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On The Complicity Between Formal Analysis and Torture


Abstract and Figures

[Note to readers: this is chapter 6 from the book Representations of Pain in Art and Visual
Culture, co-edited with Maria Pia Di Bella, in the series Routledge Advances in Art and Visual
Studies (New York: Routledge, 2012).
The larger context of studies of the “death of a thousand cuts” appears in other places: see the
related material in “The Very Theory of Transgression: Bataille, lingchi, and Surrealism,”
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5 no. 2 (2004): 5–19; “The Most Intolerable
Photographs Ever Taken,” in The Ethics and Aesthetics of Torture: Its Comparative History in
China, Islam, and Europe, edited by Timothy Brook and Jérôme Bourgon (London: Rowman and
Littlefield, c. 2012); and in Portuguese as “As fotografias mais intoleráveis tiradas,” in
Leituras do Corpo, edited by Christine Greiner and Claudia Amorim (São Paulo: Annablume,
2003), 27–63. ISBN 85-7419-358-5.
This essay was originally posted on, and on the authors website, Please send all comments, criticism, etc., to
The text was written c. 2005, revised 2010-12, and uploaded July 14, 2013.]
On The Complicity Between Visual Analysis and Torture:
A Cut-by-Cut Account of Lingchi Photographs
James Elkins
What follows is not an ordinary analysis of a visual material, but an analysis that means to say
something about analysis itself. It is also a contribution to the study of the images known as
lingchi, called in English the “death of a thousand cuts.” But even there, I am only offering a
very partial and narrow kind of contribution. Others have written about the social and political
contexts of the lingchi images, and I have written about the strange influence have had on the
understanding of surrealism.
I think those kinds of investigation are important for the historical
understanding of the lingchi, and the more recent question of what counted as transgressive to
certain viewers in the early twentieth century. The lingchi images are complex, and involve a
diverse cast of characters from the original executioners to the French photographers, surrealists,
psychologists, and, more recently, critics of various sorts from Giorgio Agamben to Georges
My contribution to the historical study of the lingchi images is strictly empirical: I aim to
say, as succinctly as possible, what actually happened in the course of a lingchi execution, from
moment to moment, until the final dismemberment. That has not been done before, and I have
marked a few places in my analysis that are speculative. The analysis is also limited to the three
sequences that are known in sufficient detail, which means the analysis only applies to just a few
of the very last lingchi that were done in Shanghai in 1905.
In addition, I have abridged my
analysis here to keep with this book’s limitations on the number of reproductions per chapter. A
full analysis of the exact method of the lingchi requires about forty images, more than can be
accommodated in this book. What I am contributing is therefore only a sample of a full
I am also interested in saying something about analysis itself. I would like to study the
effect of looking at painful images such as the lingchi so slowly and carefully that it is possible
to reconstruct every last cut in the procedure. I noticed in the conference that preceded this book
that most of my fellow presenters looked only very briefly at their images, and several took them
off the screen when they wanted to speak at length, in order to relieve us of the necessity of
seeing them too long. The same can be said of the well-known writers and artists who first
disseminated these images, in particular Georges Bataille. The images have traditionally been
seen in glimpses. You look, you flinch, you look away. I wanted to see what would happen if I
looked with the steady attention of a doctor or an executioner.
Why do that? When the images are seen with a steady gaze, they lose something of their
original power, and they gain in other ways. Bataille needed the images he owned to be
transgressive, and (as I have argued in the other essay) transgression has become a central term
in post-surrealist art. It infuses some of the essays in this book. What happens, then, when these
images cease to be transgressive, or become transgressive in an unexpected sense?
Ultimately, this is a question I put to myself and to everyone who studies representations
of pain. Why do we look at these images? What effects do they have on us, and on others? At the
end of the conference, in the roundtable conversation that is reprinted in this book, I raised the
question of self-reflexivity. Why, I wanted to know, does the Turandot Group study these
images? What does it mean to study such images now, at the beginning of the new century? Most
of us in the conference were familiar with the history of these images—made in China a little
over 100 years ago; collected and disseminated in prewar France. Some members of the Group
said they study the images in order to deconstruct them, to see what they meant to viewers in
France and in China. Others, such as Jérôme Bourgon, who has published more on these images
than anyone else, said they were interested in the images as evidence of the end of a long
tradition of Chinese legal scholarship. We, in the Group, had various motives. There was, I
thought, a general lack of reflection about our own roles: the reasons why we, individually and as
a group, were interested in precisely those images, at precisely that historical moment. As you
will see in the Roundtable that concludes this book, there wasn’t much reflection on that issue,
and I thought that our fixed relation to these images might be jarred by looking at them
differently —in this case, more systematically and slowly.
