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TitleFigures of Deterrence in Late Imperial China. On the use of lingchi (death by a thousand cuts) as a State terror device powerpoint)
shortTitleFigures of deterrence
DateMay 2012
AuthorJérôme Bourgon with Zhao Hongyang (archives sieving) Julie Erismann (statistics, diagrams, maps)*
SubjectAn attempt at assessing the number of executions to death by dismemberment (lingchi) under the Qing, after administrative and press resources
Keywordsdeath penalty ; lingchi ; death by a thousand cuts ; statistics ; Shenbao 申報 ; 內閣大庫

Paper for the International Conference on HISTORY OF MASS VIOLENCE IN RUSSIA AND CHINA
Helsinki, May 17-18, 2012


See the Powerpoint with diagrams and maps in the downloadable PDF
Figures are rare birds in Chinese history, which force China historians to make do with empiricism and the rule of thumb. It may seem that legal history is less flawed by the shortage of figured data than economic or social history, since legal historians have a lot of interesting codes and casebooks to explore. But when it comes to the point of evaluating the efficiency of the legal system in general, or, to be more specific, the implementation of death penalty and the amount of deterrence it caused on the Chinese populace, then the shortage of figures really becomes frustrating.
            Certainly, this problem can be partly palliated by excellent case studies, like Tom Buoye’s book on homicides in Guangdong, and Rowe’s monograph on violence in a county of the Hubei province. Actually, each of them deplores the lack of reliable figures on the particular area he has studied, so even if we had studies as excellent on every province or county of China, the unevenness in the availability of the underlying data would still be marring our general evaluation. At any rate, extrapolating regional monographs in an empire this size is likely to  lead to dubious results.
            Hence the idea of a short-cut, by taking full advantage of the massive archives of the Qing empire administration which are now easily accessible thanks to their digitalization. It has become possible to get what Pierre Chaunu, the late French Historian who initiated quantitative studies on judicial cases in Ancient régime France, called a “pesée globale”, a “comprehensive weighing” of crimes and punishments as social practices. To my knowledge, no such attempt has been made to date.[1]
           As a first attempt, this paper focuses on the capital executions by dismemberment , lingchi chusi in Chinese, which are more commonly known under the expression “Death by a thousand cuts” — although there were no more than 8 to 10 cuts, indeed.
            Why Lingchi ? Because, as the harshest form of death penalty, it was conferred a higher degree of visibility.

  • Lingchi cases were systematically transmitted in the memorials of each provincial governor to the central boards called “the Three courts” — namely: the Board of Punishments, the Censorate, and the Court of revision—, except those crimes committed in the Beijing metropolitan area, which were adjudicated directly by the Board of Punishment following a procedure called “immediate adjudication” (xianshen). Lingchi sentences were then to be confirmed by the emperor, as any capital sentences.
  • As a rule, Lingchi sentences were pronounced “for immediate execution” (lijue), which means that they were excluded from the complex procedures of revision known as the “Autumn assizes.” A significant number of them were even handled through a summary process allowed by the bureaucratic password: “respectfully requiring a sovereign order” (gongqing wangming), which allowed the province governor to proceed to immediate execution, and only then required an imperial rescript to confirm the sentence![2] All this was terrible for criminals thus deprived of the guarantees offered by the revision system, but this is a blessing for the soulless statistician, who can assume that all lingchi sentences found in the archives were followed by executions. For this punishment, sentence means execution, with only a very thin margin of discrepancy. In comparison, the case of decapitation sentences is much more problematic, since they were always subject to revision and delay, even those proclaimed with “immediate execution”.
  • Another advantage of lingchi sentences comes from formal characteristics of the provincial memorials that reported capital crimes to the Center. These were mostly itemized listings that packed together carts of convicts punishable by the same penalty (say, all condemned to decapitation). Only convicts who were “short listed” were named, the others remaining unnamed under the character “deng”, meaning etc, et alii. For instance: “Condemned to immediate decapitation are Wang X, Zhang Y, and 18 others”. Lingchi condemnations were serious enough to be presented apart, in a single memorial, where the convict was named and his/her crime detailed. When lingchi sentences are part of a collective memorial, they are routinely placed at the top of the list: for instance in the collective executions of rebels or bandits, the ringleader is condemned to lingchi under his full name spelled out, which usually gives its brand to the case, while his subordinates are beheaded and mostly treated summarily by the et alii stock expression.

