I spent an afternoon a couple of weeks ago chatting with Luo Jia, the daughter of the family who sells baozi around the corner from the ARDY main office, which led to an interesting discussion of popular “superstitions.” She pointed up the street to a staircase leading down to a lower street, where a well-known witch lives.
A friend of Luo Jia’s from Chongqing married into a family from Yilong a couple of years ago. The previous year, the friend’s younger sister had been crushed to death by a family member’s truck. “They drove her to the doctor, but the truck was so slow, it took over two hours, she had bled out by the time they got her to the doctor.” The friend’s young son had seen the body as they were taking it to the doctor, and thereafter started having regular nightmares, which Luo Jia’s friend attempted to cure by going to visit the local witch. The witch took out a bowl of water and placed it on the table along with two candles. She lit the candles and soon after started to shake uncontrollably, declaring that the spirit of the slain sister had arrived. The witch then lit several pieces of the rough straw paper often used as offerings to ancestors (such as I had seen another friend burn to honor his grandparents) and allowed the ashes to fall into the bowl of water. The friend was then instructed to drink the bowl of water. “After she went home, the next day her son slept with no problem,” explained Luo Jia.
Despite this anecdotal example of the apparent effectiveness of witches, popular mythology is clearly on the edge of extinction in Yilong County. While a few elderly people still hawk fortune readings (算命) on the street at various local markets, only Yilong’s elderly still believe in them. Folk mythology has been under sustained attack in China since the early twentieth century, when peasant “superstition” came to be seen as one of the main factors behind China’s perceived economic backwardness. All of the young people with whom I have discussed the concept, including Luo Jia are disdainful of local superstition. Luo Jia laughed in resignation as she told me about her Gu Ma姑妈, or paternal aunt, who swears by the witch’s advice. “She’s so superstitious, she won’t do anything without consulting the witch first. If she gets sick, and we get her medicine, she’ll ask the witch before taking it. Whenever she has to buy something, or make any decision, she’ll ask the witch first.” And of course any trip to the witch has a consultation fee. Luo Jia shook her head, lamenting the amount of money that her aunt had thrown away on the witch. “She’s so kind-hearted, she’s easily scammed by people like that.” Luckily, regular visits result in a customer loyalty discount.