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Turandot. Chinese torture/Supplice chinois


Web site : turandot.chineselegalculture.org

Project Description

« Chinese torture » is a cliché. That is the visual representation of a prejudice according to which the Chinese singularize by a particular cruelty. Backed by testimonies and photographs, this representation proliferated in literature, art, theater, cinema, etc. The myth for long survived to the facts it was inspired by, and it goes on distorting our perception of Chinese reality.

To seize this polymorphic representation under all aspects, we constituted an international and interdisciplinary team, including specialists in Chinese history, comparative literature, Western and Chinese iconography, photography, etc. This multilingual data basis is a tool for crossing or approaches, and bridge the gap between our fields. This is a way to diffuse our research works, and provide access to our resources for our colleagues. Materials come with a critical apparatus easing their use for research; hyperlinks allow confrontations between resources of diverse kinds, to find out thei references, to link them according to this or that interpretative hypothesis.

An exotic cliché

Throughout history, few cultures have been as strongly vilified for alleged cruelty, as China by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries West. How much of what was reported is true, how much is baseless fantasy, how much is a distortion of real facts? How and why was punishment applied in late imperial China? Surprisingly, the very question of how and why the image of the supplice chinois was so rapidly born and later allowed to thrive, is as yet almost entirely unexplored by research. Likewise for the actual workings of punishments, be it the harshest modes of execution, or the milder punishing practices and judicial tortures. Both topics are linked: how can the value of a myth be appreciated without taking into account what it is feeding from?

Second, the site is a scholarly instrument, meant to assist research at various ways. The purpose is to gather in one single space, documents scattered all over the world in many different repositories, as well as to provide new research on the subject. The site will be a comprehensive source of information, not only on judiciary and punishment in China, but also how facts were interpreted/built on in the West.


Why give the project a double and bilingual title: Chinese torture/Supplice chinois? These two terms are not exact synonyms. The English term Chinese torture is evocative of suffering either inflicted by legal authorities during investigation or trial (judicial torture), during execution (tormenting punishments), or unlawfully practiced by private individuals (cruelties, physical abuses). All forms of torture are for now forbidden as breaches in human rights guaranteed by law, and the formerly “legal” or “illegal” kinds of torture fall under the same and radical moral condemnation. While in English just like in French, "torture" marks out practices considered in their historical, legal, and moral dimension, in quite a matter of fact way, "supplice" has a different meaning, and has no equivalent in English. The term can point at the same practices and facts as torture, but with a strong additional religious dimension. The Supplice by excellence is Christ' Crucifixion, and the rich Christian martyrdom are like infinite variations on this leading theme. So what “supplice” marks out is not so much tormented execution, actual torture , but, more importantly, a salvation narrative, plotted around the redemptive role of suffering, a vibrant esthetics of the suffering body, etc. Very influential in the countries that a print from Roman Catholic Church (Italy, Spain,France...), the "Supplice" conception became a receptacle for images of Chinese torture, elaborating on them a sophisticated esthetics and narratives. In our dual title, then, "Chinese torture" is indicative of matter of fact descriptions and pictures, while "Supplice chinois" rather alludes to the esthetical, cultural, and religious background that gives shapes to the representations of torture.

Sources and Approaches

Sources on the subject are diverse and plentiful, from China or elsewhere. Iconography is overabundant; it goes from the pith paper export watercolors, to Western engravings, to photographs of executions, or to statuary of the Buddhist hell tortures. Textual resources are enormous, covering as they do hard facts (Chinese judiciary archives), more or less accurate and biased accounts by witnesses, most of them Western, or fully fanciful ramblings based on dubious knowledge. All this, in short, must be made available to the interested public.

This site means to provide both ready access to the sources as well as critical and scholarly comments on them. The database is meant for a wide range of users, from scholars specialized in Chinese or legal studies, to students, and to the general public. We aim at creating a new kind of learned publication, freely open to consultation.

Jérôme Bourgon, CNRS

Institut d'Asie Orientale

Last update Friday 20 January 2012 by G. Foliot