Thanks to this conspicuousness, it has been possible to gather a sample of 812 lingchi sentences that were implemented in the course of 791 executions — some executions grouping several lingchi together.
            Before entering into the details of this sample, it might be useful at the outset to review the existing knowledge on this matter, in order to assess whether our data brings forth any new elements or conclusions. There is no better work on the subject than Bodde and Morris’ Law in Imperial China, the textbook wherein every historian of Chinese law has learned the ropes.[3] The description of the Qing legal system ends by a section headed “Western glimpses of Chinese punishments”, selected, the authors say, “because of their seeming accuracy and objectivity, as well as detail”[4]. The most memorable, for any reader, is the minute description by Meadows, a British eyewitness of a series of decapitations of bandits, ending with the dismemberment of their ringleader.  Then comes the authors’ conclusion:
The fact that these accounts from north, central and south China have to do with events occurring respectively in 1860, 1857, and 1851 is important because all three dates fall within the period of the Taiping rebellion (1850-1864). This conflict, probably the most destructive civil war of all time, devastated much of the richest land of China, killed twenty or more million people, and very nearly overthrew the Manchu government. These then were years of crisis, very different indeed from the period only thirty or forty years earlier to which the bulk of the cases translated in this book belong. Hence it may be not wholly fair to project what is said about penal institutions during the one age back to the earlier age of political stability.[5]
            There is no point to deny the depth of the mid-19th century crisis caused by the Taiping rebellion and other simultaneous uprisings, or to overlook their tremendous impact on the Qing state as well as on the Chinese society. However, a naïve reader as I was when I read the book while preparing for my Ph.D will infer that dismemberment and other devices of massive deterrence were extreme means employed during an age of turmoil, in sharp departure from the normal course of justice in the heyday of the Qing.
            Another implicit assumption is that lingchi was mainly employed against rebellions and gangs of violent bandits. Although the authors give in another part of their book a complete list of the crimes that were punished by lingchi, it is clear that, for them, this punishment was primarily a technique of mass terror intended for reestablishing state law and public order disrupted by revolts and turmoil. Other crimes punishable by dismemberment, such as murders of elder relatives, bloody feuds between families or lineages, are deemed marginal and anecdotal compared with the major disruptions of the public order.
            Now, our sample provides accurate data on the following issues:
            - 1. Frequency: how frequently was the lingchi process of execution employed under the Qing?
            - 2. Trend: has the use of lingchi been trending upward or downward during the Qing periods?
            - 3. Periodization: can we isolate the times  when the use of lingchi increased or decreased abnormally fast? Were some Emperors more prone to “slicing” than others?
            - 4. Space: were lingchi executions equally spread over the empire, or were some provinces or regions more frequently struck than others?
            - 5. Nature of crimes: among the crimes punishable by lingchi, which were most frequently punished by that execution method? Were there significant changes across provinces and time? Were some crimes typical of a certain province, or of a certain time?
Sample, resources, statistic: flaws and assets of the data[6]
            We have a sample of 812 persons executed by the lingchi process, in 791 executions, since there are cases where several convicts have been lingchied together— in one case I will present later, 27 were so executed.
            For every one of these executions, our sources specify the nature of the crime, the date of the execution, the place (at least the province, and in many cases, the district). In most cases, the name of the condemned is given, sometimes with the names of accomplices who were decapitated. Last but not least, the gender of the criminal is also given, with only a few exceptions. In brief, these are well-registered executions, which  most certainly took place, except when the condemned died in prison. Even in such occurrences, which are duly specified in the data, laws and practices usually commanded that the convict’s body be dismembered, so that they can also be also counted as lingchi executions.[7]
            These 791 executions are registered in two different resources.
The first is the “archives of the Grand Secretariat” (neige daku), which collected the memorials sent by provincial authorities to the Central boards for revision, and transmission to the emperor for capital cases. These archives are kept in Taipei, in the Museum called the “Old Palace” (Gugong), since the content of the Beijing Forbidden City has been moved and is preserved here. These archives have been digitalized, and are now accessible online, so that selecting lingchi cases can be made easily and accurately. This source reveals that 357 persons were dismembered in 338 executions for the years between 1644 (first year of the first Qing emperor) and 1854.
            The second source is neither archival, nor official: it comes from the first modern daily news journal in Chinese, the Shenbao (the Shanghai News in English), published in Shanghai since 1872. From the first year onward, the journal systematically reproduced abstracts of the “Beijing gazetteer” (jingbao), an unofficial copy of official documents — mostly legal and judicial— placarded by the central boards in Beijing. The Shenbao was for long facsimiled in its original format, which was very difficult to read and made statistical treatment highly inconvenient. Thanks to its recent digitalization and online setting, it has become easy to collect and analyze any kind of data therein. This second source accounts for 453 people executed in 453 executions between September 1872 and April 1905, when lingchi was abolished.
            Two important flaws of our data seem clear:
            - The two sources are unequal in length : 210 years versus 33 years
            - There is a gap of 18 years in between, which are devoid of any data.
            The gap is in fact much wider, since a significant drop occurs during the 1840s. It fits almost exactly with the serious crisis of the mid-century, the very moment which Bodde and Morris held as the age of massive recourse to mass executions. During these thirty years, the rebels as well as the officials each acted outside the law and off records. Even though the lingchi sentences endured by the Taiping leaders and the chiefs of other rebellions have been recorded, most of the punishment occurred through summary “executions on the spot” (jiudi zhengfa), which were rarely reported. The magnitude and lawlessness of the killings renders all judicial statistics somewhat delusory for this period.
            These are not the only flaws in our data. The reign of the Kangxi emperor, the longest of the Qing dynasty, and the most highly praised — in France, Kangxi is celebrated as the “Chinese Louis 14th”— has the number of executions that seems abnormally low : only 34 for a reign of sixty years, that is less than two per year. Even much less, in fact, since a single collective execution counts for 27 lingchi, accounting for 80% of the total killed. If we take the number of the executions, instead of the executed persons, the number falls to 8, that is barely more than one per year. Either Kangxi’s was a very lenient reign; or our data are flawed. Very likely, the “Beijing gazetteer” as reported by the Shenbao, the Shanghai daily news, offers a much more exhaustive review of capital cases than the judicial archives kept in the “Grand secretariat archives” of Taiwan.
            These flaws are certainly to be taken into account, but they are not critical enough to cripple all attempts at a “comprehensive weighing” of lingchi executions along the Qing period. As approximate they may be, these figures call for a revision of some of the common preconceptions referred to in the introduction.
In the following chart, the red points to gaps or abnormal drops in the data, the impact of which was mitigated by ruling out the years devoid of all data

