The authors use the last Qing-era execution of Wang Weiqin using the ancient sentence of lingchi in 1905, known to Europeans as the “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, to examine the historical development, cultural meaning, and judicial basis of the most extreme legal form of execution available in China. French soldiers documented Wang Weiqin’s fate using a newly popular portable camera, providing a lasting image of how lingchi worked, but also altering the study of this type of execution. This also allows Brook, Bourgon, and Blue to examine European attitudes toward torture, imprisonment, and execution and their relationship with imperial China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The first step in analyzing lingchi as punishment requires researchers to understand it as merely another form of execution, but also to understand the goals of punishment in imperial China. In contrast with nineteenth and twentieth century European efforts to use punishment as a means of reforming criminals, Qing and earlier Chinese imperial punishment regimes focused on physical and spiritual punishment of the criminal. In this, Chinese practice was similar to that of all other governments through the eighteenth century. Perpetrators of the most horrible crimes received horrible punishments, including what the authors term execution by torment. This type of execution differs from both torture used to extract information and modern executions in which pain is minimized in its goals and symbolism. The torment used in lingchi and other “brutal” executions was part deterrent and part punishment itself. No information was sought, and easing the condemned’s death not a primary consideration.
Interestingly, Brook, Bourgon, and Blue indicate that lingchi executions could be less painful than a lesser sentence of strangulation. During lingchi, the executioner dispatched the condemned early in the process, before inflicting extreme pain, while strangulation produced great pain for its victims. Lingchi was more severe because it broke the body down, reducing its cohesion and extending the punishment into the afterlife. For this reason, imperial policies restricted the use of lingchi to the most excessive crimes, and required a bureaucratic process before executions occurred. Theological differences between Europe and China play a key role in the different reactions to lingchi between Europeans and Chinese. Where European executions focused on the condemned’s chance to seek redemption to gain access to Heaven, Chinese executions offered no such role, focusing on the power of the state. This difference altered the setting and actions of participants and witnesses to such extent that Europeans viewed Chinese executions as barbaric, and used them to further justify interventions in China during the two Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century.