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Chinese Black magic, Voodoos and witchcraft


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#1 Daniel

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 12:14 AM

My Cambridge History of China mentions "black magic" and "witchcraft" a number of times.

"To save her [Empress Ch'en] from her plight and the jealousies of her rivals, her daughter resorted to witchcraft; on the discovery of these practices, the empress was stripped of her title and no less than three hundred persons who were involved in the case were executed (130 B.C.)." Page 174.

"A dynastic crisis occurred in 91 B.C. . . . The whole incident had been sparked by allegations, and some evidence, that witchcraft was being practiced in high places and on a large scale throughout the city [of Changan]." Page 177.

"Both Chao Fei-yen and her sister gained the favors and attention of the emperor, and by 18 B.C. they had succeeded in having the empress Hsu deposed, after charging her with the practice of black magic." Page 214.

What is meant here by "witchcraft" and "black magic?" It must surely be something different from the Western use of those words, which implies powers derived from Satan, a being for which the ancient Chinese had no equivalent (I think?). Was witchcraft simply mumbo jumbo, or was it a term applied to herbcraft or other arts which people simply didn't understand and mistook for magic? Was Chinese witchcraft, like that in the West, considered always wrong and unholy, or was it considered legitimate when used for good purposes? What did people believe that witchcraft could (or could not) accomplish?
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#2 caocao74

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 02:21 AM

In medieval Europe, the 'Black Arts' did not necessarily equate to working with satan. Alchemists were seen as magicians at best, dangerous warlocks corrupting the natural laws at worst; either way they were heretcs in the eyes of the church.

Witches were often old, widowed women, used by the general rural population for their knowledge and practice of remedies to illnesses and assistance during child birth. After the Black Death and the massive loss of life in the 14th Century, people sught for a reason for their woes, and then the suspicious eye fell upon the women who were in possession of knowledge that was not the norm. This knowledge then became the source of their downfall as authorities mobilized popular sentiments to attack the 'witches'. Working in concert with Satan was merely an accusation used to utilize the power of the Church legislation to justify the actions of local officials.
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#3 snowybeagle

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 02:33 AM

Witchcraft and black magic here refers to practices which were marginalised and eventually outlawed most of the time in Chinese history.

Historically, many of the tribes which lived in the Central Plains (or known as the historical Chinese heartlands) and surrounding regions had shamanistic practices among other supernatural beliefs.

Eventually, as the Hua Xia tribes dominated the region, leading to the establishment of the Zhou dynasty, there was an emergence of orthodox practices.

As the dominant Hua Xia people grew to consider themselves as the cultural beacon, the epitome of civilisation, some of the primitive practices were sidelined, restricted, or forbidden. Those became generally referred to as unorthodox practices, sometimes referred to as witchcrafts much like how the pagan practices in Europe were reduced and driven underground by the state sponsorship of Christianity.

One reason was that the Zhou king was considered as the Son of Heaven, and the High Priest of the Chinese people. One of his duties was to make sacrificial offerings to heaven on behalf of everyone in his realms or Tian Xia. The ceremonial rites were elaborate and became the core of the orthodox doctrine of the Chinese. It continued even through the decline of the Zhou dynasty. Many famous philosophers such as Confucious studied the Zhou Rites, attached great significance to the ceremonies as much as the codes of conduct they formulated.

Nevertheless, the ancient shamanistic practices etc did not die out.
It survived mainly among the tribes who live in less accessible areas such as the mountains. Every now and then, an ambitious noble or courtier or concubine would be induced to seek assistance from unorthodox sources for their personal gain.

As the Chinese pantheon of deities developed, the unorthodox practices were said to be seeking assistance from the defeated supernatural entities who were enemies of the Heavenly Court. Some of these entities were said to be among the primeval gods who rivalled Huang Di or the Jade Emperor, contended for mastery of the universe in the age of myths, and lost. (Think of Greek mythology - Cronus, Zeus and the Titans)

As with other shamanistic practices, the effectiveness of their formulas vary on the problems they were trying to solve and the personal knowledge of the practicioneers. Some were adept in herbal lore and human health. Some were no more than placebos. Some practices resemble what voodoo are known today for.

The judgment of whether these practices were wrong, unholy or legitimate depend as much on the assessor as well as the practicioneers.
Since the practice vary greatly, there is no way to make a single judgment.

To the individuals who earnestly sought help when the incumbent deities (legitimate authorities) fail, they were only turning directly to the primitive force or creation of nature itself.

To ambitious would-be usurpers, since the favour of the Heavenly Court was with the incumbent ruling house, they sought the assistance of the defeated rivals of the Heavenly Court, who were more often referred to as demons (like fallen angels).