ReignsLingchi sentencesPer year averageYears taken into account in the general averageShunzi (1644-1661)512,818Kangxi (1662-1722)342,613 years on 61Yongzheng (1723-1736)70,513Qianlong (1737-1796)1021,759Jiaqing (1797-1820)773,323Daoguang (1821-1851)852,830Xianfeng (1852-1861)10,33 years on 9Tongzhi (1862-1874)157,52 years on 12Guangxu (1875-1908)43913,333Whole period (1644-1905)8113,1261Whole period less 65 "void" years 4,1196

            Let us start with two general remarks, on the frequency of executions, and on the trend throughout the Qing period. 
            First, all in all, lingchi was rather a frequent way of execution: around 3 executions per year for the whole period, and more than 4 per year if we try to palliate the flaws in our data by eliminating 65 years which we can assume were “abnormally” devoid of executions. An average of 3 to 4 lingchi per year over two centuries is quite high, if we compare it with the punishments for “lèse-majesté” or “sedition” which are frequently regarded as equivalent of lingchi in pre-modern Europe: the French écartèlement, or the English quartering occurred as seldom as a handful of cases in a century, at most one or two in a decade. Of course, it would be interesting to have figures for Eastern Europe and Russia, which might be closer to the Chinese rates. To be complete, however, such comparisons should include also punishments for “armed banditry”, since this crime was also punishable by lingchi. If we took all the cases of bandits and heinous crimes punished by the wheel in France or in Germany, we would certainly have figures closer to the Chinese. I would be surprised, however, if we found 3 to 4 during 200 years for the whole Western Europe, which is the right scale for comparison with China. Of course, the decisive criteria would be the ratio of executions reported to the total population at each period, but such data are not available, at least at the moment.
Trend of lingchi sentences per year, 1644-1905

