Penn State

Mark McNicholas - Associate Professor of History, Penn State Altoona

Book Title: Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

Author: Philip A. Kuhn

Book Description:

Soulstealers was one of the first books to flow from the opening of China’s Qing dynasty (1644-1911) archives in the 1980s. Philip Kuhn shows how popular rumors about “soul-stealing” magic got caught up in high politics, with a suspicious emperor, convinced that there was a conspiracy against the ruling dynasty, launching a massive but ultimately fruitless investigation across several provinces.


One of the first books I was assigned in graduate school, Soulstealers drew me in from the outset and has never really let go. I am interested in encounters between common people and the state in imperial China, and this book pointed the way to a source base—criminal case records—that brings us closer to ordinary lives than the standard official histories and other elite writings. The book is engaging, focusing on an historical moment but also suggesting comparisons with modern China and with other societies. Methodologically, Soulstealers provides a fine example of how to reconstruct history by following documentary trails in the archives. And last but not least, it’s a fascinating story.

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