death by a thousand cuts


As I was writing this I heard a stockbroker on Radio 4 describe the economy failing as if ‘tortured’ by ‘the Chinese death of a thousand cuts’. It is an evergreen concept, and definitely not off limits to scholars. These three academic authors, from Oxford, Lyon, and Victoria, British Columbia, have attended conferences, we learn, on ‘The Comparative History of Torture’ and ‘The Representation of Pain’, and their research is published by one of the world’s most prestigious academic presses.

They write coolly and formally, but this is a book primarily about torment. Torment is distinguished from torture, the authors contend, in that it aims only to cause pain, while torture is inflicted to extract some statement. The Chinese practice of ‘lingchi’, known in the West – falsely – as ‘death by a thousand cuts’, was a form of torment, imposed for a particularly serious crime before an audience directed to draw a lesson from the agonies of the criminal. What Americans inflicted on their captives in Vietnam, the application of electrodes to the genitals (called ‘ringing him up’), or in Iraq, the semi-drowning termed ‘water boarding’, is torture, because the victims are compelled to disclose something.

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