Before English speakers adopted the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” as an idiom to mean any failure resulting from many small problems, it was one translation of the Chinese execution method Lingchi chusi. It was a ruthless execution method.
In Taylor Swift’s 2019 song “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” she metaphorically compares the phrase to the pain of saying goodbye. Swift's use shows just how much the phrase has evolved over time. The origins of the phrase are quite a bit more literal.
Lingchi chusi was one form of capital punishment used in China between 900 AD and 1905 when it was finally outlawed. It is not known the exact number of people executed by Lingchi over those thousand years.
There was international pressure to end the brutal practice starting in the mid-1800s, but the practice persisted. Photographs survive from some of the latest executions, as they were usually performed in public.
According to Death by a Thousand Cuts (2008) by Timothy Brook, Jerome Bourgon, and Gregory Blue Lingchi chusi or “to put to death by lingchi” has been translated to “death by slicing,” “the lingering death,” and of course “death by a thousand cuts.”
But, according to Brooks et al., it would be a mistake to consider death by a thousand cuts torture. Torture is a term reserved for those acts that inflict pain to elicit information.
Instead, the execution method should be considered torment, as its only goal is to inflict suffering before death.
Lingchi existed to match the brutality of, especially heinous criminals. After sentencing a person to death, Chinese officials had to decide which death method was most appropriate to the convicted person’s crimes. The logic follows that not all crimes deserving of the death penalty were created equal, so not all capital punishments should be.
The second-worst form of the death penalty
According to Brook et al., Lingchi violates a person’s somatic integrity, or the capacity of their body to remain whole in life and death. If a person was executed by Lingchi, it impacted them in the afterlife as well. But, it was only the second-worst form of capital punishment.
The four forms of the death penalty listed in the Jade Register are:
- “Smash up the body and grind the bones to dust, such that not a hair remains.”
- “Lingchi, disembowelment, dismemberment, chopping of the body into pieces.”
- “Death by decapitation.”
- “Death by strangulation.”
The less somatic integrity a person is left with, the greater the punishment in life and death. The amount of pain and torment increases with the harsher punishments, and they were meant to be a deterrent to criminals.
Regardless of one's belief in somatic integrity or not, knowing those execution methods were in use would serve as a pretty strong deterrent.
(A depiction of Lingchi Chusi from Le Monde illustré, 27 février 1858 on Wikimedia Commons)
A late example of Lingchi
In 1904, Wang Weiqin was one of the last people to be put to death by Lingchi.
According to Brooks et al., his crimes involved the murder of twelve people. The murders were premeditated and were part of a revenge plot against a rival.
Wang Weiqin was of noble descent, which sometimes helped lessen a person’s punishment, but his crimes were deemed serious enough to warrant the sentence of death by a thousand cuts.
Brooks et al. describe the execution from witness testimony. Weiqin was tied to a tripod in the middle of a crowd of soldiers and civilians. He was stripped naked, then the executioner and his assistant went to work.
They sliced off pieces of Weiqin’s breasts, biceps, and thighs. Then the executioner pierced his heart, killing him.
The executioner systematically dismembered Weiqin’s corpse. First, severing wrists and ankles, then elbows and knees, then shoulders and hips, and finally the head. In this case, the executioner made about three dozen cuts before declaring Weiqin killed, his body in pieces.
Death by a thousand cuts may have been an exaggeration even in terms of the execution method. Three dozen cuts are a lot fewer than a thousand, although it is possible the method started with a lot more cuts when it was originally invented.
Thinking about how the executioner goes about his business is as bone-chilling as thinking about the method he uses. How does one find themselves in that line of work?
Death by a thousand cuts today
Lingchi has been referenced in movies, literature, and tv shows. Examples include The Sand Pebbles (1966) starring Steve McQueen, Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, and a 2018 episode of Orange Is the New Black.
In more recent times, the saying death by a thousand cuts has percolated throughout all areas of society and is commonly used as a metaphor. The idea of failure from many small problems as opposed to one big one is universal.
It would no longer be fathomable for the execution method to be accepted and used anywhere in the world at present. That knowledge could explain why people are so nonchalant in using the expression today.
The last time I used the reference, I was attending a long Zoom meeting for work. I messaged a co-worker, "Listening to this person dribble on and on is unbearable. This meeting is death by a thousand cuts."
The brutal nature of “death by a thousand cuts” makes it a perfect way to be overly dramatic. It is one of those phrases that tingles the spine if you think about it too hard, but it drives the point home.
But, it was a brutal execution method that took the lives of many. Now that I have researched the phrase’s origins, I might use the saying in fewer situations. Time heals all wounds, but those executed by Lingchi Chusi may not appreciate the words either way.
And with that, I say goodbye, but unlike for Taylor Swift to her lover, this goodbye is not “death by a thousand cuts.”