Chinese executions. Visualising their differences with "Supplices" of Christian Europe
(22 August 2005)
Summary: That the Chinese were singled out by a native cruelty in refined
tortures became a widespread representation at the turn of the twentieth
century. This cliché relied mainly on photographs of executions that could
be diffused worldwide through modern mass media such as illustrated journals
or postcards. The instant photographs taken from life provided an exact
rendition of what really happened on a Chinese execution ground, and anyone
seeing the image could have no doubt as to the reality of Chinese cruelty,
which was otherwise ascertained by true or bogus eyewitness reports.
The impression was so strong and penetrated so deep in the Western imagination
that it still survives as a déjà vu, an ‘eye print’. Thus, the answer
to why the Chinese have been represented as natively cruel must proceed
from a careful reexamination of the visual documentation on Chinese executions.
Western observers or commentators naturally tended to construe capital
executions according to what was practiced and abundantly represented
in their own civilisation. European executions obeyed a complex model that
the author proposes to call ‘the supplice pattern’. The term supplice designates
tortures and tormented executions, but it also includes their cultural
background. The European way of executing used religious deeds, aesthetic
devices and performing arts techniques which themselves called for artistic
representations through paintings, theatre, etc. Moreover, Christian civilisation
was unique in the belief that the spectacle of a painful execution had a
redemptive effect on the criminals and the attendants as well. Chinese executions
obeyed an entirely different conception. They were designed to show
that punishment fitted the crime as provided in the penal code. All details
were aimed to highlight and inculcate the meaning of the law, while signs
of emotions, deeds, words, that could have interfered with the lesson in law
were prohibited. In China, capital executions were not organized as a show
nor subject to aesthetic representations, and they had no redemptive function.
This matter-of-fact way of executing people caused Westerners deep
uneasiness. The absence of religious background and staging devices was
interpreted as a sign of barbarity and cruelty. What was stigmatised was not
so much the facts that their failure to conform to the ‘supplice pattern’ that
constituted for any Westerner the due process of capital executions.
'Supplice:' An Interpretative Framework
At the turn of the twentieth century, Westerners started to see Chinese
punishments not as legal penalties but as a deliberate and sophisticated
display of the utmost suffering. Chinese judicial practices and
penal laws, and the state that enforced them, were perceived through
a sadistic mist, in a Turandot-like ambience. This was indeed a significant
representational change. From the eighteenth century, Chinese
laws and ways of government had aroused growing criticism as examples
of ‘Oriental despotism’, but few if any authors had expatiated on
the Chinese predilection for cruelty. The scope began to change when
rational arguments and written analysis gradually yielded to imagery.
Pictures reached the West in growing quantity during the nineteenth
century, culminating in the 1900s following the advent of photography
and modern techniques of mass diffusion. Most of our beliefs
concerning Chinese cruelties thus rely on a déjà vu impression, and on
ready-felt emotions more deeply rooted than any verbal prejudice.
My intention is to go back to these images, to analyse the makeup
of this déjà vu. My broad understanding is the following:
of Chinese executions revived visual impressions (or déjà vu)
deeply rooted in Western culture and based on an exceedingly rich
Christian iconography of martyrdom;
- this iconography provided the framework through which Chinese executions were interpreted, thus superimposing expectations of how an execution should be displayed, what kinds of messages and impressions it was meant to convey, etc., all requirements actually amounting to a kind of ‘due process’;
- the fact that such expectations were unfulfilled—because
of either the absence of ‘due elements’ or the presence of ‘undue
elements’—caused anxiety and fed speculations concerning the inhumanity
and cruelty of Chinese punishment. <:li>
This ‘due process’ has a more current name in French and other
Latin languages: "supplice." As it has no equivalent in English, I will
use supplice to indicate the ‘interpretative framework’ that all Westerners
have in mind when they comment on Chinese executions,
even though their native language may have no particular name to
frame the notion. In my attempt to highlight the Chinese side of this
question, I will focus on three aspects: legality, religion and ‘visibility’.
Visual sources will be produced to show how the interpretative
framework set by the supplice pattern (sketched out in Part 1) conflated
with the real practice of Chinese executions as shown by photographs,
which therefore appeared as a bloody chaos (Part 2). Chinese executions
had their own ‘due process’, as evidenced in illustrated plates
which offer minute elements of comparison with the supplice pattern
(Part 3). Finally, I will quote Western testimonies on Chinese executions
to show how the supplice pattern influenced their perception and
dictated terms for stigmatising ‘Chinese cruelty’.
Let us start with some basic features. A supplice is:
- The public execution of a legal verdict delivered by judicial authorities;
- A spectacle performed on a stage, with all the technical apparatus
required for a show;
- A redemptive ordeal, intended to convert the prisoner, in preparation
for the more important judgement in the Afterworld;
- A religious event made into a highly ritualised ceremony.
- Feature 1, public execution, is an element common to all penal systems at a given stage of their history. In Europe, executions remained public
until the end of the nineteenth century.2 However, the growing wave
of discontent and disgust that they provoked in the urban population
pushed them into more and more remote places, so as to make
‘publicity’ somewhat nominal. At any rate, such cruel spectacles had
almost completely disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century,
either by express abolition or because they into abeyance. From then
on, Europe contrasted with China, where not only executions but
also various torments characteristic of the old penal systems remained
highly visible in the most affluent places. Foreigners in big Chinese
cities were frequently exposed to executions, and even more to their
sequels, such as severed heads hung up at the busiest crossroads. In
Beijing, the execution ground of Caishikou was notorious for the disgusting
spectacle of exposed heads rotting in their cages under the
greedy gaze of stray dogs.3 The juxtaposition of the new Western sensitivity to bloody spectacles and the ostentatious display of physical
punishment certainly explains the long-lasting impression of legal violence
attached to China. However, many other countries practised the
same kinds of punishment, and some still use mutilating punishments
that China firmly renounced in 1905. So how do we explain the fact
that only the latter has been pictured as a land of ‘refined cruelty’? At
any rate, ‘cruelty’ refers to other elements than publicity or frequency
of executions: it refers to the general spirit and intent evinced therein.
Cruelty is not so much a matter of facts as a mood of representation.
The gruesome sight of public executions overshadowed the other
side of the coin: in China, punishments were legal not only because
they were delivered by judicial authorities but, more importantly, because the judge conformed to the scale of penalties provided by
the penal code. No penal code existed in Europe before the late eighteenth century, although Foucault has argued that cruel punishments
in classical Europe can be construed as ‘a legal code of suffering’, relying
on ‘technicalities that must not be assimilated to a lawless fury’.4
In fact, penal efficiency was pursued by relying on visual effects,
through symbolic acts like ‘mirror penalties’ which inflicted on the
criminal the same torments suffered by his victim.5 As they were not
set in a comprehensive penal scale, the cruel punishments of Europe
were open to the ingenuity of magistrates.6 In China, the penal code
supplied not only the punishment but also the process of execution,
which was intended to highlight conformity to the law. European supplices
depended mainly on the whims of sovereigns and their agents,
while their Chinese equivalents resulted from the minute application
of an impersonal law.
In contrast with Feature 1, the three others have no equivalent in
China. Before examining the Chinese side, let us take a closer look at
the Western pattern.