            Most puzzling is the secular trend as it appears in the diagram. It is squarely at odds with expectations inferred from the European cases, where the abolition of the “tormented executions” and judicial torture came after a long period of gradual decline, during which this kind of practices was more and more regarded as barbaric and backward. The Chinese evolution is just at the opposite: lingchi is seven times more frequent under the penultimate emperor Guangxu (13,3 per year) than under his ancestor Kangxi. Or, in other words, Guangxu’s reign represents 55% of the executions (439/791), which means that there have been more executions in the last thirty years before abolition of lingchi than during the 200 precedent years. Strikingly enough, abolition occurs at the height of the tide, 1904, with 22 executions, being the second highest after 1883. Certainly, 1905 would have been a vintage year as well if the abolishing decree had not brutally interrupted the rising trend in late April of that year.
            The general trend in our diagram might be taken as a confirmation of Bodde and Morris’ stance: lingchi appears a seldom used penalty at the acme of the Qing, in the “Golden Age of Kangxi”; then it becomes more frequently employed under Qianlong, whose reign was plagued by millenarian revolts and banditry in its last years. Then follows a troubled early19th, partly concealed by the archival vacuum; finally, once the State administration has been restored and a better coverage of the judicial activity by the new media became available, we discover the magnitude of the change: lingchi has become the main device of mass deterrence in a Chinese empire in general turmoil.
            This plot seems coherent, but it is grounded on the idea that lingchi was mainly employed to repress rebellions and restore “public order”. Let us see if it conforms to reality, by analyzing the nature of crimes punished by lingchi.
Nature of crimes punished by lingchi: Public or “private” rebellions?
            Crimes that are punishable by lingchi  according to the Qing code fall in the following categories:
            - 1. Rebellions and high subversion of the State, plots (real or supposed) against the dynasty, and armed banditry.  All collective actions that subvert or disrupt legal order have been grouped under the same category of “Revolt”[8]
            - 2. Killing three persons or more in another family: this was clearly a measure against bloody feuds that doomed family and lineages to extermination.[9]
            - 3. All murder, attempted murder, or similar action, by a younger on an elder, or an inferior on a superior, in the same family or clan. This is the general category of “parricides”, marked by P. This general category can be split in 5 sub-categories, according to whether the victim of the crime is the father, the mother, other close relatives (aunt, uncle, elder brother or sister all regrouped under the name of zunzhang, that can be translated as “better elder”), the killing of the household head by a slave, and, last but not least, the killing of the husband by his wife..[10]
This squares remarkably well with the English penal category of “petty treason”:
petty treason. Archaic. Murder of one's employer
or husband. • Until 1828, this act was considered treason under English law.- Also spelled petit treason. "The frequent reference to high treason is a carry-over from an ancient division of the offense that has long since disappeared. In the feudal stage of history the relation of lord to vassal was quite similar to the relation of king to subject. The relation of husband to wife came to be regarded in the same category, as also did the relation of master to servant, and that of prelate to clergyman. And just as it was high treason to kill the king, so a malicious homicide was petit treason if it involved a killing of (originally, lord by vassal, and later) husband by wife, master by mistress or servant, or prelate by clergyman. When the special brutality provided by the common law for the punishment of petit treason disappeared, this crime became merged with murder and only one crime of treason remained." Rollin M. Perkins & Ronald N. Boyce, Criminal Law 498-99
(3d ed. 1982).
            - 4. Inhuman crimes such as maiming and desecrating of the body of an enemy killed in a vendetta, or taking a body part of  a living person for cannibalism or witchcraft (or both), have been ranged in the category of “atrocities”. They are so rare as to be statistically negligible.[11]
            Once the statistically negligible category of “atrocities” is set apart, the three remaining categories can be ranged on a continuum, according to their spatial and social extension. The first category deals with the crimes that disrupt public order on a large area, which can extend to several provinces or even, at least theoretically, to the whole empire. The second category, the feuds between families, can have a certain impact on local society when they affect mighty lineages, but in general, they are “private wars”. The third category is restricted to the circle of close relatives, within the family. As a tribute to Chinese political thought, the use of deterrent collective penalty for restoring public order might be called “Legalist”, by reference to the famous school of thought that founded State power on mass deterrence by harsh laws. By contrast, avenging the death of a relative, or enforcing the familial hierarchy has more to do with “Confucian” orthodoxy, according to which “one cannot live under the same heaven as the murderer of one’s father”. As for the third category, the sentences against “parricides”, it can be regarded as a direct expression on the penal side of the Confucian obsession that view sons killing their father and subjects killing their sovereigns as two conspicuous signs of political chaos and moral decay.[12] Thereafter, the inquiry bears on the relative proportion of each category, and its evolution through time. Finally, which one won the day: “Legalist’’, or “Confucian” lingchis?
“Legalist” lingchi, intended for the restoration of public order
The idea that lingchi was mainly devised for repressing rebellions and bandits is firmly grounded in famous historical events, such as the end of the Taiping leaders. Our data include eloquent examples of that kind of lingchi execution, such as the repression of a revolt apparently led by Buddhist Bonzes, whose chief was called Snow Field (Xueye). This took place on the sixth year of Kangxi (1667), and the memorial reads as follow:
The Governor general of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces and other places, concurrently in charge of military affairs and logistics, vice-president at the Ministry of War and Censor Lü Chongling respectfully reports, in re: the rebelled monk has surrendered (or: dealing with the monk who led a revolt?). Your Servant has under his control the chief rebel, the monk Snow Field, who connived with Li Faming et alii for printing fake seals and spread libels full of absurd ideas and foolhardy bravadoes. Your servant has proceeded to interrogations and established that Snow Field was the vicious head of a “Complot of Sedition” (謀反首惡), punished by dismemberment according to the Law. Those who plotted with him for faking seals and spreading libels, that are [the monk] Illuminating Light and ten others who followed the rebellion and received the libels, as well as Zhou Shaofeng and thirteen others, each being found guilty of participating to a plot of rebellion, all of them (i.e. 27 persons), without distinction between leaders and followers, are according to the Law, condemned to death by dismemberment. There has been no contestation of the sentence. As for those who were aware of the situation, who concealed the prohibited items, or deliberately let escape [prisoners?], namely Wang Sanye and four others, as well as the members of the family of the chief rebel such like Qi Fengxi and twelve others, they are all condemned to decapitation. (… follows a list of accessories, sentenced to various non capital punishments…) The wives and the children of the criminals are all, according to the law, confiscated (ruguan)[13], as well as their wealth and lands, with specifications detailed in the appended folios.[14]
This is an archetypal use of lingchi against rebellions, with salient characteristics such as:
            - Collective incrimination conforming to the legal provision, which expressly state: “all of them, without distinction between leaders and followers (jie, bu fen shoucong)
            - combination of lingchi for the main culprits and decapitation for accessories, with exposure of the head for both categories
            - “chain indictment” (lianzuo) of relatives and neighbors who were supposedly aware of the plot but have not denounced the plotters to the authorities
            - Derived penalty for wives and children — slavery, castration for males, or even death.
            As “archetypal” it can be, to what extent was this execution representative? What was the part of “revolts and rebellions” in the total amount of crimes punished of lingchi executions? See figure 2 : Nature of crimes in Lingchi sentences for each Qing emperor

