Insights & Art

Straight from the dome to the plate.

Tag: Empire

The Integration of Science and the Supernatural in the 19th Century


“Every age, and not just the modern age, has felt the need to make its religious beliefs comport somehow with the best scientific and philosophical learning of its day.”

– Thomas Laquer (2006)

Karl Marx famously stated that urbanisation rescued people from the “idiocy of rural life”, this quote alludes to the widely held belief that as technology progresses, it immediately results in the embrace of scientific rationality. Part of the reason why this is such a popular belief stems from the desire of 21st century historians to perceive themselves as technologically advance and thus dismissing any possible connections with the ‘primitive’.

The ‘Long Nineteenth Century’ (1789-1914) as coined by Eric Hobsbawm, was a period where modernity’s arrival was hailed by a mass of new inventions, but also a time where science managed to seeped into the psyche of the public and did no just exist in the minds of intellectuals. The abundance of scientific breakthroughs created an environment where people were beginning to challenge ingrained beliefs: Science and the supernatural were two competing parties trying to establish their influence in the battlefield of academia. Ironically, despite their competitive nature towards each other, both parties were often reactionary to the rising beliefs in the ‘opposition’s’ field of knowledge. Whilst possibly difficult to grasp in today’s context where popular culture portrays science and the supernatural as polar opposites; many technological inventions were seen as methods to tap into the supernatural. The 19th century within the western world was a time where science and the supernatural became intertwined and arguably reliant upon each other.

The new inventions which owed their existence to the industrial revolution and progress within the realms of science were (paradoxically) used by spiritualist as evidence of a world beyond the material. William Henry Harrison, the founder-editor of the Spiritualist proposed that thermometers and ultra-red illumination could be used to measure the spiritual activity in séances. In 1875, Harrison advocated the use of photographs as evidence; “We spiritualist would then be able to go to the scientific world and say… these flames can now be photographed… by the process which is laid before you”. The consistent desire to be validated as a legitimate in the eyes of already established fields, reflects how deeply 19th century spiritualism wanted to be accepted by science as a valid inquiry of the world.

Machines which were capable of recording sounds, capturing photos or typing were perceived as eerie by a majority of the 19th century audience, with such functions transgressing over the line of the supernatural. This equipment evoked the uncanny valley because it blurred what was once rigid lines between the animate and inanimate. Thomas Edison himself saw these new technologies as ways to tap into the occult since the machines seemed to be alive or extensions of the human conscious. Interestingly, new technologies were seen as steps towards a Utopian future and there was a growing movement which attempted to harness the power of spirits as an inexhaustible source of energy. Just as the steam engine had completely transformed the western world and created capitalism as a byproduct; controlling these supernatural forces were simply a new step in the evolution of mankind and its technological wonders . It can be argued these avenues of the supernatural were only opened up with the introduction of new technologies on the market. Due to humanity’s obsession to identify the supernatural in everyday life, it is not surprising that slowly such machinery came to embody some paranormal characteristics.

The practice of ‘typtology’ which developed quickly in the 19th century was heavily influenced by the invention of the electrical telegraph: Coincidentally the ‘Hydesville rappings’ only occurred four years after the first successful telegraph connection between Washington and Baltimore was established. In fact, often spiritualists were described as simple relays along a communication system with spirits, such imagery obviously pays homage towards the invention and popularisation of long distance communication. Likewise the many references to spiritualist as ‘celestial’ telegraphs evoke the image of a supernatural current transitioning between the medium and the occult in a similar fashion to electricity. This wording may have been deliberate to make their philosophies more understandable to the average laymen, however it does also reflect how many spiritualist often adopt the vocabulary and products of their scientific ‘rivals’.

