Chinese and International Contexts for the Rise of Falun Gong

Scott Lowe. Nova Religio. Volume 6, Issue 2. 2003.


Like most religion scholars, I was surprised by Falun Gong’s sudden appearance on the international scene, in the wake of the nonviolent protest of more than 10,000 practitioners at the Zhongnanhai on 25 April 1999. Many of us watched with interest and growing alarm as the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) grew increasingly strident in its denunciation of Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa). Soon the media were filled with reports of violent arrests, torture, and even deaths of followers of this apparently innocuous group, as the public protests continued.

Scholars and concerned individuals around the globe found the growing crackdown on Falun Gong perplexing, especially as the government’s repression was widened to target a range of unorthodox (from a “Communist” bureaucrat’s perspective) but apparently inoffensive religious groups. Reporters scrambled to discover the reasons behind the apparently explosive growth of Falun Gong and several other less well known groups, as they also sought explanations for the governmental response that seemed disproportionate to any imaginable threat these groups might pose.

Many religion scholars soon discovered that the information readily available on Falun Gong had serious weaknesses. Though few media reports were completely unreasonable and many seemed convincing, it was also apparent that most people reporting on the subject had little firm data to support their claims and theories.

It is fairly easy to formulate plausible sociological explanations for Falun Gong’s rise, and I will start by giving an overview of this material, since it is important, of course, to consider the big picture. However, the research for this article focuses on the growth of Falun Gong on the smallest level, that of individual practitioners.

While it often seems that society-wide moral, economic, and existential factors are the main determinants in the growth, development, and decline of new religious movements, most of us probably suspect that many of these broad social “macro-issues” are of only secondary concern in, if not completely irrelevant to, the thinking of the individuals who join these groups.

To discover what motivated individuals to begin and then become ardent practitioners of Falun Gong, I conducted an Internet survey of committed followers of the movement in June 2000. Though I had many questions about Falun Gong, I decided to narrow my inquiry to just two areas of interest: 1) why and how Falun Gong has grown so quickly; and 2) what is the basis of its appeal. I received 85 complete responses, and although the information received is in some ways inconclusive, the responses suggest answers to several questions about the group’s spread, the most surprising of which is that the Internet appears to have played a very small role in attracting my respondents to the practice of Falun Gong.

The results of the survey will be discussed after we first examine the larger contexts, though even here I will be incorporating insights drawn from the survey.

What Is Falun Gong?

In order to get a sense of Falun Gong we need first to consider a few definitions:

Qi (or ch’i) is a Chinese term for an energy that pervades the cosmos, circulates within the human body, and is found in all living beings. It is commonly believed that this energy can be cultivated, concentrated, and transmitted from one person to another. Much of Chinese traditional medicine works with the flow of qi within the patient’s body.

Gong usually means meritorious effort or work, though it sometimes means method of training. For Master Li, the founder of Falun Gong, gong carries all the preceding connotations; however, it is important to note that he uses the word in an additional, idiosyncratic sense to refer to a special kind of energy produced through spiritual cultivation. According to Master Li, this gong energy is stored in a coil that spirals around the outside of the practitioner’s body. When sufficient gong is accumulated, it forms a column or pole extending above the head of the practitioner. Naturally, this energy is invisible to most of us, but spiritually advanced individuals whose “celestial eye” (tian mu) has been opened can see gong columns “in other dimensions” and know instantly the spiritual level of others. When one’s gong level rises high enough, one’s body is transformed into “high energy matter” and one subsequently reaches enlightenment.

Qigong is a generic term for any kind of physical/spiritual discipline that enables one to gather and circulate qi energy through one’s body. It is widely believed in China that the free circulation of qi promotes physical health and spiritual balance. Blockage of qi produces disharmony, unhappiness, and disease of all kinds. Most modern forms of qigong use simple, graceful body movements, breathing exercises and meditation to achieve spiritual and physical health. While the antecedents of qigong are legitimately ancient, the term itself and many of the most popular forms of practice were created in the twentieth century.