There is also a third purpose to this essay, and it is one I did not expect, and did not
develop, until I had written out the first draft. I think that the slow, sometimes excruciating
process of looking at the lingchi step by step has parallels with ordinary visual analysis as it is
practiced on any image, in art history classrooms around the world. In the “close reading” of an
image, whether it is a formal analysis, a compositional analysis, an iconographic inventory, or
some unnamed kind of careful looking, the student’s or scholars eye is meant to travel slowly
and systematically over the image, overlooking nothing, noting everything, classifying and
systematizing the image’s root meanings. Only then, so it is said in the pedagogy of images, is it
possible to go on and build serious interpretations. What I noticed in performing the close
reading of lingchi images is that the dissection of the bodies in the photographs is structurally
similar to the dissection of any image by any eye that aims at being systematic, rational, and
thorough. The conclusion I draw is that visual analysis is not a neutral, heuristic, preparatory step
in the understanding of images. It can be a cold, and cold-blooded, dissection of the image: a
powerful, invasive and destructive operation that severs the image from itself, cuts it into pieces,
and leaves it dismembered, helpless, and ready for interpretation. I have only a little to say about
that here, because of this book’s limited space. I expand on the analysis in a book called What
Photography Is in relation to the specific medium of photography.
(It was another motif of the
conference that we spent relatively little time pondering the media we were studying, as if the
message superseded its material expression.)
Analysis of the lingchi procedure
The procedure starts with the removal of the victim’s left breast (Fig. 6. 1). This particular event
was documented with large-format stereo slides. The larger image is one of the stereo pairs.
Fig. 6.1
Execution of an unknown prisoner by lingchi. Date unknown, c. 1905.
Caishikou execution field, Beijing. Top: stereo pair. Bottom: detail.
Photos courtesy of Musée Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.
The cut is very clean, removing the skin, the superficial fat, and the chest muscle, in an egg-
shaped area. The procedure here would be very similar to skinning an animal, and it is
reasonable to assume that the executioners expertise came from butchery. The shiny fascia
covering the ribs and intercostal muscles are still intact, also typical in flaying an animal. There
is only one thin rivulet of blood. If flaying is done well, there is very little blood loss.
2. In the next stereo pair, additional dissection has been done (Fig. 6. 2, top). The fascia
have been cut away, revealing the ribs, and the arm has been opened above the elbow joint.
Fig. 6.2
Execution of an unknown prisoner by lingchi. Date unknown, c.1905.
Caishikou execution field, Beijing. Details.
Photos courtesy of Musée Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.
A lens-shaped aperture has been cleared away, indicated by the arrow. This same shape appears
in photographs of other lingchi. The fifth and sixth ribs curve upward at this point, and the apex
of the heart would be just beneath them, covered only in a thin layer of fascia. It is possible that
the purpose of this cut was to reveal the beating of the man’s heart. The apex of the heart could
be the form indicated by the arrow.
In this same photograph (Fig. 6. 2, top), the front of the man’s arm has been sliced off.
Photographs of other executions show how this was done: the executioner pinches the biceps to
raise it up, and then slices underneath it. In this case the man’s arm was tied so close to his body
that the executioner cut his side in two places (note the two small cuts on his side next to the cut
in the arm).
The humerus (upper arm bone) may have been cut midway along its length, and ripped
out. Below, the round condyles of the radius (one of the lower arm bones) are visible, indicated
by the arrow. This kind of cut would be easy to do with a large cleaver. Chinese cookbooks
routinely call for the breaking of even large bones with cleavers, and once the humerus was
broken it would not be difficult to pull the lower portion forward and snap the cartilages at the
elbow joint. In other lingchi photographs, it is evident that this was done to both arms and legs.
The victim would then be disabled without amputation.
The purpose of both the excision of the lower humerus and femur, and also the prosection
(demonstrative dissection) of the apex of the heart, might have been to enable the victim to see
his own body in the process of being dismantled.
