Sorcerers and soulstealers: hair-cutting panics in old China

A ChInese prisoner is interrogated by a magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A Chinese prisoner – wearing the long pigtail, or queue, that was mandated for all indigenous subjects of the Celestial Empire – is interrogated by a Qing magistrate. Painting from Mason & Dadley’s voyeuristic classic The Punishments of China (1901).

China, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the largest nation in the world – and also by a distance the most prosperous. Under the rule of a strong emperor, Hungli, and a well-established family (the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty), the Middle Kingdom was by then half-way through the longest period of calm in its long history. It had grown larger, richer and more cultured, its borders reaching roughly their modern extent. But it had also grown vastly more crowded; political stability, and the introduction of new crops from the Americas, led to a doubling of the population to around 300 million.  At its peak, this growth was accelerating at an annual rate in excess of 13%.

This meant trouble, for it meant that wealth was far from evenly distributed. China remained a country of great contrasts: its ruling classes rich beyond the dreams of avarice, its peasants scraping a bare living from the soil. For those living at the bottom of the food chain – both metaphorically and literally – starvation was a constant possibility, one that grew ever more starkly real the further one travelled from the rich agricultural floodplains around the Yangtze River. By the late 1760s, many peasants were forced to turn to begging to survive, wandering miles from their homes to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Tens of thousands of such forced migrations led inevitably to conflict. They also led to one of the strangest outbreaks of panic and rumour known to history.

China under the Manchus, showing the growth of empire between 1644 and 1800. the soulstealing panic took place along the country's eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing.

China under the Manchus, showing the empire’s growth between 1644 and 1800. The soulstealing panic took place along the country’s eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing. Click to view in larger resolution.

Among the hundreds of victims of this panic was an itinerant beggar by the name of Chang-ssu, who came from  the province of Shantung. Chang-ssu travelled in company with his 11-year-old son, and between them the pair made an insecure living by singing a romantic folk song, ‘Lotus petals fall,’ to crowds of peasants whom they drummed up in their wanderings from village to village. By the end of July 1768, the two beggars had got as far as the gates of Hsu-chou, a city about 200 miles south of their home, when – at least according to Chang-ssu’s later confession – they were accosted by a tall man whom they did not know. The stranger asked them what they did for a living and, on hearing that they begged, he offered them employment – 500 cash for every peasant pigtail they could clip. (The cash was the imperial currency at the time; 500 cash was worth approximately half an ounce of silver.) The stranger refused to tell Chang-ssu and his son what he wanted the hair for, but he did offer them some help: a pair of scissors and a small packet of powder which, he explained, was a “stupefying drug.” Sprinkle the powder on the head of a victim and he would fall to the ground insensible. Then his pigtail – or queue – could easily be clipped.

The work sounded easy enough, and Chang-ssu accepted the commission – so he said. He and the stranger parted, making arrangements to meet up again later on the border with a neighbouring province, and father and son continued on their way, making for the city of Su-chou. In the course of their journey, at a village named Chao, they tried the stupefying powder on a local labourer. Gratifyingly, the man collapsed; Chang-ssu took out his scissors, snipped off the end of the man’s queue, and tucked scissors and the hair in his travelling pack. The beggars did not get far, however. Only a mile or two outside the village they were overtaken by a group of constables, arrested and hauled off to the county jail – suspected, they were told, of the vile crime of soulstealing. 

A Chinese barber shaves a customer's forehead and trims his queue. This hairstyle – and its imposition on all male Chinese subjects by the Manchu emperors – lay at the heart of the great soulstealing scare.

A Chinese barber shaves a customer’s forehead and trims his queue. This hairstyle – and its imposition on all male Chinese subjects by the Manchu emperors – lay at the heart of the great soulstealing scare.

Perhaps Chang-ssu ought to have guessed that he was doing something very dangerous. The idea that a sorcerer could use magic spells to separate the human soul from the body was commonplace in Chinese culture, and so was the notion that chanting spells over a sample of the victim’s hair was the surest way to sever that bond. Once the spells were recited, it was believed, the detached soul fell under the power of the sorcerer, and it could then be used for all sorts of mischief. Most obviously, it could be used to give life to inanimate objects, for example little paper images of animals or men. These animated paper men could then be used as bodyguards, or dispatched to do the sorcerer’s bidding – whether that was stealing from somebody’s house, or committing murder. The victim in the whole affair, meanwhile, was doomed to die. Once his soul had been stolen, he would sicken and eventually expire, a crime rendered still more serious by the Chinese belief that it was vital that the living members of a clan say prayers for the departed dead. The killing of a father or an elder son could thus be catastrophic for many generations of a family.

China’s soulstealing tradition was a complex one, and it was surrounded by a great deal of folklore. Children, for example, were said to be the most favoured victims – though whether that was because they possessed more life force, or posed less threat, is difficult to say. Each clipped queue was supposed to be sufficient to animate three paper men, and these sorcerers’ servants had considerable powers; they could fly, and even travel into the afterlife, where they would assume human form and serve as the retainers and concubines of the dead. Some of the drugs used to secure the queues were said to render their users invisible, rather than their victims insensible. And there were peculiar beliefs as to how the occult bond forged between a sorcerer and his stolen souls might best be severed in time to save his hapless victims. In one account, paper men could be paralysed by contact with a woman’s urine; in another, the only way of saving a victim’s soul was said to be to snip off another hank of his hair and leave it to soak in a cesspool for 80 days. As for the paper men themselves, later accounts describe them as about 5 inches long, bearing charms – ‘fly’, ‘hide’, ‘thunder’, ‘lightning’ – on their thighs and feet, and equipped with miniature pairs of paper scissors.

