"The Summoning" - The Beginning and End of a Absurd Farce Over Two Hundred Years Ago

Note: This article is a framework for a company book sharing.

1. Book Introduction#


"Soulstealers: The Great Panic of Chinese Sorcery in 1768" describes an interesting historical story. During the height of the Qianlong era in the Qing Dynasty, the politics and social life of the entire Great Qing Dynasty were thrown into chaos by a sorcery called "soulstealing."

In just a few months, this sorcery swept through half of China, causing panic among the people, exhaustion among officials, and sleepless nights for the emperor.

The author, through historical records, the emperor's annotations, and other materials, strives to recreate the absurd farce of over 200 years ago and explore the reasons behind it.

From this, we can gain a better understanding of traditional Chinese imperial rule, bureaucratic operations, and some fundamental issues in Chinese society.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: The Legend of Chinese Thieves
  • Chapter 2: The Golden Age
  • Chapter 3: Hidden Threats
  • Chapter 4: Defining Guilt
  • Chapter 5: The Origins of the Sorcery Panic
  • Chapter 6: Suppression in Various Provinces
  • Chapter 7: Traces of the Sorcery Party
  • Chapter 8: Conclusion
  • Chapter 9: Political Crimes and Bureaucratic Absolutism
  • Chapter 10: Theme and Variations

2. Author Introduction#

Kong Feili is an American sinologist who studied under Fei Zhengqing and Shi Huaci. After obtaining his doctorate, he taught at the University of Chicago. After Fei Zhengqing retired, Kong Feili took over his position as a professor in the Department of History and served as the director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the chairman of the Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies at Harvard University.

His research mainly focuses on the history of the Qing Dynasty in China and the history of overseas Chinese. His representative works include "Soulstealers," "The Origins of Modern Chinese States," and "Rebellions and Enemies in the Late Period of the Chinese Empire."

Kong Feili's historical writing is known for its exquisite language and profound insights. He inherited the style of his mentor, Shi Huaci, and his historical narratives are infused with deep knowledge and humanistic care (Shi Huaci once said that he "combines research on history with deep concern for the history of human consciousness and thought").

3. Post-Reading Discussion#

Preliminary Questions#

  1. What is soulstealing, and why did it happen during the height of the Qing Dynasty?
  2. Why did soulstealing trigger a nationwide crackdown and panic?
  3. How did the soulstealing cases come to an end?
  4. What roles did the victims, ordinary people, officials, and the emperor play in these cases?

What is Soulstealing?#

It was widely believed that the soul could separate from the body, and cunning sorcerers would use their supernatural abilities to steal souls, known as "soulstealing," and curse them. The key items involved were: hair, clothing, and paper dolls.

Timeline of Soulstealing Cases: It occurred throughout the year and mainly targeted vagrants.

  • January: The case of Wu Dongming, a stonemason from Deqing
  • April: The case of Xiao Shan's monk and the case of the white blacksmith
  • May: The case of the beggar Zhang in Suzhou and the case of the monk in Xukou Town
  • June: The case of the scholar Han Peixian's hair-cutting
  • July: The case of the beggar Cai Tingzhang's hair-cutting
  • August: The case of the beggar cutting a maid's clothing corner
  • October: The case of the monk Jue Xing

Spatial Distribution of Soulstealing Cases: From south to north, east to west

  • It started in Zhejiang and Jiangsu
  • Quickly spread from the Jiangnan region to Shandong, Huguang, Beijing, Anhui, Henan, Shaanxi, and Fujian

Background of Soulstealing#

  • Social Background
    • During the height of the Qing Dynasty, the population increased rapidly
    • Regional development was uneven, and resource allocation was unequal
    • Increased population mobility and a rise in vagrancy
    • No improvement in the relationship between the Manchu and Han ethnic groups
  • Social Psychology
    • Folk Beliefs: People were unable to resist invisible threats (natural disasters and man-made calamities), leading to fear of sorcery. They also had a lack of trust in strangers, especially monks and Taoists who were closely associated with talismans.
    • Bureaucratic System: Dealing with assessments and expectations of promotion
    • Rulers: The threat of the Han ethnic group to the Manchu rulers; dissatisfaction with officials; the need to maintain the divine right of kingship and fear of popular uprisings

