|March 7, 2014|
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:
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.'" http://www.1stbattalion3rdmarines.com/marine-units-histories/fourth_marines_in_china.htm
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): http://www.hannotations.com/hannibal/images/fou.jpg,http://www.secrel.com.br/jpoesia/ag9bataille.htm. 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. http://www.xmission.com/pub/lists/zorn-list/archive/v02.n123
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!" http://www.va.com.au/parallel/x1/journal/lmw/coup.html
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:
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.
GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Death by a thousand cuts".
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