Religion in China
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Rural Chinese villages are prone to claims of witchcraft – which can have serious consequences, a new study shows. Pictured: Chikan, a picturesque and peaceful village in Kaiping, Guangdong province, in July last year. File photo: SCMP / Lea Li

Chinese ‘witches’ band together after rural communities ostracise them

Belief in witches runs rampant in some rural Chinese communities, a new study shows – and those who are accused of witchcraft are having to band together to survive.

In one rural farming community in southwestern China, 13.7 per cent of the population have been labelled “zhu,” or “witches,” by their neighbours, according to a new paper published on January 8 in Nature Human Behaviour.

Zhu households are believed to raise snakes, and poison people by providing them polluted food or simply by eye contact,” said Ting Ji, an anthropologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who worked on the study.

In a rural farming community in southwestern China, 13.7 per cent of the population have been labelled witches by their neighbours

The trait of zhu, also known as zhubo, can be spread or transferred from zhu households to non-zhu households by giving valuables, such as gold, silver or silk, Ting said.

“The rumour of one household having ‘zhu’ will spread quickly in the village and to the neighbouring villages,” she said.

In the new study, Ting and her colleagues describe the effects of being labelled zhu in the community in southwestern China.

The authors found that the label has serious consequences for the accused and their families, but that these consequences are mitigated when the “witches” band together.

Belief in witchcraft occurs in cultures throughout the world, although the label means different things to different groups.

“Conceptions of witchcraft are very variable, so sometimes it is not helpful to use that word,” said Ruth Mace, an anthropologist at University College London who also worked on the study.

However, there are some common themes. The label is usually applied to middle-aged women, and it frequently includes an attribution of blame for some misfortune.

The women identified as zhu in the Chinese community where Mace and her colleagues did their fieldwork were mostly middle-aged and, generally, the heads of their households.

They were not hunted down and burned at the stake by their neighbours, but they were ostracised from their community, the authors found.

Specifically, zhu and their families were less likely to receive farming help from their non-zhu neighbours, or to be part of the community’s social networks, the authors report.

People identified as witches in the community were mostly middle-aged women and the heads of their households

In addition, women who had been designated zhu had fewer children than those who had not been.

It is illegal to accuse someone of being a witch in China, so it was difficult for the researchers to learn how the designations were originally made, or by whom.

“We think it is rumour or gossip, but don’t know why it sticks in some cases,” Mace said. “Some also are said to inherit the label from their mother. The topic is taboo, so it is a bit sensitive to discuss.”

To better understand the interactions between those bearing the zhu tag and those who don’t, the authors mapped their relationships in five villages in a few ways.

They found that zhu families were more likely to have children with each other than with non-zhu families.

And when they played a gift-giving game – allowing villagers to decide how to distribute a small sum of money, non-zhu families were more likely to give the money to other non-zhu families, while zhu families were more likely to give it to other zhu families.

Some anthropologists have suggested that cultures may apply the label of witch to those who are more selfish and less cooperative than others.

In this case, the fear of being tagged a witch might encourage members of a community to act for the collective good. However, in this study, the authors found no evidence that women labelled zhu were any less cooperative than their neighbours.

Therefore, the authors propose another potential reason for why some people get labelled zhu and others don’t.

“Our finding that the label is more likely to fall on wealthier and female-headed households fits with anecdotal accounts from other populations of accusations arising out of jealousy or spite, directed particularly at women,” the authors write.