Death by a Thousand Cuts

May 8, 2008

Few of those who now use the phrase "death by a thousand cuts" will be aware of its origins in lingchi, a highly unpleasant form of execution used in Imperial China, which involved the slicing of the convicted criminal's flesh until death ensued.

Shortly before its removal from China's law books in 1905, a few photographs of the practice were taken by Western residents of Beijing, who, stirred up by lurid accounts of atrocities committed against foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, roamed the city in search of exotic subject matter for their up-to-date portable cameras. These photographs, and the varied uses to which they have been put, provide the starting point for this collaborative work.

The authors first situate lingchi within China's judicial traditions, from its emergence in the tenth century to the final imperial dynasty, by which point it could be invoked for such offences as striking a teacher.

The import of this becomes apparent when the authors turn to the interest shown by Western countries in the Chinese system of punishments from around the start of the 19th century. This concern was particularly marked in Britain, whose Government was still smarting from the rejection of the McCartney Embassy of 1793. A 570-page English translation of the Qing penal code was published in 1810, while George Mason's The Punishments of China (1801) was in its fifth edition by 1830. As knowledge of lingchi spread, China's image as a country that could serve as the very model of civil order was replaced by a vision of a dystopia characterised by unadorned barbarism.

Western commentators were disturbed by the fact that unlike executions in the West, which were deemed to prepare the victim for judgment in the afterlife, the Chinese model of execution contained no apparent possibility of redemption. Furthermore, as if the barbaric nature of the punishment were not enough, there were tales of crowds enjoying the spectacle.

When the Beijing photographs provided visual confirmation of both the nature of the executions and the reaction of the crowd, Western cultural superiority reached ever greater levels, fuelling the view that the people of China could be saved from the perversions of heathenism only by the advent of Christianity.

The authors present a nuanced picture of state-imposed execution and, without at any time condoning, succeed in their goal of contextualising lingchi in relation to Western forms of punishment, noting the availability of the death penalty for a variety of relatively trivial offences in 18th-century England, as well as the appalling conditions that prevailed on prison ships that sailed from England to Australia. Vituperation is reserved for the penultimate chapter, in which the authors criticise the exploitation of the photographs by 20th-century cultural theorists, describing Georges Bataille's 1961 work The Tears of Eros, which argued that suffering intermingles with pleasure, as "an obnoxious work executed in bad taste".

At a time when the debate about what constitutes acceptable forms of physical punishment, as well as the thorny question of a divergence between Western and Asian concepts of human rights, is so prevalent, this challenging and important work will appeal not solely to Sinologists, but to legal historians and students of visual representation.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

By Timothy Brook
Jerome Bourgon and Gregory Blue
Harvard University Press
ISBN 97806740732
Published 4 March 2008

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.