Death by a thousand cuts

I’m reading a book about Chinese history called The Search for Modern China. It starts at the end of the Ming dynasty (17th century) and it ends in 1990, more or less. I am not sure yet because I didn’t finish it, I’m still in the second Sino-Japanese war. It is very interesting, and while I was reading the chapters about the end of the Ming dynasty and the whole Qing dynasty I noticed a small detail: the amount of times it was mentioned that someone was executed by slicing. Many times. I had heard of this Chinese torture/execution technique before but I had never thought too much about it. Now I got curious.

Slicing or death by a thousand cuts (in Chinese, 凌迟 lingchi) was an official execution method in China until 1905 (uh, that is not a long time ago). It was the punishment for the worst crimes, like planning to kill or talk bad about the emperor, but also for killing more than 3 people of the same family, because that would imply that the killer wanted to wipe out that lineage, and then the dead ancestors wouldn’t have anyone to make offerings to their tombs. And that (gasp!) is a very serious offence. Ancestors must be respected! The book also mentions one case of a man who was executed for insulting his own father, although I can’t remember if he was executed by slicing or other methods. However, if it was a father killing his son and the judge considered he had a reasonable motive to do it (e.g. the son had talked back), then the punishment was very lenient. Confucianism says that sons have to obey and respect their parents; wives have to obey and respect their husbands; and citizens have to obey and respect the emperor.

But let’s get back to slicing. During the death by a thousand cuts, the executioner didn’t really make a thousand cuts. That would have taken too long and the audience would have been bored! (Like in many other countries, executions were carried out in public places for everybody to see). The prisoner was high on opium (not sure how they did it before opium was introduced to China). The executioner started cutting the breasts and the biceps. Then, in most cases, he would stab the convicted’s heart to kill him, and then he would keep slicing here and there. The objective of the slicing was not so much to cause pain, but to cut and dismember the corpse. That was the worst form of humiliation. Chinese people had to be buried with their whole bodies. Again, according to Confucianism, your body is a gift from your parents and you are not allowed to modify it in any way. The book also mentions the story of a scholar who wrote a text criticising the emperor; after his death the text became very popular, the emperor heard about it and he punished the scholar (well, his bones at this point) to be dug up and spread around. Shame! Shame!

After reading so many stories of slicing I wanted to check if there were surviving photographies of this practice. And, oh, boy, there are. Most of them were taken by foreigners between 1904 and 1905, right before it was abolished. I am not going to post them here, but you can google 凌迟 if you want to see them. And, if you are interested in Chinese history, I can totally recommend The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan D. Spence (it’s on Amazon and it’s not too expensive!).

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