Death by a Thousand Cuts

Business of photography is largely the business of death, destruction, and misery. Humans are naturally drawn to images that underscore the fragility and the impermanence of their existence, and this blog’s history chronicled that obsession. But sometimes there are images which were so grim, so brutal, and so devoid of humanity that even Iconic Photos hesitate to feature them.



There had been a few cases in the past that we had given such treatment to, and today’s post certainty qualified. If you click on the links above, you will be see the images of lingchi (or leng-t’che), commonly known as the Death by a Thousand Cuts. There was a time when the Western imagination was gripped by the Orientalist fears – fears embodied by characters such as Fu Manchu or Dr. No, and fears perhaps dating back to the Second Opium War, when a British prisoner-of-war refused to kneel to his Chinese captors and was summarily executed. Such fears were not helped by the notoriety of practices such as lingchi.

Lingchi involved tying a prisoner to a wooden frame and slowly slicing off body parts. Under the Confucianism, where to alter or cut one’s body was a spiritual sin, lingchi was the ultimate punishment, for this life and the next, reserved for major crimes, such as high treason, mass murder, or patricide/matricide. The man in the photos, Fou-tchou-li, was sentenced to lingchi for an equally important crime: he had been a guard killed his employer, a royal princeling from the Inner Mongolia.

Fou was one of the last to be officially executed in China by lingchi. Indeed, his execution, on 10th April 1905, was brought forward because lingchi was to be abolished two weeks later, although unofficial lingchis continued until 1920s and 1930s as China descended into civil war and public executions as acts of humiliation went on even longer to Maoist days. Ironically, Fou was one of the most famous victims of lingchi, as the photos above, taken by a French soldier stationed in Peking, were widely reprinted by Georges Bataille in his posthumous work Les Larmes d’Eros (1961), to ruminate on eroticism, ecstasy, and sexuality behind rituals and sacrifices.

The full set of photos are here: (link)



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