The same could be said of other sequences in
which the humerus and femur were apparently not excised. (See Fig. 6. 4.)
3. With the intercostal spaces scraped clean, the victim could have seen the beating of his
heart, and also the motions of his lungs. In other sequences of lingchi, there is also lower cut on
his right side (our left side) may have been designed to reveal the liver. One is visible in Fig. 6:
2, bottom. This cut goes below the ribs, and like the other cuts it seems to outline a particular
By this time the victim will have bled more, but still much less than would cause a loss of
consciousness. One of the purposes of the very sharp knives and clean cuts may have been to
prolong the victim’s consciousness.
(I am not claiming that the purpose of these actions is to prolong the suffering of the
victim. It was widely assumed by Westerners that the lingchi was an operation intended to
produce pain. There is no evidence for that in the Chinese texts. Rather it appears that the
purpose was to ensure that the man could not take his place with the ancestors because he would
be given an improper burial. In that context, it is possible that the longer the man was conscious,
the more he would realize his eternal fate. The difference between Western perceptions and non-
Western intentions is one of the themes of this book, and we also discuss it in the roundtable
printed at the end of the book. I mention it here, even though it is not part of the analysis I am
undertaking at the moment, because when I have presented this material to members of the
Turandot Group that is researching these images, it was said that I was playing into Western
expectations, and reviving pernicious misunderstandings. All I am doing is reporting on what the
photographs may show.)
4. The executioner amputated the victim’s legs by first cutting through the fleshy part of
the upper leg above the knee (Fig. 6. 3, top).
Fig. 6.3
Top: Execution of an unknown prisoner by lingchi, detail. Date unknown, c. 1905.
Bottom: Execution of Fu Zhuli, April 10, 1905, detail.
Caishikou execution field, Beijing.
Photos courtesy of Musée Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.
Here he is posing for the camera, holding his cleaver still. (That happens in a number of other
photographs. The poses seem to be held for especially important moments in the sequence.)
Above the cleaver the femur, the muscles above it, and the skin and fat can be seen in three
distinct layers. One effect of cutting muscles and other tissues is that the cut releases tension, and
the muscles spring back.
It appears the sequence for the amputation of the legs was the same as for the arms. Next,
the executioner would open the leg down to the knee joint, clean the muscles and fascia, hack
through the femur, and pull it out at the knee joint. This is shown in Fig. 6. 3, bottom.
Below the initial clean cut is a second, more ragged, cut through the thick quadriceps
muscles. The ragged cut indicates several attempts. The right-hand side of the wound is
especially ragged and torn-looking, indicating at least eight separate cuts.
The top arrow shows the layers of skin, fat, and muscle from the first cut; the middle
arrow indicates the mass of the muscle group called the quadriceps femoris; and the lower arrow
shows the cut end of the femur. (Another photograph from this same execution shows the end of
the femur on the man’s left leg protruding from the severed muscles in the wound.) As with the
arms, the executioner avoided the large femoral artery and saphenous vein, which could have
caused massive blood loss.
5. At this point, the man’s arms and legs would be amputated, which would be easily
done but would cause significant blood loss, leading to loss of consciousness (Fig. 6. 4). In this
case the man’s humerus bones were not cut, as shown here, where the two rounded condyles of
the bone are visible at the end of the stump of his left arm. The joint of his right arm has been
prepared for amputation by a V-shaped cut.
Fig. 6.4
Execution of Fu Zhuli by lingchi. April 10, 1905. Caishikou execution field, Beijing.
Top: whole. Bottom: detail.
Photos courtesy of Musée Albert Kahn; details and arrows by the author.
At that point the man’s head would be bent forward and cut off by hacking between the cervical
vertebrae in back. The dismembered body would be thrown on the ground or the parts collected
in baskets.
It would be possible to go on in detail on each of these steps, including the initial binding
of the victim, which was itself a complex procedure. But this is enough to reveal the sequence of
events. With this information, it becomes possible to look carefully at any photograph of lingchi,
and say approximately what stage in the execution it represents.
