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March 8, 2014
Table of Contents
1 Introduction
Death by a thousand cuts



Death by a thousand cuts was, according to some sources, a method of torture and capital punishment|execution used in China until 1905.

Critics contend that the "death by a thousand cuts"--at least as related by some western world|Western sources--is a myth or urban legend, perhaps inspired by a genuine execution technique called "Slicing" (Chinese language|Chinese: 凌遲; pinyin: ling chi). Slicing was the most severe form of execution (legal)|execution in traditional China, in which several cuts would be made to the arms and legs before decapitation.

In some Western accounts, the Ling chi method was implemented by having small bits of skin or flesh cut from an individual over a period of days. Some victims were reportedly given doses of opium. Critics suggest that the Western version of death by a thousand cuts bears little or no resemblance to slicing as it was actually practiced.

Some of the debate and controversey seems to be due to translation errors. This was noted by Westerners as early as 1895. That year, Australian traveller G.E. Morrison 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."

It is not unreasonable to suggest that "slicing"--as a genuine adjunct to execution--was exaggerated in some retellings to become the more sensationalistic "death by a thousand cuts." This apparent confusion might be due to the novelty of slicing to Western observers, or attributed to mistranslation, cultural differences, racism or other factors. This idea is perhaps supported by at least one source: 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 stereotype 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 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau|Rousseau of China', and a major advocate of intellectual and government reform in the 1890's." (p. 60, footnote 8)

Furthermore, some instances of reported slicing were aparently performed extralegally by copycat vigilantes or criminals, or as war crimes. The cases reported below from 1927 might be such instances: slicing (ling chi) was officially abolished in 1905, but seems to have inspired some atrocities a generation later.

Some historians contend that the confusion comes from the fact that the particulars of the slicing punishment varied so widely throughout China, ranging from some cases similar to the gruesome stereotype, to others of less extreme character.

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.

It should be pointed out that the Chinese were not alone in carrying out punishments regarded as cruel and unusual punishment|cruel and unusual: in England, for example, the punishment of drawing and quartering remained a penalty for high treason until well into the 19th Century. However, as Western countries moved to abolish such punishments (while at the same time, it is worth noting, sometimes imposing racially discrimatory laws against the Chinese), some Westerners began focus attention on the methods of execution used in China. As early as in 1866, Thomas Francis Wade, then serving with the British diplomatic mission in China, unsuccessfully urged the abolition of slicing (Ling Chi). It was not until 1905, when the Chinese penal code was revised by Shen Jiaben (沈家本, 1840-1913), that this method of execution was officially abolished.

Ling Chi first appeared in Chinese code of laws for the Song Dynasty. It remained a punishment in the Qing Dynasty code of laws for persons convicted of high treason and other serious crimes.

Critics charge that this method of execution, (at least as related by some western world|Western sources), is not reliably attested, and that any citations to the contrary are a mixture of works ranging from the poorly researched to unverified eyewitness accounts.

Whether entirely accurate, due to garbled accounts of "slicing", or even entirely unsupported and apocryphal, the "death of a thousand cuts" has been mentioned in a great many works, incuding this those cited in this chronological list:

  • Henry Norman|Sir Henry Norman, The People and Politics of the Far East, (1895). Norman gives one of the most reliable accounts. He was a widely travelled writer, and photographer whose collection is now owned by Cambridge University. Norman claimed to have witnessed such an execution, and gave a graphic account in his book. "(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 victim is stabbed to the heart and the head is cut off".

  • George Ernest Morrison|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), p1401 contains contemporary reports from fighting in Canton between the Nagking Government and Communist forces. Stories of various atrocities are related, including accounts of slicing. There is no mention of opium, and these cases seem to have been strictly a method of torture.

  • The Times, (December 9 1927), A Times journalist reported from the city of Canton that the communists were targetting Christians priests and that "Father Wong it was announced was to be publically executed by the slicing process." A local Archbishop was said to have been so condemned. There is no evidence, however, that this sentence was carried out.

  • George Riley Scott, History of Torture, (1940) claims that many were executed this way by the Chinese communist insurgents; he cites claims made by the Nangking 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 Canton, Canton, China|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 victim to bribe the executioner to kill the victim before the slicing procedure began.

