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Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of…

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (1990)

by Philip A. Kuhn

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Most historiographical depictions of the Jiangnan region characterize it as a cradle of Han intellectual elitism, a source of economic prosperity, and den of material comfort. However, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor/Hongli, these were the very qualities that made Jiangnan a cultural and political threat to the Manchu elite. It also seemed like the most appropriate place for the political crisis involving the sorcery scare of 1768 to originate, with a Jiangnan coverup. Faced with concerns about (Han) Sinification, sedition, and a bureaucracy too bogged down by its own rules, Hongli was compelled to see this series of incidents NOT as a mere outbreak of superstitious hysteria, but as a legitimate political crisis that confirmed his worst fears about his own bureaucracy.

The sorcery scare emerged from a long chain of causes. Soaring population rates had resulted in increased upward as well as downward mobility. Thus, mendicant beggar-monks and other "vagrants" were more visible – and feared – than before. Rumors of soul-stealing wanderers became volatile fuses for civil unrest and public pandemonium. Their purported method of soul-stealing involved clipping people's queues – a mandatory hairstyle that represented Manchu submission. Therefore, Hongli characterized the sorcery scare as a political crisis due to the symbolism attached to the queue itself, as deviation from this standard was tantamount to treason.

According to Kuhn, the case was not significant for its absurdity (though it certainly was!) nor for any convictions that resulted (suspected soulstealers routinely gave false confessions under severe torture, which sent prosecutors on wild goose chases for months at a time). The more revealing story was how Hongli mobilized and manipulated the bureaucrats underneath him, using his unpredictable, arbitrary power to ward off bureaucratic routinization. The Qing bureaucracy had inherited an inner logic that tended to hinder its own effectiveness with meaningless paper trails and cronyism. For example, Kuhn explained how officials were prone to withhold information that could be detrimental to their careers and superiors' reputations, since the entire bureaucratic system was linked through promotions. Similarly, Hongli strove to avoid bureaucratization himself by installing control mechanisms such as confidential field reports, imperial audience systems and personalized appointments based on face-to-face evaluations. With his disdain for routine and sycophancy, Hongli tended to highlight personality traits like leadership and "gumption" in selecting his closest bureaucrats – the very qualities that would permit the highest officials to keep their emperor in check. This dynamic system was proobably part of what made the Qianlong Emperor's reign one of the most prosperous.

Kuhn's liberal translations certainly give life to the story, particularly through the voice of the emperor. I have not always found such interpretations to be fruitful, but in this case, Kuhn seems to render Hongli's tone and sometimes indignant pitch rather accurately (given the circumstances and the stakes in this problem). Somehow his narration of the official paper trails – upon which the emperor scrawled his vermilion commentary – reads smoothly, despite the disjointed format. Parenthetical insertions of the emperor's responses are only slightly distracting, but they serve as a constant, imperative, and often humorous reminder as to who was really manipulating the system and through whose perspective Kuhn's tale is told. I would think it difficult to convincingly adopt Hongli's imperial angle, but it results in a highly organic narrative, one that Kuhn manages to pull off quite successfully. ( )
  zhihuzheye | Sep 23, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674821521, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:07 -0400)

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