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That Old Chinese Black Magic

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

by Philip A. Kuhn
Harvard University Press, 299 pp., $29.95

China, destined perhaps to be the world’s last Leninist state, was awash with rumors after the Tiananmen killings of June 4, 1989, that the aged leader Deng Xiaoping was about to die. In Beijing sullen survivors of the massacre symbolically broke small bottles (xiaoping) homonymic with the dictator, and residents of the capital spoke ominously of sorcerers’ creating tiny effigies of “old Deng” to be hexed and otherwise incised. Such death wishes made manifest in voodoo-like dolls (tishen, or “substitute bodies”) had ancient origins in China. The history of the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) was punctuated with palace purges conducted by emperors who had discovered manikins designed to bring sickness and death.1 In later reigns Daoist magicians sometimes exerted a dark influence over monarchs who believed in the casting of spells. And the emperors of the last dynasty of all, the Ch’ing (1644–1911),2 while publicly espousing enlightened Confucian virtues of sagehood, practiced a particularly death-obsessed form of Tibetan Buddhism within the privacy of the imperial household.3

The most powerful of these Ch’ing rulers was Hungli, who reigned as the Ch’ien-lung emperor from 1736–1796. Under his rule, and especially after 1780 when an average of 1.6 million ounces of silver flowed into the central kingdom every year, the Chinese enjoyed one of the most prosperous eras of their entire history. At the height of his military might, Hungli cast his sway over a vast domain, extending China’s borders farther west than ever before. Surrounded by sycophantish courtiers, he allowed himself to be compared to the sage-kings of divine antiquity.4 Yet at the same time, we learn in Soulstealers, a masterful study by one of the West’s premier Chinese historians, Hungli was also prone to innate fears of sorcery and sedition—fears that drove him personally to persecute a motley succession of monks, medicine men, and mendicants believed to be “soulstealers” during the great sorcery scare of 1768.

The Chinese believed that a person’s soul consisted of dual entities: a sentient p’o that governed the senses, and a spiritual hun that ruled the mind. The hun could be separated from the body even while a person was alive, roaming while the subject slept and returning in wakefulness. This part of the soul was thus thought to be vulnerable to demons or vengeful ghosts, who might “call away” the hun and send the victim into a deathlike trance. Sorcerers also knew how to steal the soul by using a person’s proper name or stealing a lock of the victim’s hair. Once the hun was captured it could be used to infuse soul-life into paper or bamboo manikins, which thereby transmogrified into monstrous agents of the sorcerer.

In the spring of 1768 an epidemic of “soulstealing” (chiao-hun) incidents broke out in seven Yangtze River delta towns west and south of what is now Shanghai. The accused soulstealers were usually strangers, often Buddhist monks, who would be attacked by an angry mob for asking a child its name, or arrested on suspicion of clipping off the tip of another person’s queue. The latter act was regarded as seditious because the queue was part of the hair style that the ruling Manchus had forced the Chinese to adopt when they conquered the country a century earlier.

A typical case occurred in Hsiaoshan (Chekiang), where a constable heard talk of two monks with strange accents lodging in a local temple. According to his report to the district magistrate, the constable searched the monks’ baggage and found evidence of pieces of hair that may have pointed to queue cutting. After a crowd gathered and threatened to incinerate the suspects, the constable rushed the two monks to the district yamen. There the magistrate examined the evidence, which included two short braids, and ordered the monks to be interrogated with judicial torture. When their ankles were crushed beneath the pressing beam (chia-kun), the monks admitted to soulstealing. Together the two maimed clerics were remanded to higher courts, but while they were in custody the soulstealing failed to stop. Instead the epidemic of queue clipping spread northward. By the autumn of 1768 incidents of soulstealing had even been reported in the capital. Along with evidence forwarded by Governor Funihan from nearby Shantung, these incidents convinced the Ch’ien-lung emperor of the existence of an occult conspiracy, bent upon overthrowing the dynasty.

Modern historians first learned of the 1768 sorcery scare in 1931 when the Peking Palace Museum published a small collection of documents about the panic.5 The documents raised more questions than could be answered about the reasons for Hungli’s zealous reaction to what seemed to be a minor outbreak of public hysteria. However, historians could only speculate about the emperor’s motives because the full details of the sorcery scare were buried in documents stored away in the inaccessible palace archives.

In 1979 Philip Kuhn, who succeeded John Fairbank as the Higginson Professor of History at Harvard, was the first member of a delegation of US Ming and Ch’ing historians to enter the First Historical Archives in Beijing.6 The author of an influential study of nineteenth-century China,7 Kuhn was then conducting research on twentieth-century history. He quickly realized, however, what an extraordinary bounty of material the archives contained on eighteenth-century China.8 Making a conscious decision to abandon twentieth-century research in order to illuminate the little-understood 1700s, Kuhn spent the better part of the next decade mastering the bewildering “pathways of words” through the labyrinthine imperial bureaucracy of the High Ch’ing.9

Thanks to that mastery, we now have in Soulstealers a fascinating account of how the sorcery panic started to spread over the country in 1765, and why Hungli reacted as he did. In some ways the popular hysteria is easiest to explain, both by analyzing the “rich broth of local sorcery beliefs” prevalent in east-central China in the 1760s, and by demonstrating that the soul-stealing crisis occurred just before increasing imports of Mexican silver had begun to relieve the burden of population pressure, which had in turn produced internal migration. The homeless migrants themselves incited fear.

Suspicion of soulstealing focused on wanderers: strangers, people without roots, people of obscure origins and uncertain purpose, people lacking social connections, people out of control. The victims of lynch mobs and of torture chambers were mostly wandering monks and beggars; and if we consider monks a species of beggars, then the suspected soulstealers were all beggars.

