18 Centuries of Gruesome Chinese Torture

Lingchi in traditional (top) and simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Lingchi in traditional (top) and simplified (bottom) Chinese characters


The Chinese term Lingchi (Chinese: 凌遲), was a common method of brutal, barbaric form of capital punishment used to execute criminals in the ancient Chinese criminal justice system from at least the 2nd century CE to the early 20th century.

The idea behind the punishment was to inflict slow and continuous pain to break the spirit of the condemned and to make them confess to their crimes.

 Usually translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts’, ‘death by division’, ‘slow slicing’, ‘lingering death’, ‘slow process’, and sometimes wrongly interpreted as ‘death by slicing into 10,000 pieces’, was a slow and extremely painful execution method in which a knife was used to make small shallow cuts all over the body of the victim until death.

This brutal punishment was not only used in China but Vietnam and Korea have reportedly also used this technique to execute criminals.

Death by a Thousand Cuts
Death by a Thousand Cuts

The ‘Slow Slicing’ Process

The ‘Slow Slicing’ method of torture was used for particularly unforgivable crimes such as rape, counterfeiting, matricide and patricide, murder of one of the master’s employers, mass murder and sometimes, crimes like treason. The process of Lingchi was not specified in detail in Chinese law and varied widely from region to region.

The execution was typically carried out in the open, with people gathering to watch. The victim would be tied up to a wooden frame, unable to move. During the gruesome public spectacle, pieces of the victim’s body were slowly and methodically cut off from his body. Public executions served as a warning to others.

It could take anything from 20 minutes to hours to several days for the condemned to die. During this time, the victim would suffer immense pain due to cuts into his arms, legs, and chest, and the removal of his tongue, fingers, nose and ears, followed by amputation of the limbs.

An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper Le Monde illustré, of the lingchi execution of a French missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine, in China
An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper Le Monde illustré, of the lingchi execution of a French missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine, in China

The cuts would become infected and the extreme blood loss made the victim dizzy and weak.  The cuts themselves would often be deep enough to cause permanent scarring and disfigurement. The outcome was always death. Sometimes from blood loss, sometimes from shock, and sometimes from a stab in the heart inflicted by those families that could afford to bribe the executioner. And, in other cases, decapitation. Additionally, there were also cases in which the brutal torture caused the victim to go insane.

If the executioner was merciful, the first cut would be to the throat, causing almost instant death. Subsequent cuts served solely to dismember the corpse. Additionally, death by ‘slow slicing’ might also have involved slicing the bones, cremation, and scattering of the deceased’s ashes.

It is believed that the victim’s flesh might have been sold as medicine.

The Three-fold Punishment of ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’

As a punishment, Lingchi worked on three different levels. On the one hand, it served as a form of public humiliation. It also worked as a slow and lingering death. And thirdly, it served as a form of ‘spiritual punishment after death’ because, according to a Confucian principle, to cut or alter one’s body meant that the victim would not be ‘whole’ in the spiritual life after death.

History of the ‘Lingering Death’

The practice of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ was certainly known during The Five Dynasties period, an era of political upheaval and division from 907 to 979 CE and has since been in use until the early years of the 20th century. The term Lingchi meaning ‘a person being killed’ seems to originate from the Khitan language during the Khitan Liao dynasty and because of this, this type of capital punishment is originally attributed to this period of time.

“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.” Source: Thought Nova

Execution of Joseph Marchand in Vietnam, 1835.
Execution of Joseph Marchand in Vietnam, 1835.

However, the word ‘Linchi’ can be traced to a philosophical text from the 3rd Century BCE called Xunzi. Back then, the term was used to describe the ‘difficulty in travelling in a horse-drawn carriage on mountainous terrain’ and it changed over time to mean ‘lingering death’.

While the exact origins of Lingchi are unknown, it is believed that the punishment itself (under a different name) was in use during the Han dynasty in China, around 206 BC to 220 AD. Some evidence also points to the ‘slow process’ as an execution method having been used during the reign of Qin the Second (Qin Er Shi), the second Emperor of the Qin dynasty circa 210 to 207 BCE. Over the centuries, the method was used in various parts of China, up until it was abolished in 1905.

In addition to its use as a form of punishment, Lingchi was also depicted in Chinese art and literature as a symbol of cruelty and suffering. Despite its brutality, Lingchi was considered an important part of Chinese legal tradition and was used by emperors and rulers to maintain order and control over the population.


The first images of Lingchi were taken in 1890 by William Arthur Curtis. By 1904 and 1905 images taken by French soldiers were also made available to the public causing an outcry from Western audiences.

Viewer discretion advised: The image can be disturbing for some audience. Click here to see it anyway. Lingchi execution in Beijing c. April 1905 apparently of Fou Tchou Li Lingchi

Lingchi execution in Beijing c. April 1905, apparently of Fou-Tchou-Li, a Mongolian farmer who had killed his master. Lingchi was abolished two weeks later.

Today, Lingchi is widely regarded as a form of torture and a violation of human rights. The practice of Linchi has long been condemned by the international community as a cruel and inhumane form of punishment.

Lingchi was abolished in 1905, though it is still sometimes used in some parts of the world as a form of capital punishment. It remains one of the most infamous forms of punishment in Chinese history.

It serves as a reminder of the brutality and cruelty of ancient punishments that were once used throughout history to impart ‘justice’ and the importance of protecting human dignity and the right to life.

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