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the Complete Review
the complete review - law / cultural history

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon,
and Gregory Blue

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Death by a Thousand Cuts

Title: Death by a Thousand Cuts
Authors: Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 251 pages
Availability: Death by a Thousand Cuts - US
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  • With 31 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : solid overview, largely interesting discussion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . 11/2008 Jonathan Mirsky
London Rev. of Books . 29/1/2009 Glen Newey
The New Yorker . 5/5/2008 .
Times Higher Ed. . 8/5/2008 Julian Ward

  From the Reviews:
  • "They write coolly and formally, but this is a book primarily about torment. (...) Although not for the casual reader, this is a learned and educational book, and its comparative passages are appropriately chosen. I think the authors are hard on those who observed Chinese punishments for not understanding the Chinese judicial system." - Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review

  • "This fascinating study argues, however, that lingchi was not entirely about physical suffering -- the victim was typically sedated with opium, and killed early in the process -- but about a "loss of somatic integrity," the posthumous shame of having been reduced to body parts." - The New Yorker

  • "The authors present a nuanced picture of state-imposed execution and, without at any time condoning, succeed in their goal of contextualising lingchi in relation to Western forms of punishment (.....) At a time when the debate about what constitutes acceptable forms of physical punishment, as well as the thorny question of a divergence between Western and Asian concepts of human rights, is so prevalent, this challenging and important work will appeal not solely to Sinologists, but to legal historians and students of visual representation." - Julian Ward, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       'Death by a thousand cuts' is one of the names by which the Chinese method of execution of lingchi (凌遲) is known. While it does not literally involve a thousand cuts, it certainly is horrific -- and captures the imagination. In their book Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue describe what's actually involved, the use of this particular death-penalty in China over the centuries, and, especially, Western misperceptions about it.
       The last lingchi execution took place in 1905, but Europeans managed to take photographs of several examples of the gruesome practice before it was put to a stop, making for graphic illustrations that readily helped reinforce Western preconceptions of Eastern barbarism. (Several of the pictures are included in the book.) But Death by a Thousand Cuts tries to put the practice in perspective -- and it is, in fact, hardly more horrific than some of the forms of execution employed in Europe (though the transition to what was perceived as more humane ways of executing people took place earlier in Europe (and America)).
       Lingchi was considered the second most severe form of the death penalty and, significantly, its horror-value came not from the suffering felt during the process but rather the end-result. Death was generally not a drawn-out, lingering process: after a few strategic slices of the condemned body his heart was apparently pierced, the actual many cuts and dismemberment taking place only after death. But it was this -- the taking apart of the body by cutting it into small pieces -- that was the actual punishment: by denying the condemned 'somatic integrity' the condemned's hopes for any sort of afterlife were destroyed. It was the worst thing that could be done to someone -- and hence also the most severe form of the death penalty took this to the extreme, calling for the body to be literally pulverised.
       Looking at the history of lingchi the authors suggest that it was not until the early decades of the Ming dynasty, in the late 14th century, that it became widespread. Zhu Yuanzhang's use of the punishment, in a losing battle to scare his subjects (and administrators) straight, is entertainingly documented, though only much later does the debate about how effective the death penalty (and this particular form of it) is as a deterrent really take hold. (As the authors note, however: "The death penalty, once universal, is today primarily an East Asian punishment", as reliance on it continues to be great in those countries (and, of course, especially China, which executes by far the most people of any contemporary nation).)
       The authors have some fun citing various shocked accounts of other cultures' barbarism to show that just as the Europeans considered many Chinese practices beyond the pale, so too the Chinese were shocked by some European (or, for example, Tibetan) punishments. But the authors are particularly concerned with European views of China, and how lingchi captured (and was processed by) the European imagination. Octave Mirabeau's Le Jardin des supplices (Torture Garden) is an extreme (but influential) example, and the authors do a good job of showing how and to some extent why such 'misreadings' of lingchi were so widespread.
       A separate chapter focusses entirely on Georges Bataille's Les Larmes d'Éros (The Tears of Eros) -- the one chapter that feels out of place, as the close analysis in fact goes considerably beyond the purview of the book and the authors seem to be after a different point entirely here. Suddenly there's no effort to keep any scholarly neutrality, as they acknowledge:

     Frankly, we find Les Larmes d'Éros an obnoxious work executed in bad taste. Its tone of arid sadism infuses a decidedly uneven text, which meanders through a heterogeneous mass of pictures of similarly variable quality to produce the book's core message: that suffering intermingles with pleasure and augments it.
       While suggesting the focus is on the use of the lingchi images in Bataille's book, it almost feels like that's just an excuse to get at something completely different, as they hypothesize that the book might not even have been written by Bataille, but rather Joseph Marie Lo Duca. While that is an authorship-question of some interest, the detective-work here ("Might we thus see here an Italianism that betrays the hand of Bataille's associate" they ask at one point) steers the book far too far away from its subject; indeed, the whole chapter seems more part of a different story.
       Otherwise, however, Death by a Thousand Cuts provides a useful introduction to and overview of lingchi. Explaining its legal roots -- and philosophical and theological underpinnings -- as well as how it was used in practice the book offers interesting insight into these aspects of Chinese culture. By pointing out how misrepresented lingchi in particular -- but also the image of Chinese culture as one that indulges in elaborate and excessive torture -- has been the authors also offer an interesting documentation of cross-cultural misunderstanding (as well as suggesting how and why these arose).
       Of manageable length, covering the subject from a number of angles (and just one too many, as they go too far in their Bataille-analysis) Death by a Thousand Cuts is a quite fascinating read.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Timothy Brook teaches at Oxford University.

       Jérôme Bourgon is a researcher at the Institut d'Asie Orientale at the University of Lyon.

       Gregory Blue teaches at the University of Victoria.

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