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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Jonathan Mirsky
Death by a Thousand Cuts
Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue (Harvard University Press 320pp £19.95)

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As I was writing this I heard a stockbroker on Radio 4 describe the economy failing as if 'tortured' by 'the Chinese death of a thousand cuts'. It is an evergreen concept, and definitely not off limits to scholars. These three academic authors, from Oxford, Lyon, and Victoria, British Columbia, have attended conferences, we learn, on 'The Comparative History of Torture' and 'The Representation of Pain', and their research is published by one of the world's most prestigious academic presses.

They write coolly and formally, but this is a book primarily about torment. Torment is distinguished from torture, the authors contend, in that it aims only to cause pain, while torture is inflicted to extract some statement. The Chinese practice of 'lingchi', known in the West - falsely - as 'death by a thousand cuts', was a form of torment, imposed for a particularly serious crime before an audience directed to draw a lesson from the agonies of the criminal. What Americans inflicted on their captives in Vietnam, the application of electrodes to the genitals (called 'ringing him up'), or in Iraq, the semi-drowning termed 'water boarding', is torture, because the victims are compelled to disclose something.

The point of this book is that a handful of amateur photographs taken in China, of criminals being sliced and dismembered, reinforced the Western view that Chinese society was unusually cruel. While frightful enough, the procedure involved a few slices and then a stab in the heart. The executioner then dismembered the corpse. The authors suggest that, had the pictures not been taken by passers-by and published internationally (they also occur, gruesomely, in this book), lingchi would have been much less notorious and, after 1905, when the last ruling dynasty abolished it, might have remained barely known. In any event, the authors inform us, after considerable linguistic research into the meaning of lingchi from its earliest uses at least a thousand years ago (perhaps as a non-Chinese import), it meant 'dismemberment' - a very serious death indeed, because of the Chinese belief that the dead should remain whole.

Of all modes of execution, lingchi was only the most severe. There was intense squeezing of fingers and toes, pressing with heavy weights, strangulation, and beheading. Apart from these last two, many other punishments were both torments and tortures. Under Chinese law it was forbidden to execute a victim who went to his grave insisting on his innocence. A magistrate who allowed this could himself face intense punishment. Therefore 'the importance of confession encouraged aggressive interrogation as standard judicial practice'. (This language resembles the words used by White House lawyers to justify certain practices in Iraq.) Then and only then could lingchi, or one of the lesser forms of execution, be ordered. The occasions were public and somewhat shambolic. The authors put it eloquently:

Chinese executions were blunt demonstrations of the power of the state in the face of crimes against the moral order that the state embodied. By that logic, the execution ground was no place for heroes or martyrs, and no stage was provided on which the condemned could be permitted to parade either their bravery or their repentance. It was a place where evil people were disposed of and where their remains were displayed in cages above the greedy glances of stray dogs as a warning to others.

The authors underline the hypocrisy of those foreigners who were horrified and perhaps titillated by Chinese penalties. Westerners shocked by Chinese executions ignored the fact that up to the mid-eighteenth century English criminals were still being hanged, drawn and quartered, which meant the infliction of agony on a living, disembowelled person. As the authors rightly point out, nearly every Chinese punishment, from strangulation and hanging to disembowelling and exile, was, until the early eighteenth century, practised in England. And into the twentieth century, they observe, torment was inflicted in the colonies, notably by the French in Algeria and the British in India. Nonetheless, there was plenty to be horrified about and Western revulsion partly quickened Chinese reforms of their punishments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The authors take up the matter of Chinese crowds watching executions. They were usually reported to be either enjoying the spectacle, drinking the blood of the victims as a medicine, or gazing entirely unmoved. The book's dim photographs are not very convincing one way or another, but crowds everywhere in the world have displayed both wild emotions and none at all in the face of terrifying spectacles. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, it was normal for a kind of cheerleader to whip up the chants and shouts directed at 'class enemies', 'black hands' and 'counter-revolutionaries' that accompanied their public humiliations and torments. There are eyewitness accounts during those years of people eager to eat the brains of victims who had just been shot. In Vietnam, American soldiers - I have seen this - wore necklaces made from the ears of either living or dead prisoners. Their officers ordinarily ignored this.

And always there is someone worse. Almost any Chinese can tell you of the horrible tortures and torments Tibetans used to inflict on each other (which is true), demonstrating their lower civilisation.

Although not for the casual reader, this is a learned and educational book, and its comparative passages are appropriately chosen. I think the authors are hard on those who observed Chinese punishments for not understanding the Chinese judicial system. Certainly there was voyeurism and even sexual excitement involved in witnessing, recording, and publicising the ghastly events. But they were, as the authors do not contest, horrible, and involved great suffering. In the West, outside the US, we have only recently abandoned capital punishment, which in its build-up and practice is a form of torment. The Chinese still execute. As the authors of Death by a Thousand Cuts observe, 'Of the 1,526 people legally executed worldwide in 2002, 1,060 were put to death in China alone.' Most authorities put this figure at least five times higher, and not because they deny cruelty in their own countries.