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Slow slicing (simplified Chinese: 凌迟; traditional Chinese: 凌遲; pinyin: língchí; Wade–Giles: ling-ch'ih, alternately transliterated ling chi or leng t'che), also translated as the slow process, the lingering death, and death by a thousand cuts (simplified Chinese: 杀千刀; traditional Chinese: 殺千刀) or “千刀万剐”, was a form of torture and execution used in China from roughly AD 900 until it was banned in 1905. In this form of execution, a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time, eventually leading to death. The term "língchí" is derived from a classical description of ascending a mountain slowly. Lingchi was reserved for crimes viewed as especially severe, such as treason, or 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 are considered unfilial practices (see Xiao Jing). 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.
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 major offenses such as treason, mass murder, patricide or the murder of one's master or employer. Emperors used it to threaten people and sometimes ordered it for minor offenses. There were forced convictions and wrongful executions. Some emperors meted out this punishment to the family members of their 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; 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. 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, so 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. It is described as a fast process lasting no longer than fifteen to twenty 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 while 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 flesh of the victims may also have been sold as medicine. As an official punishment, death by slicing may also have involved cutting up the bones, cremation, and scattering of the deceased's ashes.
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 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 1904–5 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.
Emperors usually ordered similar but 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 (907–60) 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 more widely used 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 (沈家本, 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 as part of the repression following the unsuccessful Lê Văn Khôi revolt.
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 time when Britain itself moved to abolish its own cruel method 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 陸游 (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.
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.
French soldiers stationed in Beijing had the opportunity to photograph three different língchí executions in 1905:
Photographic material and other sources are available online at the Chinese Torture Database (Iconographic, Historical and Literary Approaches of an Exotic Representation) hosted by the Institut d'Asie Orientale (CNRS, France).
Accounts of lingchi or the extant photographs have inspired or referenced in numerous artistic, literary, and cinematic media. Some works have attempted to put the process in a historical context; others, possibly due to the scarcity of detailed historical information, have attempted to extrapolate the details or present innovations of method that may be products of an author's creative license. Some of these descriptions may have influenced modern public perceptions of the historic practice.
Susan Sontag mentions the 1905 case in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). One reviewer wrote that though Sontag includes no photographs in her book—a volume about photography—"she does tantalisingly describe a photograph that obsessed the philosopher Georges Bataille, in which a Chinese criminal, while being chopped up and slowly flayed by executioners, rolls his eyes heavenwards in transcendent bliss."
The philosopher Georges Bataille wrote about lingchi in L'expérience intérieure (1943) and in Le coupable (1944). He included five pictures in his The Tears of Eros (1961; translated to English and published by City Lights in 1989). Historians Timothy Brook, Jérome Bourgon and Gregory Blue, criticized Bataille for his language, mistakes and dubious content.
In the novel Flashman and the Dragon by George MacDonald Fraser, Sir Harry Flashman describes a prisoner being bound tightly in a thin wire mesh through which nubs of flesh protrude. These are then cut off by the torturer with a sharp razor. In order to kill the prisoner, the razor is run quickly over many nubs of flesh at once. Barry Hughart outlines a similar method in his fantasy-historical novels set in China.
In the novel Dream of Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, Wang Xifeng makes reference to the punishment in the proverb "A man that is sentenced to death by a thousand cuts will dare to pull the emperor off his horse."
In the novel The Journeyer by Gary Jennings, an executioner explains to the main character, Marco Polo, that one-thousand pieces of paper are placed in a container, and a paper is drawn out to determine where the cut will be made. For this procedure, there are 333 designated body parts, and each part is represented three times, for a total of 999 slips of paper, with the 1,000th paper representing immediate death. In the case of a finger, if the first paper drawn denoted a particular finger, the digit would be removed at the first joint; the second time a paper is drawn indicating the same finger, another section to the next joint is amputated. The third paper related to the same finger would indicate final amputation. Jennings also fictionalizes in the book that, in an extended form of the torture, the body parts and blood are fed to the condemned as his only nourishment.
In the 1965 novel Farabeuf, author Salvador Elizondo uses one of the 1905 lingchí photographs, along with the story of a 19th-century French surgeon, to explore eroticism, photography, and memory. Farabeuf appears both as a secret agent who witnessed and photographed the execution, and as obsessed with the use of torture as a form of erotic ceremony. The reproduction of the 1905 photograph appears along the climax of his engulfing narrative, widely perceived as one of the main works of Mexican literature of the 1960s.
The "death by a thousand cuts" with reference to China is also mentioned in Malcolm Bosse's novel The Examination, Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, and Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee novels. The 1905 photos are mentioned in Thomas Harris' novel Hannibal and Julio Cortázar's novel Rayuela. Lingchi is used in the context of alternate settings in Mercedes Lackey's novel The Serpent's Shadow and Richard K Morgan's novel Broken Angels.
In the 1956 film The Conqueror, this execution was called the "slow death". Three of the main characters threaten to see the punishment inflicted at different points in the story. The "slow death" as described in The Conqueror accords with the more sensationalistic depictions of slow slicing, but with the added refinement that the victim's severed parts are to be fed to animals before him.
Death by slow slicing is also portrayed or referenced in the films The Sand Pebbles (1966), Carry On... Up the Khyber (1968), Fled (1996), A Chinese Torture Chamber Story 2 (1998), Rush Hour 3 (2007), the BBC TV series Robin Hood (2006), and the short film Assassin's Creed: Embers (2011).
Inspired by the 1905 photos, Chinese artist Chen Chien-jen created a 25-minute film called Lingchi, which has generated some controversy.
John Zorn composed a piece titled Leng Tch'e, which was recorded by his group Naked City and released in 1992. The album's cover art includes a photo from the January 1905 execution. There is also a Belgian grindcore band named Leng Tch'e.
In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "Kung Fu Crabtree," a Chinese man named Wu Chang confesses to the murder of a diplomat to protect his sister. He states at the end of the episode that he will be taken back to China "in a year or two" - the episode is set in 1901 - and subjected to "death by a thousand cuts." Wu was accused of being a Boxer, despite actually being a democratic reformer loyal to the deposed Guangxu Emperor.
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