An 18th century drawing of the town of Te'ching. The watergate where all the trouble started can be seen on the right.

An 18th century drawing of the town of Te’ching. The watergate where all the trouble started can be seen on the right.

The 1768 scare had got its start four or five months before Chang-ssu was dragged off to be interrogated at Su-chou, and it flared up in Chenkiang county, at the mouth of the Yangtze, in the richest part of pre-industrial China. The area lay at the heart of the silk industry – the empire’s richest manufactuary – and it was (Philip A. Kuhn explains) one vast, rich mulberry garden, stretching across a floodplain laced with creeks, canals and low, soft hills. The first flickers of rumour came from the town of Te-ching, just north of Hangchow on Nan-t’io river, where in the autumn of 1767 the local authorities asked several local masons to bid on a large contract: the replacement of the watergate on the town’s eastern wall.

Three masons pitched for the job, but it was awarded to only one of them, a man by the name of Wu Tung-ming. His men started work in January, but the job proved very difficult. It took until March to sink the piles needed to support the new gate, and when Wu set off for his home village to secure fresh supplies of rice, whispers had already begun to circulate that the masons would need to call on supernatural aid to finish up the work.

Qing-era masons were frequently associated with magic. The heavy labour that such men did, in an era before the invention of mechanical aids, required so much arduous effort that it seemed natural that they would choose to call on sorcery from time to time, and it was commonly believed that they might, at least occasionally, resort to soulstealing techniques in order to complete tasks that were otherwise impossible. In this sort of case, it was believed, masons would set out to discover people’s names, write those names down on slips of paper, and then pin those slips to their piles. Soulstealing magic would then be used to lend additional spiritual power to the force of the masons’ blows. Of course, the same magic would simultaneously sap the victims’ strength, and would eventually kill them.

Peasants work the fields outside a Qing-era village. This sanitised scene gives little clue as to the drudgery of most peasants' lives.

Peasants work the fields outside a Qing-era village. This sanitised scene gives little clue as to the drudgery of most peasants’ lives.

Stories of masons stealing souls seem to have been fairly common at this time; they were certainly widely enough known for a man in Wu’s home village of Jen-ho to have heard about them. His name was Shen Shih-liang, he was 43 years old, and he was living in considerably reduced circumstances – forced to move in with his nephews in a family compound. Once there, Shen found himself the target of regular abuse; his young relatives bullied him, stole his money, and even insulted his mother. Enraged, he travelled to a local Buddhist temple, where he burned a paper petition before the altar by way of filing his complaint with the King of the Underworld. Then he sought out mason Wu and offered up his nephews’ names for soulstealing.

Wu was too uncaring – or perhaps just much too sensible – to take Shen up on this unusual proposal. But he was also fully alive to the likely consequences of simply letting the matter drop, only for rumours of the conversation to begin to circulate. Instead, he reported the whole matter to the village headman, and he had Shen arrested and carted off to Te-ch’ing for interrogation. There the city magistrate settled things by sentencing Shen to 25 strokes of the cane. Considering the options that were open to him – which included torturing the peasant for further information, and even sentencing him to death – this was little more than exemplary punishment. It’s hard to imagine that the magistrate, a well-educated mandarin who was the imperial government’s local man on the ground, set much store by peasant superstitions, or genuinely believed that it was possible to steal souls.

The same cannot be said for all the people of Te-ch’ing. Shen’s case must have attracted notice; certainly the idea that there might be real soulstealers about began to circulate throughout the town, and it was not long before a second incident occurred. This time it took place in the provincial capital, Hangchow, but the case involved a Te-ch’ing man called Chi Chao-mei. Chi was attempting to make his living as a beggar when his rustic accent attracted the unwelcome attentions of some Hangchow louts. When they realised where he came from, things quickly turned ugly, and Chi was accused of being a soulstealer, sent out from Te-ch’ing to ensnare the unwary people of the capital. To save himself from a lynching, the beggar blurted an admission the charge, adding, in his panic, that he had made use of some paper charms to kill two children in the city. Hauled off to the provincial yamen (government office), Chi named mason Wu as his accomplice.

Manchu bannermen charge at the Battle of Qurman, fought in Turkestan in 1759.

Manchu bannermen charge at the Battle of Qurman, fought in Turkestan in 1759.

It’s worth pausing for a moment here to wonder why the Te-ch’ing hair-cutting scare broke out where it did and when it did – and why the Chinese government eventually took it so seriously that the emperor himself took charge of the investigation. The answer to these questions is a complex one, and we need to go back to the early 1640s to begin to grasp it. At that time, the Ming – an ethnically Han Chinese dynasty – had ruled the country for very nearly three centuries, but their state was in terminal decline. It also faced a fearsome enemy to the north in the shape of the Manchus, a nomad people who had built an empire of their own on the far side of the Great Wall. In 1644, his position undermined by a rebellion of peasants, the last Ming emperor hanged himself from a tree behind his palace; the Manchus promptly attacked, slaughtered a Chinese army, and installed themselves as rulers in Beijing.

