Police in southwestern China have defended their decision to punish a woman for “spreading rumours” after she claimed that digging up an ancient sculpture had caused heavy rain and flooding in the region.
Social media users have been demanding that the government restore the sculpture to its original after the woman, who was only identified by her surname Yang, started making her demands online late last month.
“Some people don’t understand why she was punished, because they haven’t realised how many residents in Chengdu, Sichuan believed the claim and wrote to the mayor on that matter,” police said in a post on the microblogging platform Weibo on Thursday.
The 2,300-year-old stone rhino was unearthed by archaeologists in Sichuan’s capital city Chengdu in 2013.
The statute is over 3 metres (10ft) long and almost 2 metres high and, according to the Chengdu Museum’s website, it may have been buried by the celebrated irrigation engineer Li Bing.
Li, who lived in the era of the Qin dynasty over 2,200 years ago, designed the oldest functioning irrigation system in the world, the Dujiangyan.
The system, which still irrigates over 668,700 hectares of farmland, was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2000.
According to a popular local tradition, rhinos are a divine beast that can help stop flooding and some chronicles have claimed that Li Bing buried five stone rhinos to stop flooding after the construction of Dujiangyan.
Sichuan has recorded higher than usual rainfall this summer, with heavy rain of over 80mm on five days in the past month.
The rains have caused extensive flooding that has forced around 94,300 people to evacuate their homes and caused an estimated 3 billion yuan (US$452 million) in damage.
Earlier this week the floods triggered landslides that killed three people and thousands of passengers were left stranded at airports.
“There is no scientific evidence suggesting that the sculpture has caused the heavy rain and floods in the past few weeks,” a staff member at Chengdu Museum told Southern Metropolis News on Wednesday. “It’s the rainy season in southern China now.”
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The mayor’s office replied to one online query about the rhino by pointing out that it was still buried in 1947 and 1981 when the region suffered some of its heaviest ever floods.
The official added: “The sculpture never left Tianfu Square – where it was unearthed – since the excavation.”
But social media users remained unconvinced.
“Mayor, please think it through and put the stone rhino back to where it was,” wrote one person, citing the cost of flooding to the economy. “Our ancestors placed it there for a reason.”
Over 2,000 people commented on the police’s Weibo account, around a third of whom appeared to believe the statue could help protect against floods.
Police did not say how many people had written to the mayor about the statue and were quoted only as saying that Yang received an “administrative penalty”, a term which refers to non-criminal punishments in China. It was not clear whether this meant she had been fined, detained or merely given a warning.