Fa is the Chinese translation of dharma, a multivalent Sanskrit term that, in this context, can best be translated as “cosmic law,” the divine principles governing the universe. Lun is Chinese for “wheel,” so falun means “the wheel of cosmic law.” Master Li teaches that the falun, which is prominently displayed in nearly all Falun Gong publications, is more than a symbol; it is “a miniature of the universe that possesses all of the universe’s capabilities.” Practitioners of Falun Gong believe that they each have a falun, installed by Master Li, rotating back and forth in their abdomen, alternately absorbing and radiating energy 24 hours a day.

Consummation is the English word usually used for the final state sought by practitioners of Falun Gong. The precise nature of this state is rather difficult for non-practitioners to comprehend. At times, Master Li describes it in terms of spiritual enlightenment, making it sound similar to popular conceptions of the Buddhist nirvana. In other passages, consummation seems more like a form of deification-through-death that confers godlike powers and spiritual immortality upon advanced practitioners, especially those who are killed while defending the Fa. These martyred practitioners continue to retain their personal identities in a “higher dimension,” even though they no longer exist in this world.

Falun Gong is the form of qigong Li Hongzhi began teaching in 1992. It is composed of five exercises that combine stretching, breathing, and meditation. Though the exercises of Falun Gong are distinctive enough to be spotted by China’s security forces when practitioners perform them in public, they are generically recognizable as a variant of qigong.

The People’s Republic of China

Though there is no space in this article to discuss the last thirty years of Chinese history, it should be understood that the disillusionment that followed the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76)— and the subsequent discrediting of Maoist ideology—set the stage for all the developments to be discussed below.

Followers of the qigong-based new religious movement called Falun Gong claim to have 70 to 100 million practitioners in their movement worldwide; some sources claim more. Even the government of the PRC concedes that at one point in the recent past, there were 2 million followers of the group on the mainland. Reporters in China think that 20 million is a possible figure. Whatever the actual numbers, it is clear that Falun Gong has enjoyed extraordinary growth since its founding in 1992. The potential threat posed by Falun Gong must seem quite formidable, judging by the propaganda war the PRC has launched against it.

It is worth noting that Falun Gong is only the most visible of several similar qigong groups that enjoyed rapid growth during the 1990s, in part because of governmental efforts to rehabilitate selected preventative practices of traditional Chinese medicine. Motivated by both national pride and a dire need to cut medical costs, the government allowed and even encouraged research into various forms of qigong. This led to the widespread perception that these practices were endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As of September 1999 a number of these other large qigong organizations were targeted for elimination, and even the public practice of qigong by organized groups was somewhat ambiguously outlawed. Whether any of this would have happened had Falun Gong not begun its public protests is, of course, unknown.

Most observers of modern China have been struck by the dislocations produced by China’s rapid economic growth and the associated collapse of social support structures. Demographers have estimated that at any one time there may be as many as 100 million unemployed or seasonally unemployed Chinese traveling across the country looking for work. Anyone visiting the PRC can see whole families packed onto a bicycle, riding into the city with all their belongings lashed to the frame. At the same time, the most popular car on the street appears to be the Lexus, with the windows invariably tinted an opaque Mafia black. It is obvious that social stratification is on the rise.

The millions of losers in this Darwinian struggle are in difficult straits. The further one travels from Beijing, the more likely one is to be approached by beggars and con artists, an experience that was unimaginable only twenty years ago. The truly poor are not, in my opinion, particularly attracted to new religious movements like Falun Gong, since their primary concern is survival. However their public visibility must accentuate the fears of the retirees and workers laid off from unprofitable government-run factories who can see in the truly poor a terrifying vision of what their own futures might become. These retirees and former factory workers, reasonably well-educated but too old for second careers, do appear to be attracted to Falun Gong, as do the more prosperous peasant farmers. Many have found solace in the teaching that true practitioners of Falun Gong will enjoy perfect health and, after burning off their karma through unavoidable suffering, a blissful, enlightened future.