The spiritualist community also quickly embraced the type writer as a new method of interacting with the occult. Whilst the 21st century audience may see this machine as a tool to inscribe words onto a piece of paper, two centuries ago it signalled the unnatural severing of the author from the physical act of writing. This distinction between authors and (type) writers was due to the fact that a finalised text did not carry the characteristics of an individual’s handwriting. Thus typewriters were eventually seen as people who were tapping into the thoughts of the author or simply possessed by the machine itself. Slowly this idea of possession began to develop supernatural connotations and this is reflected in how the noun ‘typewriter’ was used in the 19th century. Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy was often referred to as a ‘human typewriter’ due to her ability to channel the supernatural when writing and explaining her beliefs. Blavatsky dismissed claims of plagiarism by stating that all her writing had been done in a state of trance, and thus her body was simply a tool for channeling invisible forces. Likewise, mediums who used spiritual rappings and table tipping were often called typters, which roughly translates to ‘I strike’ in Greek. It is from this origin that the words ‘typist’ and ‘typing’ developed. The act of tapping found in the Morse code and typewriting were seen as physical and technological ways to invite spiritual possession by severing the ‘natural’ connection between the eye and writing.

Interestingly, as psychology became more of a respected field of knowledge, slowly it was able to strip away the supernatural associations of automatic writing. Both F. W. H Myer and Edmun Gurney were intensely motivated in proving that mediums who would produce writing or quotes during a trance, were simply tapping in their subconscious past, in a Freudian manner. Interestingly, both men attempted to discredit automatic writing because they believed the notion of an eternal spirit and afterlife was threatened by the popularisation of medium possession, which proposed a more fluid image of identity. New scientific inventions allowed spiritualist the opportunity to appropriate new tools into their repertoire, but evolving fields of science was also eventually responsible for stripping away the occult associations of type writing.

The commercialisation of electricity and its incorporation into all levels of society played a fundamental role in changing how the supernatural developed in the 19th century to today’s understanding of the paranormal. This was most famously reflected in the novel of Frankenstein, as electricity was regarded as the most basic and fundamental component of life. Shelley, inspired by her husband’s fascination with mesmerism, captured the growing public’s unease and fascination concerning the manipulating of electricity to create life and to interact with the dead. Mesmerism, which quickly became embedded into the consciousness of the public discourse and imagination was built upon many new scientific discoveries. It could be argued that the technological advances of the 19th century were not only a contributing factor to mesmerism’s doctrines, but rather it created a context where a belief system which frequently mixed technology and pseudoscience could thrive.

Mesmerism stood as a direct challenged to the traditional pillars of the medical community, proposing that the building of rapport and the interactions of two minds was able to overcome illness. This was in opposition to the general direction of the scientific community in the 19th century, which had turned towards an increasingly materialistic outlook on life. A notion which would only become more ingrained with the publication of On the Origin of Species. Franz Anton Mesmer a frequent user of magnets and electricity, attributed his medical successes to his ability to form an electrical conduit between himself and his patient. Even when the notion of electricity as the ‘essence of life’ was challenged by the emerging scientific discoveries, the mesmer community simply embraced ‘od’ or ‘odyle’ forces; a form of transparent magnetic fluid (Noakes, 2012). The key point isn’t whether or not 19th century spiritualism used these terms and descriptions in a ‘scientifically’ accurate way. But rather, by absorbing this scientific jargon into their terminology, it reflected a desire to legitimise their dogma in the eyes of their ‘rivals’, but also a wish to drop the connotations of irrationality which had long been a stigma on the occult. Mesmerism’s challenge to science during the nineteenth century is one of many attempts by supernatural ideologies to gain ground in the battle for how one perceived the world. Interestingly enough, mesmers relied and embraced new technologies so much, that they frequently accused scientist of being blind and dismissive to new avenues of thought, and readily referred to themselves as the ‘true scientist’.

Practitioners of mesmerism also regularly incorporated phrenology into their consultations with their patients. The belief that the brain was an organ with different areas which would trigger a certain response when touched was directly linked to the imagery of a machine. More tellingly is that the brain was often referred to as a ‘galvanic battery’ during the 19th century, and altered states of reality was believed to occur if too much blood (a metaphor for electric) was sent to the head. The rise of supernatural arts that was heavily intertwined with the latest scientific research shows that technological progress does not automatically equal to a decrease in superstition. This is because unlike religion or science, which carries with it a structured view of the universe, magic and technology are simply tools which make no such grandiose claims.

