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LEAP YEAR IS STEP BACK

JIUJIANG, CHINA — JIUJIANG, China -- On New Year's Day, the Zhang family plastered red good-luck banners above their doorway, wishing for health, wealth and a good harvest in 1995. Now, the rain-smeared characters hover just above the water line in their flooded village -- testament to a run of bad luck.

Mrs. Zhang looks at the flood waters -- reportedly the highest this century -- and shakes her head. "It's because of 'ren ba yue,' you know -- double August. This is an unlucky year."

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It's a lunar leap year in China, when an extra month is added to the lunar calendar to make it match the 365-day solar calendar. When the double month falls in August -- every 19 years -- tradition dictates that tragedy will follow.

The last "double August," in 1976, certainly fulfilled doomsayers' predictions. An earthquake in Tangshan killed 240,000 people. Floods and droughts ravaged the country, a meteorite struck and Chairman Mao Tse-tung died.

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This year, the parallels are too ominous to ignore: Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is in poor health. Extreme weather, from record-breaking floods and earthquakes to reports of raining frogs, has people worried.

Fei Lengshui, a rice farmer from Hubei province, is one of 60,000 refugees who has lost a home in the Yangtze River flood. She and her 90-year-old mother wear red ribbons in their gray hair.

"The red is for luck," she says. "We need extra luck this year."

In Jiangxi province, where the floods have hit hard, red umbrellas and clothes are selling out. Families prepare 100 tiny dumplings to symbolically wrap up all the bad luck. Amulet sellers say business has jumped for old jade, said to deflect evil.

The Chinese government, which has outlawed fortune-tellers in its continuing battle against superstition, has tried to quiet fears.

In February, the Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, published an article titled, "An Eighth Leap Month is Not Necessarily Linked to Natural Disasters."

But many have more faith in the stars.


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