Death by a thousand cuts

From Academic Kids

Death by a thousand cuts (Chinese: 凌遲; pinyin: lng ch) was until 1905 a method of torture and execution in China, in which small bits of skin or flesh were cut from an individual over a period of days. Some victims were reportedly given doses of opium.

The phrase is often used metaphorically to describe the gradual destruction of something, such as an institution or program, by repeated minor attacks. The term is also used in business management to describe a product or idea that is damaged or destroyed by too many minor changes.


Ling Chi first appeared in Chinese code of laws for the Song Dynasty. It remained a punishment in the Qing Dynasty code of laws for persons convicted of high treason.

The actuality of this method of execution is attested by multiple sources:

  • Mark Costanzo, Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty (1997): "'Death by a thousand cuts'—where small bits of flesh were carved away over a period of days—was sometimes used in ancient China." (p. 4)
  • Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (1994): "Huang was condemned to a particularly gruesome execution for high treason known as ling chi, or 'death by one thousand cuts.' Cuts were made on his chest, abdomen, arms, legs, and back, so that he very slowly bled to death over a period of time, perhaps as long as three days." (p. 71)
  • G.E. Morrison, An Australian in China, (1895) differs from some other reports in stating that most "Ling Chi" mutilations are in fact post mortem: " The prisoner is tied to a rude cross: he is invariably deeply under the influence of opium. The executioner, standing before him, with a sharp sword makes two quick incisions above the eyebrows, and draws down the portion of skin over each eye, then he makes two more quick incisions across the breast, and in the next moment he pierces the heart, and death is instantaneous. Then he cuts the body in pieces; and the degradation consists in the fragmentary shape in which the prisoner has to appear in heaven." [1] (
  • J. M. Roberts, Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 (2000): "For example, the traditional punishment of death by slicing (which became part of the western stereotype of Chinese backwardness as the 'death of a thousand cuts.') It was ordered, in fact, for K'ang Yu-Wei, a man termed the 'Rousseau of China', and a major advocate of intellectual and government reform in the 1890's." (p. 60, footnote 8)
  • Sterling Seagrave's Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China (1993)—a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi—reports that "the Death of a Thousand Cuts ... is a classic form of execution practiced by every dynasty in China's history ... it was not at all exceptional in cases of high treason." (p. 80)

It should be pointed out that the Chinese were not alone in carrying out cruel and unusual punishments: in England the punishment of drawing and quartering remained a penalty for high treason until well into the 19th Century. However as Western countries moved to abolish such punishments, they began to focus on the situation in China as well. As early as in 1866, Thomas Francis Wade, then serving with the British diplomatic mission in China, urged the abolition of Ling Chi without success. It was not until 1905, when the Chinese penal code was revised by Shen Jiaben (沈家本, 1840-1913), that this method of execution was officially abolished.

Death by a thousand cuts and the United States Marine Corps

One account reports that United States Marine Corps members stationed in and around Shanghai between 1927 and 1941 brought evidence of ling chi to the United States: "The prevalence of executions and torture is evidenced by the scrapbooks brought back from China by the Marines. There are photographs of firing squads, beheadings, disembowelments, rape and such torture as 'the death of a thousand cuts.'" [2] (

1905 photographs

Photographs of at least one instance of this execution exist (warning: these photographs are extremely graphic): [3] (,[4] ( The photographs were reportedly taken by one Louis Carpeaux, who, along with a George Dumas, is supposed to have witnessed and photographed the execution on April 10, 1905. The photographs were published in Dumas' 1923 work, Treatise of Psychology. [5] (

The execution proclamation is reported to state "'The Mongolian Princes demand that the aforesaid Fou-Tchou-Le, guilty of the murder of Prince Ao-Han-Ouan, be burned alive, but the Emperor finds this torture too cruel and condemns Fou-Tchou-Li to slow death by Leng-Tch-e (cutting into pieces). Respect this!" [6] (

Other uses or citations of the 1905 photographs include:

  • Georges Bataille
Adrien Borel, Georges Bataille's analyst, introduced Bataille to the photographs. Bataille became fascinated by the photographs, reportedly gazing at them daily. He included the photos in his The Tears of Eros. (1961; translated to English and published by City Lights in 1989) [7] (
  • Mentioned in Hannibal
The 1905 incident inspired a brief reference in Thomas Harris's novel Hannibal (2000): "...police photographs of his (Lecter's) outrages were bootlegged to collectors of hideous arcana. They were second in popularity only to the execution of Fou-Tchou-Li." [8] (
  • Susan Sontag and the 1905 Fou-Tchou-Le Photographs
Susan Sontag mentions the 1905 case in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). One reviewer wrote that though Sontag includes no photographs in her book—a volume about photography—"she does tantalisingly describe a photograph that obsessed the perverse philosopher Georges Bataille, in which a Chinese criminal, while being chopped up and slowly flayed by executioners, rolls his eyes heavenwards in transcendent bliss." [9] (
Saxophonist and composer John Zorn used at least one of the 1905 photos with his 1992 Naked City album, Leng Tch'e.zh:凌遲

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