Last month, a court ruled that 121 households in an apartment block in Sichuan province were responsible for the death of a baby in November 2016. The girl, just under a year old, was killed by a metal ball that fell from the building, but the perpetrator was never found. Her parents sued everyone in the block and the court ordered each household to pay a fine of 3,000 yuan (US$440) in compensation to the family. Such collective punishments are rare nowadays but were common in the past. Collective punishment is most associated with the state of Qin during the Warring States Period (475-221BC) and the subsequent Qin dynasty (221-206BC). The adoption of its harsh provisions were among the sweeping reforms implemented by the legalist thinker Shang Yang (390-338BC), and covered all aspects of Qin politics, society and economy, ultimately helping to make Qin the strongest state that unified a fragmented Chinese nation. The Qin’s collective punishment applied to everyone: government officials, military men and the common people all suffered its severe punitive consequences. Even members of the aristocracy and nobility were not spared; only the king, and, later, the emperor, were exempted. An official who committed a capital crime would be executed together with members of three families that were related to him. There are different interpretations of which three families these were. They could the families of the official’s father, mother and son; or the families of his father, brother and son. In subsequent centuries, this principle expanded to include members of nine families. Officials who reported the crimes of their superiors would be rewarded with the latter’s rank and pay, but those who were found to have made false accusations would be severely penalised. Later on, collective punishments of individual officials would also extend to their subordinates. For heinous crimes, the staff of entire bureaus could be executed, but ordinarily they would be demoted or dismissed for a lesser misdemeanour. The smallest units in the Qin army were squads of five men. If one behaved in a way that could jeopardise the unit, the army or the state – such as cowardice in battle, desertion, treason, and so on – the other four comrades would also be punished. As organisations where hierarchy and conformity are held in the highest regard, and where the suppression of individualism is deemed necessary, military units all over the world still implement collective punishment as a means to instil discipline. Entire platoons receiving physical punishments for an individual soldier’s lapse in judgment is a familiar film trope, and I speak from personal experience that it is not all fiction. It was the harsh application of collective punishment on the common people that was the hallmark of the Qin regime, and its implementation on an increasingly resentful populace was one of the reasons for the Qin’s downfall. Commoners’ households were organised along military lines, in groups of fives and tens, and they were duty-bound to spy on their immediate neighbours and inform the authorities of their illicit activities. If they failed to report their criminal neighbours, or when no one in the neighbourhood confessed to a crime committed, then all were assumed to be complicit and punished together. The principle of joint familial culpability was also applied to the common people. However, if one family member ratted on another, the former would be pardoned if the latter was found guilty. This form of state terrorism was thankfully dismantled after the fall of the Qin dynasty, in 206BC, but collective punishment remained in place for members of the official class for the next two millennia, at times to cataclysmic effect when hundreds of individuals would be executed for the crime committed by one.