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An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper Le Monde illustré, of the lingchi execution of a French missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine, in China. In actuality, Chapdelaine died from physical abuse in prison, and was beheaded after death.
Lingchi (Chinese characters).svg
Lingchi in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese凌遲
Simplified Chinese凌迟

Lingchi (Chinese: 凌遲), translated variously as the slow process, the lingering death, or slow slicing, and also known as death by a thousand cuts, was a form of torture and execution used in China from roughly 900 CE until it was banned in 1905. It was also used in Vietnam. In this form of execution, a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time, eventually resulting in death.

Lingchi was reserved for crimes viewed as especially severe, such as treason. Some Westerners were executed in this manner. Even after the practice was outlawed, the concept itself has still appeared across many types of media.


The term lingchi first appeared in a line in Chapter 28 of the classical philosophical text Xunzi. The line originally described the difficulty in travelling in a horse-drawn carriage on mountainous terrain.[1] Later on, it was used to describe the prolonging of a person's agony when the person is being killed.[2]


The process involved tying the condemned prisoner 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. 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, to alter one's body or to cut the body are considered unfilial practices. Lingchi therefore contravenes the demands of filial piety. In addition, to be cut to pieces meant that the body of the victim would not be "whole" in spiritual life after death. This method of execution became a fixture in the image of China among some Westerners.[3]

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 offences such as high treason, mass murder, patricide/matricide or the murder of one's master or employer.[4] Emperors used it to threaten people and sometimes ordered it for minor offences.[5][6] There were forced convictions and wrongful executions.[7][8] Some emperors meted out this punishment to the family members of their enemies.[9][10][11][12]

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 clearly show that the "death by division" (as it was termed by German criminologist Robert Heindl) involved some degree of dismemberment while the subject was living.[13] 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, 100 cuts were inflicted[14] but by the Ming dynasty there were records of 3,000 incisions.[15][16] It is described as a fast process lasting no longer than 15 to 20 minutes.[17] 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.[18] Some emperors ordered three days of cutting[19][20] while others may have ordered specific tortures before the execution,[21] or a longer execution.[22][23][24] For example, records showed that during Yuan Chonghuan's execution, Yuan was heard shouting for half a day before his death.[25]

The flesh of the victims may also have been sold as medicine.[26] As an official punishment, death by slicing may also have involved slicing the bones, cremation, and scattering of the deceased's ashes.

Western perceptions[edit]

The Western perception of lingchi has often differed considerably from the actual practice, and some misconceptions persist to the present. The distinction between the sensationalised Western myth and the Chinese reality was noted by Westerners as early as 1895. That year, Australian traveller George Ernest Morrison, who claimed to have witnessed an execution by slicing, wrote that "lingchi [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."[27]

According to apocryphal lore, lingchi 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.[28] Some victims were reportedly given doses of opium to alleviate suffering.[citation needed]

John Morris 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".[29]

Although officially outlawed by the government of the Qing dynasty in 1905,[30] lingchi 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 1904–05 were the basis for later mythification. The abolition was immediately enforced, and definite: no official sentences of lingchi were performed in China after April 1905.[citation needed]

Regarding the use of opium, as related in the introduction to Morrison's book, 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 in Vietnam, 1835.

Lingchi existed under the earliest emperors,[citation needed] although similar but less cruel tortures were often prescribed instead. Under the reign of Qin Er Shi, the second emperor of the Qin dynasty, multiple tortures were used to punish officials.[32][33][clarification needed] The arbitrary, cruel, and short-lived Liu Ziye was apt to kill innocent officials by lingchi.[34] Gao Yang killed only six people by this method,[35] and An Lushan killed only one man.[36][37] Lingchi was known in the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE); but, in one of the earliest such acts, Shi Jingtang abolished it.[38] Other rulers continued to use it.

The method was prescribed in the Liao dynasty law codes,[39] and was sometimes used.[40] Emperor Tianzuo often executed people in this way during his rule.[41] It became more widely used in the Song dynasty under Emperor Renzong and Emperor Shenzong.