- Feature 2, execution as a spectacle of punishment, does not need
detailed explanation, except maybe to stress how far the term ‘spectacle’
is accurate. To anyone taking the term seriously, it suggests that
specific devices were used. First, a stage, well defined, generally isolated
and elevated—the scaffold. It also needed actors, going onto
the stage to perform roles that transform their personal characters
into models of redemption. A good performance also needs a plot—
a visual narrative of ‘a brave death’, from the walk to the gallows,
tormented all the way, to the denouement, with significant episodes
in between: claims of willingness to die as a Christian, kissing the
hangman’s feet, etc. The plot was staged by specialists—religious congregations especially devoted to the regia dei supplizi—using various
props and artifices that helped the transformation of the condemned
criminal into a martyr (crown of thorns, etc.). European executions
had much in common with the street theatre of mystery plays and
- Feature 3,a redemptive ordeal: the human punishment is only the
visible part of a process, the denouement of which is invisible, though
already announced and sealed by signs of pain and repentance.
The more spectacular the ordeal in the visible world, the softer
and quicker the outcome in the invisible world. Thus, cruelty and
suffering are not incidental but have a functional necessity, which in
turn dictates their roles to the actors. A ‘good’ executioner has to
act cruelly, as inflicting the utmost suffering helps the condemned to
gain salvation in the Afterworld; reciprocally, a ‘good’ condemned
has to show all the signs of suffering to complete his assimilation
with a Christian martyr or the suffering God.8 Hence the curious
image of the ‘duel’ between the executioner and the condemned. The
executioner behaves, in fact, not as a servant of the law but as an
adversary of crime, which he has to tackle and crush during a fight
where he deploys all the signs of holy fierceness.9 His foe is not so
much the condemned himself as his body, which is the author of the
crime. His soul, therefore, has to ally itself with the executioner and
finally thank him for delivering it from evil.
- Feature 4:a collective religious event made into a highly ritualised ceremony. The ultimate aim of all executions was to create or revive a
strong feeling of communion among all participants. The spectacle
promoted a mimetic identification with the executed, and a cathartic
display of compassion fused individuals into an ideal Christian
community for a brief but intense moment. In this regard, a supplice
is a legal punishment turned into a Mass. This collective compassion
relied on three basic elements: the executioner displays cruelty,
the executed suffers and repents, and both stimulate public sympathy.
The ceremony is arranged to combine these three elements—cruelty,
suffering and compassion—and lead them to a climax.
To summarise, the European way privileged symbolism, mimesis
and catharsis, with strong calls to collective instincts through visual
stimuli. It relied on aesthetic rather than rhetorical devices. A supplice
can be represented ‘live’ as a play, as well as being reproduced
through various kinds of pictures (drawing, engraving, painting).
Moreover, there are cross-influences between these aesthetic representations:
the staging devices imagined by religious congregations
are influenced by paintings of martyrdom, and are themselves likely
to influence later artists. The legal significance is tightly embedded
in a ‘penal artistic’ complex. The latter is well defined by Edgerton in
the introducing remark to his book on the representation of legal punishments
in European art: ‘Absurd as such a connection may seem, I
will provide ample evidence to suggest that between the thirteenth
and seventeenth centuries practitioners of both art and the law—
painters, sculptors, architects, lawyers, judges, and police—could not
have pursued their respective disciplines as they did without mutual
(See Reference) Why such ‘interaction’ did not occur in China is the major question examined in this article.
Visual Evidence of Chinese Executions
Historians rarely use visual documents as sources. Most of the time,
images merely illustrate ready-made demonstrations. Few images of
punishments appear in works devoted to legal history, and even in
the most well-illustrated studies such images are only loosely connected
with the facts or the period studied in the text. Conversely—
or, in fact, complementarily—views of Chinese punishments have
abounded in unscientific books, with biased comments on Chinese
From now on, I will use photographs and pictures of punishments
as historical sources. This implies a critical analysis of the origins
and nature of the document, with cross-references whenever possible,
and almost requires that the visual document be closely observed
and commented for its own sake, and not as a mere illustration of
a preconceived demonstration. My intention is to check whether the
Chinese executions, as we can observe them through various images,
differed significantly from the supplices pattern as defined for Europe.
Any significant differences should reveal differing representations,
themselves revealing a different legal spirit.
(See Reference) Our first document is abstracted from an original set of twelve snapshots on stereoscopic glass plate.
(See Reference) . They show the main phases of
an execution by ‘dismemberment’ (lingchi) and are therefore extremely
unpleasant to look at. This kind of shot has entered into the gruesome
folklore elaborated during belle époque France and usually accompanied
by prurient comments. Incidentally, other photographs of this
execution have been published, with dubious comments; however,
they belong to a set taken by another photographer
(See Reference) .Though the set
I am using bears the indication ‘Kouantcheou wan [that is, Guangzhou],
<(See Reference)> , a careful analysis of the plates shows that they were taken in Beijing, very likely at the end of 1904, a few months before the final
abolition of lingchi in April 1905.13 The condemned was an eminent
man called Wang Weiqin, who had killed twelve members of a family
in 1901, women and children included (the youngest aged three years).
He was therefore condemned to the ultimate punishment ordained
for ‘killing three persons or more in a same family’.14
Now, let us forget these particular circumstances and focus on
the images. It needs a strong intellectual effort to put understandable
repulsion or fascination to one side and pursue our comparative
approach. The photographic media generate a particular fascination that must be overcome by the historian who intends to exploit photographic
documents as sources, but overcoming one’s initial repulsion is soon compensated by valuable lessons. When compared with the patterns of supplice seen above, Chinese executions are singled out by
four main differences:
- The absence of any scaffold or stage. The condemned was executed at
street level, in an area not clearly defined, with onlookers in close
- No plot, no roles. The general unfolding of this execution shows no
effort to build it into a cohesive series during which deeds or words
gain significance. Executioners remain all along as they appear in
this view, unruffled and serious. They do not play a role: they fulfil
a function. The same is true of the condemned, who, although
obviously still alive, never evinces the signs of pain that we might
- No religious background, nor any kind of staging. Only the condemned, the executioners and their helpers take an active part in the execution. No one else interferes to impose a meaning or intent on the
- No ‘public’, no communion. Numerous onlookers are present, certainly.
However, no separation from the ‘show’, no clear delimitation between the performance, assistance and the surroundings, no common perspective on the execution allows individual witnesses to fuse into a public, in the full acceptance of the term. Thus, the crowd was unlikely to behave as a ‘public’, in a collective demonstration of compassion, hatred or riots.15
The first difference is crucial: the absence of a stage, the most striking
feature in all Chinese executions, generates other differences. It
questions the very notion of ‘spectacle’, which is central in the supplice
pattern. A ‘spectacle’ implies a certain kind of visual relationship
between the event and those attending. Technically, a stage can be
defined as a square area towards which many views converge, along
perspective lines. Perspective consists of the geometrical projection of
this spectacular square, which in fact was first arranged for performing
arts and later extended to urban architecture (in many languages,
a ‘perspective’ is a straight and wide avenue), before becoming the
basic technique of Renaissance painters. The stage is not an accessory
but a necessity for all spectacles, as well as for their representations
through pictures, paintings, etc. In other words, the spectacle is
not the event itself, but the perspective on it offered to onlookers, with
the intention of fusing them into a public. If this hypothesis is relevant,
the absence of a stage implies that Chinese executions were not
spectacles and that their onlookers were not a public.
