2011: Li Lei, of whom much was expected

Add comment September 16th, 2019 Headsman

To whom much is given …

BEIJING — A man who in 2009 killed six of his family, including his own children, was executed Friday [September 16, 2011] in Beijing.

Li Lei, 31 years old, stabbed his parents, two sons, wife and sister to death on November 23, 2009, at their home in Beijing’s Daxing District. Li’s sons were aged one and six-years old.

Li was sentenced to death by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court last October, and was ordered to pay 3.45 million yuan (540,000 US dollars) in compensation to his grandmothers and parents-in-law.

Li did not appeal the criminal part of the ruling, but appealed to lower the compensation amount.

In March, the Beijing Higher People’s Court upheld the verdict.

The death penalty was approved by the Supreme People’s Court.

Li told police after being nabbed that he had been annoyed by his family, including his parents, sister and wife, who expected too much from him.

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1926: Shao Piaoping, journalist

2 comments April 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Chinese journalist and social activist Shao Piaoping was shot at Beijing’s Tianqiao execution grounds — fulfillment of his lifelong motto, “To die as a journalist.”

The intrepid Shao blazed a trail for print media in his native country, bucking a prejudice that mere journalism was a bit on the declasse side.

He co-founded and edited Hanmin Daily in 1911, just in time to get his support for the Xinhai Revolution into newsprint.

But Shao was no propagandist, and, post-revolution, was repeatedly arrested for his scathing critiques of Yuan Shikai and the various other illiberal strongmen taking roost. He had to duck out to Japan twice during the 1910s; there, he kept cranking copy, now as a foreign correspondent for Shanghai’s top newspapers. As the decade unfolded, he also became a theoretician of journalism without abating his prodigious ongoing output.

“I saw my role as that of helpful critic and believed it wrong to praise petty people simply to avoid trouble,” this pdf biography quotes Shao saying of himself. “I was determined not to dispense with my responsibility.”

By the late 1910s, he was publishing his own capital-city newspaper, Jingbao (literally “The Capital”) and developing his academic thought as a teacher at Peking University. He was perhaps China’s premier journalist; even so, he still had to slip into exile in Japan in 1919 after openly supporting the May Fourth student movement.

Shao left an impressive mark on his students, perhaps none more so than a penniless young leftist working in the university library, Mao Zedong.

As a guerrilla, Mao — still at that time an obscurity to most of the outside world — remembered Shao fondly to journalist Edgar Snow. In contrast to many other Peking University scholars who gave the provincial twentysomething short shrift, Shao “helped me very much. He was a lecturer in the Journalism Society, a liberal, and a man of fervent idealism and fine character.” Word is that Shao even loaned Mao money.

Shao’s acid pen and unabashed sympathy for agitators led to his arrest in 1926 by the warlord Zhang Zuolin — whose wrath Shao incited by denouncing bitterly a horrific March 18 massacre of students.

But the martyr journalist’s heroic career — not to mention his accidental link with the future Great Helmsman — insured his elevation into the pantheon, even though Shao’s underground membership in the Communist party was not known for decades after his death. Mao personally declared him a hero of the revolution, and intervened to see that his widow and children were cared for. China has any number of public monuments in Shao’s honor.

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1989: A day in the death penalty around post-Tiananmen China

3 comments June 21st, 2012 Headsman


Yue Minjun, who still lives in China, says Tiananmen was “the catalyst for conceiving” of his Execution but that it is most certainly not about the famous protest and ensuing crackdown.

Although 1989 protests toppled dictatorships in Eastern Europe, this pregnant year’s great rally in China brought a bloody (pdf) crackdown.

The student-led Tiananmen Square protests packed hundreds of thousands into that Beijing plaza — with sympathy protests in other major cities — demanding liberalization.

For seven weeks, they seemed on the brink of making another world.

Then on June 4th came the crackdown.

The masters of China must have been holding their breath that day: would the soldiers follow their orders? Would the rebellion shrink away, or metastasize? You really never know.

By night, the masters of China could exhale.