Another early proposal for abolishing lingchi was submitted by Lu You (1125–1210) in a memorandum to the imperial court of the Southern Song dynasty. Lu You's elaborate argument against lingchi was piously copied and transmitted by generations of scholars, among them influential jurists of all dynasties, until the late Qing dynasty reformist Shen Jiaben (1840–1913) included it in his 1905 memorandum that obtained the abolition. This anti-lingchi trend coincided with a more general attitude opposed to "cruel and unusual" punishments (such as the exposure of the head) that the Tang dynasty had not included in the canonic table of the Five Punishments, which defined the 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.

Under later emperors, lingchi was reserved for only the most heinous acts, such as treason,[42][43] a charge often dubious or false, as exemplified by the deaths of Liu Jin, a Ming dynasty eunuch, and Yuan Chonghuan, a Ming dynasty general. In 1542, lingchi was inflicted on a group of palace women who had attempted to assassinate the Jiajing Emperor, along with his favourite concubine, Consort Duan. The bodies of the women were then displayed in public.[44] 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]

Lingchi was also known in 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.

An 1858 account by Harper's Weekly claimed the martyr Auguste Chapdelaine was killed by lingchi; in reality he was beaten to death.

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 lingchi.

Lingchi remained in the Qing dynasty's code of laws for persons convicted of high treason and other serious crimes, but the punishment was abolished as a result of the 1905 revision of the Chinese penal code by Shen Jiaben.[45][46][47]

Published accounts[edit]

  • 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 eyewitness account of various physical punishments and tortures inflicted in a magistrate's court (yamen) and of the execution by beheading of 15 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."[48]
  • George Ernest Morrison, An Australian in China (1895) differs from some other reports in stating that most lingchi 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."[49]
  • 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 lingchi. There is no mention of opium, and these cases appear to be government propaganda.
  • The Times, (9 December 1927), a journalist reported from the city of Guangzhou (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 de Roerich, "Trails to Inmost Asia" (1931), p . 119, 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 was seized, and he and his daughter were both executed by lingchi, the minister forced to watch his daughter's execution first. 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 uses the term "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.


Lingchi execution in Beijing c. April 1905, apparently of Fou-Tchou-Li

The first Western photographs of lingchi were taken in 1890 by William Arthur Curtis of Kentucky in Guangzhou (Canton).[50]

French soldiers stationed in Beijing had the opportunity to photograph three different lingchi executions in 1904 and 1905:

  • Wang Weiqin (王維勤), a former official who killed two families, executed on 31 October 1904.[51][52]
  • 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, 1930–43, 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).[53]
  • Fou-tchou-li or Fuzhuli (符珠哩),[54] a Mongol guard who killed his master, the Prince of the Aohan Banner of Inner Mongolia, and who was executed on 10 April 1905; as lingchi was to be abolished two weeks later, this was presumably the last attested case of lingchi in Chinese history,[55] or said Kang Xiaoba (康小八)[56] 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 with 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. The 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)."[57]

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).[58]

In popular culture[edit]

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."[59]

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 into English and published by City Lights in 1989).[60] Historians Timothy Brook, Jérome Bourgon and Gregory Blue, criticised Bataille for his language, mistakes and dubious content.[61][62]


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[63] and in Julio Cortázar's novel Hopscotch. It is also a main plot element in D. B. Weiss's 2003 novel Lucky Wander Boy. In Gary Jennings's novel The Journeyer, this form of execution plays a role, including an extreme version of it where the condemned is sustained by being fed their own flesh as it is removed.


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

A scene of Lingchi also appeared on the film The Sand Pebbles.


One of the tracks in Taylor Swift’s seventh studio album is entitled “Death By A Thousand Cuts” and compares the pain of a breakup to this form of torture.

Naked City's album Leng Tch'e is also about this topic.

See also[edit]


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