The noble art of sorcery

Chi­nese aris­to­crats used witch-hunts to si­lence their en­e­mies

BBC History Magazine - - A History Of Witches -

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

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