Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

Philip A. Kuhn

Language: English

Pages: 320

ISBN: 0674821521

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Midway through the reign of the Ch'ien-lung emperor, Hungli, in the most prosperous period of China's last imperial dynasty, mass hysteria broke out among the common people. It was feared that sorcerers were roaming the land, clipping off the ends of men's queues (the braids worn by royal decree), and chanting magical incantations over them in order to steal the souls of their owners. In a fascinating chronicle of this epidemic of fear and the official prosecution of soulstealers that ensued, Philip Kuhn provides an intimate glimpse into the world of eighteenth-century China.

Kuhn weaves his exploration of the sorcery cases with a survey of the social and economic history of the era. Drawing on a rich repository of documents found in the imperial archives, he presents in detail the harrowing interrogations of the accused--a ragtag assortment of vagabonds, beggars, and roving clergy--conducted under torture by provincial magistrates. In tracing the panic's spread from peasant hut to imperial court, Kuhn unmasks the political menace lurking behind the queue-clipping scare as well as the complex of folk beliefs that lay beneath popular fears of sorcery.

Kuhn shows how the campaign against sorcery provides insight into the period's social structure and ethnic tensions, the relationship between monarch and bureaucrat, and the inner workings of the state. Whatever its intended purposes, the author argues, the campaign offered Hungli a splendid chance to force his provincial chiefs to crack down on local officials, to reinforce his personal supremacy over top bureaucrats, and to restate the norms of official behavior.

This wide-ranging narrative depicts life in imperial China as it was actually lived, often in the participants' own words. Soulstealers offers a compelling portrait of the Chinese people--from peasant to emperor--and of the human condition.

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of the "strange tales" sort are full of such paper men. A Ming dynasty story tells of a sorcerer in Kwangtung named Li who practiced "Prior-to-Heaven Magic Calculation," a kind of prognostication. He said he could enliven "paper cutouts of men and horses, and of double-edged swords that could decapitate men." He also had a technique that could restore the dead to life. Such an accomplished magician was eventually recruited into a rebel band led by White Lotus sectarians. 21 A Hupei literatus

of soul-loss: the delicacy of the bond between soul and body meant that agencies either natural or supernatural could sever it. Dreams and disease were dangers to the stability of this link, as was of course malevolent magic. The imperial fear related not to the individual but to the collectivity. The integrity and durability of Heaven's Mandate required recurrent confirmation through the imperial rites. It could be severed by natural agents (the cosmological forces visible only in nature's

plans. You must not view the matter as merely involving the ordinary sort of rumors." As Magistrate Shih's superior, Governor Funihan of course also received Shih's report about beggar-woman Chang and the lapelclipping case. Because he was busy with other court cases, he had both women reinterrogated, and both now recanted. Beggar-woman Chang lamented that she had simply gone onto the grain boat to beg, when suddenly the trooper's wife began shouting that her lapel had been clipped, and she had

Three days later he amplified these somber thoughts in an unusual court letter to all province chiefs, but with a new perspective: the 160 . SOU LSTEALERS plotters might be hoping to touch off a major uprising by stirring up popular anger against the bureaucracy. In response to harsh measures by local officials, "the people will surely become fearful," which may result in "touching off uprisings." The plotters would then be able to "stand on the sidelines" and yet attain their seditious

to identify one another in court, in order to conceal their plot. The End of the Trail . 177 Liu T'ung-hsun was to examine the prisoners with even greater care. As soon as he "detected a hint of discrepancy between words and demeanor," he was to "seize the opportunity to press harder, so that the true thread might be discerned." Furthermore, every effort must be made to wring from monk T'ung-kao the answer to what those queue-hairs were really to be used for.25 But at the summer capital, Duke

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