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…

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