Slow slicing: Wikis


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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, 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. 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 such as acts of treason, murder, or assault on one's parents. There are problems in obtaining accurate details of how the executions took place, but the executions consisted of cuts to the arms, legs, and chest leading to amputation of limbs and followed by decapitation or a stab to the heart. If the crime was less serious, or the executioner was merciful, the first cut would be the throat, the subsequent cuts serving solely to dismember the corpse.

Art historian James Elkins[2] 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 could likely not have remained conscious and aware (if even living) after one or two severe wounds, and the entire process could not have included more than a "few dozen" wounds. Reliable eyewitnesses, like Meadows,[3] describe a fast process lasting no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. Available photographic records [4] 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.[5] The coup de grâce was all the more certain when the family could afford a bribe.

Western perceptions

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."[6]

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 such 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.[7] Some victims were reportedly given doses of opium, but accounts differ as to whether the drug was said to amplify or alleviate suffering. There are discrepancies between descriptions and evaluations according to the authors' moral and religious background: Protestants tend to understate the physical ordeal of the condemned, while Catholics tended to exaggerate.[8]

Some modern writers suggest that língchí — 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 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 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,[9] língchí became a widespread Western symbol of the Chinese penal system from the 1910s on. 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 língchí was performed in China after April 1905; the reported cases are all based on mistaken dating of the last executions.

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.


Língchí is known from the Five Dynasties period (907-960) and became very widespread in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It first appeared in a Chinese code of laws for the non-Chinese Liao Dynasty (907-1125).

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.[10] 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.

It should be pointed out that the Chinese were not alone in carrying out punishments regarded as cruel and unusual. However, 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.

It is worthy of notice that 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 "Five Punishments," and 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.

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 claimed to have witnessed such an execution, and gave a graphic account in his book. "[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."[11]
  • 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." [12]
  • 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 Riley 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.
  • Sterling Seagrave's Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China (1993)—a semi-fictionalised biography of Empress Dowager Cixi—reports that "the Death of a Thousand Cuts ... is a classic form of execution practiced by every dynasty in China's history ... it was not at all exceptional in cases of high treason." (p. 80)
  • Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (1994): "Huang was condemned to a particularly gruesome execution for high treason known as ling chi, or 'death by one thousand cuts.' Cuts were made on his chest, abdomen, arms, legs, and back, so that he very slowly bled to death over a period of time, perhaps as long as three days." (p. 71)
  • Mark Costanzo, Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty (1997): "'Death by a thousand cuts'—where small bits of flesh were carved away over a period of days—was sometimes used in ancient China." (p. 4)
  • Academia Sinica resources website: 1. /1912-1925 (民國元年壬子──十四年乙丑)/1915──中華民國四年乙卯/七月 (略 ...) - 190 - 7,17 (六 , 六) 革 命 黨 人 鍾 明 光 炸 傷 廣 東 將 軍 龍 濟 光 (明 光 被 凌 遲 處 死) 。This means that Zhong Mingguang, from the Revolutionnary Party Geming dang, would have been executed by língchí for an attempt at bombing General Long Jiguang. But on this event, the most reliable Boorman Biographical dictionaary, II, 456 (Lung Chi-kuang), reads: “Lung Chi-kuang, who had become one of Yuan’s most trusted henchmen, further enraged the Kwangtung populace when he ordered a lanter procession in Canton to celebrate Yuan’s diplomatic “success.” [acceptance of the 21 demands] When Lung went to visit his brother on 17 July, during a flood in Canton, Chung Ming-kuang, a member of the worker’s assassination group, seized the opportunity to throw a bomb at him. It killed 17 members of Lung Chi-kuang’s bodyguard and the assassin, but Long received only a foot wound”. So, Zhong Mingguang did not suffer língchí as a form of execution, for he died from his own bombing. It is not known whether he was mutilated after death.

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).[13]


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:[14]
  • 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 namely by Bataille (in fact by Lo Duca), who mistakenly appended abstracts of Fou-tchou-li's executions as related by Carpeaux (see below). [15]
  • Fou-tchou-li (pinyin Fúzhūli 幅株哩), 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.[16] Photographs appeared in books by Matignon (1910), and Carpeaux (1913), the latter claiming (falsely) that he was present. 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 (cutting into pieces). Respect this!" [17]

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) [18]

Other uses or citations of the 1905 photographs include:

Georges Bataille
Adrien Borel, Georges Bataille's analyst, is said in Les larmes d'éros (G. Bataille, 1961, with much help by Joseph Marie (Giuseppe) Lo Duca) to have introduced Bataille to the photographs. Bataille writes about lingchi in L'expérience intérieure, 1943 and in Le coupable, 1944. Bataille tells us how he became fascinated by the photographs, gazing at them daily. He included five pictures in his The Tears of Eros. (1961; translated to English and published by City Lights in 1989) [19]

This book has been criticized for its language and its mistakes and allegedly dubious content[20]

