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Date Posted: 10:34 05/11/2003

Poverty and talking frogs

If you are poor, you are more likely to believe in nonsense.

THE PEOPLE of the Chinese countryside, like people in all countrysides, are a superstitious lot. Their lives haven't changed very much in centuries, and they are still dependent on a number of vague forces some distance beyond their control, whether it be China's notoriously variable climate or the caprice of whatever national government that happens to be in charge. It might not be accurate these days to intimate, as Kafka did in his short story, The Great Wall of China, that the Emperor was at such a distance from ordinary rural life that he might as well have been God, but it is clear that the current government is worried that these communities are somehow slipping away, economically and socially, and that the forces that created so many violent rebellions in the past may be capable of engulfing the nation once again. The watchwords of the last Party Congress were urbanization and 'the well-off society'. The concerns were clear. The rural regions of China were being left behind, and could threaten national stability.

There are thousands of temples scattered across the banks of the Yangtze or Yellow Rivers, where boatmen pray to the gods for safety and salvation, where farmers ask for the mercy of rain. There are countless statues and mausoleums where people congregate to pay homage, hoping that the images of their ancestors can help relieve droughts or plagues. Sages still roam through the countryside, it seems, drawing on ancient folklore and contemporary anxieties, feeding off the gullibility of the desperate and deprived. It was always thus. The same forces that created the mass rebellions in the nineteenth century were also responsible for the success of the Communist Party and the various radical secret societies that preceded it.

In the harsh circumstances of China's interior, religion becomes a means of exerting some sort of control over the environment. An overdependence on the elements usually creates the need for superstition, or a means of circumventing the odds. Ritual and old wives' tales usually prevail. During the SARS crisis this year, a remarkable story spread rapidly through the provinces. Babies would emerge from the womb and begin advising their new parents to set off firecrackers in order to fight off the disease. Other related tales referred to long-term mutes suddenly breaking their silence to declare that SARS could be repelled with firecrackers and joss sticks. The mutes, having wrested truth from the heavens, would then die, instantly, for their impertinence. As these tales crossed the province, city folk would mock. The message, arising from talking frogs in Shanxi Province or the talking babies of Henan, was more or less the same, and the firecrackers - 'the thunder to kill the serpent' – were heard in Guangdong, close to Hongkong, and in Shandong, on the eastern coast.

This isn't to say that there are no such superstitions in the cities. Cabbies hang laminated cards of Chairman Mao on their windshields in the hope that his spirit could protect them. Some might argue that Marxism as a whole is nothing but superstition, with its millenarian insistence that the dialectic will soon emerge to solve all our worries. Party Elders do nothing to dispel such ideas when they jokingly refer to their deaths as opportunities to 'see Marx'.

In any case, in China, Mao at least remains something of a totem or lucky charm. On the way to the Three Gorges Dam, a mountain bearing an uncanny resemblance to the prone old leader was said to indicate his satisfaction with the feat of engineering below him. As veteran China watcher Orville Schell wrote a decade ago, 'Wherever I've gone in China during the past few years, I've heard tales of people who have allegedly been saved by Mao.'

'Because Mao has become divine like a god, he can bring good luck,' a shopkeeper in Wushi explained as she wrapped up some Mao pendants I had just bought. 'Some people say the old guy can even protect you from bad fortune!' She shrugged and gave an embarrassed laugh. I've heard stories about drivers who claim that the protection afforded by a Mao amulet allowed them to walk away uninjured from the scene of a hideous crash while those without one were maimed for life, and tales of street vendors who escaped robbery and even murder because they had fortified themselves with a photo of Mao. I was hardly surprised to hear that huge numbers of destitute peasants in southeast China bought Mao talismans after the catastrophic floods of the summer of last year.'

During national festivals, the streets are festooned with lanterns or 'double happiness' posters. Fireworks, when they are not used to ward off evil spirits, are employed to announce marriages or childbirths to the Gods. These, one suspects, are mere rituals, something you do for the sake of it, something a society shares for no very good reason. It would be hard to suggest that these ceremonies played a significant part in the lives of Shanghai's nouveaux riche.

For most people living in China's cities – and I am not just talking about the substantial foreign population – the Chinese countryside is another world, however. Imagine you are working the fields and suddenly a big gaping hole the size of a truck appears in front of you. You know nothing about subsidence, or seismicity. You think within the bounds of your experience, which involves simple procedures of human agency. If you throw a bale of hay at Mr. Chen, Mr. Chen may throw a rock at you, and causality is pretty transparent. If, however, your house has been demolished by storms or floods, you might be led to believe that you need to please or appease someone, somewhere. Shortly afterwards, if someone comes along and says that he's been ritually inhaling the fumes from melting virgins for the last ten years, and has suffered no such catastrophes, you might well be inclined to try the method out.. After all, what is there to lose? Post hoc ergo propter hoc, and all that.

For those who have visited Shanghai - with its jagged sci-fi skylines, the snarling traffic snaking off for miles and miles, the hoards of sophisticates milling to and from their designer restaurants and high-class boutiques, the gleaming billboards, the glitter and dazzle of the city's nightlife – it might be difficult to imagine the discrepancy between rural and urban communities in China. After all, if you are a first time visitor, you might still be getting over the shock that Shanghai isn't in fact a totalitarian concentration camp consisting primarily of gulags and paddy fields, peasants and policemen.

And yet, for those who have seen the villages, struggling at subsistence level, battered by the State and pushed around by the elements, it is quite understandable why the national government has committed itself, as a matter of urgency, to raising incomes in the countryside. They are aiming not merely to reduce the income divide, but the educational, social and cultural gap between cities and villages. They are trying to reduce the vulnerability of these villages to the variety of shamans and heresiarchs that roam through the plains. If you are dirt poor and desperate, you tend to believe anything, as the recent surge in support for the banned Falungong cult demonstrated.

China is experiencing unprecedented social changes, and millions are going to get hurt. If you have been thrown into the gutter by your local government office, if the school your children have been attending is suddenly closed because the state-owned enterprise that ran it has been forced into bankruptcy, if you are being evicted from your home to make way for a new highway or high-rise, what do you turn to? There are those who tell you that you are a part of a glorious past, and that such glories can again be resurrected.

The Triads were born in the midst of clashes between poverty-stricken native Chinese - beset by floods and sorrows - and the Manchurian usurpers of the Qing dynasty. Thousands of secret societies were created, forced to use intrigue and perfidy, relying on native superstitions and the idea of a Golden Age – the Ming Dynasty - to sustain them. The same sort of social dynamics – poverty, and an overdependence on the elements – also created the Taiping Rebellion, an insane movement that came close to overturning the entire nation.

The government, after the experiences of the Cultural Revolution, is terrified of the masses, and hopes to improve the lot of the nation's sizeable rural population. The 'well-off society', the slogan of the last Party congress, has good old-fashioned political motives, and they are not entirely dishonorable.

The reasoning is that if the peasants all have televisions, they will be less likely to pay any attention to the various mountebanks, snake-charmers and cult leaders ambling into their village. Information will be transmitted clearly, instead of being garbled and mystified by the process of word-of-mouth. The opinions of frogs, one presumes, would be less likely to play a part.

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