Judicial reprisals were mere days in commencing … and June 21 appears to mark the first known executions* resulting from that tragic movement. And while most “perpetrators” didn’t die for the affair, it seems from the distance of a generation as if their cause did.

There was likewise, it was noticed in the American press, no comment on this date’s signal executions from the United States president. Washington and Beijing, these regimes west and east, alike weathering the end of the Cold War — they had a future in common.

Despite the harsh crackdown on protest, Chinese leaders and mass media have been almost desperately urging foreign businesses to maintain their ties with the country.

The New China News Agency carried a whole series of reports aimed at promoting international economic ties. These included:

— A report that foreign businesses will in the future be permitted to set up officially recognized chambers of commerce in China.

— An announcement that 10 large international industrial exhibitions will be held this year in Shanghai.

— A report that a Japanese businessman said investors from his country have confidence in China’s economy. “Some businessmen from the United States and the European Community have expressed their desire to continue to invest in China,” the report added.

— A statement by Ma Shizhong, vice governor of Shandong province, stressing that his part of China has “a favorable environment for import of foreign capital and introduction of up-to-date overseas technology.”


Only eleven days after the June 4th massacre that cleared Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the first trial of pro-democracy protesters saw three workers condemned to death in Shanghai.

According to this pdf on the aftermath of Tiananmen, Xu Guoming, a brewery worker, Bian Hanwu, unemployed, and Yan Xuerong, a factory worker, were all convicted of “setting fire to a train and indiscriminate destruction of transport and transport equipment in a serious riot at the Guangxin Road Rail Crossing of Huning Railroad on June 6.”

According to Nick Kristof, that “riot” had been a sit-in on a rail line to protest the June 4 military incursion — until a train actually rammed the demonstrators, who retaliated by torching the machine. Some firefighters were beaten in the disturbance, but nobody was killed.

For their part in this — whatever part that was — Xu, Bian and Yan were deprived of their political rights, and expeditiously shot on June 21. Eight other people got prison sentences shortly thereafter for the same “riot”, having pleaded guilty (all but one of them) to “smashing railway cars, setting fire to nine railway cars and six public security motorcycles, turning over police boxes, beating up firemen to impede them from putting the fire out and fabricating rumors to mislead the people.”


Lin Zhaorong, Zhang Wenkui, Chen Jian, Zu Jianjun, Wang Hanwu, Luo Hongjun, and Ban Huijie, meanwhile, were sentenced for “vandalism and arson in a counter-revolutionary riot” on June 17, 1989, by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court — stuff like burning a military vehicle, looting supplies from it, and beating up (although again, not killing) a soldier.

(This pdf gives the execution date as June 22; most other sources list June 21.)

An eighth member of their same party, Wang Lianxi, received a suspended death sentence instead. She was spared.


“An undetermined number of anti-government demonstrators,” according to a UPI report, were among 17 prisoners publicly convicted and immediately shot in Jinan on a generic charge of endangering public order on June 21. (UPI is explicit as to the date, but some reports say June 20.)

State radio reported that 10,000 people attended the trial, which meted out 45 sentences in all on a variety of charges and is said to have mixed political prisoners with common criminals.


We note in passing a gentleman who has never qualified for an entry in this blog, and we hope never will.

The identity and fate of the figure at the center of those protests’ most indelible images, the so-called “Tank Man”, remain an enduring mystery.

There exist widespread rumors and ill-substantiated press reports of his execution. But who Tank Man was and what really became of him remains utterly unknown.

* Amnesty International’s appeal for the three workers — and this is the Spanish version; if the English is available, I have not found it — very plausibly alleges that secret, summary executions were already underway before this date’s grim milestone.

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1799: Heshen forced to commit suicide

2 comments February 22nd, 2011 Headsman

It was on this date that notoriously corrupt Chinese minister of state Heshen or Ho-Shen was forced to commit suicide in lieu of execution.

The able child of a Manchu military officer, Heshen came of age in the long reign of the emperor Qianlong.

