Criminal Justice in Imperial China: Sorcery in the Qing Dynasty

From the Lecture Series: Understanding Imperial China — Dynasties, Life, and Culture

By Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D., United States Naval War College

Halfway through China’s most powerful dynasty, the empire was rocked by rumors and accusations of sorcery. These accusations of sorcery in the Qing Dynasty involved tales of masons, monks, and others stealing human souls by cutting the hair of their victims.

The Qianlong Emperor in court dress.
Qianlong Emperor, 6th Emperor of the Qing dynasty (Image: Giuseppe Castiglione/Public domain)

Sorcery in the Qing Dynasty

The year was 1768, and China was ruled by the Qing dynasty under the Qianlong Emperor when county magistrates and prefects rounded up the suspects and subjected them to brutal interrogations concerning sorcery. It had been reported that evildoers were clipping off men’s ponytails and absconding with their life essence. These confessions were reported up the chain of command to provincial governors and relayed in breathless detail to the emperor himself.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The sorcery scare allows us to explore several facets of life during this era. First, it gives a look at the men accused of soul stealing, who tended to live outside mainstream society. Second, it allows us to glimpse the practices and purposes of criminal justice in imperial China. Third, public fears about sorcery—and the emperor’s corresponding concerns about sedition—converged in the hysteria, revealing something about the values and fears of both the rulers and the ruled.

The Hun and the Po

Chinese seal script for po soul
Chinese seal script for po soul (Image: Keahapana/Public domain)

Traditional belief held that the soul consisted of two components. One was the hun, or “cloud soul.” This was higher consciousness, which could leave the body. The other component was the po, or “white soul,” which remained tethered to the body. In a healthy person, these should be in balance.

However, the hun was volatile. It might take flight while you were dreaming, returning as you woke up. A serious disease or particularly scary experience might cause the hun to flee. If it couldn’t be coaxed back, you’d gradually sicken and die. Soul stealers were after the hun.

Chinese seal script for hun soul (Image: Keahapana/Public domain)

People believed it was relatively easy to detach the hun from the body. All a sorcerer needed to do was to write a person’s name on a magic-infused strip of paper—or steal a piece of the victim’s clothing. Even better were skin, blood, fingernails, a tooth, or a lock of hair. Your spiritual DNA—and a few easy-to-learn spells—were enough to steal your soul, enslave it, and turn it to sinister ends. During the 1768 crisis, hair clipping was the most common, and most troubling, form of soul stealing. In part, that’s because hair-cutting had seditious undertones. But hair-clipping wasn’t the only method of sorcery.

Learn more about the origins of Chinese Buddhism

The Soul Stealers

People believed it was relatively easy to detach the hun from the body. All a sorcerer needed to do was to write a person’s name on a magic-infused strip of paper—or steal a piece of the victim’s clothing.

The first soul-stealing suspect was a stone mason named Wu Tongming. He had been contracted to repair a water gate (dam) at the county seat of Deqing, in the coastal province of Zhejiang. Rumors were that Wu’s men were collecting the names of locals and writing them on slips of paper. Those slips, it was claimed, were attached to the pilings the men were driving to repair the dam. In the popular imagination, as each hammer blow fell the masons were stealing the spiritual energy of those named on the slips. And because Wu Tongming and his crew weren’t natives of Deqing, they were doubly suspicious.

Fortunately, Wu’s bonafides checked out, and the accusations didn’t stick. Far more sinister suspects were to be found among China’s rootless beggars and wandering monks.

Learn More: Qing Dynasty: Soul Stealers and Sedition

The Underclass

A combination of explosive population growth, land shortages, and economic change had created a large underclass in 18th century China. It consisted primarily of men, many of whom who had cut ties with their communities to travel the empire’s vast network of highways and canals. Reasons for their alienation ran the gamut—family tragedy, substance abuse, criminal behavior.

Some were simply looking for work; others for spiritual enlightenment.

That these wandering strangers were a cause for suspicion is natural. Those accused of soul stealing in 1768 were also emblematic of the downward mobility at work in Chinese society.

For instance, the monks Chu-ch’eng and Ching-hsin lost both parents and wives, and joined the Buddhist clergy late in life. They were begging in the suburbs of the city of Hangzhou when an angry mob descended upon them shouting: “burn them, drown them!” Apparently, Chu-cheng had struck up a conversation with a local youth and asked him what his name was. His terrified parents thought the monk was out to steal the boy’s soul.

