Western Depictions of Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial China

Recently, we have digitized a collection of 51 images on crime and punishment in late Imperial China, gleaned from the 19th century Westerners’ China travelogues housed at the Department of Special Collections of the MSE Library. Chinese tortures, prisons and punishments had been constant themes of Western sinological attention for well over four centuries. Accounts of the Chinese judicial practice, including the tortures and punishments utilized, date back to the very beginning of the modern contacts between China and the West.

In late Imperial China, the Chinese judicial system was an object of immediate and observable knowledge. Western travelers often watched or participated in its workings, in court or on the street, either as spectators or as prisoners. They documented such experiences with detailed descriptions and vivid illustrations.

These images depicted various forms of judicial torture and punishment in the Qing Dynasty as well as torture apparatuses, including flogging, bastinado, finger squeezing, cangue, shackling, torment on the rack, and beheading. In imperial Chinese law, torture (xing) was a blanket term that consisted of two forms of legally sanctioned physical violence: torture as an investigative tool used in the course of a legal proceeding and torture as corporal punishment meted out to culprits after conviction.

This torture imagery includes both interrogative torture and retributive punishment. A notable pictorial depiction is Major George Henry Mason’s The Punishments of China/Les Punitions des chinois, which was a bilingual thematic volume published in 1801, featuring 22 colored plates accompanied by the author’s notes and preface. In the digitized collection, we have included both images and detailed descriptions from the sources from which readers can catch a colorful glimpse of  Western perception and depiction of judicial punishment in late Imperial China.

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