The rise of photography within the 19th century was not just influenced by the growing movement of spiritualism, but arguably its rising popularity was indebted to its supernatural associations. Much like the typewriter, a camera blurred the line between life and death, seemingly without a conscious, yet able to do things (such as recording sound or images) which previously only humans could perform. Spiritual photography worked under the assumption that the person in front of the camera was able to ‘mediumise’ the equipment in order to capture the unseen supernatural forces around them. As the theories and arguments for Darwinism and positivism seeped into the public conscious, this produced a yearning for the assurance of an afterlife. Spiritualist responded to this sentiment, and regularly attacked science as being harshly dismissive of personal spiritual experiences, all the while using tools of science to argue their position. This shift towards a supernatural which was more focused within the individual’s personal experience, can also be viewed as a response to the rise in technology capable of recording evidence. Thus, possibly this trend towards ‘smaller’ and more ‘personal’ interactions with the paranormal might have been a natural shift to legitimise the supernatural in the face of increasing demands of evidence.

Whilst it may seem like the relationship between the ‘spiritual photographer’ and the subject is unfair; since one is actively exchanging falsely created goods for money. Often, both parties were active participants in this lie; William Stainton Moses, a famous paranormal investigator commented that people regularly mistook a “broom as their dearly departed”. Similarly, even after William Hope, a famous spiritual photographer was proven to be a fraud, he still continued working as a photographer and a medium; as he was financially and publicly supported by his loyal fans. Science and emerging technologies were not so much the counter to ‘irrational’ ideas, but instead, simply gave 19th century citizens the opportunity to validate their attachments to the supernatural through modern methods.

Thomas Edison (a firm believer in the supernatural) famously remarked that death, “the final frontier”, was being opened out through the invention and commericalisation of new technologies. Likewise the industrial revolution gave Britain (and the rest of the western sphere) an opportunity to close the frontier between the east and west. Thus producing the great paradox of colonisation, whilst Anglo-Saxon culture was elevated to the most dominant position, it was not left ‘untarnished’ and was also transformed by its contact with foreign cultures. This absorption of eastern occultism was reflected in popular literature, with Dracula standing as a symbol of an ancient eastern evil unleashed upon the civilised (and unprepared) Anglo-Saxon societies. Similarly, Indian marijuana was used by the fictional protagonist John Silence in order to tap into the supernatural vibrations of his surroundings. This signified a shift in the perception of the supernatural; the west began to see itself as a piece in the global search for the paranormal and thus adopted other beliefs and rituals.

As science began to chip away at the vast distances and times between nations; linking once distance lands with the west, this resulted in the questioning of previously ‘unquestionable’ beliefs. Inspired by her understanding of eastern spirituality, Madame Blavatsky the founder of Theosophy, challenged the moral and religious authority of the Church as she claimed that she alone held the Truth, given to her through the Great White Brotherhood. Blavatsky’s willingness to challenge such an established pillar on conventionally accepted doctrines shows how technology and the freedom of movement provided citizens a chance to escape ‘pre-destined’ roles; making identity a more fluid conception. The supernatural greatly benefited the growing globalisation of the world through technologies like the railway and the telephone. It allowed the supernatural in the west to absorb and adopt a lot of foreign beliefs and practices, enlarging the circumference of what one perceived as the occult and also offering a refreshing breath of creativity into this field.

Modern historians have largely ignored the supernatural in their construction of history, anachronistically deeming it as primitive and incompatible with a ‘Whigsian’ approach to history. Much like the academics in the Renaissance, there is a sense of discomfort, in relation to just how deeply entrenched the supernatural was during a time of supposed ‘modernisation’. The view that the supernatural (something which dealt completely with emotions and personal experiences) and technology (something built on measured science and rationality) were polar opposites is an overly simplistic view which fails to look at how the supernatural still continues to absorb new technologies into its realms. It is because 19th century spiritualism shared so much in common with established sciences, that it was often hard for practitioners of either field to proper investigate and properly distinguish between each other.