To put this in a more concrete way, one may wonder what the
Chinese onlooker’s perception was of the penal event he or she
was witnessing. Immersed in an unorganised crowd, catching only
bits and pieces despite the contiguity that places them shoulder to
shoulder with the executioners’ helpers, they have no distance from
which to contemplate a unified and self-cohesive ‘spectacle’ with
its easily readable plot, completed by significant words and gesture.
Their emotions are not taken in charge and guided by specialised
stagers, and they are too busy watching the scene and managing
the strong effects it produces on them to find the energy for any
emotional or other display. The onlookers’ attitude will be discussed
further, but let us notice here that they have not been not invited
by the protagonists of the execution to display emotion. Chinese
executioners never display the cruel attitude that their European
counterparts were required to show, and their unruffled dispatch is
so strikingly in contrast with it that some sensitive commentators have
interpreted it as a paradoxical mercy.16 Reciprocally, the condemned
was left no chance to express pain, sorrow or repentance. While
shouting, screaming and all other demonstrations of pain, along with
words and deeds of repentance, were at the core of the punishment
spectacle in Europe, unverifiable but repeated narratives testify to the
desire of hushing up the Chinese condemned, for instance by covering
his voice with a greater noise, or even cutting his vocal cords.17 As
Chinese executions were not spectacles and those who attended them
did not constitute a ‘public’, their protagonists had no role to perform
The European show of execution was deeply religious in its inspiration
and intent. Chinese religions were not unconcerned with punishment,
as witness the representations of the Chinese hell and practices
like the procession of Cheng Wang, the magistrate of hell, whose official
symbols, carried by ‘police runners’, were followed by hundreds
of worshippers in the guise of would-be executed prisoners—some
were fettered or chained, and some fixed a strip of bamboo stick to
the back of their heads in the hope that their temporal sins could
be alleviated in this way.18 This assuredly testifies to the strong symbolic
meaning and moral impact of the death penalty on popular
religion. However, as reported by eyewitnesses and shown by photographs,
the executions themselves were devoid of any perceptible
When seen through the supplice pattern, Chinese executions appear
as a gory chaos. They can be deciphered only when restored to their
traditional and specific context. The close proximity between the
crowd and the execution seems to originate in the very ancient notion
of qishi 棄市. The term means ‘public execution’ or ‘death penalty’ in the
current language. But the literal rendering, ‘to be thrown into the
marketplace’, is probably closer to practices reported in remote antiquity.
The worst criminals were handed over to the crowd to be torn
into pieces (or burnt, beaten to death, etc.), while their belongings
were looted. Concurrent traditions, a step further in history maybe,
had criminals cut into pieces by state agents in the midst of the crowd.
Whether directly or by proxy, the public exposure of the criminals’
remains in the marketplace, or on city walls, was an essential part of
the punishment. This ‘punishment by the crowd’, as Niida (pp. 392-3)
(See Reference) calls it, following a German term designating biblical stoning, has similarities with European practices so strong that speculating on a universal primary stage of the death penalty is tempting. This is, and will
probably remain, impossible to verify; at any rate, more interesting
is how these supposed ‘primitive strata’ was remodelled and hidden,
but retained in subsequent penal rituals. In Europe, the spectacular
apparatus of supplices allowed the transmuting of popular violence
into public compassion, transferring cruelty onto the executioner’s
character, sanctifying the condemned’s agony, etc. Meanwhile, careful
studies demonstrate that the old spirit was maintained through
public exposure of quartered bodies in marketplaces or in the coun-
tryside (Spierenburg, p. 72)
(See Reference) . When they were confronted with Chinese executions, Westerners
reacted to the absence of the supplice apparatus which brutally
reminded them of the collective barbarity of the primal punishment.
Meanwhile, they obstinately ignored the fact that China had its own
‘due process’ of execution.
The Chinese ‘Due Process’ of Execution
Surprising though it might seem given that executions were a frequent
scene of daily life, their visual representations seldom appear.
Some of this may be due to the evolution of Chinese painting; however,
I would suggest that the ‘unspectacular’ nature of executions was
also influential: the lack of scaffold, staging and ‘spectacular perspective’
discouraged representation, or at least artistic representations, for
a wide public.
As a consequence, visual elements from which we could reconstitute
the Chinese ‘due process’ of execution are scarce, piecemeal
and little known. The images below are abstracted from two works
published around 1900 by local magistrates: the Xinglü tushuo (Illustrated
Plates of the Penal Code)
(See Reference) and Zuiming tushuo (Illustrated Plates
of Crimes and Their Penal Labels)
(See Reference) . They consist of a series of placards
that were originally posted at the crossroads to show the populace
what penalties they were exposing themselves to when committing
such and such a crime. More accurately, a placard associated a tu
(plate), representing one of the legal punishments, and a shuo (explanation), enumerating the legal ‘names’ (ming) of the crimes punished this way. The pictures below illustrate the penalty of ‘dismemberment’
(lingchi), while their ‘explanations’ enumerate crimes like ‘great rebellion’,
‘killing of grandparents or parents’, etc.
The major interest of these plates is how they schematise the Chinese ‘due process’, which can be summarised as follows:
Contextualisation: executions are the display of a punishing power in
a social framework, symbolised through certain basic elements: legal
authority, with the magistrate and his servants under a big awning or
canopy, and possibly soldiers; attending commoners, reduced to a small
group with representatives of all generations; the execution itself, with
the condemned and the executioners.
- Pedagogy: commoners are shown quietly observing the execution, while the elders teach the youngsters by pointing at the execution with a
finger—a major concern, as the prefaces of the treatises say that the
pictures were made to help ‘the father teach his son’, etc.
- Apathy and disembodiment: the lack of emotion is striking, considering the nature of the scene. Neither executioners, soldiers, commoners, nor
even the executed display any excitement or even smile slightly. In
addition, bodies are but weightless figurines that scarcely bleed even
from the deepest wounds
(See Reference) .
- Readability: the picture has no other purpose or meaning than illustrating the law sketched out in the characters inscribed at the top of the
plate or on the opposite page of the treatise. All elements of the pictures
are selected and arranged to convey this legal message.
This Chinese ‘due process’ of execution raises two types of question.
The first deals with the executions as media: their function, the
message they convey and the devices used to transmit it. The second
concerns the interaction of aesthetics and law that underlies the
European penal artistic complex: as these Chinese representations
also employ aesthetic devices, they call for a comparison with the
The key notion in the case of the first question is ‘readability’: the
execution is only the realisation of a legal message, stressing the equivalence between the ‘name’ of a crime and the ‘punishment’ that it entails, and the whole is condensed in a few written characters (seeable at upper right in this plate
(See Reference) . All executions require the presence of readable characters guaranteeing the legality of the punishment, as can be verified in photographs as well as in fictional descriptions. For instance, all condemned people carried on their backs splits of bamboo, spelling their name, the judicial authority which had delivered the verdict and was in charge of the execution, the ‘name’ of the crime committed and the ‘punishment’ to be inflicted. These signs can also be found in the religious
procession described above, or in executions related in famous novels
like Shuihu zhuan (Waters Margin)
(See Reference) .
