1905: Fou Tchou-Li, by a thousand cuts

On this date in 1905, Fou Tchou-Li suffered the last execution by lingchi in Beijing, for the murder of a Mongolian prince.

Lingchi, or slow slicing, involved the public dismemberment of the victim. As such, it became iconic to westerners as an image of exotic Chinese cruelty — albeit iconic in a mythicized form, the accounts conflicting, undependable, Orientalist. (Many different ones are collected at the Wikipedia page.)

Lingchi is especially notable — apart from fathering the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” in the English lexicology — for its overlap with the era of photography.

Fou Tchou-Li’s death was captured on film, and the images famously captivated Georges Bataille for the expression of seeming ecstasy on the face of the dying (or dead) man.

Bataille was said to meditate daily upon the image below in particular — “I never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at the same time ecstatic and intolerable.”

Agony and ecstasy? A sequence of images, strong stuff in spite of their low quality, describing Fou Tchou-Li’s execution can be viewed here. Notice, however, that it’s not the one pictured here — the scholar who maintains this page claims the man’s identity became confused by western interlocutors. The different, unnamed man who as “Fou Tchou-Li” riveted Bataille is pictured here.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explained the mystical nexus of pleasure and pain Fou Tchou-Li’s torture suggested to the French theorist, aptly comparing it to graphic but pre-photographic exaltations of torture in the western artistic tradition, such as Saint Sebastian:

To contemplate this image, according to Bataille, is both a mortification of the feelings and a liberation of tabooed erotic knowledge — a complex response that many people must find hard to credit. … Bataille is not saying that he takes pleasure in the sight of this excruciation. But he is saying that he can imagine extreme suffering as a kind of transfiguration. It is a view of suffering, of the pain of others, that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation — a view that could not be more alien to a modern sensibility.

It’s no idle point to say that all this reads quite a lot into a single frame that may not be all that representative of the moment, though that wouldn’t necessarily diminish Bataille’s gist. More, these are western interpretations of — projections upon — an image marked as fundamentally outside in a tableau irresistibly blending the colonizer and the colonized.

The execution was ordered in the last days of the Qing Dynasty, which had long been substantially beholden to European states, especially the British; the prisoner was apparently administered opium to numb the pain, the very product Britain had gone to war to force China to accept.

Taiwanese video artist Chen Chieh-jen interpreted the photography that so captivated Bataille, and its colonial context, in Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph (review).

Two weeks after this date, China abolished the punishment for good.