Slow slicing (Traditional Chinese: 凌遲, Simplified Chinese: 凌迟, 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 to 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 xiao 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.
Art historian James Elkins 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 , describe a fast process lasting no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. Available photographic records 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. . The coup de grâce was all the more certain when the family could afford a bribe.
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. 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.
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, racism 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 stereotype 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, 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.
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; . 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.
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 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!"
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)
Other uses or citations of the 1905 photographs include:
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 the film Barbarella, Jane Fonda plays the lead role 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 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 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!'