This ideal of the perfect transparency of the legal message accounts
for the other characteristics. The emotional ‘apathy’ of all the characters,
for instance, cannot be explained by the Chinese artists’ inability
to represent suffering or cruelty. The skilled draughtsman who drew
the second plate would have been able to use the rich imagery of
Buddhist hell punishments (see the watercolours below). Actually, he
would have done so if the objective had been to inspire terror in the
populace. Instead, the stress is put on the serenity of the figures of
power. The behaviour of the magistrates, the executioners and the soldiers
embodies the principle that ‘a good judge must not evince wrath
or joy’ when delivering a verdict, or when putting it into action. The
attending commoners, far from being terrorised, are shown quietly
following the legal lesson being taught to them. This same preoccupation
has led to the callous way of representing all bodily injury. In
this ideal scheme, no fellow-feeling is allowed to obscure the transparent
message delivered by the state to the populace: ‘See justice being
done, where the punishment fits the crime.’
This leads to the second set of issues, concerning the aesthetic
dimension of these plates. The landscape in the background, the
characters’ gestures and the majestic arrangement of the scene all
combine to display an obvious sense of beauty. But this is a noxious
beauty; anxiety grows when we look at this fair young lady contemplating
her cut-off limbs with a gentle smile, while details such as the
‘golden lotus’ at the end of a severed leg tend towards obscenity.24
Aesthetic research seems odd, or even perverse, as it does not give
expression to ‘natural’ emotions felt in such circumstances. Here, ‘natural’
simply means ‘in conformity with the conventions of the Western
penal–artistic complex’. More specifically, ‘natural emotions’ are
those that animated the supplice model: cruelty, suffering and compassion.
Maybe this abstract assumption will be made clearer by confronting
these purely Chinese pictures with a cross-cultural curiosity, Chinese export watercolours. The latter are paintings made in Chinese workshops in Guangzhou to supply the growing Western demand for ‘typically Chinese’ scenes. From the mid eighteenth century on, Western merchants and sea captains brought back, along with porcelains and other curios, albums of watercolours representing landscapes, customs, trades, dresses—and punishments.25 Actually, Western curiosity provides us with far more representations of Chinese executions in the course of about one century than does Chinese art in more than one millennium. It also shows the origins of the process of remodelling Chinese executions to make them conform to the supplice pattern, thus anticipating the photographic flood of the following period.
Here are three scenes of dismemberment interpreted in the Western manner:
First, a duel between the executioner and the executed, the latter bound to the Christian cross.
Despite exotic clichés, we are back home. I will just point out marks
of Westernisation without elaborating on them:
- Focus on the cross: a glance at these photographs shows the amount of effort needed to recognise crosses in the tripodal gallows erected for
lingchi. Actually, using such a device would have precluded the severing
of the arms. That eyewitnesses (see the Isabella Bishop quotation
below) and paintings made for Westerners so frequently and forcibly
introduce the cross into Chinese executions is most revealing of the
anxious search for a Christian religious background.26
- The redemptive ordeal: two plates focus on the familiar image of the duel between the executioner and the one to be executed. The social and
institutional context of the execution that the Chinese place under various
aspects (judicial authorities, their servants, the attending commoners)
has completely disappeared. No more a scene of social life, the
execution is reduced to a physical ordeal, closely followed by the now
familiar triangle of feelings—cruelty, suffering and compassion—which
permeates the third plate (lingchi on the road: see close-up).
- The material suffering and bleeding body: these three plates are highly representative of the general trend of water-colourists to portray in strong
colours all the gruesome details of beheaded and dismembered bodies.
Unlike the insubstantial silhouette of the Chinese plates, the weighty
body lying on the ground, with its meaty muscles underlined with shadows, is reminiscent of the Renaissance and Baroque martyrs, who gained the salvation of their Christian souls through the destruction of their Greek heroes’ anatomies
(See Reference) .
This is enough to indicate a cultural capture, all the more fascinating
because it occurred in Chinese workshops; in a way, what would later
become the supplice chinois was conceived by Chinese artists as an
export chinoiserie. Demand created supply, since Western customers
provided the Chinese artists with Christian pictures as inspiration.
The Chinese artists blended typical Christian clichés with others
borrowed from the Chinese hell. The third watercolour
(See Reference) is typical in this regard, with its Christian cross and its demon-like executioners, whose equivalents can be seen in Buddhist hell scenes.
The differences between the two representations can be summarised
in this way (see the table below). The ‘plates with commentaries’
(tushuo) were meant to convey a legal message to an illiterate public.
This normative message can be rendered: ‘See what will happen to
you if you commit such and such a crime’; it expresses the control that
the state intends to impose on commoners’ wills. Export watercolours
convey a different message: ‘See how it feels to be executed.’ This
is a free, aesthetic expression of the artist’s sensibility directed to the
public’s sensitivity. These different spirits call for two different points
of view. The 'tu' bring forward the official vision, highlighting the legal,
social and factual dimensions of executions, certainly real enough.
However, the images seem strangely devoid of emotion, ‘apathetic’:
they are a deliberate representation of an idealised impassivity of
justice. In contrast, the export watercolours are moving, horrific,
gory; they allegedly take the point of view of the person suffering
the punishment, or of a compassionate eyewitness. Meanwhile, they
give a fantastic vision, devoid of all accuracy; their authenticity is
psychological and corporal; this is the truth of a tormented body,
of a necessarily cruel tormentor, a call for fascination, sympathy
and redemption . While the watercolours convey Christian clichés,
the official plates deliver a purely Chinese discourse on penalty,
penetrating enough to make real executions conform to an ideal of
sobriety that rooted all Westerners on the spot with amazement.
Figure10: Close-ups showing the Christian ‘aspects of the cross’ aesthetics in the
representations of ‘supplices chinois’: (a) the suffering of the tormented, (b) the cruelty
of the executioner, (c, d) the affliction and compassion of the onlookers
The Chinese Mirror and Patterns of Western Interpretation
The elements above are intended to shed light on commentators’
implicit framework of interpretation when they describe Chinese
executions. Two texts exemplify typical attitudes: the first roughly
equates the Chinese penalties to the barbarity of Dark Ages Europe;
the second more subtly develops an implicit parallel between Chinese
executions and European supplices, in its complex dimension.
The first attitude occurs concerning Wang Weiqin’s execution,
photographs of which have been reproduced above. The well-known
British businessman and traveller Archibald Little heard of the event
while he was on the way to register a trademark at the new Department
of Commerce (shangbu; in Little’s transcription, shangpu).
