This article reconstructs the origins, typology and implications of extrajudicial incarceration as a political phenomenon during the Cultural Revolution. It analyses the “cowshed” based on its various founders and functions at different stages of the Cultural Revolution, and argues that the Party committees, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the revolutionary committees, i.e. the arms of the state, played a role no less significant than student Red Guards in confining and torturing innocent people. The article emphasises that the cowshed was distinct for its pervasive, decentred, arbitrary and spontaneous characteristics; however, the exertion of direct popular justice without formal intermediation in China was an alternative form of state violence through outsourcing the state power.