Death by a thousand cuts (slow slicing or Lingchi)

Slow slicing (língchí, alternately transliterated Ling Chi or Leng T’che), also translated as the slow process, the lingering death, or death by a thousand cuts, was a form of execution used in China from roughly AD 900 until its abolition in 1905. In this form of execution, the condemned person was killed by using a knife to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time. The term língchí derives from a classical description of ascending a mountain slowly. Lingchi was reserved for crimes viewed as especially severe, such as treason and killing one’s parents. The process involved tying the person to be executed to a wooden frame, usually in a public place. The flesh was then cut from the body in multiple slices in a process that was not specified in detail in Chinese law and therefore most likely varied. In later times, opium was sometimes administered either as an act of mercy or as a way of preventing fainting. The punishment worked on three levels: as a form of public humiliation, as a slow and lingering death, and as a punishment after death.

According to the Confucian principle of filial piety or xiào to alter one’s body or to cut the body is a form of unfilial practice. Lingchi therefore contravenes the demands of xiao. In addition, to be cut to pieces meant that the body of the victim would not be “whole” in a spiritual life after death.

This method of execution became a fixture in the image of China among some Westerners. It appears in various accounts of Chinese cruelty, such as Harold Lamb’s 1930s biography of Genghis Khan.

An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper, Le Monde Illustré, of the torture and execution of a French missionary in China by slow slicing.

Lingchi could be used for the torture and execution of a living person, or applied as an act of humiliation after death. It was meted out for offenses against the Confucian value system such as acts of treason, mass murder, parenticide or the murder of one’s master or employer. Emperors used it to threaten people and sometimes ordered it for minor offences. There were forced convictions and wrongful executions. Some emperors meted out this punishment to the family members of his enemies. While it is difficult to obtain accurate details of how the executions took place, they generally consisted of cuts to the arms, legs, and chest leading to amputation of limbs, followed by decapitation or a stab to the heart. If the crime was less serious or the executioner merciful, the first cut would be to the throat causing death such that subsequent cuts served solely to dismember the corpse.

Art historian James Elkins argues that extant photos of the execution make obvious that the “death by division” (as it was termed by German criminologist R. Heindl) involved some degree of dismemberment while the subject was living. However, Elkins also argues that, contrary to the apocryphal version of “death by a thousand cuts”, the actual process could not have lasted long. The condemned individual is not likely to have remained conscious and aware (if even alive) after one or two severe wounds such that the entire process could not have included more than a “few dozen” wounds. In the Yuan Dynasty one hundred cuts were inflicted but by the Ming Dynasty there were records of three thousand incisions. Reliable eyewitnesses, like Meadows, describe a fast process lasting no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. Available photographic records seem to prove the speed of the event as the crowd remains consistent across the series of photographs. Moreover, these photographs show a striking contrast between the stream of blood that soaks the left flank of the victim and the lack of blood on the right side, possibly showing that the first or the second cut has reached the heart. The coup de grâce was all the more certain when the family could afford a bribe to have a stab to the heart inflicted first. Some emperors ordered three days’ of cutting whilst others may have ordered specific tortures before the execution, or a longer execution. For example, records show that during execution, Yuan Chonghuan was left shouting for half a day and then the sound stopped. The meat of the victims may also have been sold as Chinese medicine. As an official punishment, death by slicing may also have involved cutting up the bones, cremation, and scattering of the deceased’s ashes.

Lingchi torture in Beijing around 1904

The western perception of língchí has often differed considerably from the actual practice, and some misconceptions persist to the present. The distinction between the sensationalized Western myth and the Chinese reality was noted by Westerners as early as 1895. That year, Australian traveler G.E. Morrison, who claimed to have witnessed an execution by slicing, wrote that “Ling Chi was commonly, and quite wrongly, translated as ‘death by slicing into 10,000 pieces’ — a truly awful description of a punishment whose cruelty has been extraordinarily misrepresented … The mutilation is ghastly and excites our horror as an example of barbarian cruelty; but it is not cruel, and need not excite our horror, since the mutilation is done, not before death, but after.”

