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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Exorcising rural witchcraft


under the influence of a fortune teller, a peasant woman in Shandong province tried to drive the evil spirits from a tumor on her mother’s back. She hit her mother on the head with a shovel, and the unfortunate woman was killed. In a small town in southern Guangdong province, peasants beat a girl to death because they believed she was possessed by a spirit that was making “the penises of young men grow smaller”.

Superstition is still very much a part of rural life in the People’s Republic of China. Much to the consternation of Peking officials and despite 36 years of Communist rule, occult practices continue to have a powerful influence in far-flung and isolated communities. Now the government is making yet another attempt to exorcise the problem through education and propaganda. “Superstition is a product of backward science and culture”, reads a poster in Peking’s Ditan Park. “There are no ghosts in this world. Ignorance
breeds superstitions”.

Many villagers believe otherwise. Peasants sometimes turn to wupos,
or witches, to cure common illnesses through expensive, and occasionally extreme, measures. A wupo may charge as much as $5, about a week’s earnings for an average peasant, to exorcise evil spirits and may even prescribe death: every year a few people follow such advice and commit ritual suicide to hasten their passage to heaven. Says Liu Anyi, a Peking intellectual, “It’s ironic. Our forefathers invented the printing press, and we have sent satellites into space. Yet many people remain ignorant”.

To “eradicate superstitions and popularise science”, the government last month issued 1,300 copies of a film called “The Tricks of Witch Doctors”. The press, meanwhile, is discrediting the continuing existence of superstition because it hinders the regime’s current modernisation programs. The provincial Guangming Daily recently declared that offering sacrifices to ancestors was a “feudal and patriarchal activity not permitted under the socialist system”.
As a warning to practitioners of the occult arts, the Ditan Park posters offer ‘confessions’ of reformed wupos. The secret, reveals one, “is feeling out the general situation by encouraging the customer to do the talking first, and by making equivocal and scary predictions”.

Economic improvement may be one of Communism’s best weapons against wupos and the demons they hope to exorcise, according to Peking Religion Scholar Ren Jiyu. Says he: “If people’s livelihood is improved and people-to-people relations are established on the basis of mutual concern and affection, there will no longer be the phenomenon of people oppressing and exploiting people”.

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