Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 Essay

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 is a prominent study of American sociologist Philip A. Kuhn. The author portrays the events that took place in China in 18th century, during the times people were afraid of soul stealing and witchcraft. The book focuses on the portrayal of the society and economy of those times, the way major and minor bureaucrats governed the country, the court cases and people accused in them and the purposes of it. Finally, readers find some information about the Qianlong emperor and the role he played in the Chinese sorcery scare. The book is considered to be a valuable contribution to the study of Chinese history, culture, traditions, beliefs and political affairs. Philip A. Kuhn, being the Professor of Harvard University, managed to create a highly recognizable narrative history of medieval China that is actively discussed among the academics and ordinary people.

The events depicted in the book took place during the prosperous period of the reign of Ch’ien-lung emperor, when mass panics and hysteria broke out among the ordinary citizens. People believed that a group of master sorcerers were travelling across China and stealing people’s souls by clipping off the ends of the braided queues on the heads of the men. It was firmly believed that the queues contained a “biodynamic” soul force. The epidemic of mass fear shook the citizens of China and did not remain unnoticed.

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The author of Soulstealers gives the readers a chance to explore the medieval society cases and reviews the social and economic history of those times. He was the first academic to have an access to the rich and substantial documents of imperial archives, and thus Kuhn managed to present the impressive interrogations of the accused people in detail. Among them were vagabonds, beggars, and clergy, who suffered from the tortures of provincial magistrates. The author traces the spread of the fear and its way to imperial court. The readers get acquainted with the political background of the hysteria and folk beliefs and tales that underlay the origin of sorcery.

Kuhn also depicts how the campaign against sorcery and soul-stealing was related to the ethnical and social problems of the country and to the general attitude towards them. In Soulstealers the author gives a hint that the campaign gave the monarch a chance to reinforce his supremacy and restate the accepted norms of people’s behavior. In this way, the contents of Soulstealers depict the life of imperial China and portray the representatives of different social classes and the role they played in the events of 1768.

Philip A. Kuhn’s aim was to determine the cause of the sorcery panic and to trace its growth and results. At first sight, the book seems to be focused on a single historical moment, just social issues and political and cultural results of the events. However, when the content of the book is analyzed in more detail, the readers notice the information about general state of the country during 18th century, the response of the bureaucrats to accused beggars, and finally the general understanding of “sorcery” by the representatives of different classes. Kuhn managed to examine the reasons of Emperor’s campaign against sorcery and claimed that they were the result of fear of sedition. The general structure of Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 is well-organized and helps readers get involved in the study gradually. For instance, the book starts with the general information about the queue clipping, which eventually develops within the next chapters into information about the era in general, the way the crimes were defined and the roots of the sorcery scare. Due to the fact that Kuhn had a chance to work with a great number of documents from the imperial archives, the book proceeds with the well-grounded survey of the campaign in different provinces and the trail of the sorcerers all over the country. The last chapters of the book are focused on the end of the hysteria and on its interrelations with politics and monarchy.

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The general tone of the book helps to perceive the information in the way it is presented by the author. Philip A. Kuhn sounds rather concerned about the future of China and emphasizes that it is very important to “build a wall” between people’s superstition and zealotry. Besides, every author’s thought is supported with the strong evidence which leaves no questions after reading. Assessing the organization of Soulstealers, the book has a clear structure, which is relevant to its style and main purpose. Although the style and the content of the book can be recommended to a specific readership, it is written in simple and clear language and that is why the study is used in not academic purposes only.

Summing up, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1868 written by Philip A. Kuhn depicts the events that shook the country in the 18th century. The mass hysteria and fear of soul-stealing by queue clipping influenced the life of the society greatly. The author of the book portrays the social and economic conditions of those times and represents the court cases of people accused in sorcery and soulstealing. The organization of the book and its general tone, apart from the content of the study, help the readers to understand the underlying problems of the medieval Chinese society and political system. Being based on the fact and unique imperial documents, the study of Philip A. Kuhn is considered to be very valuable for academic readership and all the people, who want to know the history of China better.

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