Slow slicing

Slow slicing
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Slow slicing (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: língchí, alternately transliterated Ling Chi or Leng T'che), also translated as the slow process, the lingering death, or death by a thousand cuts (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ), 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 (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.[1] 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.[2][3] Emperors used it to threaten people and sometimes ordered it for minor offences.[4][5] There were forced convictions and wrongful executions.[6][7] Some emperors meted out this punishment to the family members of his enemies.[8][9][10][11] 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[12] 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[13] but by the Ming Dynasty there were records of three thousand incisions.[14][15] Reliable eyewitnesses, like Meadows,[16] describe a fast process lasting no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. Available photographic records[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] Some emperors ordered three days' of cutting[20][21] whilst others may have ordered specific tortures before the execution,[22] or a longer execution.[23][24][25] For example, records show that during execution, Yuan Chonghuan was left shouting for half a day and then the sound stopped.[26] The meat of the victims may also have been sold as Chinese medicine.[27] As an official punishment, death by slicing may also have involved cutting up the bones, cremation, and scattering of the deceased's ashes.

Western perceptions

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."[28]

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.[29] 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." (Roberts, p. 60, footnote 8)

Although officially outlawed by the Qing government in 1905,[30] língchí became a widespread Western symbol of the Chinese penal system from the 1910s on, and in Zhao Erfeng's administration.[31] 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.[32][33] Liu Ziye did to innocent officials.[34] Gao Yang killed six people.[35] An Lushan killed a man.[36][37] Língchí is known in the Five Dynasties period (907-960) and Gaozu of Later Jin abolished it.[38] It first appeared in the Liao dynasty law codes,[39] and was sometimes used.[40] Emperor Tianzuo of Liao often executed people in this way during his rule.[41] It became widespread in the Song Dynasty under Emperor Renzong of Song and Emperor Shenzong of Song.[42]

Some officials often used that to torture the rebels.[43][44][45] 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.[46][47][48][49] 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.[citation needed]

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.

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 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.

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

Famous executions

Published accounts

  • 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."[50]
  • 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." [51]
  • 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.

U.S. military accounts

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).[52]


French soldiers stationed in Beijing had the opportunity to photograph three different língchí executions in 1905:

  • Wang Weiqin 王維勤, a former Official who killed two families, executed on the 31 October 1904:[53]
  • Unknown, reason unknown, possibly 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).[54]
  • Fou-tchou-li or Fúzhūli (Chinese: 符珠哩),[55] 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.[56] or said Kang Xiaoba (康小八) [57] Photographs appeared in books by Matignon (1910), and Carpeaux (1913), the latter claiming (falsely) that he was present.[citation needed] 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 bluntly 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 (=different spelling of lingchi,cutting into pieces)."[58]

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).[59]

Popular references

Accounts of Ling'Chi 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."[60]

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).[61] This book has been criticized for its language and its mistakes and allegedly dubious content.[62]


In the novel Flashman and the Dragon by George MacDonald Fraser, reference is made to 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.

In the novel The Journeyer, author Gary Jennings describes in greater detail a method of the "Death of a Thousand" as a torture procedure. The 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, Salvador Elizondo used 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 features 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[63] and Julio Cortázar's novel Rayuela. Ling'Chi 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.


Inspired by the 1905 photos, Chinese artist Chen Chien-jen created a 25-minute film called Lingchi, which has generated some controversy.[64]

In the 1966 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 his very eyes.

Death by slow slicing is also portrayed or referenced in the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles, the 1968 film Carry On... Up the Khyber, the 1996 film Fled, the 2007 film Rush Hour 3, and the BBC 2006 TV series Robin Hood.

