Households carrying “witchcraft” label get isolated from the rest of the community

We live in remarkably good times, even if media fails to portrait them that way. We are safer than ever, we are wealthier than ever and we are certainly healthier than ever before. However, in some places in the world we can still meet some extremely harmful social practices that should not be a reality in 21st century. For example, some women in rural China suffer from literally being labelled as witches.

Some ancient beliefs and social labels are still alive in rural China and, probably, many other places in the world. Image credit: 肖志强 – 由原作者交予授权发布 via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

There is a social label called “zhu”, which is still very much alive in rural China, associated to practising witchcraft. Of course, it is not used in a sense of someone actually being a witch, but the phenomenon is very interesting from the scientific point of view and extremely damaging in the fabric of the society. Scientists from UCL, Lanzhou University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted a research in five villages in rural China and found that 13.7% of households are affected by the “zhu” label. Usually these families are headed by wealthier women.

The witchcraft labels are typically associated with food poisoning – it is believed that witches poison the food when you eat in their houses. In other words, “zhu” are dangerous and communities, which they belong to, form a barrier using this label. Scientists explain the obvious – the label has nothing to do with the individual, but have huge social implications. Houses without the label avoid any contact with “zhu” and so the labelled households have to stay together, often finding spouses both carrying the label. Scientists studied these social norms by giving money to certain individuals, allowing sharing, and tracing kinship – labelled and non-labelled groups simply do not mix.

Witchcraft beliefs have captured attention of the scientists for a very long time. However, up until now anthropologists have not assessed how these labels and beliefs may affect the social fabric of the community. Professor Ruth Mace, first author of the study, explained: “Our findings suggest that while the origins of the witchcraft labels and accusations are unclear, they may reflect jealousy and spite towards competitors, who are predominantly women”. Now scientists want to see how the labels are created, attached and why they stick permanently.

Interestingly, while this research was conducted in rural China, scientists are pretty certain the same type of behaviour can be found in other places in the world. Moreover, scientists say that trolling on the internet may have a similar effect. But these subjects need more extensive studies.


Source: UCL

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