A main street through which I passed was thronged with people gathered
to witness the execution of a criminal by the ling-chi process, and I
had difficulty in making my way through the crowd. The event was
more than commonly interesting owing to the fact of the criminal
being a high official. This man, it appeared, had, during the disturbances
in 1900, murdered two whole families and so acquired their
possessions; he was recently denounced by a woman, his guilt proved,
and sentence passed accordingly. I would not be diverted, however,
from my quest of the Shangpu, but a European who was present at the
execution told me that it was the most tragic spectacle; the prescribed
process was literally carried out, the pieces of flesh, as cut away, being
thrown to the crowd, who scrambled for the dreadful relics. In China,
we are still in the Middle Ages.28
The relative accuracy of information gives credence to the whole
account, including the last grisly details, which actually form the core
of these kinds of testimonies, the kind of detail that later commentators
and would-be eyewitnesses revelled in elaborating. Thus, Robert
Heindl, a German criminologist who published photographs of the
same execution, affirmed: ‘I saw the onlookers chattering and laughing,
smoking cigarettes and chomping on fruits!’29 Abundantly reproduced
in books aimed at the wider public, such observations strengthened
belief in a cruel and barbaric Chinese people.
Table comparing illustrations of the penal code through commented plates
(tushuo) with Chinese export watercolours showing Chinese executions
‘See what happens if you = ‘See how it feels to be executed’
infringe the law’
Normative = Aesthetic
(rulers’ will • commoners’ will) (artist’s sensitivity • public’s sensitivity)
Postulated point of view
Official (of those applying law) = Subjective (of those undergoing law)
High (despite conventions) = Low (fantasy > reality)
Low (apathy, impassiveness) = High (pain, cruelty, sympathy)
Type of representation
Legal sanction (penalty fits the crime) = Supplice (martyrdom, redemption)
EJEAS 2.1. Proef 1. 12-2-2003:12.11, page 171.
Careful examination of photographic sources using computer techniques
shows that such comments are prejudiced. The fifteen available
snapshots representing all phases of this dismemberment clearly
show that no ‘piece of flesh’ was ever thrown to the crowd. The
‘gory remnants’ that were tossed to the public were the photographs
themselves—actually its Western part. As for people laughing, eating
fruits and having fun, as the German criminologist claimed to
observe, a glance at some close-ups gives a quite different impression.
Admittedly, all these faces evince a conspicuous fascination, an
effort to keep the executioners’ moves in sight. But there is no mark
of fun or pleasure; indeed, these two notions are the opposite of the
general feeling that pervades the images: not a grin nor even any
ambiguous expression supports this reading. Instead, there are visible
marks of consternation and dejection (even from a young auxiliary
of the executioners, right). Also, there are signs of possible anger and
silent revulsion, as in the glance that the tall man darts at the prying
In other words, the photographs show none of the feelings and attitudes
that entered into the general economy of the supplice model.
This also challenges sophisticated interpretations that in fact are
sequels on the supplice paradigm. For instance, the psycho-analytical
vulgate would prompt one to assume a universal ‘sadism of the
crowd’; the ‘sacrificial’ thesis postulates participation from the public,
and even from the executed himself, hence the ‘ecstasy’ that Bataille
read on the face of a young man undergoing dismemberment.30 Submitting
these photographs to a historical critique first requires, as
with any other source, that ready-made interpretations be rejected.
A second step is to compare them to documents revealing the under-
Figure 11: Onlookers at a public execution by lingchi.
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172 JÉRÔMe BOURGOn
lying conceptions that structured the practical display of executions.
We finally become aware that the disturbing effect of these snapshots
originates from the fact that they place the viewer inside the world
pictured by the Chinese legal handbooks. Instead of the quiet lesson
in law intended by the Mandarins, however, the squads of underlings
busily preparing to butcher a man and the consternation and fascination
emanating from the crowd mark the failure of the intended penal
pedagogy. This project relied on the assumption that the meaning of
the law could be taught using the human body as a medium, which
should have remained transparent to the message it had to convey.
The close-ups crudely show that the onlookers had no such capacity
In this regard, Little’s affirmation that ‘China is still in the Middle
Ages’ is particularly misleading. This cliché throws back to a distant
past legal atrocities that were in fact much closer in Western history.
Actually, it had been no more than a century since the last European
supplices; moreover, the last Chinese lingchi had intimate similarities
with very recent trends of Western penology.31 Readability, pedagogy
and legality of penalties, which had characterised the Chinese ‘due
process’ since at least the fourteenth century, became a major concern
in Europe only at the end of the eighteenth century. In Fou-
cault’s terms, the legal reformers proposed a new system where the
‘ideal penalty is transparent to the crime that it punishes’, so that the
‘apportionment of the punishment to the crime’ appears as the ‘triumph
of justice’. This ideal was pursued through ‘a kind of reasoned
aesthetics of the penalty’, allowing that ‘in the punishment, instead of
the Sovereign’s presence, the law itself will be read’. Therefore,
Figure 12: Among the onlookers, a silently revolted Chinese.
EJEAS 2.1. Proef 1. 12-2-2003:12.11, page 173.
All elements of the penal ritual must speak, to spell the crime and
recall the law, to show the necessity of the punishment, to justify its
measure. Posters, placards, signs, symbols, must be multiplied, so that
anyone can be taught of the meanings. The publicity of the penalty
must not spread a physical effect of terror, it must open a reading
Thus penalties must be ‘visible, talkative, self-justifying, convincing:
placards, caps, posters, texts to be read or printed, all this unflaggingly
repeats the Code’. This model tends to an ideal of sociability and
aesthetics: ‘Let us conceive the places of punishment as a Garden of
Laws that the family would visit on Sundays.’
The French reformers’ schemes remained on paper, as they were
replaced by the ‘prison model’, entirely different in its inspiration
and practical realisation. However, the ‘Garden of Laws’ of enlightened
Europe strikingly resembles the pictures of the Chinese handbooks.
The similarities lie less in the punishments themselves than in
the new functions that were conferred on them.32 In both systems,
punishments were not supplices, with their unrefined symbolism, their
research of mimetic reactions, their spectacular staging of suffering
and cruelty, etc.; they were lessons in law intended for a sensible audience:
‘a school, rather than a feast’.33 Indeed, the difference with supplices
was not in a softer treatment of the criminal’s body, but in construing
it as ‘the real presence of the signified’, the carnal evidence
that ‘the punishment fits the crime’, as the law promised.34 So, far
from being late remnants of a barbaric primal stage in legal evolution,
Chinese executions confronted Westerners with their recent past
and with still more recent plans for legal reforms. Instead of ‘the Middle
Ages’, China was Europe’s ‘night before’, and both toyed with the
same impossible project: to rationally demonstrate the goodness of
law through the infliction of corporal punishments. A historical irony
is that the Garden of Laws became the paradigm of the Jardin des supplices,
when the belle-époque artists searched for new aesthetic pleasures
in an imagined China. Thus, the legal utopia the two civilisations had
once shared became a sadistic wonderland for Peeping Toms with
More refined interpretations of the Chinese executions implicitly
summon up the standards of the supplice pattern. In Isabella Bishop’s
report of executions at Guangzhou in the late nineteenth century, one
can scarcely distinguish the elements that she directly observed from
those she was told about. What matter here are the interpretative
patterns that make a new chapter of the gospel from crude details
reported about the execution ground of Ma Tou (horse head).
