Witches and ‘Poisonous Cats’: A Scholar’s Search for Society’s Scapegoats
Wang Mingke has spent much of his adult life studying society’s fringes.
One of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese minority groups, the Taiwan-born, Harvard-trained historian and anthropologist has devoted the past several decades to studying the Qiang, an often-overlooked ethnic group sandwiched between Han and Tibetan communities along the eastern frontier of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
In his seminal work on the subject, “Straddling Between the Han and the Tibetan,” Wang differentiates between Qiang’s modern usage as the name for a single, well-defined group and its historical roots as a catch-all for an indistinct “other” residing on China’s borderlands. The book, published in Chinese in 2003, relied on extensive fieldwork on a group of isolated villages in the southwestern Sichuan province. Although officially classified as Qiang, the villagers self-identified as Erma and maintained a fierce sense of cultural independence from both the Han communities downstream and their fellow minority communities upstream, whom they saw as “barbarians.”
In the course of his fieldwork, Wang became convinced that understanding these tight-knit, insular communities was key, not just to unlocking the origins of human civilization, but also its present. His 2021 book, “A Theory of Poisonous Cats,” explores one of the most marginalized groups within these villages: women accused of witchcraft. Known in the local language as “poisonous cats,” villagers are hostile toward these women out of a belief they can transform into animals and perform magic.
It’s a near universal form of violence across humanity, one that Wang, always interested in the broader applications of his work, has linked to current hot-button issues like social media “tribalization” and anti-Asian hate.
Recently retired from Taiwan’s prestigious Academia Sinica, Wang recently spoke to Sixth Tone from Beijing, where he has taken a faculty position at Peking University. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, he shared his thoughts on the importance of studying early societies, the violence insular groups do to internal as well as external enemies, and what our prehistory can tell us about the social media age.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sixth Tone: Why is it crucial to recognize and understand so-called primitive communities, where paternal relatives are also neighbors, and neighbors are likewise paternal relatives?
Wang Mingke: Because humans have never completely abandoned this community form. Throughout history, rulers relied on assumed divinity and blood connections to hold power. Even the concept of nation-states emphasizes an imagined unity based on blood and geography. People continue to form various types of “families” with those around them, such as church communities, political parties, criminal organizations, even school groups. Within these communities, individuals refer to each other as “brothers,” “sisters,” or “compatriots” and frequently gather in spaces reminiscent of a home. All this serves to highlight and reinforce a sense of homogeneity and unity among members.
In other words, the sense of identity found in primitive communities is rooted in powerful emotional needs.
Sixth Tone: Is violence also characteristic of these communities?
Wang: Yes. Inwardly, primitive communities can serve as warm shelters. At the same time, however, they harbor hostility toward outsiders and the external world. What’s more, when faced with external pressures, people within the community may become suspicious and fearful that enemies from outside have infiltrated. They therefore fear both external enemies and internal enemies and of the two, they are often more hostile toward the latter.
The fear, suspicion, and violence embedded in primitive communities and in humanity’s distant past have not disappeared. They have awakened at different times and in different corners of the world. For instance, U.S. government animosity toward China has triggered animosity toward Chinese Americans within American society.
Sixth Tone: Your book “A Theory of Poisonous Cats” delves deeper into this phenomenon.
Wang: Indeed. The legend of the “poisonous cat” is widespread in ethnically Qiang villages in northern Sichuan. The accused typically possess several marginal characteristics: They are female, usually elderly, and many have married into the village from elsewhere. Caught between the village’s fear of external enemies and its suspicions about internal foes, these individuals occupy a complex position: neither fully assimilated nor wholly excluded. Consequently, they become convenient scapegoats for various ills. They can be targeted at any time to alleviate intra-village tensions and unify the community.
Sixth Tone: In your book, you relate the experiences of these women to societal scapegoats from other periods of history, including witches in early modern Europe. But you also note that “poisonous cats” often possess more agency than the scapegoat term might imply, right?