China now has a larger number of retired persons than it has ever had in its history. The population is aging at the same time that belated population control efforts have significantly reduced the number of children in each family. Most of the elderly worked their entire lives with the faith that the state would provide for their health care and old age maintenance. Now that China’s social safety net has largely collapsed, few have adequate savings or sufficient children to provide for their support. And, of course, the retired and newly unemployed workers now have more leisure time than at any previous point in their lives.

Public moral standards seem to have fallen with the safety net, to the great concern of the law-abiding moral majority. Among the young there is a curious nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution that in some ways parallels a similar longing among those young adults in the United States who romanticize the Summer of Love and the communal lifestyle of the hippies.

The rage for Mao buttons and other talismans from the glory days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which is so visible in cities like Chengdu (the capital of the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan), can be understood as an outward manifestation of the inner desire for absolute standards and unambiguous truth. Falun Gong definitely attracts Chinese, both young and old, who miss the moral certitude, sense of purpose, and group solidarity of the recent past, as a number of my respondents made clear. This helps explain the many young college-age practitioners drawn to Falun Gong.

Until 1999 Falun Gong had excellent public credibility in the PRC. Practitioners talked enthusiastically of the benefits Falun Gong had brought to their lives, and this functioned as a powerful recruiting tool, especially within families and circles of friends. Outside the PRC this form of informal recruiting is still functioning well.

Master Li Hongzhi’s talks have been transcribed and edited into books, available both in print and electronic form; these texts appear to hold compelling power for his followers, who accord the books the status of sacred scripture. In fact, Master Li continuously exhorts his followers to read and reread his books, since studying his teachings appears to be at least as important as practicing his form of qigong. I was struck by the number of respondents who urged me to study Zhuan Falun— “then you’ll understand.” There is some truth to this assertion; the more you read Master Li’s transcribed talks, the more they appear to make sense, as you slip into the incredibly detailed, phantasmagorical science fiction universe he describes. (Followers take Mr. Li’s injunctions to study his books very seriously; one survey respondent told me she had read Zhuan Falun 96 times.)

In Li Hongzhi’s universe, there are two forces—good and evil—and two kinds of people—true practitioners and ordinary people. The true practitioners have a predestined relationship with Falun Gong, the highest spiritual truth to be taught on this planet in ages. If they can remain faithful to Master Li’s teachings, avoiding the many hidden pitfalls and seductive traps along the path, this “gnostic” elite will become enlightened. If they fall from the straight and narrow, they will sink back to the pathetic, doomed level of ordinary people. Though the details are hidden and Master Li skillfully gives himself wiggle room, it is clear that the ordinary people are scheduled for annihilation, apparently in the near future. The thrill of belonging to a gnostic, predestined elite, following a unique and supreme teaching, can be enormously seductive.

Media accounts often give the Internet credit for Falun Gong’s remarkable growth, and the movement does have impressive websites; however, at the same time we are told that hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong’s most devoted practitioners are impoverished elderly men and women. It is hard to picture these people surfing the net on their laptops looking for spiritual fulfillment. Furthermore, very few of my computer-literate, well-educated respondents viewed the Internet as a significant force in attracting them to the practice of Falun Gong. Several specifically stated that they were initially baffled and put off by the content of the Falun Gong websites they encountered. While it has been demonstrated that the Internet is, in fact, critical to maintaining communication between Falun Gong centers and serves several other important functions for practitioners (as shown in the article by Mark R. Bell and Taylor G. Boas in this issue), it may not explain the movement’s rise.

International Contexts

There are significant numbers of well-educated Chinese intellectuals in most American, Canadian, and (to a lesser extent) European university towns. Every survey respondent from Canada and the United States had at least one advanced degree; several had multiple Master’s degrees or even two PhDs. (Only two of my respondents were not ethnically Chinese; one was a recent immigrant from Romania and the other a Euro-American.) Many of these expatriate Chinese intellectuals have found a surrogate family and a supportive community among the practitioners of Falun Gong. Perhaps more importantly, many claim to have discovered both perfect health and existential purpose through Master Li’s teachings.

