Spanking, Social Control and Souvenirs

03 January 2014

Area Studies | Cultural Studies | History

Whilst delving into an intriguing batch of Chinese artwork for our project China America and the Pacific, I was arrested by the sight of a man’s bare buttocks. Said buttocks were receiving a thorough spanking via the medium of a bamboo paddle administered by a law enforcement officer who looked decidedly happy in his work.

Chinese Export watercolour depicting punishment

This poor unfortunate, radiating misery in his undignified predicament, highlights one of 12 forms of punishment prevalent in China during the 1800s, neatly if simply illustrated, and formed into a little souvenir book for the export market.
Such glimpses of Chinese life were mass produced in portside workshops by local artists throughout the 19th Century, and sold to merchants who took them home for curious friends desperate for a peek of the previously unknown oriental world, and also depicted modes of fashion and furnishing, industries and the indigenous natural world.

Export watercolour - birds

I am always tempted by souvenirs myself, and can see the value in a collection of beautiful pictures in the Chinese style as shown above, although this little book of punishments is more gruesome than attractive, and perhaps was intended as a warning for Western merchants as the door to China was pushed further open by clamouring, fortune-hunting foreigners. Although the boon of extraterritoriality largely protected English and American criminals from Chinese laws from the 1840s onwards, such clear depictions of punishment (and enthusiastic punishers – look again at the side-long glance shared by the officers in the spanking illustration) might have made would-be transgressors think before crossing the line.

Export watercolour depicting punishments

Regrettably, we cannot know the crime that resulted in a public spanking, but must surmise it was considerably less severe than the criminal above having his skin flayed off a strip at a time, which must in turn have been less heinous than that committed by the man in the final picture shown below, poised on the threshold of decapitation. The executioner in this last painting looks particularly smug, which is strangely charming and disturbing in equal measure. 

Export watercolour depicting punishments

China, America and The Pacific will be available in Autumn 2013 and boasts many beautiful and fascinating export watercolours.

About the Author

Sue Alway

During my time in Editorial I have worked on many fascinating collections, including Mass Observation Online and Popular Culture in Britain and America. I love working with historical documents, bringing individual lives into focus and finding the personal stories behind the facts.