Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 by Philip Kuhn

Kuhn, P. (1992). Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

In Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, Philip Kuhn investigates the title event through an exhaustive study of primary sources from the Ch’ing archives. Throughout the work, Kuhn focuses mostly on the emperor’s motivations for taking up the torch in the prosecution of the supposed ‘soul-stealers’. At the heart of his work is the contention that the emperor acted upon a shared belief in shamanistic magic to impose a personal agenda on those who were not abiding by Manchu hair policy; a process which was much tempered by local bureaucratic organizations. Simultaneously recounting a fascinating incident and commenting on larger historical themes from the time, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 maintains its place as a well-executed and relevant work in the discourse of the present day.

The sorcery scare of 1768 began in Chekiang province where villagers reported having queues of hair and parts of their clothing clipped by supposed ‘soul-stealers’ intent upon enslaving or killing them through supernatural means. After all, Kuhn notes, clipped queues were said to possess a certain “biodynamic” force of the soul. Other incidents involved the scrawling of names on bridge pilings where the blows of construction workers might destroy the soul of the cursed person. Mass hysteria ensued, as individuals at all levels of society were captivated by the fear that soul-stealers would speak incantations over them, thereby gaining dominion over their spirit.

Kuhn grounds this series of events in a brief survey of the social conditions of Ch’ing China at the time. Declining social mobility occurred in tandem with overpopulation; a phenomenon which led migrant workers and itinerant monks to became an increasingly common presence on roads between urban communities. Kuhn implies that Chinese society under the Ch’ing Emperor may not have been as prosperous as previously thought, suggesting that overpopulation had created an “impacted society” of the fearful and powerless. Transient individuals at the lowest echelons of society were forced to adopt a more aggressive approach to survival, seeking work or alms in other corners of the realm.

Kuhn argues thus that as a feared group, these individuals were frequently accused of clipping clothing and queues and asking the names of children they passed in the streets. As rumors spread, communities mobilized against these suspected soul-stealers, with lynch mobs often forming to bring swift justice to suspicious individuals. Local officials also became involved in addressing the growing problem. Upon arrest, Kuhn notes, suspected soul-stealers were interrogated and often confessed to sorcery while being subjected to torture. Kuhn’s description of the gruesome – and occasionally fatal – torture is suggestive of just how deeply the belief in black magic was embedded in Chinese society.

As the scare worsened, rumors spread to other provinces. Though officials in Chekiang, Shantung, and Kiangsu decided to dismiss the rumors as irrelevant, the news of sorcery eventually came to the attention of the Ch’ien-lung Emperor. It was, therefore, the emperor himself who was chiefly responsible for escalating the scare, calling on bureaucratic officials to investigate further.

In the process of this investigation, Kuhn contends, the emperor came to believe that these incidents of soul-stealing were evidence of a larger plot. Kuhn details the emperor’s “vermillion comments,” or writings in vermillion ink in which he pressed officials to identify a “chief criminal” and called for more aggressive prosecution. The emperor was especially troubled, Kuhn notes, by the testimonies of men who, believing their queues to have been clipped, removed the remainder of their hair in efforts to curtail soul-stealers’ dominion over them. At first the emperor had these men questioned, but soon all involved realized that claims to innocence were authentic.

As the imperial investigation advanced, however, many confessions, previously obtained under torture, were recanted. The absence of evidence and the inconsistency of testimonies, coupled with the failure of investigators to ever identify a ringleader eventually led officials to call off prosecution efforts altogether. When all was said and done, the 1768 scare lasted a total of five months.

While the event is interesting in its own right, Kuhn’s thoughtful analysis of the soul-stealers investigation sheds light also on several themes of greater historiographical importance. For one, Kuhn utilizes the soul-stealer scare to complicate the power dynamic between the emperor and his officials. He suggests that since these incidents of sorcery occurred just shortly after a series of failed military campaigns, officials may have sought engagement with the prosecution of soul-stealers as a way of diffusing into the domestic sphere a growing military frustration.

Through Kuhn’s analysis we also see an interesting commentary emerge around the role of transients in Chinese society. Xenophobia and general suspicion of migrants led to their ill-treatment; a phenomenon that was not uncommon across China. The emperor’s fervor for ethnic homogeneity also played a role in cultivating this fear of ethnic assimilation. Manchu culture was the culture of the imperial court, and the sorcery scare served to pit the suspicious majority against a minority of unknown outsiders. Hair in the form of a queue was especially important to the emperor’s thinking on the supremacy of Manchu culture; after all, hair was seen as symbolic of many things and Ch’ing law required all males to wear the queue. Hair policy and its implications were, therefore, of deep personal importance to the emperor.

Additionally, the soul-stealer incident points at the prevalence of folk religion with its many superstitious and supernatural elements. A belief in shamanistic magic and sorcery was in fact a common thread which transcended class and geography. Kuhn suggests that it was a sincere fear of sorcery that united the village peasantry and imperial officials under a shared symbolic tradition.

Kuhn ends the book by weighing the Chinese bureaucracy and suggesting that, despite its inefficiencies, the bureaucracy actually served society well in the case of the soul-stealer scare. As Kuhn points out, the bureaucratic machine was able to put a swift end to extremist activities and to deliver some level of justice, particularly to those being tortured for confessions by lynch mobs and other local vigilantes. In a way, Kuhn suggests, the bureaucracy acted as an intermediary or moderator between fearful villagers and a fearful emperor. Though the emperor sought, particularly in the early stages of the scare, to escalate the witch hunt, the bureaucracy was able to deflect these demands somewhat without falling out of favor with the monarchy.

When Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 was first published in 1990, it was received enthusiastically, though some questioned Kuhn’s decision to focus on an event of relatively limited scope. Despite the limitations of his topic, however, Kuhn was successful in framing the incident within the context of the larger historical issues of the time.