Wandering Monks

Wandering monks were common in the cities and suburbs of the lower Yangzi Region, and along the Grand Canal. These wealthy urban areas had numerous temples and monasteries where monks could find housing, and a meal. That would free them up to spend their days begging for alms. But while wandering monks and beggars were common, they inspired xenophobia and popular anxiety.

China’s rulers were especially suspicious of monks. Monks produced neither food nor children. They didn’t pay taxes and didn’t stay put. And since most monks weren’t registered, the state couldn’t be sure what they were. It didn’t help matters that some monks were known to practice a kind of spiritual blackmail—“give me alms or I’ll lay a curse on you.” Monks were also literate, and often carried books with them. Illiterate peasants might not recognize any difference between a Buddhist sutra (or scripture) and a sorcery manual; or between a paper charm with some characters on it, and a curse.

There was another reason for Qing officials to be wary. When you became a monk, you were expected to keep your face and head clean shaven. Cutting off your hair was a symbol of your separation from lay society. But the Qing was a foreign dynasty. Its founders were Manchus from northeast Asia. Soon after the Manchus conquered China in 1644, all Chinese men were ordered to wear their hair in a queue: shaved on the top and sides, with a long ponytail at the back. The queue symbolized submission to Manchu rule.

Manchu queues
The queue or cue is a Chinese hairstyle most often worn by men. Hair on top of the scalp is grown long and is often braided, while the front portion of the head is shaved (Image: By Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain)

Legitimate monks were the only exception. Cutting off your queue— or growing hair on the top and sides—might be an act of rebellion. The historian Philip Kuhn concluded that Qing officials viewed the “thousands of vagrant monks” that prowled the empire as a “breeding ground for sedition and lawlessness.” Unregistered and unkempt monks weren’t just a local problem; they might be agents of anti-Qing rebellion

When these general fears collided with the specific fears of soul stealing, it’s not surprising that angry mobs accosted the monks, and threatened to beat them and burn them.

Crime and Punishment

Crime in China was viewed as tipping the cosmic order out of balance; punishment was meant to bring the order back into balance. Chinese law outlined five punishments, or wuxing, calibrated to fit the crime. They were:

  • Beating with a light stick.
  • Beating with a heavy stick.
  • Incarceration.
  • Exile.
  • Death.

Under each were finer iterations ranging from 10 to 100 blows. Or, a criminal might be sentenced to death by strangulation (less punitive) or decapitation (more punitive). The most severe punishment was lingchi, in which the accused was slowly dismembered.

The emperor, Qianlong, was a serious and dedicated administrator. Qianlong doesn’t appear to have been particularly concerned about sorcery or soul stealing in particular, though he was interested in the bizarre details. Qianlong was more concerned that queue-less wanderers were clipping queues. Worse yet, some frightened locals were cutting off their own queues to prevent sorcerers from stealing their souls. But, Qianlong considered the hysteria anything but minor. He believed it constituted a threat to the very foundations of imperial rule. His anxieties reverberated back down the chain of command.

Learn more about Emperor Qianlong

The Qing legal system considered confessions absolutely essential to the timely resolution of criminal cases. But from the magistrates’ point of view, no sane suspect would willingly confess, especially with a crime as heinous as soul stealing. And since spontaneous confessions were unlikely, torture of the wandering monks became a prominent component of Chinese justice.

The soul-stealing prosecutions eventually unraveled. No evidence of a vast conspiracy was ever found. No ringleaders were apprehended. And most of the suspects who survived incarceration and torture recanted their admissions of guilt.

When subjected to torture, the monk Chu-ch’eng confessed to clipping queues and attempting to steal souls. He and his companions were tortured again at the prefectural level. But the provincial judge concluded the monks were victims of extortion by the county constable who had arrested them. The crippled monks were released and granted a small stipend to see them through until their bones mended.

Common Questions About Sorcery in the Qing Dynasty

Q: What is the Qing dynasty known for?

The Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912), China’s last dynasty, was known for its huge empire and Buddhist and Confucian principles, at least in the early days. Later the empire declined due to poor fiscal policies and an inability to adapt to changing times.

Q: How did the Qing dynasty come to power?

The Qing dynasty came to power after the Manchus took over China. They kept China isolated from other countries and their influences.

Q: How did the Qing dynasty fall?

The Qing dynasty fell due to overpopulation (leading to mass starvation), social discontent from the lower classes, poor leadership, and corruption.

Q: What type of government did the Qing dynasty have?

The Qing dynasty was a monarchy. The emperor had absolute power, heading up the government and army.

This article was updated on 8/18/2019

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