Reactions of Various Social Classes to Soulstealing#

Attitudes towards Soulstealing (Sorcery)

  • Commoners: Believed in it. With a low level of education, they generally believed in the mysterious power of sorcery. The book gives an example of parents summoning the souls of their children (in a positive way).
  • Officials: Disdained it. With a higher level of education, they were not easily convinced by sorcery.
  • Rulers: Ambiguous. They monopolized the relationship between the ruler and the gods, preventing popular movements to deify individuals. They distrusted officials but also needed to use this as an excuse to control them.

Reactions and Impacts

  • Vagrants
    • Main victims, mistaken and beaten by commoners
    • Arrested by the government, tortured to extract confessions, resulting in numerous wrongful convictions
  • Commoners
    • Abuse of Power: In the context of cracking down on soulstealing, it provided an opportunity for ordinary people to settle personal grievances or pursue personal gain. It was like leaving weapons on the street that anyone could use - reporting others as sorcery leaders to seek revenge.
    • Collective Panic: Anyone who encountered a monk or beggar was presumed guilty and beaten or even sent to the government.
  • Officials
    • Escalating manhunts: "Better to kill a thousand by mistake than let one go." If the crackdown was not effective, the officials would face punishment from the Ministry of Personnel in Beijing. Superiors were responsible for impeaching subordinates for negligence, which would affect the impression of higher-level officials.
    • Constantly conforming: In order to make the "criminals" confess to meet the emperor's speculation about soulstealing, officials had to use torture - even though they knew there were no sorcery leaders based on their knowledge.
  • Rulers
    • Panic: Vigilance against rumors of soulstealing, fearing a threat to royal authority
    • Crackdown: Nationwide crackdown on soulstealing, lasting for several months
    • Rectification: Using the crackdown on soulstealing to observe the reactions of various provinces and evaluate the prestige of officials in the eyes of Emperor Hongli
    • Backlash: Due to the institutional limitations of upward responsibility and lack of error correction, the information that was reported, whether true or false, influenced Hongli's judgment of the actual situation.
    • Difficult to end: The farce lasted for several months and spread nationwide, making it difficult for Hongli to end it - he couldn't admit his mistakes to maintain his royal authority. Ordinary officials, under the pressure of the crackdown, dared not voice their opposition.

Conclusion of Soulstealing#

Liu Tongxun, a grand councilor and tutor to the crown prince, was known for his integrity and dared to remonstrate with the emperor. During the autumn season, he accompanied Hongli in Chengde to handle cases. Two days after Hongli returned to Beijing, he issued an edict to stop the crackdown on soulstealing, indicating that Liu Tongxun's remonstration had an effect.

Stopping the crackdown was not as simple as revoking the order. Since the emperor had invested so much personal prestige and moral authority in the case, a more ceremonial ending was necessary. The reason why the soulstealing cases spread to several provinces was because the officials in Jiangsu and Zhejiang did not report the situation in a timely manner, and local officials neglected their duties...

Throughout the process, the court never admitted that the soulstealing cases themselves were baseless. On the contrary, it always insisted that the "sorcery leaders" did exist, and their escape was due to the negligence of various provinces.

The key figure in this was Fu Nihan, the governor of Shandong. He used the soulstealing cases for three months, but in the end, he was only demoted to the position of governor of Shanxi (emperor's annotation: removed from office but retained). This was clearly an exoneration of Fu Nihan and also an exoneration of Hongli himself for his mistakes.


Soulstealing was actually a groundless political crime, and the plaintiff throughout the soulstealing cases was Hongli himself. His motives for initiating the cases were to serve his own interests - either to consolidate centralization, test the obedience of officials, or attempt to restore the status of the Manchu ethnic group...

By observing how Hongli dealt with threats, we can see how authoritarian power overrides the law. At the same time, the bureaucratic mechanism manipulates the communication system to influence the highest ruler.

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