Spiritual CULTivation

In China, Falun Gong practitioners are beaten and persecuted, so the U.S. is granting them asylum. But is this movement as harmless as it seems?

Before Li Hongzhi -- "Master Li" to his millions of followers -- was exiled from China, new converts to his brand of meditation exercises filled Beijing's parks every morning. At dawn, large groups, mostly consisting of older women, gathered to practice the fluid body movements that promised to better channel the qi -- or energy -- through their bodies and promote well-being. Such qigong (energy movement) activity has a long history in China. Though once banned by Mao Zedong for its superstitious and unscientific nature, it was tolerated by the government after the Communist Party founder's death.

After all, a healthy citizenry was in the government's interest, and qigong got a lot of people exercising. The post-Mao government was less concerned with whether the notion of qi (pronounced "chee") had any merit, and qigong programs flourished, each one besting the others in its claims of healing disease and even delivering supernatural powers. During China's new market economy of the 1980s, qigong masters turned entrepreneurial and produced a number of best-selling books and videotapes. Each qigong method was touted as new, but they all involved various breathing techniques and tai chi-like moves.

"Some qigong masters became as popular as rock stars," says Nancy Chen, an anthropologist at UC Santa Cruz who's studied the qigong phenomenon for 10 years. "And some became swindlers. There were a lot of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers around."

Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.
Wild Don Lewis
Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.
Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.
Wild Don Lewis
Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.

Quack qigong masters traveled the country, drawing large crowds and promising to heal desperate and uneducated people for a price. Many believers were foregoing medical treatment and getting sick. Clearly, qigong had gotten out of control. So the government decided to regulate the qigong industry. "The government saw it as a public health issue, saying, 'Let's get these practitioners licensed,'" Chen says. "Not everyone welcomed it. Certain masters felt targeted or singled out. But the government felt it was justified in its regulation of qigong, though some have claimed it went too far."

Master Li began offering his version of qigong in 1992. His Falun Gong program stood out, because besides promoting good health, it also taught an ideology. Though Li streamlined the movements and eliminated the breathing component of qigong, he added a belief system that blended Buddhist and Taoist ideas with a few of his own. Falun Gong transcended all religious and political views, he claimed, and would allow practitioners to maximize their human existence by understanding their greater roles in the universe.

Master Li made qigong uniquely spiritual, and the Chinese government would soon come to regret it. Falun Gong became a national craze. Thousands packed auditoriums in every city where Master Li delivered his lectures, raptly listening to his admonitions against immorality and his revelations of an exciting destiny beyond this world. Soon, Master Li's popularity eclipsed that of any qigong master peddling a now-passé exercise-only routine.

Nervous that Li had so much mass appeal, qigong regulators gave him a hard time. Eventually, the government pressured him to leave the country. Master Li could expose Chinese-Americans to his movement from his new home in New York, but Chinese citizens on the mainland would be free from his influence.

Or so officials thought. They had no idea what a stronghold Falun Gong already had in China. And by the time Li was exiled in 1997, the Internet had grown and adherents were already using it to spread his message. Master Li made few public appearances after moving to the U.S.; he didn't have to. His followers maintained a grass-roots network of Web sites from which converts could download his teachings. Local workshops were organized all over the world as people met and talked via e-mail.

In Li's absence, Falun Gong exercises were at first tolerated in China's parks along with all the other approved types of qigong. "Initially, the government treated Falun Gong as a qigong organization that needed to be regulated," Chen says. "But then they changed their tune, and decided it was a cult." When the government realized how large Master Li's following in China really was, any Falun Gong activity was abruptly stopped. At first the tactics were subtle -- for instance, propaganda portraying Master Li as a swindler and his Falun Gong a phony version of qigong. But when 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners massed in Tiananmen Square last April to protest the smear campaign, the Communist Party's crackdown was swift. The giant demonstration -- seemingly both spontaneous and leaderless -- caught the police state by surprise. Paranoid it could so easily lose control of its citizens, the Chinese government has spent the past year scrambling to eradicate Falun Gong's hold over China's people. But, Chen says, "the resilience of this group is breathtaking."

Communist Party leaders are paying attention to history. Falun Gong reminds them too much of past spiritual movements that were big enough to destabilize the country and even lead to the fall of empires. In the mid-1800s, the Taiping Rebellion severely weakened China's last imperial dynasty when a man claiming to be Jesus' younger brother won over millions of followers and sparked a bloody civil war. At the turn of the 20th century, the failed Boxer Uprising was a final blow to the Qing dynasty. Members of the Fists of Righteousness and Harmony rioted fearlessly, believing their qigonglike exercises made them bulletproof.

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