Though Falun Gong websites prominently feature photographs of Euro-American practitioners, the actual percentage of non-Chinese participants in the movement seems small. I agree with the common observation that although qigong practices have significant universal appeal, relatively few non-Chinese will find Master Li’s teachings compelling, since the intellectual content of his books is quite culture specific and difficult for most Westerners to understand fully.

There are also significant Chinese diaspora communities throughout Southeast Asia, especially Singapore and Malaysia. My Southeast Asian respondents were conspicuously less educated than their American and European counterparts, yet they were clearly interested in traditional Chinese culture, spiritual practices, and medicine. For them, practicing Falun Gong may be a way of connecting with their roots and affirming their “Chineseness,” as well as a way of improving health and attaining salvation. While it is reasonable to suppose that the shaky status of once exuberant Southeast Asian economies may have launched some of my respondents on the search for more permanent values, none of them made direct reference to economic insecurity as a factor in their spiritual search or affiliation with Falun Gong.

Internet Survey

Every written source I’ve found makes many of the same reasonable assertions about the economic and social factors underlying Falun Gong’s dramatic growth. I have just repeated most of them in the preceding sections of this article. However, I also wanted to find a way for practitioners of Falun Gong to be heard, especially since I suspected that many of them felt bypassed by the debate. This suspicion was abundantly confirmed by my research. The practitioners who wrote to me seemed almost desperate in their desire for deeper understanding by the public and media. Many thanked me for undertaking the survey and expressed an ardent desire to assist any interested scholars in their investigations of Falun Gong.

In order to give a voice to the practitioners of Falun Gong, I decided to write a simple, non-threatening, relatively open-ended questionnaire that could be circulated on the Internet to a number of Falun Gong practitioners. Fearing that the questionnaire might take on a life of its own in cyberspace, like a demonic chain letter that never dies, I specified a ten day limit on responses and ended up with 85 completed surveys.

To get the survey out, I emailed it to a series of contact addresses given on an international Falun Gong website. The responses I received came predominately from individual practitioners, with the exception of the responses from Singapore and Malaysia, which were bundled together by country and each sent from a single email address.

To ensure that potential respondents would feel comfortable with the survey, I prefaced it with an explanatory letter that detailed my reasons for asking the questions and assuring the anonymity of all responses. I also deliberately restricted the survey to a small number of questions and did not ask the participants their name, gender, current address, or age, on the assumption that requesting information that might potentially be used to identify respondents might raise their guard. In retrospect this was an unnecessary precaution; the respondents to the survey proved to be extremely open and forthcoming. While Falun Gong might be under attack within the PRG, the respondents were in no way intimidated. Were I to do the survey over, I would be more direct and probe more deeply.

Here are the questions I asked and a summary of the answers received:

What is your country of birth?

Forty-five of the respondents were born in the PRG, thirty in Singapore, eight in Malaysia, one in Romania, and one in the United States. Perhaps the most intriguing fact comes from the complete absence of Taiwan-born practitioners in this sample. This probably indicates a flaw in my sampling, since there are at least eighteen centers or contact points for Falun Gong in Taiwan. However, given the relative exuberance of popular religion in Taiwan, Falun Gong is up against stiffer competition there, as well.

What is your level of education?

The Chinese respondents living in Western nations were uniformly well educated, clearly representing the expatriate elite. All had masters or PhD degrees. The respondents from Singapore and Malaysia were a mixed bag, with a smattering of university graduates among the majority who had only a primary or secondary school education. This is closer, I suspect, to what we would find in the PRG.

When did you first hear of Falun Dafa?

Though one of my respondents had heard of Falun Gong back in 1992, when it began, most became aware of it more recently, the big years being 1995 (sixteen), 1996 (fourteen), and 1998 (twenty-eight). Curiously twelve of my respondents had only heard of Falun Gong after the first protest in 1999. This suggests that most of this last group began the practice only after it had been proscribed in the PRG, on 22 July 1999, following the April protests.

How did you hear about it; from friends, co-workers, books, Internet?