According to apocryphal lore, língchí began when the torturer, wielding an extremely sharp knife, began by putting out the eyes, rendering the condemned incapable of seeing the remainder of the torture and, presumably, adding considerably to the psychological terror of the procedure. Successive rather minor cuts chopped off ears, nose, tongue, fingers, toes and genitals before proceeding to grosser cuts that removed large portions of flesh from more sizable parts, e.g., thighs and shoulders. The entire process was said to last three days, and to total 3,600 cuts. The heavily carved bodies of the deceased were then put on a parade for a show in the public. Some victims were reportedly given doses of opium, but accounts differ as to whether the drug was said to amplify or alleviate suffering.

J. M. Roberts, in Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 (2000), writes “the traditional punishment of death by slicing … became part of the western image of Chinese backwardness as the ‘death of a thousand cuts.'” Roberts then notes that slicing “was ordered, in fact, for K’ang Yu-Wei, a man termed the ‘Rousseau of China’, and a major advocate of intellectual and government reform in the 1890s.”

Although officially outlawed by the Qing government in 1905, língchí became a widespread Western symbol of the Chinese penal system from the 1910s on, and in Zhao Erfeng’s administration. Three sets of photographs shot by French soldiers in 1904-1905 were the basis for later mythification. The abolition was immediately enforced, and definite: no official sentences of língchí were performed in China after April 1905.

Regarding the use of opium, as related in the introduction to Morrison’s book, Sir Meyrick Hewlett insisted that “most Chinese people sentenced to death were given large quantities of opium before execution, and Morrison avers that a charitable person would be permitted to push opium into the mouth of someone dying in agony, thus hastening the moment of decease.” At the very least, such tales were deemed credible to British officials in China and other Western observers.

Execution of Joseph Marchand, Vietnam, 1835.

Confucian emperors, who had no legal checks on their power, ordered similar and less cruel tortures. Under Qin Er Shi and during the first Han dynasty, multiple tortures were applied to officials. Liu Ziye did to innocent officials. Gao Yang killed six people. An Lushan killed a man. Língchí is known in the Five Dynasties period (907-960) and Gaozu of Later Jin abolished it. It first appeared in the Liao dynasty law codes, and was sometimes used. Emperor Tianzuo of Liao often executed people in this way during his rule. It became widespread in the Song Dynasty under Emperor Renzong of Song and Emperor Shenzong of Song.

Some officials often used that to torture the rebels. The punishment remained in the Qing Dynasty code of laws for persons convicted of high treason and other serious crimes. Língchí was abolished as a result of the 1905 revision of the Chinese penal code by Shen Jiaben (1840-1913. Reports from Qing dynasty jurists such as Shen Jiaben show that executioners’ customs varied, as the regular way to perform this penalty was not specified in detail in the Penal code.

This form of execution was also known from Vietnam, notably being used as the method of execution of the French missionary Joseph Marchand in 1835.

The Chinese were not alone in carrying out punishments regarded as cruel and unusual, and that torture usually need permission from the emperor. As Western countries moved to abolish similar punishments, some Westerners began to focus attention on the methods of execution used in China. As early as 1866, the year after the last recorded case of hanging, drawing, and quartering, Thomas Francis Wade, then serving with the British diplomatic mission in China, unsuccessfully urged the abolition of língchí.

The first proposal for abolishing lingchi was submitted by Lu You (1125–1210) in a memorial to the Emperor under the Southern Song dynasty. Lu You’s elaborated argumentation against lingchi was piously copied and transmitted by generations of scholars, among them influential jurists of all dynasties, till the late Qing reformer Shen Jiaben introduced it in his 1905 memorial that obtained the abolition, eventually. This anti-lingchi trend met a more general attitude opposed to “cruel and unusual punishments’ (such as the exposure of the head) which the Tang had not included in the canonic table of the Five Punishments, and that defined the plainly legal ways of punishing crime. Hence the abolitionist trend is deeply ingrained in the Chinese legal tradition, rather than being purely derived from Western influences.