That Heshen rose above his modest station with this monarch’s favor was the source of no small resentment. Rumors circulated that the attractive young former bodyguard reminded the emperor of a lost, beloved concubine — with all that implies.

“Elegant in looks, sprucely handsome in a dandified way that suggested a lack of virtue,” a Korean diplomat described Heshen.

Whatever there might have been to the homosexuality angle, Heshen exploited the imperial protection to gorge himself on the state’s revenues; he’s reported to have filled the bureaucracy with clients who saw to it that Heshen got a yuan out of every tael that passed through state business in the last quarter of the 18th century. He even dynastically married his own son to one of Qianlong’s daughters.

It was the peak of the Qing dynasty’s glory, and the dawn of its imperial stagnation. Heshen — resplendent, omnipotent, and sunk in vice* — remains to this day its persona par excellence.

As long as the emperor lived, Heshen had a virtual free hand.

But as soon as the emperor died — on February 7, 1799, at the age of 87 — the successor** Jiaqing destroyed him.

Citing Heshen’s inability to suppress the nettlesome White Lotus and Miao rebellions, Jiaqing arrested and tortured the former retainer into copping to all manner of offenses both mortal and venial.

My thoughts dwell ever on the Confucian precept: ‘For three years after a parent’s death none of his former surroundings should be changed.’ …

But as regards Ho Shen, his crimes are too grave to admit of possible pardon … Ho Shen is a deep-dyed traitor, lost to all moral sense, who has betrayed his Sovereign and jeopardised the State. As self-constituted dictator he has usurped supreme authority.

Seeing the man’s abrupt change of fortunes, Heshen’s people in the bureaucracy fell over each other to denounce him.

He was condemned to the horrific expiation of “slow slicing”; however, given “the undesirability of executing the chief Minister of State like a common felon in the public square,” Jiaqing “allowed him the privilege of committing suicide, as a mark of high favour and out of regard to the dignity of the nation.”

A principal accomplice was made to witness Heshen ceremonially hanging himself; then the accomplice was reprieved of his own death sentence and sent into exile.

The new sovereign found his nation’s dignity sufficiently upheld by the doomed man’s melancholy inventory of loot destined (of course) for the re-appropriation of the Qing … and sufficiently outraged that, upon discovering weeks after the some artifact Heshen had failed to enumerate,

Had these facts come to Our knowledge before the 18th day of the 1st Moon [i.e., February 22], we should assuredly have decreed Ho Shen’s decapitation, even if We had spared him the lingering death and dismemberment.

However, he has already been permitted to commit suicide, and thus luckily escaped the extreme penalty of public execution. We do not, therefore, insist on his corpse being hacked to pieces.

Jiaqing had better to worry about his own now-declining state, which was about to be hacked to pieces by encroaching European powers.

Having made an example of Heshen and a handful of his most visible allies, he was still saddled with the endemic structural corruption Heshen had fostered in the institutions of Qing governance.

“Historians have tended to see Jiaqing’s failure of nerve in purging the bureaucracy of all tainted officials as something of an original sin whose commission predetermined the dynasty’s steady decline,” writes William T. Rowe of this turning point. “But given the need for at least some continuity in routine administration, it is not at all clear that he could have acted otherwise.”

(Hey, at least he did make the few examples. Not everyone even does that much.)

And so Jiaqing struggled in vain to maintain China’s fading prestige; his reign would witness economic erosion and a burgeoning opium trade that eventually led it to war with the British and humiliating western domination.

Since a sclerotic bureaucracy at once crushing in its expanse, helpless in its effect, and riven with self-dealers, is a timeless theme (especially in China), Heshen persists as a lively emblem of corruption.

Heshen’s luxurious mansion — which was also among Jiaqing’s indictments — still stands; today, it’s a museum.

* It bears remembering that it is principally by the testimony of Heshen’s enemies that we know him.

** Technically, Jiaqing had been ruling since Qianlong symbolically “abdicated” in 1796; in reality, Qianlong continued to run the realm until his death.

