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China’s most famous book of prophecies, the 7th century Tui Bei Tu, makes no direct mention of the end of the world.But in Sichuan province, panic buying of candles has swept through two counties in the fear that an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on December 21 proves to be true.
“Candles are selling by the hundreds, with buyers constantly coming to the market. Many stores have run out,” said Huang Zhaoli, a shopper at the Neijing Wholesale Market, to the West China City Daily newspaper.
Mr Li, the owner of the Guangfa grocery store in Chengdu, added: “Lots of people have been buying candles recently. At first, we had no idea why. But then we heard someone muttering about the continuous darkness”.
The source of the panic was traced to a post on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, predicting that there will be three days of darkness when the apocalypse arrives.
Since the beginning of December, the word “Mayans” has trended on Weibo as millions of normally phlegmatic Chinese speculate that the end is nigh. “If the Mayans are right, I won’t pay my credit card bill,” was one popular post.
In Shanghai, the police have had to issue a public warning about doomsday. “The end of the world is a rumour,” the police said, in an internet post. “Do not believe it and do not be swindled”.
A spokesman said they had handled 25 apocalypse-related cases in one 24-hour stretch. Most of the scam artists took advantage of credulous pensioners, encouraging them to hand over their savings for one last act of charity.
In Nanjing, a 54-year-old university professor’s wife took out a £100,000 mortgage on her £300,000 home, saying she would donate the money to underprivileged children, saying she hoped to “do something meaningful before the world ended”.
Last month, a man in the far west province of Xinjiang made news when he spent his life savings of £100,000 to build an ark for 20 people.
Lu Zhenghai began building the 65ft ship in 2010. “When the time comes, everyone can take refuge in it.” However, as the deadline approaches, Mr Lu has reportedly run out of cash to finish the boat.
He said if the apocalypse failed to materialise, he would use the boat to take tourists on sightseeing tours.
In Chengdu, a web company has given its workers a tongue-in-cheek two-day break on Dec 19 and 20. “We suggest you take advantage of this ‘final’ time to spend more time with your closest family. We wish everyone a meaningful doomsday,” it said.
China has no history of preoccupation with the apocalypse, and the current wave of paranoia can be traced to the 2009 Hollywood disaster film “2012”. While the movie received a tepid welcome elsewhere, it was a smash hit in China, as viewers were seduced by a plot that saw the Chinese military build arks to save humanity.
Lu Jiehua, a professor with the Department of Sociology at Peking University, told the Global Times, meanwhile, that the paranoia reflects a general anxiety running through Chinese society.
“This panic buying [in Sichuan] not only shows people’s fear of an upcoming apocalypse, but also reflects their sense of uncertainty toward life and society,” he said.
Additional reporting by Valentina Luo