A “clerical underclass” of wandering monks was thus the single most visible cause of popular hysteria. But what of the emperor’s alarm? Kuhn argues that the combination of sorcery (soulstealing) and sedition (queue cutting) created a “panic factor” in the mind of the emperor, who believed “that the credulous masses were ever on the brink of violent, panicky reactions to hints of political crisis or cosmic disorder,” and thus could be readily “deluded” by black magicians to rebel against the dynasty.

Sorcery, in this sense, can be seen as the “black” counterpart of the imperial cult. Just as the legitimate sacrifices conveyed to the public an image of firm and worthy control, so sorcery might convey an image of instability and imminent crisis. The representation and the reality were inseparable. No point in asking whether sorcery practices were “really” loosening the dynasty’s grip: the popular reaction to sorcery was what counted. Public disturbances, like astrological omens, were both signs and instruments of Heaven’s displeasure.

Precisely because Hungli was so obsessed by fears of sedition and sorcery, the emperor personally directed the campaign:

There can be no doubt that the chief prosecutor, from first to last, was the monarch himself. This is clear from his vermilion comments, both on memorials from the field and on court letters drafted by the grand councillors. The extra push, the sharper goad, the added injunction to speed and rigor, the acerbic abuse of laggard officials: all were his personal contributions.

The Ch’ien-lung emperor’s personal involvement then provides historian Kuhn with a remarkable opportunity now. By using Hungli’s own hand-brushed “vermilion rescripts,” Kuhn manages “to penetrate his ghostwriters and reach the man himself.”

The Hungli we finally do glimpse behind the Ch’ien-lung emperor’s different personas was far from the serene and self-confident sage-ruler presented to his subjects. There was a paradoxical contrast between the power and stability of his regime and the insecurity and lack of confidence of its monarch. Despite evidence that people who practiced soulstealing were marginal figures, Hungli was convinced that they were being manipulated by seditious conspirators of much greater importance. By October 1768 he had even managed to persuade himself that the conspirators were concocting the incidents precisely in order to attract government reprisals against the common folk, who would consequently rise in rebellion. In a court letter, Hungli warned his provincial governors against the indiscriminate use of torture lest the inquisition touch off uprisings. However, there was to be no slackening of the intense hunt for the main plotters. “If they are not treacherous monks, then they must be disheartened scholars,” Hungli wrote. “Their intentions are extremely dangerous, and their movements are extremely secretive.” The entire countryside—even “secluded villages and derelict temples”—must be searched to bring the conspirators to justice.

Meanwhile the officials themselves were increasingly skeptical about the cases of soulstealing as such. In the Hsiao-shan case mentioned above, for example, the provincial judge grew suspicious of the constable who had produced the evidence that led to the maiming of the two monks. After an extended interrogation, the constable confessed that he had tried to extort money from one of the monks.

But the outraged monk insisted that he was going to file an official complaint. [The constable] started beating him, but without result. He realized that he was in serious trouble unless he could make the queue-clipping charge stick. Unfortunately, there was only one lock of hair in [the monk’s] box; furthermore, it was straight hair and did not really resemble a clipped queue-end. So [the constable] found an old lock of hair in his own house, went out in the alley where [the monk] could not see him, and carefully braided it. For a bit more evidence, he cut some strands of fiber from his own hat fringe and braided them up to resemble two little queues. This hastily concocted evidence he placed in the monk’s traveling box along with his own pair of scissors (making a total of four), and marched his prisoner off to the magistrate’s yamen.

Other soulstealing cases turned out to founded on equally shaky evidence, and almost always the charges were based upon confessions extracted under torture. As the “human debris” of lacerated prisoners were brought to Beijing from the provinces, Hungli’s grand councilors began to question the guilt of the accused soulstealers altogether. This skepticism, in the face of Hungli’s furious determination to find and punish the sorcerers, placed the grand councilors in a difficult position.

  1. 1

    See especially the witchcraft case of 91 BC discussed in Michael Loewe, Crisis and Conflict in Han China, 104 BC to AD 9 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1974).

  2. 2

    To avoid confusion, I mainly use Wade-Giles transcription hereafter because Kuhn’s book does not employ pinyin.

  3. 3

    The ritual objects of this cult, jeweled vessels of human bone and jade, can be found in the collection of the Palace Museum outside of Taipei.

  4. 4

    Harold L. Kahn, Monarchy in the Emperor’s Eyes: Image and Reality in the Ch’ien-lung Reign (Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 201.

  5. 5

    Shiliao xunkan Historical materials, a trimonthly publication.

  6. 6

    The delegation’s entry into the archives, which were thereby opened to the outside world, is described in Frederic Wakeman, Jr., ed., Ming and Qing Historical Studies in the People’s Republic of China (Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1980).

  7. 7

    Philip A. Kuhn, Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796–1864 (Harvard University Press, 1970).

  8. 8

    The First National Archives contain over ten million sets of documents stored in huge vaults on the western side of the Forbidden City, not far from Tiananmen Square. When we were initially allowed to use the archives, which are closed to the regular public, the secret service unit known as “8341” still conducted its military training in the courtyards outside the main door. That same set of courtyards was a staging area for paramilitary and military forces during the June Fourth Incident

  9. 9

    He has shared his knowledge with the rest of us in an introduction to Qing documents that is now the point of entry for scholars who wish to use late imperial Chinese sources. See Philip A. Kuhn and John K. Fairbank, compilers, with the assistance of Beatrice S. Bartlett and Chiang Yung-chen, Reading Documents: The Rebellion of Chung Jen-chieh (John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University, 1986), 2 vols.

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