In Chinese, lingchi means a slow process. More specifically, this term refers to a slow and painful death, better known as "death by a thousand cuts."
However, China is not the only country to have used this brutal torture technique. Korea and Vietnam also used it.
In China, lingchi was used as a form of capital punishment from the Tang dynasty to the final years of the Qing dynasty. So, the execution method was used in China from around 900 to about 1905, when it was finally banned.
The torture method was used for especially unforgivable crimes like treason, matricide, and mass murder.
Although this method of execution has been illegal for several decades, its popularity has still not faded.
How Lingchi Began
It is believed that lingchi began after a torturer decided to start execution by removing the victims' eyes before torture. The fact that the person could not see what was going on made the experience more psychologically terrifying.
Eventually, the tongue, fingers, nose, ears, and genitals started to get chopped off before the victim was killed as the execution procedure evolved. Ultimately, the process would take more than three days, requiring over 3,000 cuts.
After the horrifying torture, the body was usually left in public for all to see.
Among those who suffered torture and death under this method included palace women who tried to assassinate the emperor in 1542. A general and a eunuch were also killed through cuts during the Ming dynasty over dubious treason charges.
Apparently, Auguste Chapdelaine died as a martyr in the same manner in China, although there are rumors that he was beaten to death.
Fou-tchou-li, a Mongol guard, was killed through lingchi in April 1905. The crude method of punishment was banned two weeks after his death.
Lingchi was also used in Vietnam, particularly on the French missionary Joseph Marchand. The Frenchman was killed in 1835.
How Lingchi Was Carried Out
During lingchi, a knife was used to remove small portions of the body over a long time. The goal was to ensure the victim suffered as much as possible before finally succumbing to their injuries.
Typically, lingchi was done in public. The victim was tied to a wooden frame, and the flesh would be sliced bit by bit.
The executioner cut bare flesh, usually starting with the breast and the surrounding muscles. This would leave the ribs bare. From there, the executioner could focus on the arms before heading down to the thighs.
In most cases, the suffering would only last for a short while since a "few dozen" cuts would render most prisoners unconscious during the rest of the ordeal. Generally, it took 15 to 20 minutes for the victims to pass out.
That said, the process evolved. For instance, 100 cuts were practiced during the Yuan dynasty, but up to 3,000 cuts were used during the Ming dynasty.
Additionally, lingchi varied based on the region. In some places, the process was extended for as long as possible. In others, it took just a couple of minutes.
The duration over which the victim remained alive depended on the depth of the cuts and the experience of the executioner. The seriousness of the crime also mattered.
That said, as lingchi evolved, the process lasted longer. There's even a record of a prisoner shouting for half a day before he finally died.
After the cuts, the victim would be decapitated and then dismembered. The chopped-off limbs would then be put in a basket. This was seen as a way to punish the victim during their next life. Those whose bodies were mutilated were also expected to suffer in the afterlife.
When Was Lingchi Used?
Although lingchi was often used against serious offenders, it was also used against people who offended the emperor. The emperor would use it to instill fear in people and keep them from getting on his wrong side.
Some emperors used lingchi against the families of their enemies.
In addition to torturing and killing the victim, the process was also used to humiliate prisoners. For that reason, lingchi could also be used on dead criminals.
To keep a family member from suffering for too long while undergoing this treatment, family members could bribe the executioner and have the unfortunate victim stabbed in the heart first to reduce suffering. Some people were given opium to make the suffering more bearable.
In general, for less serious crimes, the first cut was usually to the throat to ensure a quicker death. After that, subsequent cuts were used to dismember the body. Otherwise, the slicing and dismembering took place for serious crimes when the person was still alive.
Misconceptions And Myths About Lingchi
Considering how brutal and unusual lingchi is, there have been several misconceptions about it in the West. The sensationalism about this form of execution and torture can be traced back to the late 1800s.
For instance, an Australian traveler, George Earnest Morrison, claimed that lingchi referred to death by slicing into 10,000 pieces.
The earliest pictures of the punishment were taken in 1890 in Guangzhou, China, by William Arthur Curtis. In 1904 and 1905, three lingchi executions were also photographed by French soldiers in Beijing.
Generally, Westerners considered lingchi a sign of Chinese backwardness. However, the torture method was actually an idea by K'ang Yu-Wei, who has been described as the "Rousseau of China" over his intellectual government reform proposals in China during the 1890s.
However, although lingchi was abolished in 1905, several emperors had abolished it throughout history, only for subsequent rulers to bring it back.
Some emperors did not wholly ban this form of punishment, although they reserved it for only a small selection of crimes.
One of the earliest proposals to remove lingchi came in the 1100s. The proposal suggested that lingchi affected "the harmony of nature" and was unsuitable for "a generation of wise men."
To this day, lingchi is still discussed, both in literature and media. This brutal execution stands out because it sought to extend the execution period for as long as possible.
However, some accounts have grossly exaggerated what happened during this execution method due to the lack of adequate records.
Misconceptions have also influenced how people describe the procedure today. For instance, there is a fictionalized account of lingchi executions whereby the cut-off pieces are fed to the victim.
Someone wrongly assumed that torture by lingchi actually felt blissful. They claimed that a victim looked upwards while sighing in relief as the executioner cut off part of his flesh.
Lingchi has also been covered in movies like The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Warlods (2007), and the Netflix series Jessica Jones (2015). In her seventh studio album, Taylor Swift compared the pain of breaking up to this form of torture. The song is called Death by a Thousand Cuts.