Magic and Occult in China



China: Although it can hardly be said that any system of magic worthy of the name ever originated in China, and though magical practice was uncommon, yet instances are not wanting of the employment of magical means in the Celestial Empire, and the belief in a supernatural world peopled by gods, demons and other beings is very strong in the Popular Chinese mind. 

"Although the Chinese mind possessed under such a constitution but few elements in which magic could strike root and throw out its ramifications and influence, yet we find many traces giving evidence of the instinctive movement of the mind, as well as of magical influence; though certainly not in the manner or abundance that we meet with it in India. The great variety of these appearances is, however, striking, as in no other country are they so seldom met with. 

"As the King, as it were, microcosmically represents the human races in fortune or misfortune before the divinity so must his eye be constantly directed to those signs in which the will of the Most High is revealed; 'He must observe dreams as much as the phenomena of nature, the eclipses and the positions of the stars; and, when all else is wanting, he must consult the oracle of the tortoise, or the Plant Tsche, and direct his actions accordingly.' He is therefore, as it were, the universal oracle of the people, as the popular mind is relieved from every flight of imagination by a highly remarkable mental compulsion." ...

"It is easy to understand from these circumstances wherefore we find so few of these phenomena of magic and the visionary and ecstatic state, in other parts of the East so frequent, and therefore they are scattered and uncertain. Accounts are, however, not wanting to show that the phenomena as well as theories of prophecy were known in more remote times. Under the Emperor Hoei Ti, about A.D. 304, a mystical sect arose in China calling themselves the teachers of the emptiness and nothingness of all things. They also exhibited the art of binding the power of the senses, and producing a condition which they believed perfection."

Demonism and Obsession. The Chinese are implicit believers in demons whom they imagine surround them on every hand. Says Peebles: "English officials, American missionaries, mandarins and many of the Chinese literati (Confucians, Taoists and Buddhist believers alike) declare that spiritism in some form, and under some name, is the almost universal belief of China. It is generally denominated 'ancestral worship.'"

"There is no driving out of these Chinese," says Father Gonzalo, "the cursed belief that the spirits of their ancestors are ever about them, availing themselves of every opportunity to give advice and counsel."

"The medium consulted," remarks Dr. Doolittle, "takes in the hand a stick of lighted incense to dispel all defiling influences, then prayers of some kind are repeated, the body becomes spasmodic, the medium's eyes are shut, and the form sways about, assuming the walk and peculiar attitude of the spirit when in the body. Then the communication from the divinity begins, which may be of a faultfinding or a flattering character... Sometimes these Chinese mediums profess to be possessed by some specified historical god of great healing power, and in this condition they prescribe for the sick. It is believed that the ghoul or spirit invoked actually casts himself into the medium, and dictates the medicine."

"Volumes might be written upon the gods, genii and familiar spirits supposed to be continually in communication with this people," writes Dr. John L. Nevius, in his works, China and The Chinese. "The Chinese have a large number of books upon this subject, among the most noted of which is the 'Liau-chai-chei,' a large work of sixteen volumes... Tu Sein signifies a spirit in the body, and there are a class of familiar spirits supposed to dwell in the bodies of certain Chinese who became the mediums of communication with the unseen world. Individuals said to be possessed by these spirits are visited by multitudes, particularly those who have lost recently relatives by death, and wish to converse with them... Remarkable disclosures and revelations are believed to be made by the involuntary movements of a bamboo pencil, and through a similar method some claim to see in the dark. Persons considering themselves endowed with superior intelligence are firm believers in those and other modes of consulting spirits."

"The public teacher in Chen Sin Ling (W. J. Plumb says): "In the district of Tu-ching, obsessions by evil spirits or demons are very common." He further writes that "there are very many cases also in Chang-lo." Again he says: 

"When a man is thus afflicted, the spirit (Kwei) takes possession of his body without regard to his being strong or weak in health. It is not easy to resist the demon's power. Though without bodily ailments, possessed persons appear as if ill. When under entrancing spell of the demon, they seem different from their ordinary selves.