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1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi

5 comments August 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the first two foreigners — Italian merchant Antonio Riva and Japanese bookseller Ruichi Yamaguchi — were convicted and immediately executed in Beijing for a supposed plot to assassinate Mao Zedong.

According to Time magazine’s coverage of the affair, Radio Peking said that

“the streets they passed through [en route to execution] were thronged with people who expressed their feelings .. . with shouts of ‘Down with imperialism! Suppress counterrevolutionaries! Long live Chairman Mao!'”


No relation.

Riva (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a World War I fighter ace who had relocated to Beijing/Peking in the 1920s to peddle aircraft and training the Chinese Koumintang.

(In 1936, Riva married Catherine Lum, the daughter of American wood block artist Bertha Lum and sister of Eleanor Peter Lum, who took after mom.)

When the guys those planes were being used against won the Chinese Civil War, Riva mulled an expedient departure, but reportedly declared (Spanish link) that he could do business under any regime type.

The Communist government decided he had a different sort of business in mind. Citing Chinese state media, the London Times (Aug. 18, 1951) described the plot thus:

the conspirators planned to fire mortar shells at a reviewing stand outside the Tien An gate of the forbidden city in Peking during a procession to celebrate China’s national day on October 1 last year.

Several others, both Chinese and foreigners, drew long prison sentences as part of the “conspiracy” uncovered in a one-hour trial. The most illustrious of those was the Italian bishop Tarcisio Martina.*

Though Riva and Yamaguchi were the first foreigners officially executed by the new Chinese government, they were far from the last. All the more remarkable, then, that in a country that carries out thousands of executions per annum, Antonio Riva is thought to have been the last European citizen put to death there until Akmal Shaikh in 2009.

The Shaikh case helped rekindle interest in Riva’s execution — a timely confluence, since a recent book, L’ uomo che doveva uccidere Mao, critiqued the case against the Italian aviator.

* American diplomat Col. David Barrett, safely beyond the reach of the Maoists at Formosa, was a supposed ringleader.

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1644: Looters in conquered Beijing

1 comment April 25th, 2010 dogboy

The Shun Dynasty only lasted two months in China, but it still managed to find its way to these pages by deposing the ruling Ming Dynasty and setting the scene for the Q’ing Dynasty.

In the early 1500s, the Ming Dynasty significantly increased contact with Europe, and it immediately saw the value in exploited mineral wealth from the West. At the time, the government was having difficulty maintaining a currency with perceived value: paper money was a massive flop and standard copper coins could not be trusted. Something new was needed, and European silver was a quick and easy answer.

But the decision to move to silver coins backfired a century later, when a variety of converging factors cut the silver supply to China and caused a spike in the price of the metal. As a result, the economy sagged. In the mid-1640s, a drought also gripped the country, and the Ming government was in the unenviable position of watching over a collapsing nation. It didn’t help that the government was highly centralized, with almost all activity occurring in Beijing; a working regional governing mechanism may have allowed it to dig out of the hole, but with the rise of an elite class — and prospective officials seeking every opportunity to serve as close to the power center as possible — there was no hope of a savior once the emperor’s power waned.

Enter the Manchu.

(This is long.)

Originating in Northeast China and Southeast Siberia,* the Manchu occupied their own territory under a local khan. The Manchu army was building strength at the same time that the economic woes under Ming rule increased. While the Manchu originally considered themselves distinct from and superior to the Han Chinese, they made several legal concessions to match the social mores of those they ruled over which enhanced their credibility.

With the Ming Dynasty weakening, the Manchu saw their opportunity to move south.

But even as the Ming fought to repel those Manchu invaders, an internal insurrection was brewing under a man named Li Zu’cheng, an apprentice ironworker from Yan’an. The Chuang Wang (“Roaming King”, Li’s regnal name) was considered a savior of the common folk, even earning a widespread local song looking forward to the day he would arrive:

You’ll feed your mates,
You’ll dress your mates,
You’ll open wide your city gates.
When Prince Chuang arrives, there’ll be no more rates.

