XIANLING VILLAGE, China — Local businessman Cai Yong thought it would be a good idea to buy 3,000 cobra eggs and then hatch the snakes at an abandoned school building in homemade cages of plywood, brick and netting.
Cai's plan to make money by selling cobra venom for traditional Chinese medicine fell apart when more than 160 of the serpents slithered through a hole in the wall and threw the remote village of Xianling into bedlam. Starting at the beginning of this month, cobras were spotted in outhouse toilets, kitchens, front yards and the mah-jongg parlor in this tiny farming community in southwest China.
"I saw one in the bathroom," said Zhang Suli, the 47-year-old wife of a local corn and rice farmer. "I was scared, and I started screaming."
State media described Zhang pulling up her pants as she ran away from the toilet, but she made no mention of her state of dress during a recent interview.
The Mid-Autumn Festival holiday this week, when Chinese celebrate the season's harvest moon, hasn't been an auspicious one for the residents of Xianling.
First, there was the cobras-gone-wild story, which veered between slapstick and terror. Then an apparent government clampdown followed, in which officials declared that most of the snakes had been captured and all was well, assertions that many locals didn't believe.
Perhaps more than anything, the episode is a reminder that no problem or locale is too remote for the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to enforce its notion of a "harmonious society" in which there's no social upset. Even when it comes to cobras in the toilet.
Walking up a path that led to the village amid small rice fields and rolling hills, Guan Xinyu paused to say that local officials were more interested in clamping down any sign of trouble than in rounding up the snakes. Like several others interviewed in the area, Guan said that while the 1,500-plus cobras that didn't escape were hauled off, he hadn't seen anyone trying to catch the ones that got away.
"The government is scared of people panicking because these snakes are dangerous," said Guan, a 64-year-old villager who does construction work in the city of Chongqing, a little less than 50 miles to the north. "I know they didn't catch all the snakes."