The new Qing dynasty took some time to establish itself, however, and even then the Manchus remained heavily outnumbered by their new subjects. Successive Qing emperors – no matter how successful they appeared to be – lived in constant apprehension of the two things they thought might spell disaster for their dynasty. The first was Han sedition, and the second the assimilation of what they saw as their own sturdy, martial race into the lazy, dangerously corrupt civilization to the south.

Qing officials arresting members of the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society

Qing officials arresting members of the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society

Rebellion, the Manchus thought, was likely to be sparked by popular religion. Both China’s Taoists and its Buddhists spawned sects over which the state had no control; these often splintered into semi-political secret societies, and spread word of their activities via networks of wandering monks – the very people who would soon become chief suspects in the soulstealing affair. Assimilation, meanwhile, was best resisted by maintaining clear distinctions between Manchu and Chinese. To this end, the first Qing emperor decreed that all his new subjects were to adopt a distinctive hairstyle – one that denoted their inferior rank. This involved shaving the forehead clean, while growing the hair at the back of the head long and braiding it neatly into a queue. By the 1760s, the style had been in vogue for several generations, and had it had morphed into something of a badge of pride for the great majority of Chinese men; to loose one’s queue, or even a part of it, symbolised loss of honour and restraint. For the Manchus, though, clipped queues were something far more serious. To sever a queue was to commit one of the “Ten Abominations” set out in China’s criminal code. It was an act of rebellion, one that could be, and was, punished by the execution not only of the queue-cutter, but also of his entire family.  The theft of hair was, therefore, a matter of the utmost seriousness for Hungli’s subjects, and this explains why fear of supernatural hair-cutters spread so rapidly through the China of 1768.

By the time the soulstealing panic began to spread along the Grand Canal, which linked Beijing to the Yangtze, the emperor had already been alarmed by two earlier cases of supposed sedition that seemed to him to have the potential to wreak havoc in his carefully-ordered realm.  The first was the “Case of the Bogus Memorial,” which took place in 1751; a document, purporting to be a report harshly critical of the imperial administration which had been addressed to Hungli by one of his most trusted advisors, began circulating throughout the empire. Badly frightened by the memorial’s appearance even in the heart of the Manchu state – copies had turned up as close to home as the Bannermen’s Academy in Beijing, which trained the empire’s senior soldiers – Hungli was glad to pin the blame for the memorial on a minor military official. The supposed culprit was executed by slow slicing (the infamous punishment also known as the “death by a thousand cuts”), and the seriousness with which the emperor took the case is well illustrated by the fact that though “even the coolies in the street” were apparently well aware of the humiliating accusations that the Bogus Memorial contained, not a single copy is known to survive today in even the deepest recesses of the imperial archives.

Martial race: a Manchu bannerman – a member of one of the eight great companies of warriors who underpinned the Qing state – painted to illustrate his noble qualities. Though cultured and literate (witness the writing materials at his elbow), he is also a vigorous warrior, happiest on horseback.

Martial race: a Manchu bannerman – a member of one of the eight great companies of warriors that underpinned the Qing state – painted to illustrate his noble qualities. Though cultured and literate (witness the tea and the writing materials at his elbow), he is also a vigorous warrior, happiest on horseback.

The second case to alarm Hungli was considerably stranger, and indeed it can be seen as a telling precursor to the soulstealing affair. It involved an apparent anti-Manchu conspiracy that flared up in the mountains of rural Hupei, where in 1752 various rebel proclamations were uncovered, along with stocks of newly-forged swords. These were apparently the work of one Ma Ch’ao-chu, a Yangtze valley peasant.  That news, in itself, would have been alarming enough,  but according to the rumours that reached Beijing, Ma Ch’ao-chu was merely the servant of a far more potent threat:  a “Young Lord” who ruled over a “Kingdom of the Western Sea” somewhere in the mountains south-west of the Chinese border. This ideal ruler of a paradisiacal Ming successor state controlled an army of 36,000 men – and they were preparing to descend on the rich and disloyal southern provinces of the Manchu empire in magical flying machines, which could carry them from their mountain fastnesses into the heart of Hungli’s dominions in a matter of hours.

The Manchus expended vast resources in an attempt to catch the mysterious Ma Ch’ao-chu, but he was never apprehended. As in the case of the Bogus Memorial, however, Hungli reacted violently to even the whiff of sedition; orders went out from Beijing that all the suspects rounded up were to be “tortured with extreme severity,” and that their lives were to be preserved only until they confessed. Most tellingly, the authorities also seem to have suppressed reports that the Hupei rebels were cutting off their queues. Fifteen years before the outbreak of the soulstealing affair, the emperor was already obsessed by the dangers of such a visible rebuke to his authority.