An 1858 account by Harper’s Weekly claimed the martyr Auguste Chapdelaine was killed by this method; in fact he was beheaded after death.

Sir Henry Norman, The People and Politics of the Far East, (1895). Norman was a widely travelled writer and photographer whose collection is now owned by the University of Cambridge. Norman gives an eye-witness account of various physical punishments and tortures inflicted in a magistrate’s court (yamen) and of the execution by beheading of fifteen men. He gives the following graphic account of a lingchi execution but does not claim to have witnessed such an execution himself. “[The executioner] grasping handfuls from the fleshy parts of the body such as the thighs and breasts slices them away… the limbs are cut off piecemeal at the wrists and ankles, the elbows and knees, shoulders and hips. Finally the condemned is stabbed to the heart and the head is cut off.”

G.E. Morrison, An Australian in China, (1895) differs from some other reports in stating that most Ling Chi mutilations are in fact made post mortem. Morrison wrote his description based on an account related by a claimed eyewitness: “The prisoner is tied to a rude cross: he is invariably deeply under the influence of opium. The executioner, standing before him, with a sharp sword makes two quick incisions above the eyebrows, and draws down the portion of skin over each eye, then he makes two more quick incisions across the breast, and in the next moment he pierces the heart, and death is instantaneous. Then he cuts the body in pieces; and the degradation consists in the fragmentary shape in which the prisoner has to appear in heaven.”

Tienstin (Tianjin), The China Year Book (1927), p 1401, contains contemporary reports from fighting in Guangzhou (Canton) between the Nanjing Government and Communist forces. Stories of various atrocities are related, including accounts of língchí. There is no mention of opium, and these cases appear to be government propaganda.
The Times, (9 December 1927), A Times journalist reported from the city of Canton that the communists were targeting Christian priests and that “It was announced that Father Wong was to be publicly executed by the slicing process.”

George Roerich, “Trails to Inmost Asia” (1931), p119, relates the story of the assassination of Yang Tseng-hsin, Governor of Sinkiang in July 1928, by the bodyguard of his foreign minister Fan Yao-han. Fan Yao-han was seized, and he and his daughter were both executed by ling-chi, the minister made to watch his daughter’s execution first. However Roerich was not an eyewitness to this event, having already returned to India by the date of the execution.

George Ryley Scott, History of Torture, (1940) claims that many were executed this way by the Chinese communist insurgents; he cites claims made by the Nanking government in 1927. It is perhaps uncertain whether these claims were anti-communist propaganda. Scott also calls the it “the slicing process” and differentiates between the different types of execution in different parts of the country. There is no mention of opium. Riley’s book contains a picture of a sliced corpse (with no mark to the heart) that was killed in Guangzhou (Canton) in 1927. It gives no indication of whether the slicing was done post-mortem. Scott claims it was common for the relatives of the condemned to bribe the executioner to kill the condemned before the slicing procedure began.

One account reports that United States Marine Corps members stationed in and around Shanghai between 1927 and 1941 brought evidence of human rights abuses to the United States: “The prevalence of executions and torture is evidenced by the scrapbooks brought back from China by the Marines. There are photographs of firing squads, beheadings, disembowelments, rape and such torture as ‘the death of a thousand cuts.'”

As the online Marine history notes, “Apparently these photographs were commercially available [in China], because there are exact duplicates in many scrapbooks with the name of a commercial studio stamped on the backs of the photographs.” It is possible that photos from the 1910s were mistakenly associated with the ongoing atrocities of China in the 1920s, and the língchí photos were sold as curios.