"In most cases the spirit takes possession of a man's body contrary to his will, and he is helpless in the matter. The kwei has the power of driving out he man's spirit, as in sleep or dreams. When the subject awakes to consciousness, he has not the slightest knowledge of what has transpired.

"The actions of possessed persons vary exceedingly. They leap about and toss their arms, and then the demon tells them what particular spirit he is, often taking a false name, or deceitfully calling himself a god, or one of the genii come down to the abodes of mortals. Or, perhaps, is professes to be the spirit of a deceased husband of wife. There are also kwei of the quiet sort, who talk and laugh like other people, only that the voice is changed. Some have a voice like a bird. Some speak Mandarin - the language of Northern China - and some the local dialect; but though the speech proceeds from the mouth of the man, what is said does not appear to come from him. The outward appearance and manner is also changed. 

"In Fu-show there is a class of persons who collect in large numbers and make use of incense, pictures, candles and lamps to establish what are called 'incense tables.' Taoist priests are engaged to attend the ceremonies, and they also make use of 'mediums.' The Taoist writes a charm for the medium, who, taking the incense stick in his hand, stands like a graven image, thus signifying his willingness to have the demon come and take possession of him. Afterward, the charm is burned and the demon-spirit is worshipped and invoked, the priest, in the meanwhile going on with his chanting. After a while the medium begins to tremble, and then speaks and announces what spirit has descended, and asks what is wanted of him. Then, whoever has requests to make, takes incense sticks, makes prostrations, and asks a response respecting some disease, or for protection from some calamity. In winter the same performance are carried on to a great extent by gambling companies. If some of the responses hit the mark, a large number of people are attracted. They establish a shrine and offer sacrifices, and appoint days, calling upon people from every quarter to come and consult the spirit respecting diseases...

"There is also a class of men who establish what they call a 'Hall of Revelations.' At the present time there are many engaged in this practice. They are, for the most part, literary men of great ability. The people in large numbers apply to them for responses. The mediums spoken of above are also numerous. All of the above practices are not spirits seeking to possess men; but rather men seeking spirits to possess them, and allowing themselves to be voluntarily used as their instruments.

"As to the outward appearance of persons when possessed, of course, they are the same persons as to outward form as at ordinary times; but the colour of the countenance may change. The demon may cause the subject to assume a threatening air, and a fierce, violent manner. The muscles often stand out on the face, the eyes are closed, or they protrude with a frightful stare. These demons sometimes prophesy.

"The words spoken certainly proceed from the mouths of the persons possessed; but what is said does not appear to come from their minds or wills, but rather from some other personality, often accompanied by a change of voice. Of this there can be no doubt. When the subject returns to consciousness, he invariably declares himself ignorant of what he has said.

"The Chinese make use of various methods to cast out demons. They are so troubled and vexed by inflictions affecting bodily health, or it may be throwing stones, moving furniture, or the moving about and destruction of family utensils, that they are driven to call in the service of some respected scholar or Taoist priest, to offer sacrifices, or chant sacred books, and pray for protection and exemption from suffering. Some make use of sacrifices and offerings of paper clothes and money in order to induce the demon to go back to the gloomy region of Yan-chow... As to whether these methods have any effect, I do not know. As a rule, when demons are not very troublesome, the families afflicted by them generally think it is best to hide their affliction, or to keep these wicked spirits quiet by sacrifices, and burning incense to them."

An article in the London Daily gives lengthy extracts from an address upon the Chinese by Mrs. Montague Beaucham, who had spent many years in China in educational work. Speaking of their spiritism, she said, "The latest London craze in using the planchette has been one of the recognized means in China of conversing with evil spirits from time immemorial." She had lived in one of the particular provinces known as demon land, where the natives are bound up in the belief and worship of spirits. "There is a real power," she added, "in this necromancy. They do healings and tell fortunes." She personally knew of one instance that the spirits through the planchette had foretold a great flood. The boxer is rising was prophesied by the planchette. These spirits disturbed family relations, caused fits of frothing at the mouth, and made some of their victims insane. In closing she declared that "Chinese spiritism was from hell," the obsession baffling the power of both Christian missionaries and native priests.

