By using his detailed research on the Chinese society of the eighteenth-century, Philip Kuhn wrote this historical book, which was published in 1990. This book brings the readers to see the panic of the popular Chinese culture and the imperial court generated by an outbreak of sorcery rumors. Through the narrative perspective of the book, the author created a compelling study of aroused villagers, wandering beggars or monks, accused suspects, aggravated bureaucrats, and a frustrated emperor. There are ten chapters in the book with the addition of "Notes," which explains the history, the sources, and the background in more details for each chapter. Throughout "Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768," there is an understanding of how the Imperial State handled the sorcery rumors in the middle of the eighteenth-century by looking at how the fears of sorcery came into the minds of the peasants, how the Chinese bureaucrats handled the crisis, and the Ch'ien-lung emperor's role in the crisis.
As evident in the first chapter of "Soulstealers," the fears of sorcery began with the story of peasant Shen who wished to have his revenge on his nephews. Determined to get back at his nephews for torturing and harassing him, Shen has heard about the masons who used the names of the living persons on "paper slips," which were to be a spiritual force (p. 3 - 4). While he determined to have his revenge, Shen approached Mason Wu for more information on "soulstealing" but he was arrested and later released after being tortured by the magistrate of the town. From Shen's mistake in approaching Mason Wu and his release, the rumors began to spread little-by-little from village to village with powerful words such as "soulstealing," "sorcerers," and "queue-clipping." Additionally, the most interesting incident that fueled the rumors in which took place in Hsiao-shan county, Chekiang, where two Buddhist monks were accused by the peasants of "soulstealing," and they were harassed (p. 7-22). The peasants in the local area, who heard about the rumors of "soulstealers," tend to believe the rumors in which the peasants would take any actions to save their families and their own lives. Even though it was just a rumor, the peasants would not take any chances. The monks who were accused in Hsiao-shan were not very careful during their travels because they did not keep the active rumors in mind, which would have saved them from the misunderstandings and the harassments. However, it was not a time of understanding in the mid-eighteenth century. The people tended to believe what they have heard and acted upon it, especially anything that dealt with the unknown forces including "soulstealing." Because of the sorcery beliefs that were rooted a century earlier, many stories of "sorcery" grew to the point where people would have believed the stories to be true in nature. In addition to the incidents of the peasant Shen and the Buddhist monks, there were many incidents involving the rumors of "soulstealing" that caught the attention of the bureaucrats.
In his "Soulstealers," the author Kuhn gone into the details about the actions of the Chinese bureaucrats who would soon became a part of the problem in the "soulstealing" crisis. During the outbreak of "soulstealing" rumors, the bureaucrats did not take notice of the crisis at first. Kuhn has addressed that there were three possibilities concerned the bureaucrats: either they believed that the rumors were a "pure bunk," meaning that it does not exist, or a "superstition," where any people are incapable of such action; or they really believed that soulstealing could be real and "effective" (p. 27). Either way, they soon handled the "soulstealing" crisis ineffectively and illegally because there were large number of people who were falsely accused and tortured, including those who had died in the jails from recent wounds and fatal conditions. False accusations were first made by the common people on those whom they believed were the soulstealers. After a few incidents, the people were officially warned by the imperial officials not to make "rash" accusations (p. 29). However, that warning did not stop the public from being in fear of soulstealers or from suspecting the monks or masons of being soulstealers.