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174 JÉRÔMe BOURGOn
The criminals, who have been unceremoniously pitched out of the dust
baskets into the mud or gore or dust of the execution ground, kneel
down in a row or rows, and the executioner with a scimitar strikes off
head after head, each with a single stroke, an assistant attending to
hand him a fresh sword as soon as the first becomes blunt. It is said
that Chinese criminals usually meet their doom with extreme apathy,
but occasionally they yield to extreme terror, and howl at the top of
their voices, ‘Save life! Save life!’ As soon as the heads have fallen, some
coolies of a pariah class take up the trunks and put them into wooden
shells, in which they are eventually buried in a cemetery outside one of
the city gates, called ‘The trench for the bones of ten thousand men’.35
This excerpt generates a confused but irresistible uneasiness, all the
more pervading since its origins are not very clear. It is not the refinement
of torment or the slow agony, but rather the complete lack of
ceremonial. The scandal stems from the ‘matter-of-fact’ proceedings
and, most of all, from the ‘apathy’ of the condemned, only occasionally
broken by sudden bursts of despair. In the attitude of the condemned,
Isabella Bishop reads marks of a complete submission to
the fate dictated by state will, broken only by raw screams of selfpreservation:
‘Save life!’ Both the apathetic muteness and the spontaneous
imploring appear as vivid protests against a barbarity stemming
from a lack of fellow-feeling. As for ‘apathy’, which literally means
‘absence of suffering’, she is in fact disturbed by a lack of ‘pathos’:
no dramatisation, staging, casting and directing—no plot that a public
might follow, no roles like those intrinsic in Western executions for
centuries, to allow a cathartic release of emotions. Deprived of those
aesthetic transformations, the execution turns into an unspectacular
show of unleashed violence.
Isabella Bishop’s comments are laced with a somewhat desperate
search for known symbols attached to the Western ways of execution,
in a complete ignorance of their Chinese equivalents. Thus, ‘Save life’
can appear as an instinctive cri de coeur only to someone ignorant of its
deep resonance in the Chinese legal tradition. ‘To save life’ was the
password uniting the different categories of legal professionals, as their
handbooks advised sensible jurists to seize all opportunities to commute
death sentences. The influence that this imperative exerted on
judicial practice was so insidious that authorities regularly felt obliged
to order that laws ordaining the death penalty in murder cases be
strictly enforced.36 The criminal’s shout reported by Bishop appealed
to this tradition of lenience, but it had no chance of being heard on
the execution ground. Chinese legal practices and procedures open
many ways of mercy prior to the execution, but no device was designed
to transform the very act of punishing into an act of transcendental
EJEAS 2.1. Proef 1. 12-2-2003:12.11, page 175.
Here, the question of Chinese ‘apathy’ on the execution ground
looms in all its complex dimensions. It would be too easy to skip
over it as a cliché that was frequently accompanied by racist speculations.
Once those dubious comments have been duly criticised, vivid
evidence of this ‘apathy’ remains in reports proven to be accurate
on other issues.37 This led unprejudiced readers to believe that the
Chinese really behaved differently from the way Westerners expected.
The latter imagined a wide set of reasons, ranging from the physical
state of the condemned people (they were stunned by opium, or weakened
by hunger, etc.) to presumed racial or cultural differences such
as nervous insensitivity, absence of charity, etc. All these points of view
on the Chinese execution ground had their blind spot, however. The
interpretative framework that underlies observations and comments
remained beyond the scope of reflection. Actually, the figure of the
‘apathetic Chinese’ concentrates all the uneasiness caused by the nonrespect
of the Western ‘due process’ of execution. In Isabella Bishop’s
comment, the general carelessness of all the proceedings comes to a
climax in the fact that the criminal has no role to perform: no word,
no deed is required from him, simply kneeling down and suffering
his sentence.38 Nobody cares what he might say or do, as he is simply
the embodiment of what Foucault called ‘the real presence of the
signified’. This is the real scandal, since the passivity of the criminal
deprives the execution of its redemptive function, thus making it
appear illegitimate and barbaric.
Admittedly, there is no point in discussing whether China or Europe
had a more humane way of applying the death penalty. My only
concerns are a fair confrontation and the explanation of protracted
misunderstandings between the two civilisations. In this regard, it is
important to avoid assumptions that the passivity of the condemned
in China testified to inhumane or despotic (or totalitarian) conceptions,
compared with the Western requirement of his active participation.
Admittedly, the European criminal was invested with the
noble mission of edifying the public. In England, ‘the convict resembled
a minister on the pulpit’, and he was required to ‘address himself
to the public with a moralistic story, explaining how he had
sinned and deserved his punishment’.39 A young woman’s execution
in eighteenth-century Amsterdam gives darker insights on this punitive
ideal. After she had been forced, under torture, to confess to a
double murder, she behaved so perfectly as a model culprit that her
case was widely publicised. She thanked the judges who had condemned
her to be broken on the wheel, ‘saying that she deserved a
more severe penalty’. Then she bade farewell to her husband and two
children while the bystanders burst into tears. She begged forgive
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176 JÉRÔMe BOURGOn
ness once more, after the Catholic preacher who received her confession
declared that she should pass away as a child of God. She
remained humble and kept her eyes down on the road to her death,
and became cheerful when approaching the cross. The executioner
broke her arms and legs, but she kept on praying until she received a
cut in her throat.
Behind the edifying purpose and the help of religion is the demand
for a total submission, a ‘body and soul’ acceptance by the criminals
of their sentence. Those who resisted suffered a double penalty,
the complete destruction of their body and the publicly proclaimed
damnation of their soul. In China, the confession of a criminal was
only a procedural requirement for delivering a verdict. Once the confession
was obtained, the sentence resulted from consideration of the
facts, whether the condemned repented or not. During the execution,
the edification of the public was ensured through the enforcement of
the law on the body of the condemned; any concerns about his exact
state of mind were irrelevant. One is thus led to wonder whether the
Western system did not provide for a kind of ‘double bind’, or set up a
kind of double curtain, linking the external performance and internal
compliance of the attendants, while the Chinese system relied only on
external rituals. Such considerations merely suggest that the Western
technique might have had a firmer grip on individuals than the Chinese.
At any rate, they do not allow any conclusion regarding which
system was the more humane or moral.
While inclined to stress the barbarity of Chinese executions, Westerners
were at the same time led to construe them as scenes of
martyrdom There is no better example of how influential Christian
iconography was on the imagination of Westerners than Isabella
Bishop’s description of lingchi in Guangzhou:
The strangest and most thrilling sight of all was the cross in this unholy
spot, not a symbol of victory and hope, but of the lowest infamy and
degradation, of the vilest death which the vilest men can die. Nor was it
the solid, lofty structure, fifteen or twenty feet high, which art has been
glorifying for a thousand years, but a rude gibbet of unplaned wood,
roughly nailed together, barely eight feet high, and not too heavy for a
strong man to carry on his shoulders. Most likely it was such a cross,
elevated but little above the heads of the howling mob of Jerusalem,
which Paul had in view when he wrote of Him who hung upon it, ‘But
made Himself obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ To these
gibbets infamous criminals, whose crimes are regarded as deserving of
a lingering death, are tightly bound with cords, and are then slowly
hacked to pieces with sharp knives, unless the friends of the culprit
are rich enough to bribe the executioner to terminate the death agony
early by stabbing a vital part.
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These facts do not require to be dressed out with words. They are the
most effective when most baldly stated. I left the execution ground as I
left the prison—with the prayer, which had gained a new significance,
‘For all prisoners and captives we beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord.’