Dr. Nevius sent out a circular communication for the purpose of discovering the actual beliefs of the Chinese regarding demonism through which he obtained much valuable information. Wang Wu-Fang, an educated Chinese wrote:

"Cases of demon possession abound among all classes. They are found among persons of robust health, as well as those who are weak and sickly. In many unquestionable cases of obsession, the unwilling subjects have resisted, but have been obliged to submit themselves to the control of the demon...

"In the majority of cases of possession, the beginning of the malady is a fit of grief, anger or mourning. These conditions seem to open the door to the demons. The outward manifestations are apt to be fierce and violent. It may be that the subject alternately talks and laughs; he walks awhile and then sits, or he rolls on the ground, or leaps about; or exhibits contortions of the body and twistings of the neck... It was common among them to send for exorcists, who made use of written charms, or chanted verses, or punctured the body with needles. These are among the Chinese methods of cure. 

"Demons are of different kinds. There are those which clearly declare themselves; and then those who work in secret. There are those which are cast out with difficulty, and others with ease.

"In cases of possession by familiar demons, what is said by the subject certainly does not proceed from his own will. When the demon has gone out and the subject recovers consciousness, he has no recollection whatever of what he has said or done. This is true almost invariably. 

"The methods by which the Chinese cast out demons are enticing them to leave by burning charms and paper money, or by begging and exhorting them, or by frightening them with magic spells and incantations, or driving them away by pricking with needles, or pinching with the fingers, in which case they cry out and promise to go.

"I was formerly accustomed to drive out demons by means of needles. At that time cases of possession by evil spirits were very common in our villages, and my services were in very frequent demand..."

The Rev. Timothy Richard, missionary, also writing in response to Dr. Nevius's circular, says:

"The Chinese orthodox definition of spirit is, 'the soul of the departed;' some of the best of whom are raised to the rank of gods.... There is no disease to which the Chinese are ordinarily subject that may not be caused by demons. In this case the mind is untouched. It is only the body that suffers; and the Chinese endeavour to get rid of the demon by vows and offerings to the gods. The subject in this case is any involuntary one...

"Persons possessed range between fifteen and fifty years of age, quite irrespective of sex. This infliction comes on very suddenly, sometimes in the day, and sometimes in the night. The demoniac talks madly, smashes everything near him, acquires unusual strength, tears his clothes into rags, and rushes into the street, or to the mountains or kills himself unless prevented. After this violent possession, the demoniac calms down and submits to his fate, but under the most heart-rending protests. These mad spells which are experienced on the demon's entrance return at intervals, and increase in frequency, and generally also in intensity, so that death at least ensues from their violence.

"A Chefoo boy of fifteen was going on an errand. His path led through fields where men were working at their crops. When he came up to the men and had exchanged a word or two with them, he suddenly began to rave wildly; his eyes rolled, then he made for a pond near by. Seeing this, the people ran up to him, stopped him from drowning himself and took him home to his parents. When he got home, he sprang up from the ground to such a height as manifested almost a superhuman strength. After a few days he calmed down and became unusually quiet and gentle; but his own consciousness was lost. The demon spoke of its friends in Nan-Kin. After six months this demon departed. He has been in the service of several foreigners in Chefoo since. In this case no worship was offered to the demon.

