Death by a Thousand Cuts

Brook, T.,, eds.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle
  • Date of entry: Jan-25-2010
  • Last revised: Jun-08-2010


The two parts of this work investigate judicial punishments in imperial China as well as 18th and 19th century  Western reactions to and obsession with  Chinese methods of torture and with the Chinese method of public execution called death by a thousand cuts (lingchi). The authors present their interdisciplinary study as a "cross-cultural hermeneutics" (245), concluding that this use of torture and tormented death in China is not special but forms part of a global pattern of state-sponsored cruel and inhumane punishments recorded over time.


Used especially during the Qin dynasty, lingchi (tormented execution) was the death penalty for treason, murder, and other crimes. This illustrated volume begins with a description of one of the last executions by lingchi, in Beijing, in 1904.The practice was terminated by law in 1905. Wang Weiqin, a multiple murderer, is tied to a tripod; the state executioner and his assistant employ their swords to slice flesh from his breasts, biceps, and upper thighs. They then kill him by stabbing him in the heart. Thereafter, they dismember the body. The criminal would often be given a heavy dose of opium before the slicing  which was not by a thousand, but a smaller number of cuts.

A number of Frenchmen photographed this execution and these photos are discussed in detail as causing outrage and obsession in the West. However, the authors point out that Western governments practiced crucifixion, hanging, drawing and quartering, burning, breaking on the wheel, and other similarly cruel punishments. But some Western publications about lingchi resulted in an emphasis on the extreme barbarism of Chinese culture which could then serve as a justification for colonizing the country to civilize or Westernize it.

Chinese legal scholars wrote against lingchi as irregular. But Octave Mirbeau of the French school of torture literature promoted lingchi as a stereotype of Chinese cruelty. 18th and 19th century European travelers to China depicted Chinese methods of torture, such as the finger torture, the cangue, and the bastinado, both in words and pictures. Georges Bataille published lingchi photographs. The authors criticize these influential narratives as inaccurate and based on false evidence.

In their final chapter, Lingering On, the authors state: "The overwhelming international trend since the 1950s has been to limit and then repeal the use of the death penalty, the United States being the striking anomaly within the tradition of English law... The people's Republic of China, Taiwan, Japan, Mongolia, the Koreas, Singapore and Vietnam, all of which operate legal systems in the shadow of Chinese traditions of justice ...account for over three-quarters of officially reported judicial executions worldwide"(250).

The book is an important history of state-sponsored pain and torture inflicted on the body of its citizens. The authors refer to Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977) and Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003. See annotation). Extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index are included. Some photographs of torture have been placed on line by author Jérôme Bourgon (warning: some are grisly).


2008 Finalist for the PSP Division of the Assoc. of American Publishers, World History and Biography/Autobiography Category.


Harvard University Press

Place Published

Cambridge, Mass.




Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon & Gregory Blue

Page Count