Weird History

The Intense Chinese Execution Method Called 'Slow Slicing'

Lingchi, translated as everything from "death by a thousand cuts" to "slow slicing," is a Chinese form of slow-torture execution that was practiced for hundreds of years - well into the 20th century. Despite the variety of English translations for the word, the practice itself was pretty straightforward. Essentially, execution by lingchi involved the condemned individual having their body slowly, carefully, and painstakingly cut up by an executioner - while they were still alive. Similar to flaying - the removal of skin while an individual is alive - lingchi differed in that it also incorporated live (obviously un-anesthetized) amputations. As a series of famous images of lingchi suggests, however, in the beatific smile of the lingchi victim, shock took over at some point in the gruesome process.

Not just anyone was executed in this unbelievably morbid method. To wind up on the wrong side of lingchi, you had to have committed a capital crime - one that seriously flouted the social orders of the period.

There is also a great deal of debate regarding lingchi and its portrayal in the West. In the late 19th century, it came to represent the horrors of the Chinese penal system to the West, and some historians pushed back against the received interpretation of the method. Though some claim lingchi functioned as the means of execution, others, including an Australian traveler who said he witnessed the method in the late 19th century, claimed the slicing was done postmortem.

Regardless of how the arguments about lingchi shaped Western perceptions of China, the images of the practice remain haunting - in particular, the images that theorist Georges Bataille included in his seminal work of cultural theory, The Tears of Eros, which show a man who is very much alive and being subjected to lingchi.