A Chinese Torture Chamber Story 2 (1998) starts with a woman being sentenced to 'death by a thousand cuts', which is carried out eventually.[65]

See also


  1. ^ Morrison, J.M. Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 (2000)
  2. ^ "The Qing Dynasty Case of Li Yuchang (清李毓昌命案 于保业)" (in Chinese). Retrieved September 20, 2010. 
  3. ^ "Verse 30, poem sympathetic to Li Yuchang (《悯忠诗三十韵》与李毓昌)" (in Chinese). Retrieved September 20, 2010. 
  4. ^ Hongwu Emperor. 大誥
  5. ^ 文秉. 先撥志始, vol.1
  6. ^ 王世貞. 弇山堂别集, vol.97
  7. ^ 劉若愚. 酌中志, vol.2
  8. ^ 苏州杂志·沈万三家族覆灭记
  9. ^ 谷應泰. 明史紀事本末, vol.18
  10. ^ 國朝典故·立閑齋錄
  11. ^ 太平天國.1
  12. ^ Elkins, James, The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1996
  13. ^ Guan Hanqing, The Injustice to Dou E
  14. ^ 鄧之誠. 骨董續記, vol.2
  15. ^ 漁樵話鄭本末
  16. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ 狱中杂记
  20. ^ 沈德符. 萬曆野獲編, vol.28
  21. ^ 張文麟. 端巖公年譜
  22. ^ 台湾籍太监林表之死
  23. ^ 燕北老人. 清代十三朝宫闱秘史
  24. ^ 徐珂. 清稗類鈔
  25. ^ 「凌遲」最駭人的死刑5 (慎入)
  26. ^ 計六奇. 明季北略, vol.5
  27. ^ 計六奇. 明季北略, vol.15
  28. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "read Morrison's original text". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  29. ^ "Death by a Thousand Cuts at Chinese Arts Centre 18th January to 23rd March". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  30. ^ "Abolishing ‘Cruel Punishments’: A Reappraisal of the Chinese Roots and Long-term Efficiency of the Xinzheng Legal Reforms". 2003-10-08.;jsessionid=EBA5316EC71619A119D939E226A593B6.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=181371. Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  31. ^ From Darkness to Dawn by Jamyang Norbu
  32. ^ Shiji, vol.87
  33. ^ Book of Han, vol.23
  34. ^ Book of Song, vol.9
  35. ^ Book of Northern Qi, vol.3
  36. ^ New Book of Tang, vol.215
  37. ^ 中國歷史上幾次最著名的凌遲之刑
  38. ^ Five Dynasties History, vol.147
  39. ^ History of Liao, vol.61
  40. ^ History of Liao, vol.112-114
  41. ^ History of Liao, vol.62
  42. ^ 宋朝刑法特点论略
  43. ^ History of Ming, vol.54
  44. ^ 清华大学教授刘书林——中国第一汉奸曾国藩
  45. ^ 曾国藩犯有“反人类罪”
  46. ^ 沈家本. 寄簃文存·奏議·刪除律例內重法折
  47. ^ Draft History of Qing, vol.118
  48. ^ 阿憶 凌遲的終結
  49. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet (2004-02-11). "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  50. ^
  51. ^ "index.htm". 2002-08-25. Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  52. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  53. ^ ; and an essay about this case see
  54. ^ see the complete set:
  55. ^ Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois
  56. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "See the complete set". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  57. ^ 史学研究向下延伸的道路能走多久mm读《狼烟北平》有感
  58. ^ "// Journal: coup de grâce (#1) - Linda Marie Walker". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  59. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  60. ^ Conrad, Peter (2003-08-03). "Observer review: Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag | From the Observer | The Observer". London: Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  61. ^ [1][dead link]
  62. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30. . Timothy Brook, Jérome Bourgon, Gregory Blue, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Harvard UP, Dambr., Mass., 2008, p. 222-242.
  63. ^ "Hannibal: Section I". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  64. ^ " - Wirral news, Wirral News Group newspapers". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  65. ^


  • Bourgon, Jérôme. "Abolishing 'Cruel Punishments': A Reappraisal of the Chinese Roots and Long-Term Efficiency of the in Legal Reforms." Modern Asian Studies 37, no. 4 (2003): 851-62.

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