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27 documents | 27 pages

Photographing 'Chinese Torture'

(December 2002)

Summary: A tentative synthesis on the origins of the photographic resources of this data basis: who shot them, in which context, for what purpose, and how did they get transmitted to us.

Photographing 'Chinese Torture'

Very early, Chinese punishments and tortures were described and illustrated, sometimes in a very tasteless way. It was not until the very end of the 19th century that changes were caused by photography. Then the instant photographic processes allowed the snapshooting 'live' of the various stages of executions. This is when the 'supplice chinois' as an expression took the meaning it still has today.

I - Realization and Reception Agents

A - Technical Agents:
- A media revolution, with the portable and easy to use camera which allowed snapshots. Often in this case, this was the Vérascope Jules Richard* stereoscopic camera.
See: essay on Photography in China* (R. Thiriez)

        - Amateur photography seized amazing scenes without paying attention to formal quality.

- No direct connection can be established with the earlier photography, which since 1839 had seen commercial or amateur frame their subject at length, creating a reconstructed reality, the only one which possible within the constraints of the processes of the time.
See: essay on 19th century photography of Chinese justice, 'The photograph as an expression of reality'* (R. Thiriez)

B - Political Agents:

- Crushing of China and her people into submission by the post-Boxer Western repression in 1900, and control of several major cities by Western troops.

-The 'inhuman' cruelty of Chinese law became a major issue used to justify, not only any longer the consular jurisdictions and the extraterritoriality privileges which put foreigners out of the reach of Chinese law, but essentially the imperialist powers' plans for a 'breakup of China.'
- French occupation troops, for their part, took advantage of their status above Chinese law to got snap shooting manor executions. They were either guarding the French legation in Beijing, or part of the large group garrisoned in Tianjin. The sets of photographs showing the three lingchi executions discussed in this database were taken by these troops; they exchanged and put them on the marked through Louis Carpeaux.
See: essay 'Louis Carpeaux, trader in nudes and exotic tortures' J. Bourgon.

C - Ethico-Aesthetic Factors

- The search for, and spreading, of such photographs testify to both an acute curiosity and a sustained interest by some people attracted by a certain 'aesthetics of horror'*
See: essay on 'Chinese Torture and "The Aesthetics of Horror''* (C. Margat)

- This implies an astonishing lack of concern for what happens to the convict: see the messages that were written on the back of postcards depicting 'Chinese Torture.'

- These images are meant for a public prepared to consider the execution as a 'supplice', that is, a theatrical show where set up and development aim to an end which is moral and aesthetic rather than merely legal.
See: related essay (See Reference)

- The lingchi photographs follow along the same lines as the export Chinese watercolors showing punishment, which were themselves influenced by the Baroque Christian iconography. They mark a break with the photography of scenes of Chinese justice produced during the second half of the 19th century.
See: Maria-Pia Di Bella's essay on this site"Voir le Christ en Chine' (See Reference) - The Photographs of Lingchi Executions.

The expression 'Chinese torture' applies primarily to the punishment of quartering, or 'thousand death cuts', in Chinese lingchi.*
Essay: Lingchi (See Reference)

A - The Three Main Sets

Set 1. The execution of Fu-zhu-li (See Reference) , on 10 April 1905 was the most extensively photographed, with 22 different images traced: see Photo file 'Execution by Quartering of the Criminal Fu-zhu-li', and also that for which circumstances are the best known, thanks to Louis Carpeaux and the Chinese judiciary archives. Details are in the Essay 'The Fu-zhu-li Case.'

Set 2. The execution of Wang Weiqin (See Reference) , in October or November 1904, for which 16 images were found. Four photographs were published soon after the facts (Harfeld 1909, Heindl 1926). They were subsequently forgotten, to be recently re-published by James Elkins (See Reference) . However, the set of 12 stereo glass plates for which copies are found in both the Musée Nicéphore Nièpce and the Vidéothéque du Musée de l'Homme has remained unpublished. Jerôme Bourgon has identified this execution as Wang Weiqin's, an event
Essay: The Wang Weiqin Case (See Reference)

Set 3. The execution of an unknown criminal, or pseudo-Fu-zhu-li (See Reference) , for which 8 photos were traced. Less complete than the other ones, this set was at first little copied. It owes its belated fame to the French philosopher Georges Bataille, who read on the Chinese victim's face a type of ecstasy which confirmed his assumptions on the close connection between pleasure and pain. Bataille, or his publisher Lo Duca, published 4 photos from the set, adding as a caption a summary of what Carpeaux reported of the Fu-shu-li execution. This error caused a long lasting confusion between the two executions.
Essay: 'Georges Bataille and the Chinese Executed Criminal' (See Reference)
B - Other Photographs

1. Quartered bodies

1. A quartered body near an executioner's block, Canton, on the execution ground of the Matou (head's horse) market. The first mention of it is found in the Hong Kong Telegraph dated 17 June 1890. (ref database for RT19). The print was offered for sale at a local (Western) photographic studio.

(same image?) Re-publication by Norman in 1895, with watercolors showing scens of lingchi and torture (See Reference) . This is the first systematic discussion of 'Chinese cruelty,' published on the very year where the break-up of China becomes a current subject.
(same image?) Publication under Postcard form
Essay: Chinese Execution (See Reference)

2. Several quartered or beheaded bodies

3. Lingchi of a seated man, with the executioner standing next to him, with the caption 'Hewing in pieces'. In fact, this photograph shows the corpse of the terrorist who bombed the commission to be set abroad for inquiring about foreign legislation, to prepare constitutional reforms in China. The commission president was killed, several members wounded, and the inquiry had to be delayed. This is a good example of how an event, or the painful photograph representing it, can be reinterpreted and deeply distorted to comply to a "déja vu": the suicide-bomber thus became a victim of chinese torture. (Sturani coll.)

Note: No photographs of lingchi dated after 1905 was found. The suppression of the penalty seems to have been enforced.
Essay: 'The 1905 Suppression of Cruel Punishments' (J.B.)

III - Other 'Tortures'

Representation of other physical punishments is less systematic.

Torture scenes, which are often shown on sketches or engravings, were not photographed.
The only exceptions are:
- The cangue or stocks
- The cage, also called 'slow death'

- Beheading as a substitute to torture: rare before 1900, photographs of beheadings are increasingly common after that date. The suppression of Imperial punishments encouraged the amateurs of images of Chinese torture to switch to the head cut and exposed by the various Warlords who were fighting for the control of China in the period 1915-1930.

Beheadings are rarely described as 'torture,' except when they are part of a larger session which includes a lingchi, as with the Liou Sseu series on 'Supplices chinois' about 1912.

Essay: Photographic Postcards of 'Supplices chinois' (J.B.)
(See Reference)
In Conclusion:

- The perception of 'Chinese torture,' and the success that the expression met with, are from 1895 on, closely linked to the photographs lingchi
- The photographs taken during the three executions which took place in Beijing in 1904-1905 gave a 'documentary' basis to this representation
- The photographers were able to take advantage of a rather short period, as the conditions for such photographs to be taken at technical, military and diplomatic levels allowing this existed only after 1900, while 'cruel' punishments were abolished on 24 April 1905. During this period of less than 5 years, over a hundred photographs were shot.
- The 'Chinese tortures' disappeared almost a century ago, however the image they convey is still vivid. The short and accidental meeting between a modern camera and an obsolete punishment generated a surprisingly lasting image
- These photographs have taken their place in a pre-existing 'aesthetics of horror', which has a definite influence on contemporary sensitivity.
Essay: 'Chinese Torture and Aesthetical Contemporary Sensitivity'

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