Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768
Philip A. Kuhn
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.
folk rested on a system of virtual serfdom, in vivid contrast to the free-wheeling farm economy of the flatiandY The population of this region as a whole was swollen by a tide of immigration that continued well into the next century.28 The scholar Wang Shih-to, who lived as a refugee in this region during the 1850S (Chi-ch'i County, part of Hui-chou Prefecture), described the area as chronically poor, overpopulated, and short of basic commodities. Despite high rates of female infanticide,
involve ideas about the human soul, about the magical animation of inanimate objects, and about how one could protect oneself against sorcery. What beliefs could give rise to a vision of soulstealers fearsome enough to drive ordinary subjects to homicide and an emperor to a disruptive national campaign? Body and Soul The Separability of Soul from Body The notion that human agency can divide a person's soul from his body rests on a complex belief about the composition of the soul itself. The
cosmological fortune. The mere "touch" of the queue- or lapel-clipping beggar was enough to awaken fears of lethal pollution. By extension, a beggar's anger was cause for alarm because his polluted nature was entirely compatible with magical terrorism. The beggar's curse at one who refused alms carried more than mere rhetorical force. Our exploration of Chinese sorcery reveals two related structures of fear, both of which involve the fragility of a spiritual-corporeal link. The popular fear was
though he offered no suggestions on how information might otherwise be wrung from obdurate criminals. On the contrary, implicit pressure to obtain accurate confessions pervaded Hungli's 136 . SOULSTEALERS court letters. Furthermore, if questioning in the field did not produce reliable results, the prisoner was to be sent under close guard to the summer court at Ch'eng-te, some seven hundred miles distant beyond the Great Wal1. 41 Although Anhwei governor Feng Ch'ien was G'aojin's subordinate,
decided that it was "inconvenient" to verify the story by applying torture, since the criminal's ankles already bore the marks of the chia- The End of the Trail . 167 kun and were badly swollen and infected. Village headman Chao was now brought to court, questioned sternly, and made to tell the following story. 7 Chang Ssu and his boy had sung their song and then pleaded for food outside headman Chao's house. Two other beggars, who were hawking woven bamboo ladles, were given one piece of