Photographs from this same period, including lines of beheaded corpses, non-Chinese diplomats killed by gunfire, and a língchí victim, can be found in George Ryley Scott’s A History of Torture.

The first Western photographs of língchí were taken in 1890 by William Arthur Curtis of Kentucky in Guangzhou (Canton).

French soldiers stationed in Beijing had the opportunity to photograph three different língchí executions in 1905 Wang Weiqin, a former Official who killed two families, executed on the 31 October 1904. A young deranged boy who killed his mother, and was executed in January 1905. Photographs were published in various volumes of Georges Dumas’ Nouveau traité de psychologie, 8 Vols., Paris, 1930-1943 , and again nominally by Bataille (in fact by Lo Duca), who mistakenly appended abstracts of Fou-tchou-li’s executions as related by Carpeaux (see below).

Fou-tchou-li a Mongol guard who killed his master, the prince of Inner Mongolian Aohan Banner, and who was executed on the 10 April 1905; as língchí was to be abolished two weeks later, this was presumably the last attested case of it in Chinese history.

Photographs appeared in books by Matignon (1910), and Carpeaux (1913), the latter claiming (falsely) that he was present. Carpeaux’s narrative was mistakenly, but persistently, associated to photographs published by Dumas and Bataille. Even related to the correct set of photos, Carpeaux’s narrative is highly dubious; for instance, an examination of the Chinese judicial archives show that Carpeaux invented the execution decree below:

The execution proclamation is reported to state “‘The Mongolian Princes demand that the aforesaid Fou-Tchou-Le, guilty of the murder of Prince Ao-Han-Ouan, be burned alive, but the Emperor finds this torture too cruel and condemns Fou-Tchou-Li to slow death by Leng-Tch-e .”

One of the images that obsessed Georges Bataille (taken from his Tears of Eros).

Bataille writes:

The world evoked by this straightforward image of a tortured man, photographed several times during the torture, in Peking, is, to my knowledge, the most anguishing of worlds accessible to us through images captured on film. The torture shown here is that of the Hundred Pieces, reserved for the gravest of crimes. One of these shots was reproduced in 1923 in George Dumas’s Traité de psychologie. But the author attributes it incorrectly to a much earlier date and speaks of it as an example of horripilation: when one’s hair stands on end! I have been told that in order to prolong the torture, opium is administered to the condemned man. Dumas insists upon the ecstatic appearance of the victim’s expression. There is, of course, something undeniable in his expression, no doubt due at least in part to the opium, which augments what is most anguishing about this photograph. Since 1925, I have owned one of these pictures. It was given to me by Dr. Borel, one of the first French psychoanalysts. This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable. I wonder what the Marquis de Sade would have thought of this image, Sade who dreamed of torture, which was inaccessible to him, but who never witnessed an actual torture session. In one way or another, this image was incessantly before his eyes. But Sade would have wished to see it in solitude, at least in relative solitude, without which the ecstatic and voluptuous effect is inconceivable.

Much later, in 1938, a friend initiated me into the practice of Yoga. It was on this occasion that I discerned, in the violence of this image, an infinite capacity for reversal. Through this violence – even to this day I cannot imagine a more insane, more shocking form – I was so stunned that I reached the point of ecstasy. My purpose is to illustrate a fundamental connection between religious ecstasy and eroticism – in particular sadism. This book is not written from the limited experience of most men.

I cannot doubt it.

What I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish – but which at the same time delivered me from it – was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror.

And this is my inevitable conclusion to a history of eroticism. But I should add: limited to its own domain, eroticism could never have achieved this fundamental truth divulged in religious eroticism, the identity of horror and the religious. Religion in its entirety was founded on sacrifice. But only an interminable detour allows us to reach that instant where the contraries seem visibly conjoined, where the religious horror disclosed in sacrifice becomes linked to the abyss of eroticism, to the last shuddering tears that eroticism alone can illuminate

(Georges Bataille, Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights, 1989), pp 205-7).

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