Revolts and banditry make the bulk of lingchi sentences only under the reigns of Kangxi and Jiaqing ; they are roughly as numerous as parricide under Yongzheng, slightly less under Qianlong. But under the reigns where the data are more substantial and reliable, under Shunzhi and, almost, under Guangxu, revolts and banditries are but one sixth of the whole, and much fewer than parricides. In total, all reigns combined, “revolts” amount to 149 executions, roughly 20%. This is significant, admittedly, but not so “representative”, and even less exhaustive, of lingchi executions. This is just slightly more than the “Feuds” category, collecting killings of three persons or more in a same family (around 15%). And this is three times less than “parricides”, grouping together all capital offences against elders and superiors within the family. For all reigns, “Parricides” amount to 62%, almost two-thirds of the total of lingchi sentences. They represent, respectively, 62 % under Shunzhi, 42 % under Qianlong, 32 % under JQ, and 69 % under Guangxu.
            So, family crimes were by far the most “typical” use of lingchi, at least twice or thrice more than revolts. In other terms, when one lingchi sentence was pronounced against a rebel or a bandit ringleader, two or three were pronounced against a rebellious wife, child, or domestic. Lingchi was much more used for “private” than for “public” crimes. “Confucian” lingchis with a Confucian background were three times more frequent than lingchis with a “Legalist” purpose.
Parricide is therefore the category to investigate to get a better understanding of how lingchi sentence were reached, and why they increased so much.
“Confucian” lingchi, coping with “parricides” of all kinds
Parricide, in fact, does not exist as a legal concept, and there is even no Chinese word for it.[15]  This a stock category composed by grouping together various kinds of crimes, which are labeled and dealt with in distinct articles of the Qing code. So, “Parricides” split into five categories, presented below in order of decreasing frequency.
Murder or capital offence against:
            1) Husband                                                                             27, 5 %
            2) Betters-elders (zunzhang: elder close relatives)                   23,5%:
            3) Father                                                                                  21, 5%
            4) Mother                                                                                20, 5 %;
            5) Household Head                                                                 7 %