Friends were the most important source of knowledge of Falun Gong, followed closely by family. Thirty-six respondents learned of Falun Gong from friends, while twenty-two were introduced to the teachings by family members (parents, siblings, and significant others). Only eight respondents learned about Falun Gong from all print, radio, and TV media sources combined. Another eight discovered Falun Gong by attending public talks. Five first heard of Falun Gong from casual acquaintances, four from observing public practice of the exercises, and one from reading Master Li’s books. Three of the four respondents who first encountered Falun Gong on the Internet also noted that friends or family actually got them to begin practicing, specifically stating that, before they tried the exercizes, the Falun Gong website (s) that they had seen were confusing. This is perhaps the most interesting finding of my survey, namely that the Internet does not appear to be a significant factor in establishing initial interest in the teachings and practice of Falun Gong, at least for this group of Internet savvy respondents.

What first attracted you to Falun Dafa?

Not surprisingly, Falun Gong’s spiritual teachings and the promise of good health were the most common responses to this question. Master Li’s philosophy and his answers to life’s most difficult questions drew twenty-two of my respondents to Falun Gong, while an additional twenty were first attracted by the promised health benefits. Nine of my respondents were drawn by the moral principles espoused by Falun Gong. Twelve were attracted by the books. Ten responded to the simplicity and power of the five exercises of Falun Gong. Two each were drawn by Master Li’s charisma, simple curiosity, and observations of other’s spiritual growth. Three respondents cited the promise of personal spiritual growth, and one the desire for superpowers, a surprisingly honest answer, since Master Li repeatedly denigrates those who practice qigong in order to gain psychic powers.

Has your focus changed since you began cultivation? If so, how?

This was clearly a confusing question for a number of respondents. Those who understood it often provided multiple answers (which seems reasonable). Seven respondents only answered the first half of the question, noting that their view of life had changed as a result of their practice but not specifying in what ways.

Ten of my respondents claimed that their focus had not changed over time. For several of them, this was clearly because they started Falun Gong with the intention of gaining enlightenment, which is, of course, still their goal. For the others we can only guess. I suspect that some of them were wary of claiming that they had changed greatly, since this might be cited by critics of Falun Gong as evidence of brain-washing. They sounded defensive in their assertions that they hadn’t changed one bit. Others were presumably already interested in the moral and spiritual growth offered by Falun Gong, so their focus had not changed.

The rest of the respondents usually commented on the rapid improvements in health that they experienced, though most now see that as a relatively trivial result of cultivation. Twenty-six respondents noted that they felt a newfound sense of moral certitude and spiritual growth. Ten discovered a firm determination to carry their cultivation through to the end goal of enlightenment or consummation, no matter what obstacles might appear in their path.

Sixteen respondents specifically commented on the explanatory power of Master Li’s teachings, comparing Falun Gong to other systems of qigong. In their view, other forms of qigong are shallow, exoteric, and superficial—mere exercise—while Falun Gong is the most complete, efficacious, and comprehensive system of spiritual cultivation on the planet. While they once thought that all qigong teachings were similar, they now realize that Falun Gong is unique.

Why do you think Falun Dafa has spread so rapidly?

This was an open-ended question, so I received multiple answers from my most thoughtful respondents. Of course, practitioners of Falun Gong might have no more insight into the movement’s growth than outside observers, but I wanted to know what they saw as their system’s main sources of attraction.

The most frequently cited reason for Falun Gong’s growth (thirty respondents) was that it is true. The teachings are authentic, comprehensive and show practitioners the inner workings of the universe. Since they are true, they are supported by the universe and therefore spread quickly. One respondent expressed surprise that Falun Gong had not spread more rapidly.

The high moral standards Master Li teaches came second in frequency. Twenty-five respondents noted that Falun Gong not only provides high moral standards, but it also gives sincere practitioners the motivation and the means for achieving truly moral behavior. As a number of respondents noted “it teaches people to be good.”