"Now we proceed to those, who involuntarily possessed, yield to and worship the demon. The demon says he will cease tormenting the demoniac if he will worship him, and he will reward him by increasing his riches. But if not, he will punish his victim, make heavier his torments and rob him of his property. People find that their food is cursed. They cannot prepare any, but filth and dirt comes down from the air to render it uneatable. Their wells are likewise cursed; their wardrobes are set on fire, and their money very mysteriously disappears. Hence arose the custom of cutting of the head of a string of cash that it might not run away... When all efforts to rid themselves of the demon fail, they yield to it, and say 'Hold! Cease thy tormenting and we will worship thee!' A picture is pasted upon the wall, sometimes of a woman, and sometimes of a man, and incense is burned, and prostrations are made to it twice a month. Being thus reverenced, money now comes in mysteriously, instead of going out. Even mill-stones are made to move at the demon's orders, and the family becomes rich at once. But it is said that no luck attends such families, and they will eventually be reduced to poverty. Officials believe these things. Palaces are known to have been built by them for these demons, who, however, are obliged to be satisfied with humbler shrines from the poor...

"Somewhat similar to the above class is another small one which has power to enter the lower regions. These are the opposite of  necromancers, for instead of calling up the dead and learning of them about the future destiny of the individual in whose behalf they are engaged, they lie in a trance for two days, when their spirits are said to have gone to the Prince of Darkness, to inquire how long the sick person shall be left among the living...

"Let us now note the different methods adopted to cast out the evil spirits from the demoniacs. Doctors are called to do it. They use needles to puncture the tips of the fingers, the nose, the neck. They also use a certain pill, and apply it in the following manner: the thumbs of the two hands are tied tightly together, and the two big toes are tied together in the same manner. Then one pill is put on the two big toes at the root of the nail, and the other at the root of the thumb nails. At the same instant the two pills are set on fire, and they are kept until the flesh is burned. In the application of the pills, or in the piercing of the needle, the invariable cry is: 'I am going; I am going immediately. I will never dare to come back again. Oh, have mercy on me this once. I'll never return!'

"When the doctors fail, they call on people who practice spiritism. They themselves cannot drive the demon away, but they call another demon to do it. Both the Confucianists and Taoists practice this method... Sometimes the spirits are very ungovernable. Tables are turned, chairs are rattled, and a general noise of smashing is heard, until the very mediums themselves tremble with fear. If the demon is of this dreadful character, they quickly write another charm with the name of the particular spirit whose quiet disposition is known to them. Lu-tsu is a favourite one of this kind. After the burning of the charm and incense, and when prostrations are made, a little frame is procured, to which a Chinese pencil is attached. Two men on each side hold it on a table spread with sand or millet. Sometimes a prescription is written, the pencil moving on its own accord. They buy the medicine prescribed and give it to the possessed... Should they find that burning incense and offering sacrifices fails to liberate the poor victim, they may call in conjurors, such as the Taoists, who sit on mats and are carried by invisible power from place to place. They ascend to a height of twenty or fifty feet, and are carried to a distance of four or five li (about half a mile). Of this class are those who, in Manchuria call down fire from the sky in those funerals where the corpse is burned...

"These exorcists may belong to any of the three religions in China. The dragon procession, on the fifteenth of the first month, is said by some to commemorate a Buddhist priest's victory over evil spirits... They paste up charms on windows and doors, and on the body of the demoniac, and conjure the demon never to return. The evil spirit answers: 'I'll never return. You need not take the trouble of pasting all these charms upon the doors and windows.'

"Exorcists are specially hated by the evil spirits. Sometimes they feel themselves beaten fearfully; but not hand is seen. Bricks and stones may fall on them from the sky or housetops. On the road they may without any warning be plastered over from head to foot with mud or filth; or may be seized when approaching a river, and held under the water and drowned."

In his Social Life among the Chinese, Dr. Doolittle says: "They have invented several ways by which they find out the pleasure of gods and spirits. On of the most common of their utensils is the Ka-pue, a piece of bamboo root, bean-shaped, and divided in the centre, to indicate the positive and the negative. The incense lighted, the Ka-pue properly manipulated before the symbol god, the pieces are tossed from the medium's hand, indicating the will of the spirit by the way they fall."

