Women in China who have been labeled “witches” are facing harsh social consequences that force them to band together and live in mutual understanding, a new study shows.
In a paper published in Nature Human Behavior on Jan. 8, a team of researchers found that 13.7% of a rural farming community in southwestern China were labeled zhu or “witch” by their neighbors.
They also figured that these “witches” — and their families — face difficult social consequences that are somehow mitigated if they group together.
For one, zhu families were less likely to get farming help and participate in community activities.
In addition, they were more likely to have children with similar families than with non-zhu families.
Zhu, also called zhubo, is believed to be transferable from a household that has it to another without through valuable objects such as gold, silver and silk.
However, accusing someone of being a “witch” in China is illegal.
“Zhu households are believed to raise snakes, and poison people by providing them polluted food or simply by eye contact,” Ting Ji, an anthropologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who worked on the study, said via the Associated Press.
“The rumor of one household got ‘zhu’ will spread quickly in the villages and to the neighboring villages.”
Interestingly, the researchers also found that the label is usually applied to middle-aged women who head wealthier households. These women also had less children than non-zhu families.
But perhaps more importantly, the label is often designated to women who have been blamed for others’ misfortune.
Ting and her colleagues wrote, “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.”
While these “witches” are ostracized in their own community, it must be noted that the researchers found no evidence that they are less cooperative than non-zhu households.