Although the “oedipal” murder of the father may spontaneously be confused with “parricide,” it comes only in third place, in quasi-equality with the murder of the mother, the two parents representing each around one fifth of the whole. More frequently condemned are offences against “senior relatives”, those the Chinese regard as “betters-elders” (zunzhang), grand-parents, uncle or aunt, elder brother or sister, etc. Conflicts between domestic slaves and their master are the fewest in proportion for the whole period, due to their near disappearance under the Guangxu reign (just 4 cases recorded, less than 1%), but this was different at the beginning of the Qing, as we will see below. The most striking, of course, is the prevalence of spousal conflict that places the “offences against husband” in the first place, with 27,5%. The “parricide”, in Qing China, was primarily a wife killing her husband, a “viricide”, as the Romans would say[16].
            These proportions evinced some significant changes with times throughout the Qing period. Thus, under Shunzhi, the first kind of “parricides” was still the killing of a master by his or her domestic slave, accounting for nearly one third of the whole (31%), ahead of the killing of the husband by his wife, which already bypassed one quarter of the “parricides” ( 27 %). Master killings recede gradually along the Qianlong and Jiaqing era (7 % and 4 %, respectively), and drop to less than 1% during the last thirty years of the Qing, under the Guangxu era. Under the same era, spousal killings reach their peak, with almost one third of the “parricides” (32%), and almost one quarter (22, 5%) of all the lingchi sentences. On every four or five criminals executed by lingchi in the last thirty years of the empire, one was a woman who had killed her husband.

            This makes for the sex ratio, which is very unusual when compared with other countries or civilization, where capital criminals are mostly men, in a rough proportion of 10 men for one woman, at least. In Qing China, on the 811 persons condemned to lingchi, 163 were registered as women, 589 as men, and 59 were of unspecified gender: this means that women represented at least one fifth, 20%, of the condemnations to lingchi. This is per se an amazing proportion for the most heinous crime, or more accurately, for the harshest sort of punishment. But the worse comes when one takes into account the progression through times: women represent 14 % of the lingchi sentences in the cases registered at the Grand Secretariat for around two centuries of the Qing period, this proportion is nearly doubled for the last thirty years, with 26, 5 %. Of course, this overrepresentation of women is a direct consequence of the prevalence of parricides over the other categories of lingchi sentences, and of the prevalence of the viricides” in the category of parricides.
            To wrap it up briefly, lingchi was increasingly used to repress “private conflicts” within the family rather than revolts, banditry, and other “public crimes”. “Confucian” concerns thus prevailed on “Legalist” purposes, and the main targets were viricidal women.
Change through space: the repartition of lingchi cases by provinces
Locating precisely lingchi sentences and their causes in their original place and milieu was a primary objective of our enterprise, and it remains so. For all that, we have to admit that the data are not accurate enough yet to go very far in spatial analysis. A first reason is that we do not have accurate figures for the population of each province, so that we are not able to “weigh” correctly the ratio of lingchi sentences in proportion of the population. In the map below, for instance, showing the repartition of the lingchi sentences for the whole period, we sense that the 15 cases of Xinjiang should “weigh” much more than the 35 cases of Sichuan, since the latter population was certainly tenths times more than the former, but we do not know how many times.  Moreover, the flaws in our data signaled in introduction appear all the more clearly when we consider them spatially. The major contrast appearing on the maps, for the early as for the late Qing period, is between the 18 provinces of China proper, and the immense crescent that surrounded it. Apart from well-known and persistent differences in climatic conditions, population density, ethnic composition, etc., these were two different worlds as for the government. Chinese provinces were ruled for centuries by the imperial administration, and submitted to codified law and centralized judiciary. The outer margins were left to their own aristocratic élites, under an originally loose, but gradually tighter and more intrusive supervision by a special administration, the Court for Ruling the Frontier-Marches (Lifanyuan). Although its personnel was in majority of non-Han, mainly Mongolian, origin, this Court tended to generalize the Chinese way of regulation, codified law, and harsh punishments. But indeed, this general statement does not explain why Tibet remains obstinately blank of all lingchi sentence, when Mongolia has some of them, although both were under the jurisdiction of the Lifanyuan. At the present stage, we do not have a clear understanding on how the legal and judicial components of the imperial state were geared together, since it is precisely the objective of the research project for which this paper has been written.
            Another potential bias appears in the overrepresentation of the metropolitan area of Beijing, and the province around Beijing, called Zhili because it “resorted directly” to the capital (it is roughly the present Hebei). This is due to the fact that the most serious crimes were frequently attracted to the Center, the case settled and the sentence executed there— hence registered as a Beijing case, even though it originated in a province. Relocating the cases in their original place would ask for a more refined treatment than we were able to provide to date.
            Apart from Zhili, other provinces that are particularly targeted by lingchi sentences are Jiangsu, Fujian and Guangdong. As already noticed about Sichuan, our ignorance of the total population renders doubtful whether crime rates were particularly high, or they demographic mass automatically ensure them as much prevalence on that matter as on any other. This might be true for Jiangsu, probably less for Guangdong, and not for Fujian. Jiangsu has another, better reason to figure preeminently: the Shenbao was a Shanghai journal, as such mainly interested in the affairs of the provincial area around this city. Hence closer monitoring of local executions, which would lead to the overrepresentation of that province. This hypothesis implies that all lingchi cases were not reported to the Center, or that the central archives have not kept a trace for all the reported cases.
            Provinces where “Revolts” (or banditry) are the first cause of lingchi sentences are Fujian, Jiangxi, Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia. These are, typically, provinces with strong Muslim, Tibetan or Mongolian, minorities. Revolts are also the dominant crime, or at least an
important one, in the Coastal South-Eastern provinces, known for their bandits, pirates, and rebels. Noticeably, Fujian is unique in combining a high ratio of “revolts” with a significant amount of “atrocities,” a category of crimes that is statistically insignificant everywhere else.
            “Killing more than three persons in a same family” was a typical crime in the “North-
Eastern provinces” (particularly in Jilin and Liaoning), corresponding to the historical
“Manchuria”. Does it mean that bloody feuds were characteristic of the Manchu and Mongol
population in the Banners garrisons residing in this area which was forbidden to the Chinese? Further enquiry will be needed to distinguish “banner cases” from Han cases resulting from the illegal but massive settlement of Han Chinese into this formerly forbidden area. Bloody feuds are also important in old, ethnically Han, provinces of central China such like Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hubei, or Sichuan.

