Ever since the establishment of the Silk Road routes of commercial and cultural exchange, foreign peoples from all over Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent have had a substantial presence in China. Among them, as the Chinese sources tell us, there were many who were known for their magical and supernatural powers – from shape-shifting Buddhist monks to fire-breathing Hindu yogis and self-mutilating Zoroastrian priests. The stories, found in both fiction and non-fiction literature, appear in different contexts, such as the descriptions of religious rituals, medical operations or simply performances of street magic. What is most interesting, however, is that descriptions of foreign magical practices across different contexts and religious teachings are very similar and are not unlike the practices of China’s own Daoist method men and immortality seekers.
This brief paper introduces the subject of foreign magical practices in China in the context of cultural and religious exchange between China and its Western neighbours. In the paper I will identify some general themes and terminology related to those practices, found in various types of written sources dating from Han to Song. I will also attempt to answer a string of questions, with the most important being: what are the possible connections between foreign and indigenous magical practices, and how did the stereotype of the “magical Westerner” influence the Chinese attitude towards foreigners and their religious beliefs.
Keywords: foreigners in China, magic, magicians, Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism