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What Does "Death by a Thousand Cuts" Mean?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Death by a thousand cuts is an ancient form of Chinese torture that was preserved in iconic black and white photographs. This form of torture, sometimes known as slow slicing, has different meanings depending on the context. Susan Sontag and Georges Bataille were interested in this form of torture due to the relationship between pain and ecstasy, but many people in business and other industries refer to this type of torture when speaking of creeping normalcy. Creeping normalcy is the idea that slow change is not perceived as being as negative as one large change and that large institutional shifts may occur invisibly in this way. One final meaning of death by a thousand cuts is the literal sense that one small cut may not be harmful, but a thousand small cuts will kill a person.

The form of torture known as death by a thousand cuts was used in China until 1905, when it was abolished. It was a painful and slow way to execute a person, and it was considered a more serious form of punishment because, according to Confucian principles, the body would not be whole in the afterlife.

Photography had been invented before this form of torture had been abolished, and photographic records of this type of execution being performed in public still exist. This recording of the torture played a large role in its historical relevance, because most scholars who encountered this form of torture did so through its horrific photographic preservation.

While other uses of the phrase are related to the ancient Chinese form of torture, not all are consciously referencing torture. For example, when a person in business talks about death by a thousand cuts, he or she typically means that something is slowly being destroyed rather than being destroyed all at once. This can apply to many different situations, including carving up investments or slowly killing the opposition. In terms of strategy, death by a thousand cuts of this type is often secret, with the final plan being known only to the person making the cuts.

It is also possible to talk about death by a thousand cuts when discussing the idea of creeping normalcy, or the idea that small changes over time seem less dangerous than one large change. In some cases, the final result does not even seem objectionable to the injured party. A similar example commonly used involves boiling a frog, because a frog supposedly can only detect that the temperature is changing, not how hot or cold the water is independently. Creeping normalcy is at least partially applicable to the Chinese form of torture, although it is unclear what the psychological experience of this form of death must be.

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Discussion Comments

By AnswerMan — On Jan 26, 2015

I've seen some of those photos of a Chinese death by a thousand cuts, and they were extremely gruesome. I read somewhere that the executioner was selected for his skills with a knife and his knowledge of the human body. Anyone could stab a convicted man to death, but a death by a thousand cuts was more of a ritual than an execution. I can't believe it was still practiced in the early 20th Century.

By Reminiscence — On Jan 25, 2015

I've heard this expression in relation to a bad marriage, too. I had a friend who went through a really difficult divorce, and he said his marriage was like a death by a thousand cuts. His wife always felt like she married beneath her station in life, and she never let him forget it. He said she would make what she considered jokes about little things he did. He said they felt more like little cuts on his psyche. Every little cutting remark or put down she made was one more stab, but never enough for him to give up on the marriage entirely. Maybe she really was just kidding, and he was being overly sensitive or thin-skinned.

I'd say the expression "death by a thousand cuts" can apply to any long-term situation that slowly dies by degrees, like a failing marriage or a toxic relationship with a sibling.

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