(Source)

Li had a strong foothold in the heart of the country, and he was persistent. More importantly, the Ming government was hemorrhaging cash to its frontiers. Eventually, the money began to dry up, and even the ministers within the Chongzhen Emperor’s circle saw the writing on the wall. By mid-March, the Manchus were known to be marching through nearly undefended lines; by mid-April, the treasury stopped paying its military entirely.

On April 24, with Li Zu’cheng at the city gates, Emperor Ch’ung Chen tried in vain to escape his own compound. In his wake, he left the corpse of the empress (suicide), the corpse of his daughter (killed by the drunken emperor in a rage), and a seriously injured crown princess (maimed by the drunken emperor). Having mowed through his family, the emperor joined his chief eunuch Wang Cheng’en, climbed atop a local hill, and, shortly after midnight on April 25, hanged himself.

Li Zu’cheng entered the city unopposed, the gates (as the ditty had promised) flung open for his invading army.

Government officials hid in an attempt to escape retribution, but Li’s forces were reportedly quite orderly and did not seek revenge. Instead, they marched slowly through the city, where many of the locals marked themselves as Shun-min, or subjects of Li’s Shun dynasty.

Looters and bandits, however, were not tolerated, and the well-disciplined force dispatched them quickly and without trial. Their bodies were put on display by nailing them to local streetposts, and by noon, the city was calm.

The Roaming King only managed to hold power for a few weeks before his army was swept away by the Manchus. Li Zu’cheng lived almost two more years on the run, still claiming his title of Emperor of Shaanxi as he fled the newly installed government. It would be several more years before the Manchu would retake Southern China,** but the Q’ing Dynasty would dominate China until the Xinhai Revolution in 1912.

* The Manchurians were technically Tungusic, a significant Chinese minority both then and now. The Manchu largely resisted integration into Han society until the latter half of the 19th century.

** Southern China remained, technically, a distinct entity called the Southern Ming Dynasty, south of the Huai River, until 1662.

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1900: En Hai, the murderer of von Ketteler

9 comments December 31st, 2008 Headsman

On the last day of the 19th century, a Chinese officer was beheaded on the public street where he had precipitated western* military intervention in the Boxer Rebellion by killing a German diplomat.

Foreign commercial penetration — and domination — was generating domestic turmoil in China. As liberal reforms foundered in the late 1890’s, a more radical anti-foreigner movement blending spiritualism and martial arts launched the Boxer Rebellion (or Yihetuan Qiyi, in the local coinage).

In addition to massacring hated missionaries, the Boxers besieged foreign diplomatic missions in Peking … and veteran German ambassador Klemens von Ketteler was killed in a firefight on a crowded street. (The particular circumstances of the killing seem highly confused, and were immediately colored by the various interested parties’ axe-grinding; it’s sometimes called an “assassination,” but there’s no proof von Ketteler was specifically targeted, and the ambassador himself managed to get a shot off in the fray.)

Given the financial interests at stake, it would be far too much to say that von Ketteler’s death caused the military intervention that ensued, but it certainly catalyzed the conflict. The next day, China’s Dowager Empress declared war against the Eight-Nation Alliance. Within two months, Peking (Beijing) was under foreign occupation.

The man detained as von Ketteler’s murderer — En Hai, or Enhai, or Su-Hai — was proud to claim the act himself, and intimations of the Chinese government’s official blessing for anti-foreigner activities were carefully massaged since the Eight-Nation powers would have need of the Qing dynasty to keep order locally.


On the afternoon of this day in 1900, En Hai was brought out from German custody to the street where von Ketteler had met his end and handed over to the Chinese for beheading. Notice the substantial foreign attendance in both the photograph and the drawing. A German officer’s diary entry cited in The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study recounted the scene.

Ketteler’s murderer was executed at last — for months past the unfortunate wretch has been begging for his execution. It took place in one of the busiest thoroughfares but there were only a few curious onlookers. Scarcely fifty yards away the usual business was being quietly transacted in the streets, people who were eating did not suffer themselves to be interrupted, and a teller of fairy-tales who was recounting his absurd stories had interested his numerous audience much more than the execution.