#4 Yun

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 07:46 AM

In the case of these 'scandals' (which were often set-ups) the alleged culprit was usually putting a curse on someone else in a voodoo-like fashion. This sometimes involved the services of a sorceress/witch, and the use of something like voodoo dolls. Empress Chen's daughter was probably putting a curse on Wei Zifu, the new concubine who had captivated Han Wudi. Ironically, after Wei Zifu became Empress with the deposition of Empress Chen as a result of the black magic scandal, she gradually lost favour with Han Wudi, and the Crown Prince whom she had borne to him was framed on the charge of using black magic against his own father the emperor, and forced to start a failed palace coup that ended with his death and Wei Zifu's suicide.
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#5 Daniel

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 06:30 PM

I see. When I saw the movie Raise the Red Lantern I remember one of the servants made what looked like a voodoo doll of Gong Li and stuck pins in it, and I thought, "Since when do the Chinese do voodoo?" But this must have been traditional witchcraft, much like what was done thousands of years ago.

Did the attitude toward witchcraft change after Buddhism came to China?
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#6 Yun

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 10:59 PM

Actually, under Buddhism there was a whole array of spells and incantations that were meant to achieve roughly the same effects as traditional Chinese sorcery. Here's an example of an incantation (dharani) involving the Eleven-faced Guanyin, translated from Sanskrit during the Northern Zhou dynasty (late 6th century):

"Place shixionghuang and cixionghuang (types of incense?) each on a blade of grass, and recite the dharani 1,800 times in front of the Guanyin statue. Having finished the recitation, mix the two with warm water and bathe yourself in it, and all obstacles, all nightmares, and all sicknesses will be removed from you. If an enemy invades your territory, point the main face (out of 11) of the Guanyin statue towards his direction, and plant fragrant flowers as an offering. Take a piece of rouge as large as a large bean, and having recited the dharani 1,800 times, smear the rouge on the angry, wide-eyed face on the left of the Guanyin statue, so that your enemy will be unable to advance."

It is said that in 695, when the Khitan rebelled in Yingzhou under Li Jingzhong and Sun Wanrong, Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) ordered the monk Fazang to recite the Eleven-faced Guanyin dharani against the rebels. A few days later, the Khitan apparently saw Buddhist deities aiding the Zhou (Wu Zetian's dynasty) army, including Guanyin hovering in the air, and fled.
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#7 thirdgumi

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Posted 03 January 2005 - 09:43 AM

"To save her [Empress Ch'en]from her plight and the jealousies of her rivals, her daughter resorted to witchcraft; on the discovery of these practices, the empress was stripped of her title and no less than three hundred persons who were involved in the case were executed (130 B.C.)." Page 174.

I think this particular black magic was called Gu (蠱), correct me if I'm wrong, it included writting the name and time of birth of a person on a doll and sick needles on it, it was supposed to wound the real person and thus killing him/her.
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#8 Yun

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Posted 03 January 2005 - 09:54 AM

Yes, that's right. It was called Gu or Wugu ('wu' being the first character in 'wushi' - shaman/sorceror/wizard - or 'wushu' - shamanism/sorcery).
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#9 浪淘音

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Posted 05 January 2005 - 06:01 PM

Witchcraft and black magic here refers to practices which were marginalised and eventually outlawed most of the time in Chinese history.

Historically, many of the tribes which lived in the Central Plains (or known as the historical Chinese heartlands) and surrounding regions had shamanistic practices among other supernatural beliefs.

Eventually, as the Hua Xia tribes dominated the region, leading to the establishment of the Zhou dynasty, there was an emergence of orthodox practices.

As the dominant Hua Xia people grew to consider themselves as the cultural beacon, the epitome of civilisation, some of the primitive practices were sidelined, restricted, or forbidden.  Those became generally referred to as unorthodox practices, sometimes referred to as witchcrafts much like how the pagan practices in Europe were reduced and driven underground by the state sponsorship of Christianity.

One reason was that the Zhou king was considered as the Son of Heaven, and the High Priest of the Chinese people.  One of his duties was to make sacrificial offerings to heaven on behalf of everyone in his realms or Tian Xia.  The ceremonial rites were elaborate and became the core of the orthodox doctrine of the Chinese.  It continued even through the decline of the Zhou dynasty.  Many famous philosophers such as Confucious studied the Zhou Rites, attached great significance to the ceremonies as much as the codes of conduct they formulated.

Nevertheless, the ancient shamanistic practices etc did not die out.
It survived mainly among the tribes who live in less accessible areas such as the mountains.  Every now and then, an ambitious noble or courtier or concubine would be induced to seek assistance from unorthodox sources for their personal gain.

As the Chinese pantheon of deities developed, the unorthodox practices were said to be seeking assistance from the defeated supernatural entities who were enemies of the Heavenly Court.  Some of these entities were said to be among the primeval gods who rivalled Huang Di or the Jade Emperor, contended for mastery of the universe in the age of myths, and lost. (Think of Greek mythology - Cronus, Zeus and the Titans)

As with other shamanistic practices, the effectiveness of their formulas vary on the problems they were trying to solve and the personal knowledge of the practicioneers.  Some were adept in herbal lore and human health.  Some were no more than placebos.  Some practices resemble what voodoo are known today for.