Since the acts of false accusations or illegal acts did not lie only with the common people, the bureaucrats began to use these acts officially as well as unofficially. Because the incidents happened near their local towns, the local bureaucrats had ordered their officials to investigate quietly and arrest whomever were suspected of "queue-clipping," as they did in the Shantung city of Yen-chou (p. 77 - 84). And, they went on to find whoever had the related names connecting to the sorcerers or whoever involved in the "queue-clipping" incidents. The actions of the bureaucrats were no different from the fearful peasants because they were facing the common dangers: the "unknown people" and the "unseen forces" (p. 223). But, bureaucrats were in charge of their lands where they should handle the situations well and effectively and yet they did not. Another illegal action of the bureaucrats during the soulstealing crisis was withholding information from the Ch'ien-lung emperor of medieval China. Since the fears of sorcery spread across the land of China, the crisis should be the issue for the emperor to deal with, but the bureaucrats avoided addressing the issue to the emperor. According to Kuhn, he stated that "covering up information was a serious matter between emperor and bureaucrat" (p. 77). As with every administration of different countries, the emperor and his officials should not withhold information or reports about serious matters that affected their common people. However, in the middle of the eighteenth-century China, withholding information from the emperor became an unlawful mistake for the bureaucrats.
The role of the Ch'ien-lung emperor in the "soulstealing" crisis became apparent when the rumors have reached to his court. Sorcery and "soulstealing" rumors have instilled fears in the heart of the Chinese people, which affected the empire's stability and possibility that could have led to its downfall. The fears of the people affected the emperor because he was seen as the source of the Chinese people's hope for protecting them from any threatening forces. Reigning from 1735 to 1799 ("Ch'ien-lung" period), emperor Hungli himself had launched a campaign against "queue-clipping for its sorcery and not for its politics" due to the public unrest, which was a serious threat to the Chinese regime (p. 50-1, 92-3). On his own term, the emperor soon discovered many faults in the confessions and the potential suspects. He later called "off the prosecution" of the monks and the like due to the "royal error" of the bureaucrats (p. 182-5). During the "soulstealing" crisis, Emperor Hungli found that the rising sorcery problems did not lie with the peasants, but with the bureaucrats themselves. He became "convinced that sorcery is a mask for sedition," which he believed had "threatened the foundations of the [political] system" (p. 187). Any crime or incident that involved the Chinese bureaucrats was the emperor's issue to deal with, which soon been discovered during the "soulstealing" crisis in the mid-eighteenth century. The crisis have offered the emperor a chance to exercise his power over the bureaucrats in a sense that he would eradicate any corruption and illegal operations that appeared in the bureaucracy. Because the bureaucrats withheld information from the emperor and exercised their own unlawful attempts to resolve the crisis, the emperor saw that the struggle between himself and his officials was at stake. According to this book, "the heart of the problem was the relationship between routine and arbitrary power," which the routine power laid in the bureaucracy and the arbitrary power lied with the emperor (p. 189 - 90). Basically, the routine power had ineffectively handled the "soulstealing" crisis while the arbitrary power tried its best to resolve the problem. As the rumors of sorcery and "soulstealing" was not completely resolved during the reign of Emperor Hungli, the Chinese Imperial State handled the crisis poorly, ineffectively, and improperly, and it brought an embarrassment for the bureaucrats and a frustration for the emperor.
In Kuhn's "Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768," one can comprehended how the Imperial State handled the rumors by looking at how the fears of sorcery came into the minds of the peasants, how the Chinese bureaucrats handled the crisis, and the Ch'ien-lung emperor's role in the crisis. The "soulstealing" rumors began with the actions of the peasants and their fears of the unknown. With the rising problems of the sorcery, the bureaucrats in general did not handle the "soulstealing" cases very well or legally. As a consequence, Emperor Hungli himself took the matter in his hand in which he faced the struggle between himself and his officials. Philip Kuhn's "Soulstealers" offered an interesting picture of the Chinese people including the peasants, bureaucrats, and the emperor and an intriguing perspective of the Chinese culture of the eighteenth century. His research into China's history has helped to bring the readers to understand the people's reaction to an unseen force, even if an unseen force may be nonexistent. And, because of the 'unseen' forces, it is no different from the reactions of the Chinese people in the past from today's world. This book helped one to understand how basic fears can bring about unnecessary reactions, and this is the basic of ignorance. It was very much similar to a witch-hunt.
It is my opinion that Kuhn's book to be recommended for the general readers.