Science & Technology



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

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

The women designated 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 neighbors, but they were ostracized from their community, the authors found.

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

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to accuse someone of being a witch in China, so it was difficult for the researchers to learn how the designations were originally made, or by whom.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 rumor 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 labeled zhu were any less cooperative than their neighbors.

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Therefore, the authors propose another potential reason for why some people get labeled 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.

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