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Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

March 19, 2010

Philip A. Kuhn. Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Jun Zhang (2003)

Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers provides a much broader picture than its title implies. Through the grand and strange story of the 1978 sorcery scare, he convincingly describes the socio-psychological stratum and political system of the Qianlong period, which, together with his examination of the social and economic setting of mid-eighteenth century, make a rich picture of China on the eve of its modern age.

Kuhn attributes the queue-clipping crisis to fears about soulstealers from both the monarch and commoners. Although the Qianlong period is praised by historians as a “prosperous age,” the enormous pressure of the overpopulation and the worsening ratio of resources per capita actually put the ordinary people in a state of uneasiness, always feeling their lives were threatened by unseen ambient forces. Once the rumor of soulstealing spread, their long-suppressed anxiety and discontentment burst out and lashed on the strangers on move that they considered as dangerous “outsiders.” For the monarch, the queue-clipping soulstealers aroused his deepest worry on two issues: sedition and assimilation by Han. By finding and crushing Jiangnan’s grotesque counter-elite, the master sorcerers of the south, Qianlong believed that he could exorcise the decadence of Jiangnan culture. Thus the monarch and commoners collaborated to force the bureaucrats to press the campaign of prosecuting sorcery cases and the monks and beggars become the scapegoats.

The soulstealer crisis also helps us understand the relation between routine and arbitrary power in the bureaucratic monarchy system of Qing. The monarch in this system always had the desire to have steady, methodical and reliable control of the bureaucracy as well as to avoid being bureaucratized himself. Yet when Qianlong was in power, the bureaucracy had became so well entrenched, the Manchu so irreversibly sinicized, that the monarch’s control over bureaucracy inevitably weakened. He had long-time concern about the bureaucrats’ shortcoming such as sloth, Jiangnan decadence and personal ingratitude but had difficulty to solve these problems in the routine circumstance. The soulstealer case, as a political crime, shook the bureaucrats out of patterns of routine behavior that they used to protect themselves and give Qianlong a chance to confront those problems and strengthen the monarchic control over powerful and resourceful elite. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats did not totally surrender to royal bullying. They resisted the arbitrary power through their own work-style: prudential concealment of information, self-protective dithering, cover-ups to protect personal relationship, and an unshakeable preference for routine procedures. The routine and arbitrary power, though conflicted in certain respects, still found ways to live side by side.

The 1768 sorcery scare reminds us of another national campaign took place 200 years later in the same region: the collusion between supreme leader and commoners, the deepest misgiving about the bureaucracy, the lash of state power on socially marginal groups, and the widespread release of social hostility in the form of score-settling. Nevertheless, Kuhn points out that vital difference between the imperial and modern political campaign: the zealotry-impeded bureaucracy which only existed in the former one. Thus “without that great sheet-anchor, China yaws wildly in the storm,” and “modern leaders can manipulate mass fears and turn them with terrible force” (232).

Kuhn’s research, combining various research methods such as social history, cultural history, political history, economic history, and regional analysis, exhibits a sweeping academic command. The weakness is that the local gentry, as one of the major powers of Qing dynasty, was totally left out in this comprehensive work.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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