And to see that the lesson would not be lost on future generations of Chinese, the humiliating peace imposed upon China that December (and formally signed the following year) required China to expiate its guilt by

erect[ing] on the spot of the assassination of his Excellency the late Baron von Ketteler, commemorative monument worthy of the rank of the deceased, and bearing an inscription in the Latin, German, and Chinese languages which shall express the regrets of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the murder committed

Having been made an offer it couldn’t refuse, China honored the intersection (German link) where both the victim and his killer had died in their turns with a massive pailou archway, inscribed

This monument has been erected by order of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the Imperial German Minister Baron von Ketteler, who fell on this spot by heinous murder on the 20th of June, 1900, in everlasting commemoration of his name, as an eternal token of the Emperor’s wrath about this crime, as a warning to all.


A historical postcard of Ketteler monument.

“Everlasting commemoration,” in this case, lasted 15 years.

The national aspirations that had fired the Boxers reared up again in 1911-12 to topple the Qing. Days after Germany’s surrender in World War I, the Chinese Republic began removing the von Ketteler monument.

Visitors will need to look sharp to catch it now, in Zhongshan Park (aka Sun Yat-Sen Park or Central Park), where it has been rededicated to abstractions that age a little better than our German civil servant.

But this was still not quite the last the name von Ketteler was heard in the consular world. A relative (German link) of the man slain in Peking was a conservative diplomat of the Weimar and early Nazi period who opposed the national socialist government. Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler was abducted by the Gestapo in 1938 and murdered thereafter in unclear circumstances, possibly for involvement in a very early plot to kill Hitler.

* “Western” in this case includes Japan, the regional industrial power that also flanked the Russian Empire to the east — very much a player on the European balance-of-power chessboard. Germany (obviously), France, Italy, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.A. were the other nations involved in the intervention, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose naval deployment to China included future Sound of Music character Georg Ritter von Trapp.

A fair amount of detail on China’s foreign relations during this period is available free in the (dry, and sometimes dated) public-domain 1918 work The International Relations of the Chinese Empire.

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2007: Zheng Xiaoyu, former Director of the State Food and Drug Administration

10 comments July 10th, 2008 Headsman

One year ago today, China made to clean up its image — with public health advocates, if not with human rights advocates — by executing* its former Food and Drugs minister for economic crimes.

Zheng Xiaoyu, China’s drug regulation capo from 1994 to 2005 and only (“only”?) the fourth minister-level official to be put to death in China since the immediate aftermath of Mao Zedong’s reign, was sentenced for extracting bribes from pharmaceutical companies he nominally regulated in exchange for approving their worthless and/or unsafe products.

One bogus antibiotic he rubber-stamped killed ten in China before it was pulled from the market, but it was dangerous Chinese products exported abroad — including lethal pet food ingredients to the United States and a cough syrup that killed dozens in Panama — that lit a fire under the export-driven colossus. The court that rejected his appeal explicitly referenced Zheng’s danger to China’s international reputation — simultaneously shifting focus from structural weaknesses by individualizing them to Zheng’s personal failings.

Zheng Xiaoyu hears his death sentence.

On this same day it announced Zheng’s death, China anxiously unveiled plans to safeguard the food supply for its upcoming turn under the Olympic klieg lights. That acid test is now upon it: opening ceremonies are mere weeks away as of this writing.

It may have been a politically-driven execution and an unusually heavy sentence, but Zheng’s passing was exulted in China. Someone even tried to put his name on a rat poison — rejected for that most distinguished reason of modern capitalism, Zheng’s own intellectual property in his name.

For an interesting dive into the social and legal currents surrounding this case, check out this .pdf edition of Criminal Bar Quarterly.

* The method of execution was not announced, and to my knowledge has not been conclusively documented. Gunshot was the longtime standby for Chinese executions, but China has shifted heavily towards lethal injection in recent years; it’s generally assumed that Zheng suffered the latter fate.

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1905: Fou Tchou-Li, by a thousand cuts

16 comments April 10th, 2008 Headsman

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.

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!