Execution of a Chinese prisoner by beheading
In China, over many, many centuries, dating back more than two thousand years, two philosophies known as Confucianism and Legalism have played out an extended battle in the public realm as to the nature of human beings. Confucianism, which is fairly well known in the West, emphasizes virtue as the key to a healthy society—its counterpoint, Legalism, argues that human beings, motivated entirely by self-interest, are more inclined to do wrong than right. In a general way, the Western analogues for Legalism are Machiavelli and Hobbes, although those two men lived many centuries after the original Legalist writers such as Han Fei and Li Si.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, the pessimism of Legalism led to Chinese dynasties practicing punitive measure of torture that were almost comically exaggerated, including the practice of lingchi or “death by 1000 cuts,” which actually meant anywhere from 100 to 3,000 cuts depending on what century it was happening. Yikes!!
Here’s Li Si arguing in favor of extraordinarily harsh punishments for even very lenient crimes:
Only an intelligent ruler is capable of applying harsh punishments to light offences. If light offences carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offence. Thus, the people will not dare to break the laws.
Amusingly, the two great Legalists Han Fei and Li Si knew each other, and their relationship ended in a manner reminiscent of a Tarantino movie: Han Fei was poisoned by his envious former classmate Li Si, who in turn was killed, according to the law that he had introduced, by the aggressive and violent Second Qin Emperor that he had helped to take the throne. Oh well!
The remarkable thing about these incredibly severe punishments is that they lasted for centuries. The bizarre images found here all date from the 1850s, but they document practices that had scarcely changed over the previous thousand years.
A Chinese torturer disembowels a decapitated man
A Chinese woman being tortured by two men
Many more of these ghoulish images after the jump…..