            Everywhere else, “parricides” are the most serious cause of lingchi executions — it is even the unique cause in Mongolia, or in Qinghai, but we have such a small handful of cases for these two provinces that any conclusion is hard to draw. All in all, there is only one province, the Fujian, where parricide is in minority compared to other causes of lingchi. In any other province, the domination of “parricides” is overwhelming or even crushing (like in Jiangxi, Anhui, Zhejiang, etc.  

As a conclusion, may it be reminded that this was just a first attempt at a quantitative assessment —or “pesée globale”— of “mass terror” in China as legally used by the imperial state under the Qing dynasty. Death penalty by dismemberment, or lingchi chusi, has been chosen for its higher visibility, compared with other forms of capital punishments. It has been possible to gather around 800 cases of relatively well documented executions for the 261 years when this penalty was implemented under this dynasty.
            The flaws in this data have been duly reported: the most vexing is the imbalance between our two sources, and the important gaps in information on long or crucial periods. Certainly, these data should be completed and improved if we wished to have a good “pesée”, in the sense of an accurate evaluation of the total amount of lingchi executions. At the present stage of information, it seems clear that lingchi was rather a frequent form of execution, with a pace of 3 to 4 per year for the whole empire for the whole period. A better completion of the data, notably for the long reign of Kangxi and the most critical moment in the mid-19th century crisis, would very likely raise the total number enough to increase significantly the average rate. What we have for now is just a rough estimation of the number, and a slightly clearer perception of the general trend: whatever the change for the preceding centuries, it seems clear that there was no decline of the penalty during the last year, and that the abolition resulted from external pressure, rather than internal evolution. As Meijer, the first student of the Chinese legal reform, wrote: “the spur came from abroad.” [17]
            As flawed as it may seem, our data allows surer conclusion when the nature, instead of the quantity, of crimes comes to scrutiny. It can be safely assumed that additional information would confirm the prevalence of parricide on any other crime, in particular on revolts, as a legal ground for lingchi sentences. This comes as a surprise, since it seems obvious that this penalty was originally devised against great public crimes of sedition, treason, rebellions, etc.: how could it be used primarily to repress and deter crimes within the family? This, indeed, gives a particular flavor to the term “mass terror”, since lingchi was definitely a device intended for “mass terror”, but, as it happens, this device primarily targeted rebellious children and murderous wives. The Confucian concern for family hierarchy prevailed over the Legalist purpose of “mass deterrence”, whatever the magnitude of social unrests.
            Very likely, further queries will also confirm the very high ratio of women criminal and executed, and its main cause the prevalence of viricides among parricide. Be it known that the greatest rebel and public enemy in late Qing China targeted by the most deterrent punishment was no sectarian fanatic or bandit ringleader, but the adulterous woman who got rid of her “lord and master”  usually with a lover as accomplice or instigator. This comes as a surprise: if a cinematographic comparison is allowed, one expected to watch Spartacus, but was shown The Postman always rings twice instead. The authors of legal handbooks were aware of this, however, as this illustration of the lingchi penalty shows: it appeared in a general catalogue of the Five punishments published in 1899, and represents “typical” lingchi of the time: a beautiful and languid woman sliced to death before her lover, ready for beheading.[18] Here, romance, fancy, join statistics to draw a suggestive portrait of penal law in the last years of the Chinese empire.



