Caning is a physical punishment (see that article for generalities and alternatives) consisting of a number of hits (known as "strokes" or "cuts") with a wooden cane, generally applied to the bare or clad buttocks (see spanking), shoulders, hand(s) (palm, rarely knuckles) or the soles of the feet (foot whipping). The size and flexibility of the cane itself and the number and mode of application of the strokes (usually more numerous and faster when wielding a light, flexible cane) vary significantly.

Scope of use

Caning was a common punishment in many parts of Middle East & Africa, Asia and Europe and several European colonies in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but has now been banned in most developed countries. It is often considered a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment within the meaning of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, but remains legal in numerous nations.

In some countries, caning is or was used as a judicial punishment for juveniles and in some cases for adults, but it is perhaps best known as a method of educational discipline in schools or at home. The western use of the cane dates principally to the late nineteenth century, when educationalists sought to replace birching - effective only if applied to the bare flesh - with a form of punishment more suited to contemporary sensibilities. The cane, if applied expertly, transmits much pain even through layers of clothing.

Judicial use

Judicial caning, carried out with a long, heavy rattan and generally much more severe than the canings given in schools, was a feature of some British colonial judicial systems, and in some cases is still in use in the post-independence era, particularly in south-east Asia (where it is now being used far more than it was under British rule) and in some African countries. The practice is retained in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (but not Thailand); in Indonesia it was introduced only recently in the special case of Aceh, on Sumatra, which since its 2005 autonomy has introduced a form of shariah, applying the cane to the clothed upper back in keeping with Muslim rules of modesty. African countries still using judicial caning include Botswana, Tanzania, Nigeria and for juvenile offenders, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Other countries that used it until the late 20th century included Kenya and South Africa, while some Caribbean countries such as Trinidad and Tobago use birching, another traditional punishment in the Commonwealth tradition, which use a bundle of branches, not a single cane.

In Singapore, healthy males under 50 years of age can be sentenced to a maximum of 24 strokes of the rotan (rattan) cane on the bare buttocks; the punishment is mandatory for over 30 offenses, mostly violent or drug crimes, but also some immigration violations, sexual offences and acts of vandalism. It is also imposed for certain breaches of prison rules. The punishment is also applied to foreigners, despite controversy in the West.

Two examples which received intense media scrutiny are the canings in Singapore in 1994 of Michael P. Fay, an American student who had vandalised several automobiles, and in the UAE in 1996 of Sarah Balabagan, a Filipina maid convicted of homicide.

Educational use in home and school context

The frequency and severity of canings in educational settings have varied greatly, often being determined by the written rules or unwritten traditions of the school. The western educational use of the cane dates principally to the late nineteenth century, in order to replace birching - which is only effective if applied to the bare flesh - with a form of punishment more suitable to contemporary sensibilities. For example, in some schools corporal punishment was administered solely by the headmaster, but in many English and Commonwealth private schools authority to punish was also given to other staff and even certain senior students (often called prefects). A typical punishment in an English primary school in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century consisted of one or two strokes on the hand. In many secondary schools in England and Wales it was in use, mainly for boys and only infrequent for girls, until the early 1980s, while elsewhere other implements prevailed, such as the Scottish tawse. In this setting it was more often administered to the clothed buttocks, typically with the student bent over a desk or chair, and usually with a maximum of six "strokes" (known as "six of the best"). Such a caning sometimes left a student with weals and bruises, making it painful to sit down for days after the caning. This kind of school punishment for boys is still quite standard in a number of formerly British territories including Singapore, Malaysia and Zimbabwe. It had also been very common in Australia (abolished in the 80's), New Zealand (abolished 1990) and South Africa (abolished 1995).

In Malaysia, although the Education Ordinance 1957 specifically outlaws the caning of girls in school, the caning of girls, usually on the palm is still rather common, especially in primary schools but also occasionally in secondary schools. On 28 November 2007, due to perceived increased indiscipline among female students, the National Seminar on Education Regulations (Student Discipline) passed a resolution to allow the caning of female students at school. The resolution is currently in its consultation process.

The cane was also used more or less frequently on boy inmates at the British reformatories, which were known from 1933 to 1980 as Approved Schools.

Voluntary use

Caning is also a more severe but not uncommon sadomasochistic practice. In nineteenth century France it was dubbed "The English Vice", as it was believed that the English, in particular, derived sexual pleasure from corporal punishment, probably because of its widespread use in British schools. This term is still in occasional use.

'Night of the Cane', a national celebration of the art of caning is held each year in East London.

Cane types and terminology

Canes can be manufactured for disciplinary purpose in different sizes and weights, determining the potential severity of the punishment. The main types are often known by the age groups of intended victims, especially in the domestic context:

'Light' canes (about 8 mm in diameter and 60 cm long, according to some sources) are called junior canes, normally considered sufficient to punish young school children (except sometimes for the gravest offenses), and hence also known as school cane. However, in America, where the paddle took the place of the cane for discipline, the name junior cane was rather given to a ceremonial walking stick students parade with.

These terms are commonly used with reference to canes and caning:

The different varieties of rattan used are sometimes preferred because of their intrinsic severity. Of these, the common kooboo is considered lighter (if the same size) than the denser Dragon Canes; other common types bear geographical names such as Malacca (a peninsular Malaysian state) and Palembang (a city on Sumatra, Indonesia).

For misbehaving children in Asia, most parents rather use available objects such as a wooden ruler or the handle end of a feather duster, which is usually made of narrow bamboo-like material, metal rods and coat hangers, which can often cause severe bruising to the buttocks.

In some spheres the cane, which is typically used by a certain disciplinarian, is commonly called after him. Thus in the Royal Navy the ''bosun's cane'' was frequently used on the backsides of boys without ceremony (as opposed to publicly 'kissing the gunner's daughter', a formal bare bottom flogging on deck ordered by the captain or a court martial, usually involving birch or cat o' nine tails) on the spot or in the gun room, for daily offenses (at least one mid 19th-century captain had every single junior boy given six cane strokes every morning on various pretexts! ) considered too insignificant to require written formalities or orders from an officer (who certainly could and routinely also did order the cane, actually wielding it was considered unsuitable for a gentleman), but more severe than the bimmy. The cane in the hands of a corporal (especially of the Marines on board many fighting ships, often ordered to carry out formal punishment of crew members as well) was called stonnacky. In an attempt to standardize the canes (but the effective wielding is impossible to capture in written rules) the Admiralty had specimens according to all prevailing prescriptions, called patterned cane (and birch), kept in every major dockyard.

In ancient China, suspects or criminals were often caned, as punishment or interrogation, with large sticks or planks the size of an oar suited for today's small sailing boats. The victim usually bleeds from the wound at the buttocks, can get infections if not treated instantly and generally must spend days in bed.


Caning with a heavy judicial rattan of the Singapore/Malaysia kind can leave scars for years, especially where a large number of strokes are inflicted. However, this should not be confused with an ordinary caning with a typical light rattan (as formerly in English schools), which although the recipient would find extremely painful at the time, he would not be left with such long lasting physical scars.

See also