The following manifestation is mental rather than physical: "The professional takes in the hand a stick of lighted incense to expel all defiling influences; prayers of some sort are repeated, the fingers interlaced, and the medium's eyes are shut, giving unmistakable evidence of being possessed by some supernatural or spiritual power. The body sways back and forward; the incense falls, and the person begins to step about, assuming the walk and peculiar attitude of the spirit. This is considered as infallible proof that the divinity has entered the body of the medium. Sometimes the god, using the mouth of the medium, gives the supplicant a sound scolding for invoking his aid to obtain unlawful or unworthy ends.

"Divination," writes Sir John Burrows, "with many strange methods of summoning the dead to instruct the living and reveal the future, is of very ancient origin, as is proved by Chinese manuscripts antedating the revelations of the Jewish Scriptures."

An ancient Chinese book called Poh-shi-ching-tsung, consisting of six volumes on the "Source of True Divination," contains the following preface:

"The secret of augury consists in the study of the mysteries and in communications with gods and demons. The interpretations of the transformations are deep and mysterious. The theory of the science is most intricate, the practice of it most important. The sacred classic says: 'That which is true gives indications of the future.' To know the condition of the dead, and hold with them intelligent intercourse, as did the ancients, produces a most salutary influence upon the parties... But when from intoxication or feasting, or licentious pleasures, they proceed to invoke the gods, what infatuation to suppose that their prayers will move them. Often when no response is given, or the interpretation is not verified, they lay the blame at the door of the augur, forgetting that their failure is due to their want to sincerity... It is the great fault of augurs, too, that, from a desire of gain, they use the art of divination as a trap to ensnare the people."

Peebles adds: "Naturally undemonstrative and secretive, the higher classes of Chinese seek to conceal their full knowledge of spirit intercourse from foreigners, and from the inferior castes of their own countrymen, thinking them not sufficiently intelligent to rightly use it. The lower orders, superstitious and money-grasping, often prostitute their magic gifts to gain and fortune-telling. These clairvoyant fortune-tellers, surpassing wandering gypsies in 'hitting' the past, infest the temples, streets and roadsides, promising to find lost property, discover precious metals and reveal the hidden future."

Ghosts. - The Chinese are strong in the belief that they are surrounded by the spirits of the dead. Indeed ancestor-worship constitutes a powerful feature in the national faith, but as it deals with religion it does not come within the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the Celestial has ever before him the likelihood and desirability of communion with the dead. On the death of a person they make a whole in the roof to permit the soul to effect its escape from the house. When a child is at the point of death, its mother will go into the garden and call its name, hoping thereby to bring back its wandering spirit.

"With the Chinese the souls of suicides are specially obnoxious, and they consider that the very worst penalty that can befall a soul is the sight of its former surroundings. This, it is supposed that, in the case of the wicked man, 'they only see their homes as if they were near them; they see their last wishes disregarded, everything upside down, their substance squandered, strangers possess the old estate; in their misery the dead man's family curse him, his children become corrupt, land is gone, the wife sees her husband tortured, the husband sees his wife stricken down with mortal disease; even friends forget, but some, perhaps, for the sake of  bygone times, may stroke the coffin and let fall a tear, departing with a cold smile.'"

"In China, the ghosts which are animated by a sense of duty are frequently seen: at one time they seek to serve virtue in distress, and at another they aim to restore wrongfully their held treasure. Indeed, as it has been observed, 'one of the most powerful as well as the most widely diffused of the people's ghost stories is that which treats of the persecuted child whose mother comes out of the grave to succour him."

