Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

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by Konstantin Kladensky

In Qing China, ghastly stories of black magic create confusion throughout the empire. Phillip A. Kuhn investigates these events in an exceptionally captivating book. 

Panic was creeping across the Qing dynasty in 1768. Evil monks and sorcerers roamed the land, cutting and stealing the braids of their stupefied victims. They would use the hair to extract the souls of these people and enslave them for their sinister purposes. Black magic and dark cults, the common people understood, were upon them.

More educated people had their doubts about the superstitions of peasants, and at first most governors did not pay much attention to these stories. But before long even the lofty heights of the empire were caught up in the matter. The emperor himself was exchanging frantic letters with the provinces, while rumours of cut hair were spreading uncontrollably. What was going on?

Philip A. Kuhn tries to answer this question in his 1990 book Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Kuhn, an established historian of China, was one of the first researchers who were allowed access to the archives of the imperial palace in Beijing in the mid-eighties.  After smuggling out the microfilms of many documents, he was well-equipped to unravel the mysteries of the soul-stealing scare at the zenith of the Qing dynasty.

At the time, normal life, he writes, was permeated by popular beliefs about ghosts and sorcery. Mankind was in a continuous struggle against malevolent spirits. At the same time, the imperial state sought to monopolise the privilege of communicating with the supernatural. The hairstyle of the time, the characteristic shaven forehead and the long braid at the back of the head, was somewhat contentious in itself. It was an originally Manchu hairstyle that the Qing Dynasty, Manchus themselves, had imposed on the Han majority. Disobedient hairstyles could be punished by execution. The cut hair, the elite feared, might even be misinterpreted as a sign of disobedience to the ruling dynasty.

We also learn about the deep divisions and misunderstandings that run through the society of the Qing dynasty: Confucianism stressed how important the family was in normal human life. This idea was deeply ingrained in the mind of the bureaucrats, who had without exception been trained in Confucian classics. These Bureaucrats had no understanding for Buddhist monks, who had left their families for their religious faith. These deviants were suspicious from the outset, even before any concrete charges were brought up against them.

Kuhn also explains the torture methods used to question supposed witches. Needless to say, prison conditions were not the best, and several of the suspected “soul stealers” we meet throughout the book died prematurely during captivity. Qing dynasty torture methods were top-notch indeed, but as we learn soon enough, they also elicited forced confessions and misinformation, adding to the confusion in the imperial bureaucracy.

Kuhn really shows his strengths in the chapters on the Qing emperor’s correspondence with his provincial governors. The emperor used to communicate with his inferiors by commenting in vermilion ink on the confidential letters they had sent him. These exchanges are not formal conversations between bureaucrats and offices but between people familiar with each other.

They show an emperor anxious about the out-of-control rumours and a loss of control. He is furious with the clumsy bureaucracy and the inattentive governors at his disposal. At times, he is verbally abusing them through his vermilion comments, trying to whip them into compliance like a father scolding a child.  

After shedding light on the rumours of black magic at that time, the book culminates in Kuhn explaining what this whole episode teaches us about the powers in the imperial bureaucracy. In the soul-stealing crisis, he says, the emperor seized the opportunity to invade the rule-based power of the bureaucracy with his arbitrary power. The ultimate motivation of the emperor was to shake his officials out of their complacent rut, while the governors were trying nothing else but to reassert their known routine.

“Soulstealers” is not only valuable for those who seek to have a – maybe somewhat outdated – glance into the inner workings of a Chinese government of premodern times. The book goes beyond a dry scientific treatise. Kuhn is a terrific storyteller and as he uncovers layer after layer of the sorcery scare, he knows exactly how to grasp his readers’ attention. At times, Soulstealers feels more like a detective novel than anything else. It’s simply a must-read.

Kuhn, Philip A. Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Harvard University Press, 2009.