Emma Hardringe Britten, a famous Victorian spiritualist, stated that spiritual science was merely the next step in the intellectual ‘progress of the human race’, echoing a sentiment which a majority of supernatural practitioners would have agreed with. Though, ironically, it is telling that her quote obviously alludes to both evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest; the cutting edge of scientific thought. By describing the rise of her discipline in relation to the static older sciences, Britten is unconsciously exposing how deeply intertwined the destinies of scientific advancement and the supernatural was in the long 19th century.


… Science will continue to be colonized by spiritualists and other religious groups seeking to assert what they know, intuitively and spiritually, to be true, for in spiritualist perceptions, truth and science are inextricably linked

– Jennifer E. Porter (2005)

Tang Dynasty: The State of Perfect Dilated ‘Chineseness’


The Tang dynasty was often considered the perfect embodiment of Chinese culture and values, praised for being a sophisticated and influential period of Chinese history. Paradoxically however, the Tang ruling family had distinct connections to the nomads on the steepe and to cultures which were considered inferior in contrast to agriculturally based Chinese. The Tang dynasty was a period where the foundations of Chinese identity were infused with foreign influences, yet these values would become permanent staples of Chinese history.

Under the Tang, China took significant steps towards embracing commercialization as trade with foreign countries became progressively more essential to the economic prosperity of the empire. The evolution of Buddhism from a dogma with undisputed Indian roots to a belief system which was inherently Chinese also occurred during the Tang dynasty. This would solidify the importance and legacy of the faith throughout every aspect of China for many centuries afterwards. The Tang was significantly because it set the precedent for every Chinese dynasty afterwards: It signified the transition from medieval China to early modern China, where the nation became the cornerstone of the East Asian world.

Under the Tang dynasty, the dichotomies Chinese identity began to shift into something which was more culturally inclusive. Whilst the Chinese continued to see themselves as culturally superior to their neighbours, the distinctions between ‘barbarians’ and ‘Chinese’ began to blur during this period. The nomadic and Turkish roots that the Tang family had meant the infusion of outside steepe beliefs and practices was supported by the government.

Under this period, China’s shift towards commericialisation also resulted in cultural exchange between nations, though this will be explored later in the essay. It is important to understand that the changes and their repercussions were often interlinked and should not be seen as inherently separate. During the first half of the Tang dynasty, China began re-establishing political connections to ‘barbaric’ states as they fostered policies of expansion. This included marrying princess off to noble families living on the steepe to create the Sino-Altaic alliance with Central Asian nations. This progress was arguably only possible due to similar diplomacy, political networks and ideologies between the Tang ruling family and other surrounding aristocrats.

The Tang Empire also lead wars of expansion into neighbouring states like Korea, Japan and North Vietnam in an attempt to retrieve the territory held by the Han dynasty. The Tang emperors desire to emulate the Han dynasty is a reoccurring theme throughout their rule combined with the attempt to solidify their perception as one of authentic ‘Chineseness.’ This is also reflected in the Tang’s support of Daoism, an unmistakably Chinese dogma which was given the title of the state’s highest religion in 625 and 637. At this stage Buddhism had yet to undergo sinification and thus the stigma of being culturally foreign had not faded; a stigma that the Tang tried to avoid. The Tang’s decision to change their capital’s name from Daxingcheng to Chang’an; after the capital of the Han empire, further reflects the Tang’s desire to portray themselves as the rebirth of the Chinese nation.

The Tang was a period of transformation, the dynasty near the end of its reign was vastly different to the dynasty founded by Li Yuan in 618. Despite the Tang’s attempts to reassemble an empire similar to the Han in terms of size and cultural legacy, the Tang abandoned many policies and institutions whose origins could be found in the Han. Cultural exchange is a relationship that worked both ways and whilst the Tang Empire was exporting Chinese values to its neighbours, its society was also being shaped by external forces.

