Chinese Torture in Pictures

I just discovered The punishments of China: illustrated by twenty-two engravings (note that there are two pages there). It’s part of the New York Public Library’s collection.

The rack. Digital ID: 1565316. New York Public Library

Hamstringing a malefactor. Digital ID: 1565324. New York Public Library

This instantly made me think of a Qin Shihuang (秦始皇, first emperor of China) museum of torture I once visited in Xi’an. It was full of displays with life-size mannequins being hacked, sawed, sliced, crushed, and torn to pieces. There was even plenty of fake blood. It was pretty bizarre. (Has anyone else been there? I can’t find it on the web, although one Italian site refers to a “Xiányáng Bówùguan” which could be it…)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Is it in one of the gates of the city wall? Whan I was there, somebody told me down the north gate there was a horrible museum, but that they was closed. Anyway, I have seen lots of blood in the anti-Japanese museums.

  2. A new book on the history of Chinese punishments, “Death by a Thousand Cuts” by Timothy Brook, is coming out in March.

  3. I haven’t been there, but my dad has a collection of 24 pictures of a similar style on torture. I’m not sure what the point of these paintings are, perhaps to show the public how they can be punished if they do something wrong. But they’re too flimsy to be passed around.

  4. Does anybody know whether or not “Chinese water torture” ever existed? In three years in China, I never heard it mentioned. Then again there were a lot of other things which supposedly happened but I never heard mentioned so who knows?

  5. Ben,

    I could be wrong, but I think the water torture is a fairly recent method used in the korean war? That was my assumption.

  6. Hahahahaha! I was first drawn to your site by the Nalencia orange (surfing web for fruit stickers), but now I’m looking around and I think I’m getting hooked. I like that you take the whole “Engrish” concept a little beyond the mere picture of the offending label with a snide line or two. Besides, there seems to be a lot more on here than just that. I’m going to dig around some more, and I think I’ll link to your site on my blog, if you don’t mind.

  7. Being not politically correct and all, is it possible that torture is the one thing that may not have been invented by the Chinese, especially with the timing of Olympics? I’ve never heard anyone speak of the torture museum, perhaps it has disappeared or its contents shipped to a different city? Oh, I didn’t really say that did I?

  8. Both Hong Kong and Singapore have these incredible “museums” built with Tiger Balm money – the Haw Par Museums which have incredibly grotesque scenes (both painted, and also in sculpture/wax relief) from Chinese Buddhist “hells/afterlife” which looked a lot like these prints.

  9. this is very…trembling

  10. When I was a kid in the 50’s my parents used to travel a lot from Europe to Indonesia, and air travel in those years made us make a stop at Singapoor, and there was an open air museum dedicated to Chinees torture methods. (1953/1956) does it still exist? dont know.

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