The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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The Use of Witchcraft in Court Politics in Early and Medieval China

Principal Investigator

POO Mu-chou

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

        The present project studies the use of witchcraft in court politics and the social and religious environment that encouraged the practice of and belief in witchcraft in early and medieval China, from the Han to the Tang Dynasties. By witchcraft we mean the kind of cultic actions performed by people with the intention to harm a certain targeted person(s). In the context of Chinese history, the term witchcraft can include two kinds of actions. The first is represented by the term “wugu 巫蠱,” that is, employing poisonous vermin with the help of a wu-shaman to harm people; the second is represented by the term “zhuzu 祝詛,” that is, casting curses upon someone. There was, therefore, a certain similarity between the two actions, as both resorted to harming people by using malicious and supernatural methods. From a cross-cultural point of view, Chinese witchcraft shared some fundamental similarities with witchcraft and sorcery in other parts of the world. What is interesting, however, is the different use of witchcraft in each society. This is because witchcraft, just as religion, was a cultural specific phenomenon that could reflect the characteristics of each culture in question. In the present research, we are not merely concerned with finding out if or how witchcraft worked in a technical sense in Chinese society, but more importantly the social, cultural, medical, and religious environment that nurtured or encouraged the practice of and belief in the efficacy of witchcraft. We are particularly interested in the practices of witchcraft in court politics and palace intrigues. A preliminary survey shows that, from the Han to the end of Tang Dynasty (130 BEC-987 CE), there were at least fifty cases of witchcraft recorded in the official histories that involved serious accusations and persecutions of queens, princes, princesses, high officials, and their family members. Through a detailed analysis of these cases, and by placing them in the socio-cultural context, this project wishes to conduct a multidisciplinary research that considers the cases from various angles: court politics, religious mentality, health and medicine, and social psychology. A comparison of the finding with the European witchcraft, although necessarily only a cursory one in this project, may lead us to a better understanding of both societies in the aspects of the interaction between belief, politics, and popular mentality.

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