Salvador Elizondo
In his novel Farabeuf (1965), Salvador Elizondo used one of the 1904 Lingchí photographs along with the story of a French XIXth Century 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 1964 photograph appears along the climax of his engulfing narrative, widely perceived as one of the main works of Mexican literature of the 1960s.
Julio Cortázar in his 1966 novel Rayuela apparently refers to Língchí in chapter 14, where Oliveira is looking at a set of Chinese execution pictures owned by Wong.
The 1905 incident inspired a brief reference in Thomas Harris's novel Hannibal (2000): "...police photographs of his (Lecter's) outrages were bootlegged to collectors of hideous arcana. They were second in popularity only to the execution of Fou-Tchou-Li." [21]
Susan Sontag
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." [22]
John Zorn
Saxophonist and composer John Zorn used at least one of the 1905 photos with his 1992 Naked City album, Leng Tch'e.
Chen Chien-jen
Inspired by the 1905 photos, Chinese artist Chen Chien-jen created a 25-minute motion picture called Lingchi, which has generated some controversy. [23]

Uses in fiction

In his novel The Journeyer, author Gary Jennings demonstrates the distinction between Western myth and Chinese reality by referring to the "Death of a Thousand" as a torture procedure he explains thus: One thousand pieces of paper are placed in a container, and a paper is drawn out by the Fondler (the torturer) to determine where the cut will be made. Having determined that there are 333 body parts, each of these parts is represented three times (for a total of 999 – the 1,000th paper represents immediate death). For example, the pinky finger – when the first paper is drawn denoting the pinkie finger, perhaps the digit will be removed to the first joint. The second time the pinky finger paper is drawn, another section to the next joint is amputated. The third time the pinky finger paper is drawn, the rest of the finger is amputated. 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 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 Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee novels, The sagacious Judge Dee is sometimes required to oversee the execution of criminals sentenced to die this way. When he deems it merciful, he orders the executioner to make the final cut first.

In Malcolm Bosse's novel The Examination, Hong, the brother of Chen, is subjected to this torture, although he is not killed.

In the film Barbarella, Jane Fonda plays the title character who is sentenced to death by being placed in a container of budgerigars, where the multitude of cuts from the birds' claws and beaks are intended to kill her.

In Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, the first story told by Lena St. Clair, "The Voice from the Wall", features the death of a thousand cuts.

In Mercedes Lackey's book The Serpent's Shadow, an evil priestess of Kali uses the "Death of a Thousand Cuts" as a method of sacrifice. The intent is to increase the amount of magical power produced by prolonging the sacrifice's pain, suffering and eventual death.

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 described above, but with the added refinement that the victim's severed parts are to be fed to animals before his very eyes.

In the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles, US Navy machinist's mate Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) witnesses a friend, engine room coolie Po-Han (Mako) being punished in this manner by an angry mob. He then proceeds to shoot him in the head to spare him further suffering*.

In the 1993 film, "FLED", the main character played by Steven Baldwin was tied up by drug dealers who wanted a computer disk from him. The drug dealers strung Steven Baldwin up and asked if he knew of the "Death of a Thousand Cuts". The drug dealer then proceeded to cut him in a few sensitive places such as the web of his hand before he was rescued by his friend.

In the 2007 film Rush Hour 3, the Death by 1000 Cuts is mentioned. Inspector Lee receives his first cut, but defeats his enemy before receiving further wounds.

In the BBCRobin Hood (2006 TV series), the Sheriff of Nottingham considers the death of Robin Hood by the death of a thousand cuts.

In the anime Naruto, the character Itachi Uchica has the ability to trick a person into believing they are receiving the punishment of slow slicing.

Other uses

The phrase "death of a thousand cuts" is often used metaphorically to describe the gradual or incrementalism 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.

Leng Tch'e is also the name of a Belgium Grindcore supergroup. It features members of Aborted, Permanent Death and Dark Ages.

In the 1960s British comedy film Carry On up the Khyber, the Qazi of Kalabar (played by Kenneth Williams) orders the punishment of 'death by a thousand cuts' to his British hostages. When the Qazi's daughter objects, he retorts, 'Nonsense, the British are used to cuts!'

Famous executions


  1. ^ Morrison, J.M. Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 (2000)
  2. ^ Elkins, James, The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1996
  3. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "read Morrison's original text". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  7. ^ "Death by a Thousand Cuts at Chinese Arts Centre 18th January to 23rd March". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  8. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  9. ^ "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.  
  10. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet (2004-02-11). "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  11. ^
  12. ^ "index.htm". 2002-08-25. Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  13. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  14. ^ ; and an essay about this case see
  15. ^ see the complete set:
  16. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "See the complete set". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  17. ^ "// Journal: coup de grâce (#1) - Linda Marie Walker". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  18. ^ Jerome Bourgon, Muriel Detrie, Regis Poulet. "Turandot : Chinese Torture / Supplice chinois". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  19. ^ [1]
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ "Hannibal: Section I". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  22. ^ "Observer review: Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag | From the Observer | The Observer". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  23. ^ " - Wirral news, Wirral News Group newspapers". Retrieved 2009-07-30.  


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