The Emperor investigates soulstealing

Society & Culture

"Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768," by the late Philip A. Kuhn, tells of a hoax gone wrong in the spring of 1768. The Qianlong emperor, believing that rumors of witchcraft were an existential threat to his rule, ordered his bureaucrats to root out sorcerers using any means possible. Much torture and death ensued.

An illustration painting of Qing man being interrogated
A Qing interrogation, depicted in Mason & Dadley's "The Punishments of China" (1901)

This Week in China’s History: August 1768

In the summer of 1768, China was in the midst of one of its most famous witch hunts, a story that grabbed the attention of an American scholar who found meaning in the tale in the 20th century, and has gone on to inform a generation of Chinese students and teachers in the 21st.

The story, found in the archives within the Forbidden City, is best told by the late Harvard historian Philip A. Kuhn in his 1990 book Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (No. 7 on SupChina’s Book List). In the spring of 1768, rumors spread in several provinces of a sorcerer who sucked the life force from victims using small bits of the victims’ physical form. Commonly, a lock of hair would be taken from the victim to curse them.

Accusations raised alarm in several spots on China’s coast, from the metropolises of the Yangtze delta to Shandong Province. Buddhist monks, an itinerant stone mason, and some day laborers were accused. Some peasants bragged that they had been able to murder or sicken their victims through the use of charms or other spells.

The crimes were reported and investigated. The bureaucracy doubted the notion of supernatural crime, but did worry about the breakdown of public order that had led to riots and lynch mobs, so suspects were brought in to get to the bottom of things. Confessions were extracted, violently. Enough concern arose that events drew the attention of the next rung of the government, but there, at the provincial level, it was shown that confessions drawn from torture were riven with contradictions. Some of the initial claims were withdrawn as braggadocio meant to intimidate rivals or settle old scores. Accusers retracted many of their lies.

As spring turned to summer, the sorcery scare was revealed to be what bureaucrats suspected all along: a hoax. The matter was settled.

But this changed once the emperor got wind of what had happened.

For the Qianlong emperor, the witchcraft was not just real, it was an existential threat to his rule. Qianlong was one of the most powerful of China’s emperors, but that did not inoculate him from paranoia. As the head of an alien dynasty — his forebears had established this Manchu empire that included China less than a century before he took the throne — Qianlong worried about the loyalty of his Chinese subjects. The most visible symbol of that loyalty was the queue: a hairstyle required of all Chinese men. The long ponytail is most well-known, but the hairstyle also required the wearer to shave the front half of his head.

The role of hair in the sorcery fueled Qianlong’s fear. For most Chinese men, failure to wear the queue was an act of treason, punishable by death. Might now some traitors be hiding their defiance by claiming they were victims of a barber-ous wizard that forced them to shed the mandatory hairstyle? How could loyalty be assessed and enforced amid such a threat?

And there was more: some of the alleged sorcerers were Buddhist monks. Living at the margins of society and not beholden to the norms of family life, these men had long drawn the suspicion of secular authorities. But the queue added a new layer: because the monks shaved their head, they were exempt from the queue requirement. Who was to say that their tonsure was an act of religious devotion and not political treachery?

So with this in mind, the emperor compelled the bureaucracy to dig deeper and find the truth of the plots that threatened the empire’s social, religious, and political order. This was the campaign in mid-August, 1768. Accused of incompetence — or maybe mutiny? — by their emperor, the bureaucrats reopened the cases and hauled suspects in for interrogation and torture. Wills and limbs were broken. Some suspects confessed; some died.

The arrests, investigations, and torture went on for weeks, then months. By autumn, the threads had all unraveled. There was no master sorcerer. There were no soulstealers. There had been no plot against the dynasty.

Kuhn tells three stories in his study of the “sorcery scare.” He writes about a panic ravaging the common people, and he writes about a monarch convinced that witchcraft is concealing sedition. But the heart of the story involves “agnostic bureaucrats struggling to cope with demands from both sides but failing to satisfy either.” Illustrating the workings of the Qing bureaucracy with colorful, sometimes gruesome details of leg-presses, incantations, and possession, the book invariably surprises my students — I never miss an opportunity to teach this book! — who suspect that the only thing duller than bureaucracy itself might be learning about its past.

Historians often talk about how history is not the same as the past, but is a dialogue between the past and the present, mediated by our sources. Since two of those three are constantly changing, there is always a capacity for new history to be written, and also for understandings of history to change. Soulstealers is a case in point. Once translated into Chinese, its story of an autocratic ruler grasping the levers of power to enforce his will on ordinary people resonated with a generation of readers in China.

The Cultural Revolution remains difficult to research or even talk about in China, but comparisons to that period, or to the earlier Anti-rightist Campaign, are abundant in the sorcery scare. Local officials scrambled to follow changing central government directives. Ideological motives were retrofitted onto local feuds. Vicissitudes at the center played out on local people who had their careers ended and bodies broken. When Professor Kuhn passed away in 2016, Kiki Zhao reported in the New York Times on the ways that book’s Chinese translation had become a standard among Chinese academics, selling many times more than similarly positioned books.

Why the enduring popularity? Why does a case study of 1768 shed light on the 20th century and continue to speak to 21st-century concerns? One line from Soulstealers, itself quoted by a Weibo commentator in Kiki Zhao’s article, suggests an answer: “Because the empowerment of ordinary people remains, even now, an unmet promise.”

The story of the bureaucracy is not a flashy one. Dictators and grassroots are more interesting stories. But it’s worth noting that in the summer of 1768, it was not the paranoid emperor who turned the screws, literally, that tortured laborers, monks, and peasants, sometimes to death.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.