* This paper results from a team work supported by the program “Legalizing space in China: the shaping of the imperial territory through a layered legal system” http://lsc.chineselegalculture.org/ Jérôme Bourgon, Senior Researcher at the Research     has collected the data and conceived the general methodology; Zhao Hongyang, digital data specialist for Unesco, has painstakingly arranged the data in grids and categories; Julie Erismann, a doctoral Student in the Geography dept of Lyons University, has created the statistics and the maps.

[1] An early attempt was made in the late 1980s by James Lee, Homicide et peine capitale en Chine à la fin de l'empire. Analyse statistique préliminaire des données, Études chinoises, vol. X, n° 1-2, printemps-automne 1991. But it has not been pursued further, it seems, and I could obtain no further information from Pr. Lee.

[2] On this swift procedure of execution, see Suzuki Hidemitsu, 铃木秀光, Gong Qing Wang Ming—Qingdai sixing panjue de quanyi he dingli请王命考——清代死刑判决的"权宜"与"定例"》(Gong Qing Wang Ming: On expediency and routine in Qing capital sentences)(合作,本人翻译了1.7万字),Nei Menggu shifan daxue xuebao《内蒙古师范大学学报》,2009年第4期

[3] Derk Bodde, and Clarence Morris. Law in Imperial China : Exemplified by 190 Ch'ing Dynasty Cases, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. The other accounts bear on prison life and judicial procedure.

[4] According to B. & M., these qualities contrast with other earlier accounts, particularly those proceeding from a “Christian missionary point of view”; id.

[5] Bodde &Morris, p. 111.

[6] See note * about the origin and treatment of the data.

[7] The legal term in such case was not “putting to death by dismemberment” (lingchi chusi), but “slaughtering the corpse” (lushi 戮屍), a nuance that can be neglected for the present purpose.

[8] Discriminating between “bandits” motivated by stealing and “rebels” for political or religious purposes is often delicate, if not impossible, after the judicial reports, hence their grouping under the single category of “Revolt”. In the Qing code, these crimes are defined and punished in articles 254: “Plot of Rebellion and Great Sedition” (Moufan dani); art. 255: “Plot of High Treason” (moupan)

[9] Article 287: “Killing three persons in a same family” (Sha yijia sanren)

[10] Article 284: “Plot to kill grand-parents or parents” (Mousha zu fumu fumu); art. 286: “Plot to kill the parents of one’s deceased husband”; art. 314: “Slave beating the household head” (Nubi ou jiazhang); art. 315: “Spouse or Concubine beating their husband” (Qie qi ou fu).

[11] Article 287, last paragraph; and article 288: “Picking up parts of the body of a living person” (Zhaisheng zhege ren)

[12] As so many sovereigns were killed by their subjects and so many fathers were killed by their sons, Confucius composed the Spring and Autumn Annals in order to curb chaos and moralize the world, Mencius said to explain the origin of one of the most authoritative Chinese Classics. See Bourgon, “Lapsus de Laïus.”

[13]  Being “confiscated” for the wives and children of the condemned meant to be deported and reduced to slavery.

[14] Neige daku, Archives of the Grand Secretariat, “Basic material” (jiben ziliao) 065912-001.

[15] See J. Bourgon, « Lapsus de Laïus. Entre régicide et parricide, l’introuvable meurtre du père », forthcoming in Extrême-Orient, Extrême Occident 2012.1

[16] Viricide, for the killing of one’s husband, is a term made on the format of uxoricide, killing of one’s wife, but has less practical occurrences, it seems.

  • [17] Meijer Marinus, The Introduction of Modern Criminal Law in China (Batavia/Djakarta, De Unie 1950) p. 32,  as quoted in J. Bourgon, “Abolishing 'Cruel Punishments': A Reappraisal of the Chinese Roots and Long-Term Efficiency of the Xinzheng Legal Reforms”, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 37, No. 4, Oct., 2003, pp. 851-862; p. 853 for the discussion of Meijer’s expression.

[18] Name: ANONYM Jin shan xian bao jia zhangcheng 金山縣保甲章程 Fu quan jie tiaokuan 附勸戒條款 Zuiming tushuo 罪名圖說 (Commented charts of Crimes and Punishments, appended as articles of exhortations and warnings to a regulation on the local police of Jinshan district).

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