Wang: Absolutely. Scapegoats are entirely innocent and lack the ability to retaliate. Poisonous cats exhibit a defiant and antisocial mentality. For instance, within a traditional Chinese extended family, there may be a daughter-in-law who is treated as an outsider and unfairly blamed when problems arise. In traditional novels or dramas, this young daughter-in-law often resorts to tearful threats of self-harm, but she also might seek revenge through various means, such as spreading rumors about family scandals or inciting chaos by leaving the household. In such circumstances, she transforms into a “poisonous cat.”
Sixth Tone: So, can we consider the poisonous cats of Qiang society to be like the “witches” of medieval Europe?
Wang: There are certainly similarities between the two. Both witches and poisonous cats are invented enemies. However, the difference lies in the fact that the phenomenon of poisonous cats is limited to the internal dynamics of a village, often appearing as idle gossip that eventually fades away. On the other hand, in the case of witches, Europe witnessed a widespread witch-hunting hysteria.
I’m not suggesting that poisonous cats do not suffer; their lives are miserable. Based on my research, many women accused of being poisonous cats are socially ostracized, and even their daughters have difficulty finding marriage prospects. However, these poisonous cats in Qiang villages did not endure the same level of persecution as found in the witch-hunting campaigns in European history.
Sixth Tone: Why did similar phenomena lead to such different results?
Wang: I am not an expert in that area, so I can only share some of my personal views. First, the fear and panic caused by the Black Death contributed to a sense of external threat and increased vigilance in Europe. Second, the religious conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism intensified people’s concerns about heresy and evil. Finally, the emergence of nationalism made ruling elites more focused on the purity of people’s thoughts as a means of maintaining social order.
What can we learn from this? It is evident that the large-scale witch-hunting in Europe was driven by the intertwining of religion and politics.
Sixth Tone: Lately, there has been a growing belief that social networks also foster a kind of “tribalization,” as internet users form groups that are internally supportive but hostile to non-members. This is something you explored in your recent book, so I’m curious to hear your perspective.
Wang: I delved into this phenomenon in the final chapter of “A Theory of Poisonous Cats.” However, I used the term “online villages” instead of “tribes.”
To comprehend these online villages, we must first understand the characteristics of primitive communities. First, there is the primal sense of community experienced at the beginning of an individual’s life. It’s the feeling we all have when we are born: being in a small room, surrounded by loved ones, enjoying a warm and secure space. As we journey through life, we leave this cozy nest and encounter challenges and hardships. We experience bullying and tears, and might seek solace in our hometowns in our twenties or thirties after facing setbacks in our education or careers. Family represents a place where blood ties and territorial connections merge, providing a safe and nurturing haven.
The second aspect of these communities can be traced back to settlement communities in the Neolithic era, akin to the Qiang ethnic villages I have studied over the years. These communities typically consist of 20 or 30 households, with a total population of less than a hundred. Here, kinship and spatial group identity intertwine, turning relatives into neighbors and neighbors into relatives.
Sixth Tone: Despite contemporary society showing a tendency toward individualism, people still yearn for the sense of security and belonging that primitive communities can provide, and online communities fulfill that function. Is that an accurate summary?
Wang: Yes, essentially. Nowadays, individuals have the freedom to lead independent lives, yet they still crave a sense of belonging. For many people, their sense of belonging revolves around their smartphones.
We often come across news stories about cyberbullying, where individuals become victims and tragically take their own lives. One might question why these individuals don’t simply disconnect from the internet. After all, if they avoid looking at their phones, their harassers can’t reach them. However, the issue lies in the heavy reliance many people have on online communities due to a lack of social interaction and a sense of belonging in the real world. The cruelty of the matter extends beyond the online bullying itself. They find themselves unable to detach from their online communities, and wind up enduring a storm within what should have been a safe refuge, ultimately leading to their collapse.
(Header image: Abandoned buildings in a Qiang village in Li County, Sichuan province, 2018, Kuang Cao/VCG)