A few of these changes included eliminating the practice of periodically redistributing state owned land to families and eventually curbing the prominence and power of elite families. Generally these trends resulted in greater freedom for individual, families and business which opened the possibility of increased international trade, which was partly responsible for rising levels of urbanization. On a smaller scale, horse riding and the adoption of the lute into Chinese culture reflects blurring of barriers between the ‘barbarians’ and authentic ‘Chinese.’ Though the Tang family tried to hide their alien connections, steepe practices such as levirate marriage and the killing of one’s kin for the throne were often practiced, much to the shock of their ‘Han’ Chinese subjects. It is often argued that the Sui and the Tang dynasties were the processors of the Yuan, apart from their ‘barbaric’ heritage amongst all three dynasties; they all lead China through a period of capitalism through expansionist policies like warfare and increased trade.

During the Tang, the cultural and economically heart land of China shifted southwards, thus allowing the eventual perceptions of being ‘Han’ or ‘Chinese’ to be firmly associated with the geography under the Yellow River. This is partly responsible for the interpretation of southern Chinese values and beliefs as the quintessential foundation of ‘Han’ identity even during the Qing Empire, when the Manchus were the ruling minority. Part of the shift was due to the Sui dynasty opening up the Yangzi River’s drain basin and after the marshy low lands were drained, the southern China’s agricultural productivity increased dramatically. The prototype of a distant but militarily superior northern capital controlling the south and using its agricultural output to support the government and foster trade became the standard for many empires afterwards.

As the ‘silk’ roads which allowed trade between Central Asian and Eastern Asia were disrupted by the rise of a Tibetan state and the growing influence of Islam on the western regions of China, the Tang government turned towards exchanging goods through sea trade. Because many of the southern cities were located along the coast, moving into sea based trade was a natural and effort method of trade. These rekindled trade links lead many foreigners to settle in China and vice versa, an important step for the further distortion of traditional Chinese identity.

The urbanization and commercialization of the Tang Empire created the perfect conditions for China to enter its most prestigious and respected era of literature since artistic production had shift away from the static nature of the courts into the increasingly wealthy urban cities. The poems and stories reflected their place of origin and were usually located within a metropolitan, with reoccurring themes like leisure and relaxation found within brothels and other pleasure establishments. Ironically a lot of China’s greatest texts emerged not during a period of isolation where Chinese values were allowed to seep into society without foreign contamination, but during a period where the boundaries and distinctions of society were challenged and altered.

The Tang dynasty more than any Chinese government before them were successfully in spreading the foundations of Chinese culture to the surrounding nations. Though increased international trade to countries such as India, Korea and Japan played a significant role for this exchange. A defining trait of the Siu and Tang was their cultural inclusiveness, no doubt partly due to their non-Chinese lineage. Whilst China still considered itself the benchmark for civilization and the centre of the world, her condescending attitudes to surrounding barbarians had softened. Many East Asian states often sought some form of recognition within China’s arrangement of world order even if it meant their country would be placed in a position of submission. States like Vietnam, Korea and Japan adopted traditional Chinese calligraphy as their official written language and paid tribute to the more powerful Tang government as vassals. Similarly elite Chinese fashion and music became the norm for other Asian courts which were quick to attach their name to the mystique and grandee of the established Chinese culture. Confucian principles like the patriarchy and filial piety are just some of the lingering elements found in many East Asian countries spread through contact with the Tang Dynasty.

It was during the period of Tang rule that Buddhism evolved into a belief system embedded with traditional Chinese beliefs, thus shattering the foreign label which had followed it since its conception in India. Whilst Daoism was the state endorsed religion, Buddhism was arguably more influential and popular and it’s politically, culturally and religious significance was cemented during the Tang dynasty. Unlike Daoism, Buddhism was much intertwined with the commoners and monasteries played a noticeable part in society, sometimes acting as a hostel, hospital or orphanage depending on its context. It could be argued that Buddhism thrived in the subsequent chapters of Chinese history because unlike Daoism it seemed more approachable and relatable to the majority of Chinese citizens.

