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Study: Labeling Women As ‘Witches’ In China Has Deep Social Causes And Implications

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Chinese women, who are given the label of witches by their rivals, are more likely to form relationships, trade, and socialize with family members of other "witches," a new study has found out.

Though there has been a decline in the superstitious belief in witchcraft, particularly with more awareness created by education, some communities still remain suspicious and wary of so-called witches and their supernatural powers.

Social Divide Between Zhu And Non-Zhu In Chinese Villages

In a rural part of southwestern China, adult women who are tagged witches are referred to as zhu. The negative label is linked to poisoning water, food or other supernatural powers. The label is used for casting aside certain families for the benefits or ulterior motives of others.

Anthropologists from China and Britain studied the social organization of five villages comprising of 800 households in the Sichuan Province for three years to know how the communities traded, worked, and lived together.

The researchers particularly analyzed how the witch label influenced the status of some families and their social circles in the community. They published their findings in the journal Nature.

The anthropologists observed that the village as a whole excluded the zhu families, and members of such families only socialized with members of other zhu families. It was seen that non-zhu families did not exchange presents with those who were termed zhu.

Differences were also observed in who would help whom when it came to farm work as the communities remained extremely secluded between non-zhu and zhu households. A divide was also noticed in how community members chose their sexual partners, with zhu women choosing partners from within the zhu subcommunity. The same pattern was noticed among the non-zhu, with people choosing their sexual partners from within the non-zhu community.

Women More Impacted By Zhu Label Than Men

The researchers noted that being labeled as a zhu impacted more women in comparison to men, particularly because women are treated as the head of the family in the Sichuan Province.

Moreover, zhu women had more struggles with fertility and also became more excluded with age as older zhu are taken to be more dangerous. Male zhu, meanwhile, did not incur any fitness costs.

Interestingly, the study also revealed that zhu families tended to be wealthier than other community members.

Origins Of Zhu Label

No one remembers how and why the zhu label originated and why some families were branded as witches.

"No one admits to starting such rumors," study lead author Ruth Mace said. "Even the victims do not always know they have been accused - they just notice that they are shunned."

The study suggests that it was the rivalry between some families, which made one accuse the other of being witches, due to jealousy of the other's wealth or beauty. Accusing someone as a witch was a good way to get rid of competition.

The stigma was passed on for generations as the ostracized families never left their village. The belief is deeply-rooted within the villages because the villagers fear that the label could be contagious.

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