Chinese embrace occult over science in SARS fight

AP, May 13, 2003
http://www.tri-cityherald.com/24hour/world/story/887679p-6184826c.html
By AUDRA ANG, Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) – Hiring sorcerers. Lighting firecrackers. Following advice reputed to be from a mystical talking baby. While China’s government promotes science, thousands of its people are turning to the supernatural 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 the Health Ministry said Tuesday has killed at least 262 people on China’s mainland. More than 5,000 others are infected.

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, kneeling in prayer 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.”

On Tuesday, 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 a catastrophe.

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, though 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,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda.

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 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, who would give only his surname, He.

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 on May 7 and that he died after delivering the message, according to newspapers.

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

In Guizhou, firecrackers crackled throughout the city of Liupanshui after a rumor spread that a deaf man spoke after years of silence and said the virus would disappear if fireworks were set off May 6, the start of summer on the Chinese lunar calendar, according to a policeman who would give only his surname, Tang.

Similar displays were reported in other cities.

“People believe gunpowder could kill the disease virus and disinfect the air,” said an official of the Guizhou provincial police who refused to give his name. “The public is still worried, although Guizhou has no cases of SARS at this moment.”

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