"The Chinese have a dread of the wandering spirits of persons who have come to an unfortunate end. At Canton, 1817, the wife of an officer of Government had occasioned the death of two female domestic slaves, from some jealous suspicion it was supposed of her husband's conduct towards the girls; and, in order to screen herself from the consequences, she suspended the bodies by the neck, with a view to its being constructed into an act of suicide. But the conscience of the woman tormented her to such a degree that she became insane, and at times personated the victims of her cruelty, or, as the Chinese supposed, the spirits of the murdered girls possessed her, and utilised her mouth to declare her own guilt. In her ravings she tore her clothes and beat her own person with all the fury of madness; after which she would recover her senses for a time, when it was supposed the demons quitted her, but only to return with greater frenzy, which took place a short time previous to her death. According to Mr. Dennys, the most common form of Chinese ghost story is that wherein the ghost seeks to bring to justice the murderer who shuffled off its mortal coil."

Poltergeists (q.v.) are not uncommon in China, and several cases of their occurrence have been recorded by the Jesuit missionaries of the eighteenth century in Cochin China. Mr. Dennys in his Folk Lore of China, mentions a case in which a Chinaman was forced to take refuge in a temple by the usual phenomena - throwing about of crockery, etc., after the decease of a monkey.

Secret Societies. For an account of secret societies in China, See Thion-ti-Hwir and Triad Society.

It has sometimes been claimed that the systems of Confucius and Lao-Tze are magical or kabalistic, but such claims have been advanced by persons who did not appreciate their proper status as philosophic systems.

Symbolism. There are numerous mysteries of meaning in the strange symbols, characters, personages, birds, beasts, etc. which adorn all species of Chinese art objects. For example a rectangular Chinese vase is feminine, representing the creative or ultimate principle. A group of seemingly miscellaneous art objects, depicted perhaps upon a brush tray, are probably the po-ku, or 'hundred antiques,' emblematic of culture and implying a delicate compliment to the recipient of the tray. Birds and animal occur with frequency on Chinese porcelains, and, if one will observe closely, it is a somewhat select menagerie, in which certain types are emphasised by repetition. For instance, the dragon is so familiar as to be no longer remarked, and yet his significance is perhaps not fully understood by all. There are, in fact, three kinds of dragons, the lung of the sky, the li of the sea, and the kiau of the marshes. The lung is the favourite kind, however, and may be known when met by his having 'the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, neck of a snake, belly of a frog, scales of a carp, claws of a hawk, and palm of a tiger.' His special office is to guard and support the mansions of the gods, and he is naturally the peculiar symbol of the Emperor, or Son of Heaven.

A less familiar beast is the chi-lin, which resembles in part a rhinoceros, but has head, feet, and legs like a deer, and a tufted tail. In spite of his unprepossessing appearance he is of a benevolent disposition, and his image on a vase or other ornament in an emblem of good government and length of days. A strange bird, having the head of a pheasant, a long flexible neck and a plumed tail, may often be seen flying in the midst of scroll-like clouds, or walking in a grove of treepeonies. This is the fengbuang, the Chinese phœnix, emblem of immortality and appearing to mortals only as a presage of the auspicious reign of a virtuous Emperor. The tortoise (kuei), which bears upon its back a seagirt abode of the Eight Immortals, is a third supernatural creature associated with strength, longevity, and (because of the markings on its back) with a mystic plan of numerals which is a key to the philosophy of the unseen.

Colours have their significance, blue being the colour of the heavens, yellow of the earth and the Emperor, red of the sun, white of Jupiter or the Year Star, while each dynasty had its own particular hue, that of the Chou dynasty being described as 'blue of the sky after rain where it appears between the clouds.'

One could go on indefinitely 'reading' the meaning of the seemingly fantastic creations of the Chinese artist-devotee, but enough has been said to show that the strange beings, the conventional arrangements, the apparently haphazard conjunction of objects in his decorative schemes are far from being matter of chance, but add to their decorative properties the intellectual charm of significance.


Did You Enjoy This Article? Share It With Your Friends

Shop at the
New Age Store




Soul Ages

Our goal sets the theme for a lifetime, acting as a primary motivator that guides our course of direction in life.


The Old Soul

Learn about the Overleaves, personality traits that shape our individual experience during each lifetime.