Seen in such worrying contexts, the soulstealing affair takes on rather different dimensions; it becomes easier to see beyond its outlandish – even quasi-comical – origins and discern, with Hungli, a movement with the potential to create real trouble for the empire. Whether or not he ever actually believed in the possibility of soulstealing (something that it is difficult to know for sure), Hungli was certainly convinced that popular disturbances of any sort should be suppressed as rapidly as possible. He was also alive to the dangers posed by any segment of the population that was difficult to enumerate or control. And it is at this point that we need to turn to the problem of wandering monks.

Wandering monks and Buddhist pilgrims were a staple of eastern societies for generations – this old photograph comes from Japan. They carried basic necessities in packs, and though this man seems considerably better equipped than most, even poorer mendicants might carry items such as scissors, needle and thread.

Wandering monks and Buddhist pilgrims were a staple of eastern societies for generations – this old photograph comes from Japan. They carried basic necessities in packs, and though this man seems considerably better equipped than most, even poorer mendicants might possess items such as scissors, needle and thread.

Buddhist and Taoist monasteries dotted the landscape of Qing-era China like the pustules of an especially vigorous case of chicken pox. A few were rich; most were poor; but, together, they acted not only as religious centres (ones that were, in Hungli’s eyes, infuriatingly beyond the close control of the Manchu state) but also as a sort of social safety-net. At a time when the rapid increases in China’s population were beginning to bear down heavily on many impoverished people, it was common for those who found themselves surplus to requirements on a family’s land, and those elderly who had no children to support them, to throw themselves on the mercy of the local monastery or nunnery. The surest way of doing so was to become a monk or nun. Those capable of pursuing a religious vocation all the way through to ordination had claim upon their monastery’s resources; even for the great majority who did not (and by the 1760s only 20 percent of China’s clergy possessed ordination certificates), begging became considerably more lucrative if one was a monk.

The result was that China’s roads were thick with religious novices, almost all of them poorly educated and most at best sketchily aware of the chief tenets of their own religions. These monks were a perpetual thorn in the side of the administration; it was hard to distinguish between them and bandits or petty criminals on the run. The poorest ostentatiously displayed running sores and abscesses, not so much in an appeal for sympathy as in the expectation that they would be paid to move on before they could infect anyone else; the better-educated were if anything an even bigger threat. Lumped together, in the common phrase, as “sorcerous Taoists and licentious Buddhists,” the latter were commonly associated with every sort of magic, from alchemy and exorcism to the search for immortality – making them logical suspects in any search for the perpetrators of “evil acts.” Either way, as Kuhn points out, “to the bureaucratic mind, wandering beggars of any sort threatened public security. People without homes and families were out of control.”

A prisoner is tortured in the ankle-press. From Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A prisoner is tortured in the ankle-press. From Mason & Dadley’s The Punishments of China (1901).

Back in Hangchow, in 1768, the soulstealing scare was taking on a life of its own. Chi Chao-mei, the beggar who had desperately accused mason Wu of soulstealing in an attempt to prevent his own lynching, was quickly exposed as a lier once he was hauled before the town magistrates; unable to pick out Wu from a lineup, he eventually admitted to having invented his entire story. But any hope that this confession might damp down the rising panic was more than offset by news of yet another case, this one from across the river in Hsiao-chen county, where two wandering monks with unfamiliar accents had got talking to a local boy and unwisely asked his name. Convinced that the strangers were soulstealers – names, as we have seen, possessed a magical power of their own – a mob chased the monks out of their village, howling “Burn them!” and “Drown them!” as they ran. The village headman was able to calm things down only by having both men seized, together with two of their travelling companions. All four were sent to the local yamen, where their bags were searched. One, a novice named Chü-cheng, was found to be carrying three pairs of scissors and a piece of braided queue. That was enough for the magistrates; they put the monks to the torture.

Torture was a common feature of Chinese law in those days. Several different devices were used; the two most common were the “leg-crusher” and the  “ankle-press.” The latter, which was apparently the implement used on the wandering monks, was described by one western witness as a “sort of double wooden vice” consisting of three beams; chocks were hammered in, causing two to act as levers on the third, inflicting agonising multiple fractures on the ankle and shinbone. Hardly surprisingly, the press quickly wrung full confessions from the hapless monks, and the unease that this news produced was exacerbated by a separate incident in which a tinker who had been carrying two (entirely conventional) written charms was killed by the members of an illiterate mob who assumed that he, too, was a soulstealer.

A scene at a county yamen. On the lower left, two convicts have been placed in cages and left to die of starvation. On the lower right, two others have been placed in the cangue, a sort of Chinese stocks.

A scene at a county yamen. On the lower left, two convicts have been placed in cages and left to die of starvation. On the lower right, two others have been placed in the cangue, a sort of Chinese stocks.

Similar cases now began to occur in other districts. A stranger found wandering through An-chi County was tied to a tree and beaten to death; a barber who had clipped the queue of a 10-year-old boy who had heard of the soulstealing scare, and apparently wanted the thrill of claiming that he was a victim of it, had his legs broken in the ankle-press. By May 1768, cases were streaming in from neighbouring Kiangsu province, where yet another group of wandering monks had been arrested.