The judgment of whether these practices were wrong, unholy or legitimate depend as much on the assessor as well as the practicioneers.
Since the practice vary greatly, there is no way to make a single judgment.

To the individuals who earnestly sought help when the incumbent deities (legitimate authorities) fail, they were only turning directly to the primitive force or creation of nature itself.

To ambitious would-be usurpers, since the favour of the Heavenly Court was with the incumbent ruling house, they sought the assistance of the defeated rivals of the Heavenly Court, who were more often referred to as demons (like fallen angels).

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


the (Hua)Xia people worshipped dragon totem (a compilation of all the various animals they hunted). This can be viewed as "unorthodox" shamanistic religion. The Dong Yi people of the coast worshipped the bifrd, specifically phoenix totem(which is why phoenix imagery is still important today)

more "orthodox" ritual practice is probably more of sociological evolution as opposed to ethnic

#10 Guest_IronMouse_*

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Posted 08 January 2005 - 09:24 AM

This practise of voodoo is still being used today - very often from splinter Taoist cults in Taiwan. There is a great plethora of magic-based Taoist cults in existence, including "Ki-mon-dun-fa" and "mao-san" magic. This type of religion doesn't especialise in jinxing people, but they believe in possession by the gods, divination, etc. All very mystical. There are many many ways you can curse a person.

And I gotta say "witchcraft" is a lousy translation - even "black magic" is inappropriate. It's more like shamanistic magic. And this is important - since magic is forbidden in the rear palace, alot of concubines like to knock off their rivals by accusing them of using magic to jinx them or the emperor (and then plant dolls). Ofcourse, some engage in it willingly, but rarely anything good comes out of it.

#11 Gubook Janggoon

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Posted 08 January 2005 - 02:37 PM

Interesting. Korean Magic often consisted of the users turning into different beings such as animals and duking it out that way. What about in China?
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#12 TMPikachu

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Posted 08 January 2005 - 05:18 PM

This practise of voodoo is still being used today -

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Don't forget the voodoo of babtisms, confessions, prayer, and consuming of proxy blood/flesh. Oh, and the readings of text from a book of magical tales. Or believing people came from clams.



Most Chinese magic that I've heard of is divining. Studying cracks on bones, looking for omens. I imagine (imagine, as my guess), that being guilty of 'witchcraft' would be using supernatural means to plot against important people, as an excuse to kill them.
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#13 Yun

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Posted 09 January 2005 - 04:55 AM

Don't forget the voodoo of babtisms, confessions, prayer, and consuming of proxy blood/flesh. Oh, and the readings of text from a book of magical tales. Or believing people came from clams.

Let's not be provocative about religious issues on this forum, please? I'm a Christian and have not yet seen baptisms, prayers or holy communion being used to curse other people. Nor do I consider my sacred text to be magical tales. Also, language is always arbitrary, so whether we call it black magic, sorcery, voodoo, witchcraft, or wugu (in Chinese) need not involve a value judgment if we agree beforehand that we are not going to debate its moral or ethical aspect.

Interesting. Korean Magic often consisted of the users turning into different beings such as animals and duking it out that way. What about in China?


This turning into animals is a feature of some shamanistic religions - I think the Celts were quite big on this too. As far as I know, in China the shamanistic religion did not involve this, and was instead centred on immortals and nature gods.
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#14 浪淘音

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Posted 10 January 2005 - 08:27 PM

Interesting.  Korean Magic often consisted of the users turning into different beings such as animals and duking it out that way.  What about in China?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


that type of shamanism is not unique to any culture specifically. shamanism is without a doubt the first type of religion due to the fact that early humans were in contact with nature (animals) on a daily basis. all the proto-Chinese (huaxia/dong yi) were shamanists to a point. the huaxia had their dragon totem and dong yi had their bird totem.

i'd theorize that the animal styles of gong fu are relics of Chinese prehistoric shamanism

#15 TMPikachu

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Posted 11 January 2005 - 05:18 AM

Sorry, my point was just to say all religions are pretty wierd when you think about it. I didn't mean voodoo as in a curse, just in the sense of something strange and foreign. Like the famous Japanese Christian sorceror Amakusa. I've often gotten into discussions with Christians about these sorts of things ("Don't you pray to a bunch of wierd idols?"), so perhaps there's a chip on my shoulder.

and the clams, scientology, those guys are just undeniably nuts.



as for terms... faith would be good. You gotta have faith in it for it to work, or at least believe it works. Or just call it magic.


I've heard a story that the dragon symbol came from the uniting of many Clans with totem animals.
like... Eagle (claws), snake or eel (body), horse (tail), Ox (head), Fish (scales)
Something like that.

Most Chinese magic I've heard of is divination
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