Three conclusions
That is a brief and incomplete summary of the facts of the lingchi procedure as it is recorded in
several series of photographs made in Shanghai. From this I will draw three conclusions, equally
1. Of the three purposes of this essay, the contribution to the study of the lingchi itself is
the easiest to assess. Even within the restricted corpus of existing photographs, all taken in the
last years before the practice was discontinued, there is variety in the sequence, and over the
preceding centuries there would naturally be much greater variation. And yet, in regard to the
photographs, there is also surprising consistency. I propose that the sequence I have set out here,
in abbreviated form, accounts for virtually all the surviving photographs. This implies the
existence of a known or expected procedure, and suggests that just a small group of executioners
were responsible for lingchi in the last years in which it was practiced. The most speculative
element of my analysis is the supposition that the humerus and femur were cut and their ends
pulled out. In some photographs that seems very plausible, but in others it is less clear.
I think
that a definite answer has to wait for new photographic material or—something that is never out
of the range of possibility in historical research—texts.
2. However, I am less interested in the empirical sequence itself than in two
consequences that can be drawn from it. The acts of looking that produced the conclusions I have
sketched here took several days. My idea, at first, was to look in a different way than people have
looked at these images in the past, and in a different way than the conference participants looked
when they showed the images onscreen. My hope was that by instituting a different kind of
looking, we—those of us who study these images, and you, as a reader of this book—might
unsettle our habitual relation to the material, and find ways to question our engagement.
It has been over ten years since the first conference I attended on this subject, in Toronto
(this is mentioned in the Preface), and almost seven since the conference that sparked this book.
In that interval several major publications have appeared that would seem to adequately
summarize what is known about the lingchi. But I am not sure the scholars involved in this
material—and by extension, with other archives of material such as the ones described elsewhere
in this book—have always thought about the sources of their own attraction. In the conferences I
participated in, some scholars said that their interest in the images came from their desire to
understand the historical context of Shanghai at the opening of the twentieth century; others said
they had an interest in understanding the history of Chinese punitive practices, or the history of
French colonial attitudes at fin-de-siècle. I do not doubt those motives: it seems reasonable to say
that whenever an historian focuses on a single subject, her primary interest is in finding out what
happened then, and why.
The historical material is normally fascinating of its own accord: it apparently provides
the motive and source of interest. And yet I say “apparently” because there is always more
involved. Historical writing, as its theorists from Nietzsche and Wilhelm Dilthey to Hayden
White have said, is a reciprocal enterprise: the historian is drawn to the material because of
something in her own life. Historical writing and research is necessarily a dialogue between the
historian’s experience and the events she is seeking to understand, and understanding itself is
always mutual: writing history can be a way of understanding oneself. These are platitudes of
reflective historical theory, presupposed in some of the best accounts, such as Walter Benjamin’s.
In the day-to-day course of historical research, the reciprocal illumination of the historian’s life
by the historical material is not always articulated or even noticed. It becomes an insistent
problem, I think, when scholars decide to study extremely unpleasant or painful material. In
those cases, the conventional reasons that might be given for studying the material may not be
persuasive. If Stephen Eisenman says he is studying Abu Ghraib photographs in order to better
understand the current political moment,
or Valentin Groebner says he is interested in
photojournalism to shed light on compassion and identification,
then those explanations are
certainly true. But they can only be part of the story. I hoped that by looking slowly and
deliberately at these images, I could bring out how strange it is to spend time studying such a
subject: and by strange I mean, potentially, a whole string of concepts that would have to be
teased out by each individual historian—perverse, masochistic, sadistic, sociopathic, racist.
When images are as historically and emotionally charged as these, then the motivations
that might have been the private concern of the historian gain a public dimension. I hoped that by
dilating the time spent on the images, it might become more difficult for scholars to say they are
just studying Chinese legal practice, or the history of colonialism, or the history of Orientalism.
By slowing down seeing I hoped to make it possible for anyone who finds herself drawn, even
temporarily, to these images, to ask why they are so drawn. In particular, in relation to
surrealism, I doubt Bataille could have sustained his interest in the images or taken them as
exemplary moments of transgression, if he had looked at them more slowly and carefully. They
would have become… something else. In this context I can only gesture in the direction of this
claim, but the subject applies generally to images that are painful to encounter: if you find
yourself drawn to some of the images in this book, or the issues they raise, then you might
consider a radically altered way of encountering the images—a very slow encounter, for example
—as a way to unsettle your relation to the images, and facilitate a reflective encounter with your
own motivations and sources of interest.
