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Chinese Executions: Visualising their Differences with European Supplices

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That the Chinese were singled out by a native cruelty in refined tortures became a widespread representation at the turn of the twentieth century. This cliché relied mainly on photographs of executions that could be diffused worldwide through modern mass media such as illustrated journals or postcards. The instant photographs taken from life provided an exact rendition of what really happened on a Chinese execution ground, and anyone seeing the image could have no doubt as to the reality of Chinese cruelty, which was otherwise ascertained by true or bogus eyewitness reports. The impression was so strong and penetrated so deep in the Western imagination that it still survives as a déjà vu, an 'eye print'. Thus, the answer to why the Chinese have been represented as natively cruel must proceed from a careful reexamination of the visual documentation on Chinese executions. Western observers or commentators naturally tended to construe capital executions according to what was practiced and abundantly represented in their own civilisation. European executions obeyed a complex model that the author proposes to call 'the supplice pattern'. The term supplice designates tortures and tormented executions, but it also includes their cultural background. The European way of executing used religious deeds, aesthetic devices and performing arts techniques which themselves called for artistic representations through paintings, theatre, etc. Moreover, Christian civilisation was unique in the belief that the spectacle of a painful execution had a redemptive effect on the criminals and the attendants as well. Chinese executions obeyed an entirely different conception. They were designed to show that punishment fitted the crime as provided in the penal code. All details were aimed to highlight and inculcate the meaning of the law, while signs of emotions, deeds, words, that could have interfered with the lesson in law were prohibited. In China, capital executions were not organized as a show nor subject to aesthetic representations, and they had no redemptive function. This matter-of-fact way of executing people caused Westerners deep uneasiness. The absence of religious background and staging devices was interpreted as a sign of barbarity and cruelty. What was stigmatised was not so much the facts that their failure to conform to the 'supplice pattern' that constituted for any Westerner the due process of capital executions.


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