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Sorcery Invoked to Counter SARS

Chinese villagers flock to superstition rather than science to try to defy the disease, despite the government's advice to use modern medicine.

May 18, 2003|Audra Ang | Associated Press Writer

BEIJING — Hiring sorcerers. Lighting firecrackers. Following advice reputed to be from a mystical talking baby. While China's government promotes science, thousands of people are turning to superstition to fight SARS.

The resort to tradition has prompted efforts by China's state press and the officially atheist communist government to discourage it.

But multiple reports of what Chinese leaders consider dangerous superstition in widely scattered areas illustrate the scale of fear of a disease that the Health Ministry says has killed 275 on China's mainland and infected more than 5,000 others.

In the central province of Hunan, villagers hoping to avoid severe acute respiratory syndrome seek help from sorcerers in incense-infused rites, according to local officials and newspapers.

Scores of believers gather at temples or the sorcerer's home, praying before lighted incense and candles. Some burn fake money as an offering to the gods.

He Dazhi, a reporter for the newspaper Sanxiang Metropolitan News, wrote that believers are asked to bow to spiritual scrolls or a statue of Buddha. Gongs or drums occasionally accompany the ceremony.

"SARS is completely unknown to many farmers," He wrote. "Their fear of infection has been used by sorcerers to have them rely on superstition instead of science."

Last week, World Health Organization investigators who visited northern Hebei province said migrant workers had carried the virus to rural areas from neighboring Beijing. The announcement confirmed worries that SARS, still largely an urban disease in China, might spread to the countryside. Experts say a lack of doctors and hospitals there could make any outbreak catastrophic.

Hebei has reported 191 cases and eight deaths, though the WHO experts did not say how many were in rural areas.

In Beijing, state media said quarantines on three hospitals and a residential neighborhood have been lifted, although a WHO specialist said it was too early to say the peak of the capital's epidemic was past.

"It is quite possible that in another week we'll see an upsurge in cases, if there are undetected clusters or outbreaks occurring," Dr. Keiji Fukuda said.

Gao Binzhong, a professor of folklore study at Peking University, said the popularity of magic in response to SARS in China's vast countryside, and in some cities, is natural.

"People not only need a medical explanation, but also a cultural and psychological explanation," Gao said. "It is understandable that people with various backgrounds explain the uncertainty in their own way."

China's communist leaders have tried since taking power in 1949 to stamp out belief in the occult, which they say damages social stability and national unity.

But belief in spiritualism has endured in rural areas, and fear of SARS has even city dwellers reviving traditions.

Farmers and urban residents in the provinces of Anhui in the east, Guangdong in the south and Fujian in the southeast are lighting firecrackers, long used to chase away evil spirits, according to police.

They also are consuming a sugary elixir of boiled mung beans meant to keep the virus away.

The ideas stemmed from a rumor about a baby who purportedly spoke immediately after birth and said firecrackers and "green bean soup" could prevent infection, said an official at Anhui Provincial Public Security Bureau.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the province, including the capital, Hefei, received the rumor via text messages on their cell phones, the official said.

Different variations of the story, told in areas as far-flung as Guangdong and the northern region of Inner Mongolia, say the baby said the soup had to be consumed by midnight May 7 and that he died after delivering the message, newspapers report.

The rumor caused sales of mung beans and firecrackers to skyrocket in Guangdong, Fujian and Guizhou.

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