An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

lingchi 凌遲, slicing to death

Mar 5, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

The "cold retardation" (lingchi 凌遲 or 陵遲), also called "cutting into ten thousand pieces" (qiandao wangua 千刀萬剮, wangua qiandao 萬剮千刀), guaxing 剮刑, suige lingchi 碎割凌遲 or luange 臠割 "slicing", was the most cruel and horrific form of the death penalty in traditional China. The aim was to prolong the process of dying as long as possible. It did not belong to the five capital punishments.

The origin of the expression is the term lingchi 陵遲 which denotes a hill that is slowly disappearing (Zhongguo baike da cidian bianweihui 1990). The custom is first attested in the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960). The Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) included it into the canon of regular punishments. The chapter on law (61-62 Xingfa zhi 刑法志) of the official dynastic history Liaoshi 遼史 enumerated the death penalties as strangulation (jiao 絞), decapitation (zhan 斬), and the "cold retardation". It is also mentioned in the penal code Qingyuan tiaofa shilei 慶元條法事類 of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) and was used by the Jin 金 (1115-1234) and Yuan 元 (1279-1368) dynasties, the former using it as one of three, and the latter as one of two modes of death penalty.

In Song China, the punishment is first mentioned as a plan to punish robbers in the region of Shaanxi during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (r. 997-1022). While Emperor Zhenzong harshly criticized it, his successor Renzong 宋仁宗 (r. 1022-1063) allowed to use it, and the punishment became custom form the reign of Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085) on (Zeng, Chen & Qi 1998). In 1028 it was used to punish someone who had killed a person to deliver the body as a sacrifice to ghosts (Jiang 1990).

The Ming Code Minglü 明律 dedicated 13 articles to this kind of punishment. It seems to have been relatively widespread during that time (Wang & Chen 1988).

In the late imperial age, the process of this punishment consisted of "methodical slitting and cutting apart of the condemned in a stipulated number of cuts performed in a prescribed sequence" (Brook, Bourgon & Blue 2008: 55). The Song-period method was much easier and stipulated to first cut off the four limbs and then the throat of the delinquent. Another early form were the "eight hacks" (ba dao 八刀), namely the face, the hand and feet, breast and belly, and finally the head.

The Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) author Wang Mingde 王明德 describes the contemporary method in his essay Dulü peixi 讀律佩觿 (quoted in Xinglü fenkao 刑律分考) as cutting away inch by inch of the condemned's limbs (cun er zhe zhi 寸而磔之) until all flesh was cut off. Then the delinquent's sexual organs were cut off or vandalised (ge qi shi 割其勢, in case of females you qi bi 幽其閉) and the belly was opened to pull off the bowels. The body was then dismembered and the parts "pickled" (zu 葅). Western photographies from around 1900 show that the executioners began with cutting off the breasts and parts from the front of the thighs.

"Death by a thousand cuts", as the punishment was known in the West, was used for serious crimes like sedition, corruption (and other "economic" crimes), attempts to "pervert the judicial system" (Brook, Bourgon & Blue 2008: 55-61, 104-116), beating or killing parents or grandparents, beating or hurting a teacher, threatening a person to death, mass murder (3 persons or more), opening graves or helping a prisoner to flee (jieqiu 劫囚).

Western observers were very fascinated by this immensely cruel form of torment and frequently described and discussed it as an expression of "Oriental despotism". It was abolished in 1905.

Brook, Timothy, Jérôme Bourgon & Gregory Blue (2008). Death by a Thousand Cuts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Jiang Yonglin 姜永琳 (1990). "Lingchi 凌遲", in Yang Chunxi 楊春洗 et al., ed. Xingshi faxue da cidian 刑事法學大辭書 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 320.
Wang Zhaotang 王召棠, Chen Pengsheng 陳鵬生, ed. (1988). Jianming fazhi shi cidian 簡明法制史詞典 (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe), 99.
Zhongguo baike da cidian bianweihui 《中國百科大辭典》編委會, ed. (1990). Zhongguo baike da cidian 中國百科大辭典 (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe), 259.
Zhou Fazeng 周發增, Chen Longtao 陳隆濤, Qi Jixiang 齊吉祥, ed. (1998). Zhongguo gudai zhengzhi zhidu shi cidian 中國古代政治制度史辭典 (Beijing: Shoudu shifan daxue chubanshe), 159.