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 suggest, 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 post-mortem.
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 includes 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.
French cultural theorist Georges Bataille focused on lingchi in his 1961 text, The Tears of Eros, which explores the complex relationship between pleasure and pain in a multitude of specific cultural practices. How did lingchi get selected in a discussion of anything that even comes close to the subject of pleasure? Because in a series of photographs Bataille includes in the text, a convict - who is literally in the process of being sliced and amputated - looks to the sky with an otherworldly smile plastered across his face.
That whole photo series, which can be viewed here, documents the convict's strange and gruesome journey through the stages of lingchi. First, he is tied to a post, his arms bound behind his back. From there, an executioner slowly and meticulously carves his pectorals and arms, eventually amputating each of his limbs, one at a time. As the photo series progresses, the victim's smile widens with each successive act. Though historians point out that Bataille makes numerous errors in his description of the event, the victim's haunting, ecstatic expression is hard to miss.
Though the most widely used English translation of lingchi is "death by a thousand cuts," this fails to capture the actual process of the execution style. A combination of flaying - cutting off large chunks of skin, including the pectorals - and amputation, the method involved a lot more than the sword equivalent of lots of paper cuts.
Typically, a victim would be tied to a wooden post, after which large chunks of skin would be removed from their limbs and chest. After this, the limbs would be amputated one at a time. Finally, they would be killed by decapitation or a stab to the heart. For a lucky few, this final step would be applied first, and the ritualized cuttings would be applied as a form of post-mortem humiliation.
Lingchi wasn't a method of torture and execution doled out every day by Chinese and Vietnamese officials.
To suffer this fate, you would have had to commit a capital crime, which included things like treason, matricide, patricide, or mass murder. The practice not only was extremely painful, it carried Confucian spiritual implications.
It would be nice - mentally speaking - to be able to relegate something as unsettling as execution by lingchi to the very distant past. After all, isn't it the human tendency to become more civilized with each passing generation? Not so much.
Beginning with the earliest emperors, lingchi was not officially abolished until 1905 when the Chinese penal code was overhauled.