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General Li Hung Chang's Reminder to the Lawless

General Li Hung Chang's Reminder to the Lawless


By: Anonymous

Date: c. 1900

Source: Corbis

About the Photographer: The photographer is unknown.


In this picture, the severed heads of several pirates are hung in wooden cages over a high wall, probably that of a prison, apparently to deter crimes by others. This photograph is one half of a stereoscopic pair meant to be seen as a three-dimensional image. The original caption, supplied by the European or American manufacturer of the stereoscopic card, emphasizes the purpose of the display: "Li Hung Chang's reminder to the lawless."

Li Hung Chang (1823–1901) was a diplomat, statesman, and general during the later years of the Manchu or Qing (Chi'ng) Dynasty in China. He was noted for his diplomatic skills. At the age of 80 he was appointed viceroy of the southern region of Canton by the dowager empress of China. The Canton area was plagued by murderous pirates—not swashbuckling clichés, but violent Chinese outlaws. Large gangs of 50 or more would swarm large British merchant vessels, or disguise themselves as a pleasure party, hiring a launch for the day and taking along a gaily-dressed young woman or two as a distraction. The Empress sent her best man, Li Hung Chang, to correct the situation.

Beheading was standard punishment in China at that time for crimes such as murder and piracy. Viceroy Ts'en, a successor of Li Hung Chang in Canton in the early twentieth century, wrote in response to British complaints of continuing piracy, "Have I not already decapitated over 15,000 robbers since my appointment[?] I executed 50 only two days ago and this does not include many shot and otherwise destroyed. Am I not honestly doing my best?"



See primary source image.


Li Hung Chang relied on increased pursuit and execution of pirates and thieves to protect trade relations with Western nations. Problems protecting trade goods led him to pursue a policy of railroad construction and military reform. Despite these modernization plans, Li Hung Chang relied on traditional-and sometimes brutal-forms of punishment for capital crimes.

Beheadings themselves were often public events, performed either in the city-center or immediately outside of the city boundaries. Sometimes, the accused were shamed by having their queues or pigtails cut off before being beheaded. In many parts of China, beheadings were infrequent occurrences. An American missionary in Kiukiang in 1876 noted in a letter describing a public execution that the city had not executed a prisoner for many years.

The public display of heads was intended to deter capital crime. Whether it actually had that effect, however, may be questioned. Years later, piracy continued and Li Hung Chang's successor Ts'en executed thousands of criminals.



Goertzel, Ted. "Capital Punishment and Homicide: Sociological Realities and Econometric Illusions." Skeptical Inquirer.

Web sites

Death Penalty Information Center. Fagan, Jeffrey. "Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Critical Review of New Evidence." 〈〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).

Pro-Death Penalty.Org. "Standing United for the Death Penalty." 〈〉 (accessed March 7, 2006).

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