The noble art of sorcery
Chinese aristocrats used witch-hunts to silence their enemies
Death was the penalty for those who ‘confused’ the people with witchcraft in early China. Such accusations were often wrapped up in aristocratic and dynastic struggles – particularly when the succession to the imperial throne was at stake.
In AD 102, the childless consort of the emperor died in prison after being denounced as a witch. Then, in AD 165, the consort of the Emperor Huan was ordered to kill herself for offences including witchcraft.
What crimes were these noble witches accused of committing? We’ll probably never know, but a witch hunt instigated in 91 BC in the city of Chang’an (now Xi’an) offers some clues. On the instructions of the ageing Emperor Wudi, who feared his long illness was the work of witchcraft, foreign shamans were brought in to search imperial properties for dolls used in harmful magic. Suspects were arrested for summoning evil spirits and uttering malicious nocturnal prayers. Among those found guilty was Crown Prince Liu Ju, whose rooms were apparently found to contain wooden carvings of his victims. Liu Ju would hang himself in the turmoil that followed.
From the ancient to medieval eras, Chinese witches were also thought to practise harmful gu magic. This was associated with vipers, and saw the witches accused of bewitching water and contaminating food and drink.
Han dynasty emperor Wudi suspected his ill health was caused by witchcraft