  • Sterling Seagrave's Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China (1993)—a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi—reports that "the Death of a Thousand Cuts ... is a classic form of execution practiced by every Dynasties in Chinese history|dynasty in China's history ... it was not at all exceptional in cases of high treason." (p. 80)

  • Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (1994): "Huang was condemned to a particularly gruesome execution for high treason known as ling chi, or 'death by one thousand cuts.' Cuts were made on his chest, abdomen, arms, legs, and back, so that he very slowly bled to death over a period of time, perhaps as long as three days." (p. 71)

  • Mark Costanzo, Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty (1997): "'Death by a thousand cuts'—where small bits of flesh were carved away over a period of days—was sometimes used in ancient China." (p. 4)

It has been alleged that these accounts are either based on ignorance and prejudice, are historically inaccurate, or simply do not refer to the fictional "Death by a Thousand Cuts".

One account reports that United States Marine Corps members stationed in and around Shanghai between 1927 and 1941 brought evidence of ling chi 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, because there are exact duplicates in many scrapbooks with the name of a commercial studio stamped on the backs of the photographs." Clearly, then, these 'curiosities' may have been widely circulating images bearing little relation to frequent practice, nor, indeed, any similarity with the reported practice that had existed prior to the 1905 prohibition of ling chi. Further perspectives may be revealed by the following statement: "Although morbid, these photographs are chilling testaments to the atrocities that were carried out by both the Chinese and Japanese in Shanghai between 1927 and 1941," suggesting that such gruesome occurences, assuming they actually took place, may have been limited to instances of extreme brutality and war crime and did not necessarily bear any resemblance to any officially sanctioned practice which may or may not have actually existed.

Photographs from this same period including lines of beheaded corpses, shot non-Chinese diplomats, and a slicing victim can be found in George Riley Scott's A History of Torture. Although slicing had not been officially sanctioned for around 25 years there was a complete breakdown in law and order in Canton and south-west China and atrocities were widespread on both sides.

Photographs of at least one instance of this execution exist (warning: these photographs are extremely graphic):, The photographs were reportedly taken by one Louis Carpeaux, who, along with a George Dumas, is supposed to have witnessed and photographed the execution on April 10, 1905. The photographs were published in Dumas' 1923 work, Treatise of Psychology.

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 (cutting into pieces). Respect this!"

It is worth noting that the deceased was a Mongol executed by a Manchu government, which at the time was viewed by the general Chinese population as foreign rulers. It is also worth noting that the pictures seem to depict slicing, not the Death by a Thousand Cuts as typically represented in the West.

Other uses or citations of the 1905 photographs include:

  • Georges Bataille

Adrien Borel, Georges Bataille's analyst, introduced Bataille to the photographs. Bataille became fascinated by the photographs, reportedly gazing at them daily. He included the photos in his The Tears of Eros. (1961; translated to English language|English and published by City Lights Bookstore|City Lights in 1989)

  • Hannibal

The 1905 incident inspired a brief reference in Thomas Harris's novel Hannibal (book)|Hannibal (2000): "...police photographs of his (Hannibal Lecter|Lecter's) outrages were bootlegged to collectors of hideous arcana. They were second in popularity only to the execution of Fou-Tchou-Li."

  • Susan Sontag

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 perverse philosopher Georges Bataille, in which a Chinese language|Chinese criminal, while being chopped up and slowly flaying|flayed by executioners, rolls his eyes heavenwards in transcendent bliss."

  • John Zorn

Saxophonist and composer John Zorn used at least one of the 1905 photos with his 1992 Naked City album, Leng Tch'e.

  • Chen Chien-jen

Inspired by the 1905 photos, Chinese artist Chen Chien-jen created a 25-minute motion picture called Lingchi, which has generated some controversey.

The phrase "death of a thousand cuts" is often used metaphorically to describe the gradual destruction of something, such as an institution or program, by repeated minor attacks. The term is also used in business management to describe a product or idea that is damaged or destroyed by too many minor changes.

Category:Chinese culture
Category:Death penalty


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Death by a thousand cuts".

Last Modified:   2005-11-07

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