Coming right behind moral standards in frequency were the health benefits promised to practitioners (twenty-one). Here respondents demonstrated an interesting objectivity about their practice. Few of them now consider good health to be the primary benefit of their practice, but they recognize that the promise of perfect health is, in fact, a major draw for new adherents. As a secondary reason, many respondents also noted that the fact that instruction in Falun Gong is free seems to enhance its appeal. (Many qigong teachers charge a small fortune for their teachings, and in the PRC the government sets the rates for instruction and takes a large cut of the fees collected.)

The final frequently cited cause of Falun Gong’s growth (twelve) is the power of family and friendship. Respondents reminded me that in China family ties and community relationships still retain great power. Whenever someone discovers something good, they automatically wish to pass it on to their family and friends. The tremendously positive word-of-mouth generated by practitioners has naturally led to the rapid spread of the teachings within close-knit Chinese communities. This is an important observation for Westerners to consider, since by and large we might not pass our latest spiritual interests on to our families and friends so enthusiastically.

Again it seems significant that not one respondent suggested that the Internet had any role in the spread of Falun Gong.

Why do you think the government of the PRC feels so threatened by Falun Dafa?

With this question, I was simply fishing, hoping to see what those on the inside thought to be the reasons behind the PRC’s energetic suppression of Falun Gong. The answers provided by respondents could probably be predicted by any of us. Namely, the PRC wants total control of society and is threatened by any group that is capable of independent action. Respondents thought that the Chinese Communist Party was especially threatened by the moral example set by members of Falun Gong, since party members look like grubby careerists in comparison. They also suspected that the government is afraid of the respect practitioners accord to Master Li. The bottom line for most respondents is that Falun Gong is simply too big, and the government cannot understand how that many people can join in common cause and not be a threat to the state.

Please give me any additional criticisms, comments, or suggestions.

I added this last section soliciting comments to give my respondents an opportunity to gain closure by expressing opinions not elicited by any of the other questions. Many respondents thanked me for asking them their opinions and urged me to read Zhuan Falun so that I too could see the light. It is clear that respondents want academics to study Falun Gong and correct the misinformation being propagated by the PRG.


Economic insecurity, abundant free time, the collapse of moral standards, worries about health and medical care, the desire for existential certitude, and all the other factors cited in discussions of Falun Gong seem significant in the movement’s rapid growth. They cannot, however, fully explain the rise of Falun Gong. Other answers are to be found in the internal characteristics of the movement.

Falun Gong appeals to individuals on several levels of understanding. For beginners, health benefits seem to be a primary concern. Over time, as good health comes to be a given and as their study of Master Li’s books deepens, the metaphysical system of Falun Gong seems to take precedence as cultivators work to shed their attachments and move to higher levels, culminating in consummation. The ability of Falun Gong’s multivalent teachings to meet the changing needs of practitioners as their cultivation advances seems to differentiate it from many rival systems of qigong.

Followers place great importance on Master Li’s complex and initially confusing, even contradictory metaphysical system. As practitioners read and reread the scriptures they either discover—or create—an intricate, orderly, and internally consistent understanding of the cosmos. Rival systems do not generally offer such a complete and intellectually satisfying picture of the universe. Falun Gong’s followers need, and appear to have found, clear, unambiguous explanations of life’s deepest mysteries in Master Li’s works.

The cosmic dualism presented in Li’s teachings presents the would-be follower with stark choices: practice Falun Gong, accept all of Li’s teachings uncritically and be saved, or pick and choose ideas and practices and be destroyed with all the other ordinary people. Once one accepts Master Li’s ground rules and commits oneself to spiritual cultivation, it must be quite difficult to give credence to the movement’s critics.

Finally, while it would be premature to conclude too much from this small sample, my respondents, despite being computer literate, did not consider the Internet important either in their spiritual search or in the spread of Falun Gong. (Though once one becomes a practitioner the Internet is, of course, an essential source of current information and serves a number of vital functions. See Bell and Boas in this issue.) At the very least, this finding suggests that the Internet might not be a particularly compelling medium for conversion, especially when compared with the power of direct human contact and community.