- Telling Stories: Witchcraft and Scapegoating in Chinese History
Collectors and analysts of stories have traditionally emphasized their edifying potential. In their wake, modern readers of stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” think of them as tales of warning addressed to children unaware of the dangers that surround them. In recent decades, historians have drawn attention to the broadly shared fears that underlie popular stories as well as the habits of discrimination and often violent collective action to which they can give rise across vast distances in space and time. Barend ter Haar’s latest contribution to Chinese religious culture introduces a wealth of detail about the kinds of stories that circulated in imperial China and, following in the footsteps of scholars such as Norman Cohn (Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witchhunt, London: Chatto-Heinemann, 1975) and Jean Delumeau (La Peur en Occident, Fayard: Paris, 1978), goes in search of imperial China’s “inner demons.” His analysis offers invaluable insight into the ways in which stories were communicated and the responses they elicited.
Ter Haar’s principal goal is twofold. First, he aims to explain the historical “background” (p. 14) of stories and the anxieties and tensions that are reflected in them. Second, and more important, he aims to demonstrate how stories function as scripts for action. Throughout the seven chapters of this book, ter Haar focuses on the processes by which the circulation of stories led to the stigmatization of specific groups of human beings and subsequent exorcisms of the scapegoats through both mob violence and state killing. The core chapters (chapters 2–6) each address specific types of stories and associated fears and trace their recurrence during the last millennium. Underneath the bewildering variety of narrative contents, ter Haar uncovers the structural similarities in narrative and in the collective action the stories inspired.
The first type of stories, discussed in chapter 2, consists of tales of bogeys, terrifying creatures who lured and ate little children. Ter Haar underscores the continuity of these stories. He traces them back to the early medieval period and highlights their currency through the present. Based on a comparison with European equivalents, he also draws attention to the geographical mobility of such stories, proposing that the European stories are later versions of a shared Ur-version. In ter Haar’s reading, these stories lasted because of their adaptability over time. A major shift in the transmission of the stories about bogeys took place around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During this period a complex (or subtype) of stories about “the spotted barbarian” disappeared from the record and [End Page 239] was replaced by stories about “Auntie Old Tiger.” This shift represented a reinterpretation of the nature of the danger of the bogey: whereas the older bogeys were outsiders to human communities, Auntie Old Tiger turned into a female “were-creature” who could take on human form and thus posed a threat within. The reinterpretation of the threat called for a different kind of response. The presence of an internal threat led to violent actions against individual elderly women when ritual reenactments were not deemed effective in exorcizing the demon.
In chapters 3 and 4 ter Haar turns to stories that expressed fear of the theft of human life force (qi) through the stealing of either organs or fetuses. Such fears were based on the belief that organs and fetuses embodied high concentrations of life force and were thus particularly vulnerable to the predations of those thirsting for immortality. Even though the stories targeted a wide variety of alleged life-force thieves (including fortune-tellers, traveling monks, beggars, minorities, and emperors and their retinues), they typically assigned responsibility to groups or individuals that were marginal to local society. Those without local ties, or those who lost the protection that local ties provided through accusations and threats, became the victims of exorcist killings. The killings, which are better attested for the Ming...