Fact Check

Were These Women Found Guilty of Witchcraft in Early 20th Century China?

A photograph showing three women in a "cangue" is often shared with a backstory about witchcraft.

Published May 24, 2017

 (William Saunders)
Image courtesy of William Saunders
A photograph shows three women being punished after they were found guilty of witchcraft in China in 1922.

On 24 May 2017, the Historical Pics Twitter account posted a photograph purportedly showing three woman who were found guilty of witchcraft in China in 1922:

This is a real photograph, but the women pictured were not convicted witches; nor is the image from 1922.

Instead, the women posed for the photograph to illustrate the use of a three-person cangue, a public humiliation device. Photographer William Saunders took the picture sometime between 1870 and 1880 in Shanghai. The image is archived at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The photograph was also misdated as having been taken in 1907 in the book Imperial China Photographs. Régine Thiriez, who has written extensively about photography in 19th century China, said of the photograph:

The photograph was not only misdated, it is also often interpreted as real life -- what it probably would have been in 1907. But this is not, and probably never was, daily life in the Shanghai Concessions. It is a studio creation, as is confirmed by the setup in front of a Western window, not in the street; the lack of the pasted slip of paper stating the reason for the punishment (a legal obligation); and the pristine condition of the three women who cannot have been standing there more than the few minutes necessary for the exposure.

A cangue limits a person's movement by placing their head through the hole of a large board. It was used as a form of punishment, torture, or public humiliation. Saunders captured at least one other photograph demonstrating the use of a cangue in China. The following photograph, dated between 1865-1870, also used models and not people convicted of witchcraft:


Historical Photographs of China.   "Punishment with Cangues."     Retrieved 24 May 2017.

Historical Photographs of China.   "Three Women 'Prisoners' Posed in a Cangue."     Retrieved 24 May 2017.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.