Undressed facts, baldly stated—really? However she attributes it,
Bishop’s emotion stems not so much from her direct observation of
Chinese executions as from the religious and aesthetic canvas through
which she watches them. With a shock, the terrible reality lying
behind the magnificent Baroque aesthetics is unveiled: the unbearable
crudity and pure despair of the real cross dismiss all the images
of redemption and salvation elaborated by Christian artists for centuries.
Instead of ‘Chinese cruelty’, the Western witness, when she is
as honest and sensitive as Isabella Bishop, discovers unseen aspects of
her own tradition. She reacts to the strangeness of Chinese executions
by referring to familiar images as though they were religious and aesthetic
talismans against crude reality. Hence, Bishop seeks release in
making Chinese executions by lingchi into ‘the death of the cross’, as
St Paul framed it. However, none of the gallows used for lingchi executions
could have had this shape, and dozens of photographs now
show how difficult it would have been to see crosses in these devices,
except when encouraged to do so by Christian preconceptions. Meanwhile,
Bishop reveals the implicit reproach behind all Western testimonies
and comments: Chinese executions challenged the marvellous
aesthetic world built by European artists, and forced their onlookers
to confront face-to-face the unveiled obscenity of capital executions.
The supplice chinois that became a common representation of China
at the turn of the twentieth century is a cross-cultural chimera, a
blend of Chinese information and Western representation. Chinese
punitive practices were perceived, interpreted and described through
a Western framework which no common notion, like ‘Christianity’,
‘modern humanitarianism’ or ‘colonial racism’ accurately accounts
for. The display of punishment in public places all over China not
only recalled a quite recent period of the European past, but almost
revived a political and cultural complex which was at the core of
the Western tradition. The supplice pattern fused penal, religious and
aesthetic dimensions in a highly significant spectacle shaping the
relationship between sovereign and subject. When confronted with
Chinese executions, Westerners simply could not accept that a similar
function—punishment—was not surrounded with the same showlike
apparatus and the whole display of ‘significant deeds or words’,
‘natural feelings’ and public demonstration with which they were
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178 JÉRÔMe BOURGOn
However, the Chinese legal tradition fulfilled the same punishing
function in quite a different way. Executions were not spectacles,
occasions for cathartic displays of emotions, mimetic identification
of the public with the condemned, etc. They were the ritualised
enforcement of law, in which penalty harshness was justified by constant
reminders that ‘the punishment fits the crime’, as provided in
the penal code. Emotions and sensations (cruelty, suffering, compassion),
as well as physical consequences (blood, pain, etc.) were consistently
denied, as they might have interfered with the legal message.
Executions were supposed to teach a lesson, and were certainly not
intended to be a show. Despite the image of ‘refined cruelty’ and ‘lingering
agonies’ attached to China, the Chinese pictures of penalties
as well as the photographs of executions confirm the Chinese reputation
for ‘apathy’, if this term can be accepted to qualify an absence
of ‘pathos’. While the executioner’s cruelty, the condemned’s physical
suffering and the compassion of the public conferred their ultimate
meaning to European supplices, they were irrelevant in Chinese
execution, as they might have impeded the readability of the penal
sentence. More research is needed to evaluate how far the absence
of spectacular conventions (stage, plot, etc.) generated a different attitude
from the onlookers (passivity, absence of demonstrations or riots
frequently aroused in the Western public, for instance). At any rate,
the executions’ organisation, as well as the protagonists’ performance
and the onlookers’ behaviour, did not meet several of the most significant
features of Western executions.
The grisly image of Chinese penal practices derives mainly from
such differences. Admittedly, Western witnesses were shocked by ‘objective’
physical torments, or by the exposure of bloody remnants at
crossroads. But at least as much, they deplored loopholes and omissions
that they deemed inseparable from a ‘due process’ of execution.
Most acceptable were the reproaches about the use of torture
in the judicial procedure and the infliction of punishments that Western
countries had renounced. However, a careful reading shows that
these rational arguments were counterbalanced by more ambivalent
feelings, alternating strong movements of repulsion and fascination.
On the one hand, tortures were used as evidence to prove that China
ignored the rule of law, and even civilisation itself, just as it consistently
ignored Christian charity and humanitarianism; on the other
hand, an irresistible curiosity pushed Westerners towards the Chinese
execution ground to watch scenes of cruelty, to fix them in photographs,
and to contemplate them with moral sorrow and aesthetic
pleasure, as was usual with pictures of supplice and martyrdom until
the late Middle Ages. Thus, Westerners could dismiss Chinese penal
EJEAS 2.1. Proef 1. 12-2-2003:12.11, page 179.
law as a barbaric survival of a primeval age, and at the same time
enjoy it as the realisation of an aesthetic ideal, where Christian symbols
were diverted into sadistic pleasures.
Institut d’Asie Orientale, Lyon
The author is grateful to Régine Thiriez for her help in the writing of this article.
1. All terms stemming from Latin supplicium are etymologically linked to religious
terms like supplicatio and significantly different from poena, ‘penalty’. This specific
dimension explains, for instance, how Foucault’s famous Surveiller et punir contrasts
ancien régime ‘supplices’with ‘punitions’ (punishments) and ‘peines’ (penalties) of modern
2. Executions took place in private from 1868 in Great Britain, but not before 1938
3.‘Les coupables à genoux sont exécutés l’un après l’autre, leur corps emportés à la voirie, leurs
têtes suspendues dans les petites cages montées sur trois échalas. En passant par là, on peut voir les
têtes exsangues, avec de gros yeux terrifiés à demi rongés par les pies et les corbeaux qui picorent au
travers des barreaux, la tresse traîne jusqu’à terre, les chiens regardent et se lèvent sur leurs pattes
de derrière pour essayer d’atteindre, le spectacle est écoeurant’; Father Alphonse Favier, Peking,
Histoire et description (Pékin: Imprimerie des lazaristes au Pé-tang, 1897)pp. 394–5.
4. Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 43. Admittedly,
in various European countries pieces of legislation were published as books called
‘codes’. However, in modern parlance, ‘penal code’ implies a cohesive structure with
a general scale of crimes and penalties. This did exist in China, but not in Europe.
5. A case in point is that of a maidservant who was put to death by blows from
the same chopper, on exactly the same parts of the body, as she had used to kill her
mistress. The case is quoted as an example of ‘displaying the punishment using the
crime itself ’; Foucault, Surveiller et punir,p. 56.
7. S.Y. Edgerton Jr, Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 165.
8. Foucault has lucidly argued that the ‘slowness of the supplice, its episodes, shouts
and sufferings … plays the role of an ultimate ordeal’, showing that ‘the eternal
game has already begun: the supplice anticipates the penalty of the afterworld’. It
is a ‘theatre of hell’, where ‘sufferings of this world can also work as a penance to
alleviate the punishments of the afterworld. The cruelty of the worldly punishment
is accounted a reduction of the future penalty: a promise of mercy looms in it’;
Foucault, Surveiller et punir,pp. 56–7. See also Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering.