Buddhism experienced two periods of change where its teachings and philosophies were reinterpreted until it underwent intense sinification and thus emerged as Chinese Buddhism. From the time Buddhism entered China around the Han dynasty to the year 400; specific elements of Buddhism were emphasized only if they were synchronized with existing Chinese beliefs. From 400-600, Buddhism in China was reinterpreted without cultural bias, Chinese thinkers sought to understand the faith from its origins which often meant embracing an Indian or Central Asian perspective. This shift in thinking coincided with India entering its ‘golden age’ under the Gupta government, which saw India make advancements in many fields like science, philosophy and engineering, allowing India to rise as the cultural and intellectual heartbeat of Asia.

However as the Tang rose to prominence in the 6th century, the imbalance of power tipped in favour of China, creating the ideal situation to nourish a Chinese interpretation of Buddhism that rejected external readings. The first signs of India losing its grip upon Buddhist dogma occurred in 601 and 602 when the Sui emperor Wen ordered a large festival to celebrate China’s possessions of the Buddha’s remains. This claim legitimized China’s influence on the changing nature of Buddhist teachings. Emperor Wen also ordered texts recording the festival to be translated into Sanskrit symbolically reversing the movement of religious writings and ingraining a uniquely Chinese perspective into Buddhism.

As the Tang Empire started to rule China, India began to transition out of its golden period of discovery and innovation and increasingly Central Asian was experiencing Islamification. This influx of foreign culture into India eventually resulted in the Muslim conquest by the 9th century which drove Buddhism out its stronghold; the Ganges. Reinforcing the relocation of Buddhism into China was the belief that by the 6th century Buddhism was slowly fading into obscurity within India and the Asian continent in general. Thus when Buddhism was re-established in Tang China, there was a belief that the new age of the religion required new texts to spread a modern approach to the dogma. As stated before, there are vast differences between the more tradition variants of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism in contrast to the Chinese version: These included a stronger focus on deities and the importance of master-disciple lineages in the latter. The sinification of Buddhism is clear as the significance of the master-disciple lineages is a direct link to Confucian ideals such as a hierarchical male-eccentric society and beliefs such as filial piety. Other examples of sinification include the assimilation of famous Indian Buddhist figures like King Manjusri which by the 11th century it was widely accepted that he was born in the western regions of China.

This sinification of Buddhism is a key element of the Tang dynasty which had major repercussions in following chapters of Chinese history. Even today the perception of Buddhism as a belief system which originated not from India but rather East Asia still persists. The breakdown of trade routes from China to Central Asia due to the rise of Islam meant that China looked towards the East for trade and expansion, another factor why Chinese Buddhism contains many unorthodox concepts in comparison to Indian or Tibetan variants.

The rise of Buddhism in China was partly responsible for Mongolia’s eventual adoption of the belief and thus planted the seeds for a very complicated Tibet and China relationship; one which has originally started from that of a priest and master respectively. Likewise as the popularity of Daoism faded particularly in the Yuan dynasty, Buddhism gradually became more intertwined with politics with rulers like the Tang Empress Wu stating she was the reincarnation of Maitrya, an action which was not uncommon.

The Tang dynasty was a period of immense change in Chinese culture and identity, however underlying this transformation, aspects of Chinese society was becoming progressively more distinct, particularly in the second half of the empire. The three elements of change, Buddhism, commercialization and the adoption of nomadic practices, discussed within this essay is highly interwoven and their impact on society should be acknowledged as a whole instead of being analysed as separate factors.


Without the Tang terminating some customs like the annual division of government owned land or restricting the influence of the elite families, trends like capitalism or urbanization would not have happened. The exchange of goods and products would later lead to the spread of Chinese philosophy amongst East Asia and it is argued part of the reason why Buddhism first appeared in China was because of the demand of silk in India. Similarly the rise of the Tang and the adoption of horse riding and assimilation of levirate marriage into court signified the blurring of Chinese identity. The Tang dynasty was and is regarded as the model for a perfect Chinese state, which was economically and militaristically successful whilst still being fundamentally Chinese. Ironically, on a closer examination the Tang Dynasty was also responsible for incorporating many cultural values which was considered alien to many of its subjects; forever changing the dichotomies of ‘Chineseness’.