Perhaps the local authorities remembered the case of Ma Ch’ao-chu, the rebel who had claimed to be merely the representative of a vastly more powerful threat to the Manchu state; perhaps they took note of the testimony of Chang-ssu, who said he had been supplied with scissors and stupefying drugs by a mysterious stranger; perhaps they simply found it hard to believe that semi-literate wandering monks and beggars were capable of stealing souls without somebody’s help. Whatever the truth, it was not long before hard questioning produced evidence that there was a real conspiracy afoot – and that master-sorcerers were lurking in the shadows, recruiting and manipulating the hapless mendicants who had actually been arrested.

According to one such testimony, a poor hired labourer by the name of Li had been enslaved by a sorcerer whom he called “Baldy Liu”; Liu had accosted him as he rested under a tree, sprinkled him with stupefying powder, and ordered him to “make obeisance to him as master” before sending him off to clip queues. According to another, a sorcerer-monk by the name of Ming-yuan was behind much of the trouble in Shantung province. Put to the torture, one especially persuasive beggar – a failed doctor by the name of Han P’ei-hsien – recounted that he had heard of the marvels performed by Ming-yuan in the course of his wanderings, and travelled to meet him at the Three Teachings Temple in Hai-chou. Ming-yuan had welcomed him, assured him that he had “plenty of techniques,” and invited him to become his disciple.

A well-patronised Buddhist temple on Wutai Mountain. Most temples were less magnificent and considerably poorer than this one.

A well-patronised Buddhist temple on Wutai Mountain. Most temples were less magnificent and considerably poorer than this one.

Ming-yuan – Han P’ei-hsien’s confession went on – displayed his mastery of magic by filling a bronze bowl with water, sprinkling the surface with a strange powder, and commanding that he wash his face in it. “Then he wrapped a white cloth to cover my eyes, whereupon I saw lofty towers, elegant rooms … gold and silver treasures, all manner of high-class things.” Suitably convinced, the beggar eagerly agreed to Ming-yuan’s proposal that he help him to obtain “ten-thousand queues in order to … build a ten-thousand soul bridge.” The queues, the monk explained, would be put to use by “filling seven large earthen jars with them, reciting incantations over them for seven times seven days, then daubing them with the blood of living persons.” This magic would turn paper cut-outs snipped from “five-colour paper” into full-sized paper men, who could then be sent out to rob victims of their possessions. Supplied with 500 cash and packets of stupefying drugs (again, according to his testimony), Han P’ei-hsien was packed off to clip queues. He managed to waylay two youths and snip their pigtails, but when he tried the trick for a third time, he was caught and hauled off for interrogation.

It’s not difficult to see how a detailed story, packed with names and places like Han P’ei-hsien’s, could convince Manchu magistrates that they were uncovering a substantial conspiracy. Nonetheless, local officials faced considerable difficulties in pursuing their investigations. For one thing, they dared not make their enquiries public, for fear of causing greater panic; for another, the discreet investigations that they did make repeatedly failed to turn up any evidence to corroborate accounts that had been given under torture. A monk suspected of being Baldy Liu was picked up in Kiangnan province,  but he died of heatstroke while being taken to the local jail. In Hai-chou, no monk named Ming-yuan could be found in any of the local temples.

Hungli (1711-99), who reigned as the Qianlong Emperor from 1735 until his abdication in 1796. The sixth Qing emperor was an able administrator who saw the soulstealing crisis as a means of asserting his power over provincial government.

Hungli (1711-99), who reigned as the Qianlong emperor from 1735 until his abdication in 1796. The sixth Qing emperor was an able administrator who saw the soulstealing crisis as a means of asserting his power over provincial government.

The third problem confronting the men tackling the soulstealing affair on the ground was tougher still, however. It was the ticklish question of how much they should tell their emperor, for the Manchu system of government depended on the maintenance of a delicate balance of power. The emperor, in Beijing, was nominally all-powerful, possessing the power of life and death over his subordinates – though by this period control was more usually a matter of bestowing or withdrawing favour. On the other hand, he depended on trusted servants to keep him supplied with the information that he needed to make his decisions. Bureaucrats strove to please their master in order to gain the promotions and ascend a complex hierarchy of magistrates, provincial governors, and governors-general, but they remained eternally aware that it was dangerous to report problems to the throne unless those problems came with a solution. Announcing the existence of a soulstealing conspiracy without first laying their hands on the men responsible for it risked attracting the emperor’s ire, and possibly worse if the matter was not swiftly resolved to Hungli’s satisfaction. As a result, it was not uncommon for provincial officials to suppress bad news in the hope that word of it would never reach Beijing. The Manchu system of accountability, therefore, revolved around control of information; officials knew that they could not be blamed for failing to prosecute a crime if they could plausibly claim they did not know that it had been committed in the first place.

Hungli, of course, was perfectly aware of this, and little angered the emperor more than the suspicion that one of his subordinates was concealing something from him. His solution to the problem was to evolve a parallel “back channel” of informants – mainly trusted Manchus – to send in reports behind the backs of governors and magistrates. It was thanks to this informal system that the emperor first became aware of reports of soulstealing.

An example of the vermillion comments brushed onto official communications by the emperors of China. This one is a memorial addressed to Hungli's grandfather, the revered Kangxi emperor.

An example (left) of the vermillion comments brushed onto official communications by the emperors of China. This one is a memorial addressed to Hungli’s grandfather, the revered Kangxi emperor.

From Hungli’s point of view, the problem that he now confronted was a tricky one. China was difficult to rule; the empire was vast, while its bureaucracy was relatively tiny. In 1768, the emperor depended on a minuscule elite of only 63 provincial governors, just over half of them Manchu, each controlling what amounted to substantial states; the province of Liankiang alone was twice the size of France, and contained a population of some 70 million. And while the bureaucracy was generally capable of handling routine tasks, a crisis such as the soulstealing scare fell well outside its normal remit. This meant, among other things, that it was impossible for emperor and governors alike to anchor their responses in the familiar system of checks and balances. There were simply no “norms” for sorcery arrests that would let Hungli know how well or badly his subordinates were performing.

We know what the emperor thought about the soulstealing affair because he left a clear account of his feelings in the form of the annotations that he brushed on bureaucratic correspondence. These fragments of imperial marginalia, written in a special vermillion ink that was reserved for his exclusive use, reveal Hungli’s anger at being kept in the dark about the existence of a potentially dangerous threat, his concern that a panic based on the clipping of queues was likely to involve dangerous sedition, and his anxiety at the apparent impossibility of laying hands on the true culprits: the master sorcerers who (at least according to the testimony of the unfortunates tortured to extract it up and down the Grand Canal) were actually behind the scare. Most of all, Hungli clearly feared that he was not in possession of the whole truth, which meant that the crisis might be far more pressing and serious than he was being told. “You take your sweet time sending in memorials,” he wrote on one underling’s report, “and there isn’t a word of truth in them! You have really disappointed my trust in you, you ingrate of a thing!”

A landscape in mountainous Anhwei province, one of three controlled by Governor-General G'aojin.

A landscape in mountainous Anhwei province, one of three controlled by Governor-General G’aojin.

The unfortunate  administrator stationed at the heart of the affair was G’aojin, a Han Chinese specialist in river conservancy who had risen to be governor-general of Kiangnan, a vast territory, centred on the Yangtze delta, which incorporated the provinces of Kiangsu, Kiangsi and Anhwei. Kiangnan was regarded as the richest but most demanding posting in the whole empire, and Hungli kept a special eye on it. Almost as soon as he first heard reports of the soulstealing affair, he fired off a curt enquiry to discover whether cases of sorcery had been reported in G’aojin’s districts. The bland reply that he received – there had been rumours, but no cases – apparently enraged him, for he refused to be content with the response. Other provinces had reported actual cases of soulstealing, he wrote back to G’aojin; “how can Kiangnan alone have none?” The local bureaucracy, the emperor added, was surely “substandard,” and its “practice of making something appear to be nothing is really hateful.”

G’aojin’s next memorial made matters worse; the rumours, he was now forced to admit, dated all the way back to spring, but had proved impossible to verify.  It was G’aojin, Hungli now heard, whose men had set off in pursuit of the uncatchable sorcerer Ming-yuan, and who had not only failed to locate him, or anyone matching his description, but had also been unable even to find the Three Teachings Temple at Hai-chou where he was supposed to be hiding. This time the response from Beijing was frighteningly curt: G’aojin’s entire administration, Hungli wrote, was “really despicable.”

China in 1768, showing the provinces at the heart of the soulstealing panic (in box) and the course of the Grand Canal, along which the rumours seemed to spread. Click to view in higher resolution.

China in 1768, showing the provinces at the heart of the soulstealing panic (in box) and the course of the Grand Canal, along which the rumours seemed to spread. Click to view in higher resolution.

It was at this point that the emperor demanded full transcripts of all the interrogations that had taken place to date, and realised for the first time how many soulstealing suspects had been questioned and released after suffering only minor punishments. Local officials, he realised, had been “far too lenient,” and in doing so had “nourished traitors.” The best recourse was to have all existing suspects re-arrested and interrogated anew in the hope of unearthing better information. In addition, other potential suspects were to be swept up, “not sticking to the niceties” in cases in which names or descriptions did not match.

These were the commands of an angry, anxious man, and Hungli’s subordinates were quick to follow up with action. Unfortunately for them, additional interrogations, and the application of worse torture merely had the effect of multiplying evidence and adding new allegations. Agonised suspects were forced to confess that the master-sorcerers who were being sought could not be found because they were on the move; Ming-yuan was said to be heading for Beijing. The names of new sorcerers were uncovered, and by August the authorities had tracked down one of their alleged bases, the ominously-named Dark Dragon Temple – but they had failed to make significant new arrests. To make matters worse, the first stirrings of trouble in the capital itself were coming in: several city folk claimed to have been stupefied, and one woman said she had been overcome by an unexplained romantic longing. Most of the witnesses concerned claimed to have lost part or even all of their queues; anti-sorcery charms began appearing on Beijing doors.

