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In rural China, calling someone a 'witch' has serious social consequences

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Witches continue to work their dark arts in some parts of the world, at least in the minds of their accusers.

For example, in a rural farming community in southwestern China, 13.7 percent of the population has been labeled "zhu," or "witch," by their neighbors, according to a new paper published Jan. 8 in Nature Human Behavior.

"'Zhu' households are considered 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.

The concept 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 rumor of one household got 'zhu' will spread quickly in the villages and to the neighboring villages," she said.

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

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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.

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