"Death by a thousand cuts" redirects here. For other uses, see Death by a thousand cuts (disambiguation).
An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper Le Monde Illustré, of the lingchi execution of a French missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine, in China. In fact, Chapdelaine died from physical abuse in prison, and was beheaded after death.

Lingchi (; ; língchí; ling-ch'ih, alternately transliterated ling chi or leng t'che), translated variously as death by a thousand cuts (/; /; shā qiān dāo/qiāndāo wànguǎ), the slow process, the lingering death, or slow slicing, was a form of torture and execution used in China from roughly AD 900 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 high treason, patricide, or matricide. 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] Available photographic records[18][19] 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.[20][21] 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.[22] Some emperors ordered three days of cutting[23][24] while others may have ordered specific tortures before the execution,[25] or a longer execution.[26][27][28] For example, records showed that during Yuan Chonghuan's execution, Yuan was heard shouting for half a day before his death.[29]

The flesh of the victims may also have been sold as medicine.[30] As an official punishment, death by slicing may also have involved slicing the bones, cremation, and scattering of the deceased's ashes.

Western perceptions

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."[31]

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.[32] Some victims were reportedly given doses of opium to alleviate suffering.

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."[33]

Although officially outlawed by the government of the Qing dynasty in 1905,[34] lingchi became a widespread Western symbol of the Chinese penal system from the 1910s on, and in Zhao Erfeng's administration.[35] 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.

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, 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.[36][37] The arbitrary, cruel, and short-lived Liu Ziye was apt to kill innocent officials by lingchi.[38] Gao Yang killed only six people by this method,[39] and An Lushan killed only one man.[40][41] Lingchi was known in the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE); but, in one of the earliest such acts, Shi Jingtang abolished it.[42] Other rulers continued to use it.

The method was prescribed in the Liao dynasty law codes,[43] and was sometimes used.[44] Emperor Tianzuo often executed people in this way during his rule.[45] 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,[46][47] 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. 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.

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 fact he was beheaded after 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.[48][49][50]

Published accounts


The first Western photographs of lingchi were taken in 1890 by William Arthur Curtis of Kentucky in Guangzhou (Canton).[53]

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

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).[60]

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."[61]

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).[62] Historians Timothy Brook, Jérome Bourgon and Gregory Blue, criticised Bataille for his language, mistakes and dubious content.[63][64]


In the novel Flashman and the Dragon by George MacDonald Fraser, Sir Harry Flashman describes 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. Barry Hughart outlines a similar method in his fantasy-historical novels set in China.

In the novel Dream of Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, Wang Xifeng makes reference to the punishment in the proverb "A man that is sentenced to death by a thousand cuts will dare to pull the emperor off his horse."

In the novel The Journeyer by Gary Jennings, an executioner explains to the main character, Marco Polo, that 1,000 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 fictionalises 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, author Salvador Elizondo uses one of the 1905 lingchi 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 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[65] and Julio Cortázar's novel Rayuela. Lingchi 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.

Mo Yan's novel "Sandalwood Death", set during the Boxer Rebellion, devotes an entire chapter to a detailed narration of the slicing of Qian Xiongfei by executioner Zhao Jia.


In the 1956 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 lingchi, but with the added refinement that the victim's severed parts are to be fed to animals before him.

Death by lingchi is also portrayed or referenced in the films The Sand Pebbles (1966), Carry On... Up the Khyber (1968), Fled (1996), A Chinese Torture Chamber Story 2 (1998),[66] Rush Hour 3 (2007), the BBC TV series Robin Hood (2006), and the short film Assassin's Creed: Embers (2011).

Death by lingchi is partially carried out in the anime version of a popular manga called "Deadman Wonderland".

Inspired by the 1905 photos, Chinese artist Chen Chien-jen created a 25-minute film called Lingchi, which has generated some controversy.[67]


John Zorn composed a piece titled Leng Tch'e, which was recorded by his group Naked City and released in 1992. The album's cover art includes a photo from the January 1905 execution. There is also a Belgian grindcore band named Leng Tch'e.


In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "Kung Fu Crabtree," a Chinese man named Wu Chang confesses to the murder of a diplomat to protect his sister. He states at the end of the episode that he will be taken back to China "in a year or two" - the episode is set in 1901 - and subjected to "death by a thousand cuts." Wu was accused of being a Boxer, despite actually being a democratic reformer loyal to the deposed Guangxu Emperor.

In The 100 episode "Spacewalker", Lincoln explains that Finn's punishment for killing 18 Grounders in a village massacre is that Finn must be tied to a stake, and slowly cut and stabbed all night long by the grieving families of those he killed, until eventually being left to die of his wounds. Since he killed 18, Lincoln explains, he must suffer the pain of 18 deaths. Though it is not mentioned that the punishment is derived from Lingchi, the structure of the punishment itself is very similar, and Lincoln does refer to it as "death by a thousand cuts".

In the Jessica Jones episode "AKA 1,000 Cuts", Wendy Ross-Hogarth explains to Kilgrave while patching him up that she can't get revenge on her ex-wife Jeri because "how do you avenge death by a thousand cuts?" After she finishes, Kilgrave orders her to kill Jeri with a thousand cuts. She attempts to do so, but is stopped and killed by Pam before she can finish.

See also


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