Hungli – who had retreated from the steamy heat of summer and taken refuge in the Manchu’s summer palace, north of the Great Wall – continued to monitor and direct developments. His chief focus, as always, was on rooting out the least hint of rebellion; one result of the soulstealing affair was that it led to investigations that uncovered a revival of the millenarian “Effortless Action” sect, a Buddhist group which based its claims to authority on possession of Ming era “rebellious sayings.” Its leaders were put to death by slow slicing; many acolytes were beheaded. Whether the sect really posed much threat to Manchu dominance seems doubtful, though, and it is possible to argue that Hungli might have made more progress had he paid less attention to sedition and more to his history – for the truth was that the 1768 scare was not the first time that the empire had been troubled by reports of hair-clipping.

Emperor Hungli arrives at Su-chou on the Grand Canal during his Southern Inspection Tour of 1751.

Emperor Hungli arrives at Su-chou on the Grand Canal during his Southern Inspection Tour of 1751.

In fact, the earliest hair-cutting panic that we know of date all the way back to 477, during the chaotic Northern and Southern Dynasties period. There was another in about 517, and in the latter case, the scare apparently persisted in the face of Dowager Empress Ling’s attempts to calm the situation by ordering that anyone found guilty of hair-clipping should be “whipped without the Gate of the Thousand Autumns by the good care of Liu T’eng, the chief of the guards.” The chronicles of the time attribute both of these upheavals not to rebels, but to “fox-elves” –  malicious spirits that continue to play a leading role in Chinese folklore even today. Similarly, fear of flying paper men, animated by magicians, can be traced back at least as far as 1577, and numerous other queue-clipping panics broke out in China after Hungli’s time – in 1810, 1812, 1821, 1844, 1876 (when a master-sorcerer supposed to live on remote Nine Dragons Mountain was reported to be planning to animate 70,000 paper men in service of the White Lotus, another millennial sect that had been stirring up trouble since the 1330s), and lastly in Amoy, in 1886. Traces of a similar contagion reappeared as late as 1910, only two years before the final collapse of the empire itself. On this last occasion, it was discovered that popular resistance to the taking of a census had its roots in fears that the authorities would use the names they took for soulstealing, either to sell them to foreigners or to aid in railway construction (in a clear echo of the old folk beliefs that had bedevilled the unfortunate mason Wu, it was thought that laying the sleepers and bridges of the new technology required one soul for every five feet of track.) Hair-clipping, in short, had a long history in China quite independent of the Manchus’ efforts to impose a single hairstyle on their subjects, and belief in soulstealing sorcerers not only antedated the foundation of the Qing dynasty, but very probably outlived it.

A Chinese fox spirit (hu xian). Such entities play a major part in Chinese folklore. They possess the power to transform into irresistibly seductive women and – in their natural form – and easily recognisable by their nine tail.

A Chinese fox spirit (hu xian). Such entities possess the power to transform into irresistibly seductive women and – in their natural form – are easily recognisable by their nine tails.

For Hungli, though, the queue-clipping panic was simply too serious to write off as a product of popular belief. Still convinced that potential rebels were working hand in hand with master-sorcerers and wandering monks, he subjected his governors and magistrates to two more months of what Kuhn terms “vermillion abuse,” firing off orders that suspicious characters who appeared at temples and pilgrimage spots were to be arrested on sight, and rounding up geomancers and faith healers wherever they were to be found. Interrogations were no longer to be left to the local authorities, either; on the emperor’s orders, suspects were to be sent on to Beijing – and even further, to the summer capital, if necessary – for questioning by members of the imperial Grand Council.

Had sedition really been at work in 1768, it is possible that these measures might have exposed it. As it was, they served only to undermine the idea that the soulstealing affair had its roots in anything real. Led by Duke Funihan, the Grand Councillors began a series of re-interrogations of the surviving witnesses – most of whom still bore the physical and mental scares of their earlier encounters with Manchu justice. This time, however, the use of torture was eschewed, and – almost immediately – the stories that emerged began to change. A constable confessed to planting a queue end and a pair of scissors in his pack in order to prevent a monk from pressing charges for false arrest; other suspects admitted to making false accusations, and to clipping their own queues in order to claim rewards; others again insisted they had blurted out confessions under torture. Chü-cheng, the monk arrested at the beginning of the whole scare, was one of those exonerated in this way.

The Qing capital, Beijing, in 1767, the year before the soulstealing scare. This painting, by the court artist Xu Yang, shows the city's corth-south axis, from Coal Mountain to the north, south via the Forbidden City, with its Gate of Heavenly Peace, to the Zhengyang Gate, at the heart of the commercial sector, at the bottom of the image.

The Qing capital, Beijing, in 1767, the year before the soulstealing scare. This painting, by the court artist Xu Yang, shows the city’s north-south axis, from Coal Mountain to the north, south via the Forbidden City, with its Gate of Heavenly Peace, to the Zhengyang Gate, at the heart of the commercial sector, at the bottom of the image.