3. My third purpose is to suggest that the ordinary kinds of analysis that beginning
students in the arts are taught are not the neutral vehicles of understanding that they seem to be.
Formal analysis, compositional analysis, iconographic inventory, narrative reconstruction—all
the supposedly preparatory, elementary, rudimentary ways of looking—are far from neutral
encounters with visual objects. They are, I think, cold and often cruel dissections of visual
objects. A listing of iconographic symbols, a semiotic account of a picture’s signs, a formalist
inventory of a painting’s shapes and colors, share the same deliberate, systematic, disciplined
looking that I have just sampled in respect to the lingchi images. Formal, semiotic, and
iconographic approaches may be cold-blooded and even cruel. They create a sense that an image
has been mastered by taking one element at a time, excising it from its context, and proceeding
to the next, until all the elements of the visual object have been distinguished from one another.
The elements, signs, or symbols of the image have then been controlled, and the image is made
available for further study. For me, this was one of the principal interests of the conference: to
look at myself looking, and to see how ordinary looking (at “ordinary” objects like paintings) can
begin with sustained acts of cruelty, and how the clarity of a good art historical account of a
painting, for example, may be enabled and sustained by a kind of deliberate, cold, repressive,
dissective visual analysis —an analysis that gives the essential illusion of control.
The ordinary, pedagogically instilled, rote and routine visual analysis of an image creates
pain in the image. It reveals and articulates the viewers desire to understand as a painful desire.
And that, in turn, permits the art historical or critical analysis to go forward and create its own
pleasure. There is a dialectic of painful interpretation and interpretive pleasure in art history,
theory, and criticism, and its opening move is the immobilization and dissection of the visual
image. The pain and pleasure feed on one another: formal or iconographic analysis feed the
viewers desire by increasing whatever pleasure can be found in the pain of an image: or to put it
rigorously, in a formula, analysis produces the pain of interpretation as the pleasure of the
For me, this third purpose is the most intriguing and potentially the most far-reaching. I
am still thinking about it, trying to decide how widely it might be applicable. To the extent that
the lingchi may provide a model of art historical looking in general, it may be a deep critique of
the institutional protocols of the discipline of art history: its coldness, its penchant for controlling
the visual, its covert interest in producing pain.
“The Very Theory of Transgression: Bataille, lingchi, and Surrealism,” Australian and New
Zealand Journal of Art 5 no. 2 (2004): 5-19; revised version “The Most Intolerable Photographs
Ever Taken,” in The Ethics and Aesthetics of Torture: Its Comparative History in China, Islam,
and Europe, edited by Timothy Brook and Jérôme Bourgon (London: Rowman and Littlefield,
forthcoming). The most extensive publication on the lingchi is Death by A Thousand Cuts, edited
by Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2008).
Nothing I have to say here is meant either to supplant or amend that material, and I ask every
reader interested in the lingchi to look at the book I cite in note 1, and at least some of the many
sources it cites in turn. I also need to say at the beginning that the images I reproduce here were
all collected by the French research group, called Turandot, of which I was a satellite member. I
owe to them, and especially Jérôme Bourgon and my co-editor Maria Pia Di Bella, what
knowledge of the images that I have.
The most succinct summary is the Wikipedia entry “Slow slicing,” accessed January 16, 2012.
In making this analysis, I have been helped by a plastic surgeon and fine art photographer,
David Teplica.
What Photography Is (New York: Routledge, 2011).
That purpose is consonant with what the Turandot research group found is the legal intention of
the lingchi: the demonstration, to the victim, his family, and the public, that the victim’s body
would be ruined, making it impossible for him to carry on his family’s line in the afterlife.
I expect that other members of the Turandot Group will take issue with what I have proposed
here; the plastic surgeon I consulted says that it is possible the photographs show something
other than excision of the humerus and femur. It does seem clear that the dissections of the upper
arms and legs were intended to cripple the victim, to demonstrate his incipient dismemberment,
while also limiting blood loss. The lens-shaped area cleaned over the left side of the chest does
seem intended to demonstrate the beating of the victim’s heart, although it is also possible that
with the intercostal muscles cleared away, the victim’s breathing would have been that much
more obvious.
Stephen Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion, 2007).
See chapter 11.
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