a baby girl. Empress Wang, the emperor’s principal wife, visited the newborn and spent time playing with her. After she left, the consort, who was a fierce rival of the empress and coveted her position, killed her one-month-old daughter and framed Wang for the murder.

Empress Wang was demoted and later died a painful and grisly death. The filicidal consort went on to become, in AD690, the only woman who ruled the Chinese empire as a reigning empress and was known in history as Wu Zetian

There are doubts as to veracity of this account, but given that, in the four decades or so that she ruled or helped rule China, Wu killed and persecuted her children, grandchildren, their spouses, her siblings, nephews and so on, it is not inconceivable that she murdered her own infant daughter.

Despite these and many more examples in the history books, the killing of members of one’s own family remains sufficiently rare for us to react with shock and dismay at its occurrence, which is just as it should be.