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Superstitions fly as Chinese reel from a bad (luck) year

People are rethinking lucky numbers and buying up canned peaches thought to ward off harm, in light of China's recent earthquake, train crash, and Tibet protests.

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August 8 has been regarded as a particularly auspicious date, both for its numbers and for the fact that the Olympic Games, a matter of intense pride to most Chinese, will open on that day. Beijing hospitals say they are expecting a spike in births that day, according to the state-run press, even if it means an even higher number than normal of C-section deliveries.

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Parents of prospective "Olympic babies," however, laid their plans before doubts set in about just how lucky the number 8, or even the Games themselves, actually are.

Heretical numerologists have been all over the Chinese Internet in recent weeks, reading ominous significance into the string of misfortunes that have struck China in recent months.

The heaviest snowfall in 50 years that paralysed the south of China over the Lunar New Year holiday fell on January 25, ie 1/25. Add one to two to five, suggest the woe-mongers, and you get eight.

Same with the date that riots broke out in Tibet – 3/14, they point out. Same again with the date of the Sichuan earthquake – 5/12. To make matters worse, the earthquake struck 88 days before the opening day of the Olympics, which perhaps means double bad luck.

Then there's the "Curse of the Fuwas," those five cuddly Olympic mascots, each with a regional or mythical association, that some diviners of ill-fortune say represent a ghastly premonition.

One is a panda, native to Sichuan. Another is an antelope, native to Tibet. A third carries a torch, recalling the embarrassment of the protests that dogged the international torch relay. Another holds a kite, symbolic of China's kite-flying culture that was born in Shandong, in April the site of the country's deadliest train crash in decades.

What might the fifth, a fish, portend? The floods that have displaced more than 1.5 million people in southern China in recent days?

Fighting superstition

The government takes this kind of talk seriously. Official censors have tried to take down all the Internet posts that refer to the alleged "curse," though they keep springing up elsewhere. And in Tianjin, a modern port city 80 miles east of Beijing, the municipal TV station invited an expert last weekend to rebut rumors that had seized the city suggesting that the nation's misfortunes somehow threatened Tianjin's children.

Those fears had prompted a run on firecrackers, as parents resorted to the traditional Chinese way of warding off evil spirits – making a lot of noise – and on canned peaches.

Why canned peaches? Because the Mandarin word for a peach, "tao" is a homophone for the word that means "escape": Children who eat peaches will thus escape malign supernatural forces.

"Not everyone believes these rumors, but people will spend money to buy peace of mind," says Chen Zhonglin, a professor of social policy at Tianjin's Nankai University. "They are looking for psychological security ... in a society with big changes every day."

Intellectuals bemoan citizens' predilection for omens of good and bad fortune, and many would agree with Professor Xia, who says the only way to combat superstition "is to popularize science and raise the people's cultural level."

Good luck to them.