New Study Sheds Light on Social Implications of Being Labelled a Witch

The concept of witchcraft has existed in divergent cultures for thousands of years. In China, a new study is demonstrating that the belief not only continues but has huge consequences for rural China.

A witch is labeled a Zhu. They are mostly accused of poisoning others in the village. The vast majority of those that are accused of being a witch are middle-aged women that are the head of the households. A study of 800 households found that 13% or 104 households had been labeled a Zhu.

The consequences of being a Zhu are ostracization from the village. One of the beliefs about Zhu is that it can be passed through the trading or giving of material objects. Therefore, members of the village will not trade with them. Zhu are also believed to poison food or spread misfortune by eye contact, and so social interaction with them is avoided. Since over 80% of rural Chinese never leave their town, the stigma of being labeled a witch can become generational. Since there are over 600 million Chinese that live in rural areas, there could be an untold number of families and women that are affected.

The study gives two major reasons why the belief in witches still exists. The first is that it is used to point out members of a society that are uncooperative or fit outside the norm. Interestedly, rather than bind a community together it creates mistrust and paranoia that disrupt social dynamics.

The second reason is the takeover of a matriarchal micro-community by patriarchal institutions. This would explain why female heads of households are targeted. Because female institutions of power could be seen as alternatives to a male system of control for the towns a way to disrupt this is to put these female members outside the community.

It is illegal in China to accuse anyone of witchcraft. This does not seem to change rural town behavior and the study does not show whether legal means are being used to diminish these allegations.

Resources

Follow the Conversation on Twitter