9. Foucault, Surveiller et punir,pp. 62–3.
10. Edgerton, Pictures and Punishment,p. 13.
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180 JÉRÔMe BOURGOn
11. My critical comments on this set can be consulted on the website of the Musée
Nicéphore Niépce of Chalon-sur-Saône,
(See Reference) chinoise/. I am grateful to François Cheval,
the director of this museum, for his understanding and support, and to Christian
Passery and Caroline Cieslar for their guidance and technical assistance.
12. See Commandant Harfeld, Opinions chinoises sur les Barbares d’Occident (Paris:
Plon-Nourrit; Bruxelles: Albert Dewit, 1909), pp. 74–5; Robert Heindl, Der Berufsverbrecher:
Ein Beitrag zur Strafrechtreform (The Professional Law Breaker; A Blueprint for
the Reform of Penal Law) (Berlin: Verlag Rolf Heise, 1924). Jim Elkins has reproduced
Heindl’s photographs, with reflections on the effect that contemplation of such
scenes has on the modern spectator. See James Elkins, The Object Stares Back: On the
Nature of Seeing (New York, London: Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 108–15.
13. Evidence for this: (1) the condemned is surrounded with advertisements for
Xihenian Tang (Hall of Western Crane Longevity), a well-known medicinal drugstore
located on the Caishikou crossroads, where the executions took place, see Niida
Noboru, Chûgoku hôseishi kenkyû (Studies in the History of the Chinese Legal System),
Vol. 1 (Tokyo: Tôkyô Daigaku Shuppan Kai, 1960 pp. 392–3); (2) the two executioners
are the same as in the two other sets of photographs, whose location in Beijing is
established beyond doubt. There is also some secondary evidence: a runner holding
a bamboo board with the inscription Beiyang jun (North Ocean Army, based in Zhili),
onlookers wearing clothes for mid-season in North China.
14.See Pekin shi (History of Beijing), a Japanese monograph dated 1908, and its
Chinese translation, Qingmo Beijing zhi ziliao (Historical Materials from the Beijing
Monograph) (Beijing: Yanshan Chubanshe, 1994), pp. 123–6.
15. Demonstrations by the public against the condemned or the executioner,
sometimes turning to riots, were common features of the European supplices, a cause
of fear for the authorities, and one of the main motives for their abolition. No similar
event has been reported about Chinese executions, as far as I know, but sources are
lacking. Should a different behaviour be attested, I suggest that, more than cultural
or political differences, the pattern of executions might have played a role. The
European crowd reacted as a disappointed ‘public’, while the Chinese crowd was
not a public at all.
16. Jean-Toussaint Desanti, ‘La violence’, in ‘Douze leçons de philosophie’, Le Monde,été
17. Even in today’s China, there is hearsay that the mouth of the condemned is
filled with chalk to prevent him shouting.
18. See Virgil Kit-yiu Ho, ‘Butchering fishes and executing criminals: public
executions and the meanings of violence in late-Imperial and modern China’, in
Goran Aijmer and Jon Abbink (eds), Meanings of Violence: A Cross-Cultural Perspective
(Oxford: Berg, 2000), pp. 141–60.
19. See Niida, Chûgoku hôseishi kenkyû,pp. 392–3.
20. Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering.
21. The growing reluctance of post-Song Chinese painters to picture social life
probably played a role here; see James Cahill, The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived
and Worked in Traditional China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 115–
The cultivated artist, always apprehensive of being mistakenly classed with the
artisan-painters who were willing to depict stimulating and entertaining subjects
EJEAS 2.1. Proef 1. 12-2-2003:12.11, page 181.
CHINESe EXECUTIONs 181
assigned by others, limited his repertory generally to themes that were harmonious
and charged with auspicious meanings, and that could be understood as reflective
of his own rich but stable inner-life.
As a consequence,
The decline of such themes of actual or suggested violence I see as merely the
most conspicuous aspect of a process that ended by depriving all figure painting in
China of any serious hold on the emotions.
22. Lüli tushuo/Xinglü tushuo, written by Xu Wenda (1887); 2nd edition in 1894 by
Huang Renji; Zuiming tushuo, appendix of Jinshan xian baojia zhangcheng (c.1901–5).
23. See Chapter 40 of Shuihu zhuan, relating the missed execution of Song Jiang
and Dai Zong, quoted by Niida, Chûgoku hôseishi kenkyû,p. 671: ‘The crowded populace
craned their neck to read the verdict, which was written this way: “Jiangzhou
prefecture. Convict Song Jiang. Deliberately composed a poem of revolt, and blindly
forged rumours of sedition. In connection with three bandits of the Liang Mountain,
has fomented armed uprising. Condemned to decapitation. Cai, Prefect of Jiangzhou,
supervisor of the execution”’; and Virgil Ho, ‘Butchering fishes and executing criminals’,
24. In Chinese watercolours representing scenes of dismemberments, bound feet
are the sign distinguishing the females from the males being executed; they are very
similar in other aspects.
25. See Craig Clunas, Chinese Export Watercolours (London: Victoria and Albert
Museum [Far Eastern Series], 1984).
26. Another watercolour of the same set is supposed to represent a Chinese
‘beheading’ with a sword. The beheaded is standing on a cross, in a Christ-like
attitude, without any concern for the real position needed for a decapitation.
27. This remark stems from conversations with John Haye when contemplating
the Chinese plates conserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Thanks to
him for all his illuminating comments.
28. Archibald Little, Gleaning in Fifty Years in China (London: Sampson Low, Marston
and Co., 1910), p. 106.
29. Heindl, Der Berufsverbrecher,p. 85.
30. See the interesting critical remarks on Bataille’s reading of lingchi as a ‘sacrifice’
by Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘L’insacrifiable’, in Une pensée finie (Paris: Galilée, 1991), pp. 83–90.
31. The punishment of quartering for bandits was abolished in 1814 in England.
In France, breaking on the wheel was practised until the 1780s. Lingchi was abolished
in April 1905, some months after Wang Weiqin’s execution, which took place in
32. In their details, the new punishments described by Foucault have no direct
equivalent in China. For instance, European reformers presented forced labour as
the best means of educating the public through ‘thousands of living theatres’, while
penal servitude was never construed this way in China. Meanwhile, the punishment
that the European reformers reserved for the ‘most terrible of all crimes’, parricide,
easily matches the Chinese lingchi in barbarity. The condemned was to be suspended
in an iron cage, to suffer the harshness of the weather in an endless agony, under the
constant view of onlookers (Foucault, Surveiller et punir,p. 134).
33. Foucault, Surveiller et punir,p. 130.
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182 JÉRÔMe BOURGOn
34. Foucault, Surveiller et punir,p. 151.
35. Isabella Bishop (née Bird), The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (London:
John Murray, 1883), p. 104.
36. See Jérôme Bourgon, ‘ “Sauver la vie”: De la fraude judiciaire en Chine à la fin de
l’empire’, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociale, 133 (June 2000).
37. See a scientist’s comments on the Chinese ‘absence of nerves’ in Matignon, Dix
ansaupaysduDragon (Paris: A. Maloine, 1910), pp. 262 ff, for instance. Interestingly, the
missionaries inverted this native ‘apathy’ into a Christian quality when they narrated
the martyrdom of Chinese converts.
38. I will not pursue the point that in Latin etymology a persona is amaskorarole
in a play.
39. Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering,p. 63.
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