The case of Chang-ssu, the singing beggar, and his son also came before the Grand Council. Rather than confirm his story of having been recruited to clip queues by a tall stranger, though, Chang-ssu now said that he had got into an argument with the headman of the village where he had run into trouble in the first place. Angered to be offered no more than half a piece of steamed bread – to be shared with his son – he had insulted and abused the chief, who had responded by framing him, planting evidence of severed queue-ends in his bag and then summoning the village constables. Interrogated several times, the beggar stuck determinedly to this new story, even though – as the court could hardly help but notice – he was by now on the verge of death, his whole body “yellow and swollen” and his legs infected as a result of the torture he had suffered. These exchanges thus proved little other than that soulstealing rumours were ubiquitous at the time, and the dying Chang-ssu’s story was confirmed by inspection of his few possessions; the scissors that had been planted on him were too blunt to sever hair, and the pack of “stupefying powder” in his pack was found to have no effect.

All these discoveries were highly embarrassing, and they placed the Grand Councillors in a delicate position. It now seemed certain that the soulstealing panic was a product of an unsavoury mix of envy, greed, score-settling, and hasty and incompetent investigation by local officials. But to point this out to the emperor was to risk all but accusing Hungli himself of being gullible. It took a while to work out how best to resolve the matter, and it was not until late October 1768 – by which time the imperial household was on its way back to Beijing and its cooler autumn – that a new narrative was finally put in place by the Grand Council. In this version of events, the real trouble had been caused not by sorcery, but by an over-liberal use of torture – a form of words that offered the emperor a convenient escape. Hungli was encouraged to spare himself embarrassment by concluding that the whole farrago had indeed been a case of sedition, but in an unexpected way – local Han Chinese magistrates had deliberately incited an unjust crackdown in order to stir up hatred of officialdom, and hence of Manchu government in general.

The soulstealing affair in miniature: a Chinese constable escorts his prisoner to jail.

The soulstealing affair in miniature: a Chinese constable escorts his prisoner to jail.

This Orwellian circumlocution saved imperial face, albeit at the cost of several promising careers; at least two of the local officials responsible for the initial investigations into soulstealing were dismissed from their posts and packed off to unpleasant postings in distant provinces. On the whole, however, Hungli proved himself to be merciful; whatever the emperor’s deficiencies, he at least recognised that it was hardly fair to blame his men for being over-zealous when their zealotry was a response to his own vermillion anxieties.

The same mercy was shown to the unfortunate victims of the scare – or at least to the handful who survived. There was no happy ending for Chang-ssu; the unlucky beggar died in prison of his wounds not long after giving evidence. But he was provided with a coffin, and buried by the state; and his young son was given an escort home to the impoverished countryside – a place no longer seething with rumours of soulstealing which was, nonetheless, just a little bit more crowded, and a little more impoverished, than it had been before.

 

Sources

Anon. “The Chinese superstition of severed queues.” Popular Science, April 1884; Frederic Henry Balfour. “Secret societies in China.” Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society 7 (1891). Henry du Bose. The Dragon, Image and Demon, or, the Three Religions of China. London: Partridge, 1886; Charles Fort. Wild Talents. London: John Brown, 1998; Herbert A. Giles. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. New York: Dover, 1969; Jan de Groot. The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History and Present Aspect, Manners, Customs and Social Institutions Connected Therewith. Leyden, 6 volumes: EJ Brill, 1892-1910; B.J. ter Haar. The White Lotus: Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999; Chester Holcombe. The Real Chinaman. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895; Philip A. Kuhn. Soulstealers: the Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1990; Lars Peter Laamann. “Christianity, Magic and Politics in Qing and Republican China.” In Central Asiatic Journal 58 (2015); Tong Lam, A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900–1949. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011; Steve Moore. “Tales from the Yellow Emporium.” Fortean Times 39 (1983); Steve Moore. “Tales from the Yellow Emporium.” Fortean Times 40 (1983); Steve Moore. “Chinese hair-cutting panics: a tail piece.” Fortean Times 59 (1991); Y. Wang. “A study on the size of the Chinese population in the middle and late eighteenth century.” Chinese Journal of Population Science 9 (1997).

A note on names

Because almost all the significant English language sources dealing with the soulstealing campaign follow the Wade-Giles system of transliteration, rather than the more recent Pinyin system, and because I am no expert in transliteration myself, I have found it safer to write this essay using Wade-Giles – using Pinyin only when Wade-Giles is likely to cause needless confusion (Beijing for Peking, Qing dynasty for Ch’ing). This does mean some place names become hard to identify for anyone used to the Pinyin system. Some equivalents are given below.

Pinyin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Sorcerers and soulstealers: hair-cutting panics in old China

  1. Fascinating post, as always. I was especially interested by something a little bit off topic, your mention of the magical flying machines of Ma Ch’ao-chu. Was this a real rebellion, or just another sort of rumour?

    • Ma Ch’ao-chu (Ma Chaozhu in Pinyin) was a real rebel, though his activities took place far away from the centre of Manchu China, and word of his activities was censored – so details of his rebellion remain scanty. The most complete account I’ve seen runs across several pages of Ter Haar’s Ritual and Mythology of the Chinese Triads, but here is a short passage in WT Rowe’s Crimson Rain – Seven Centuries of Violence in a Chinese County. It stresses Ma’s reliance on the supernatural to reinforce his message:

      Extract from Crimson Rain

  2. […] The best story you’ll read today: The ponytail-cutting soul-stealer panic of 18thC China […]

  3. Pingback: Sorcerers and soulstealers: hair-cutting panics in old China — A Blast From The Past – Whats going on around the world

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