Falun Gong and the Sectarian Religion Paradigm

Edward Irons. Nova Religio. Volume 6, Issue 2. 2003.

Official discourse in the People’s Republic of China (PRG) on Falun Gong ties its appearance to the development of xiejiao (“evil cults”) in China and around the world. Yet in the context of contemporary China, Falun Gong increasingly appears to function in ways unlike the other domestic “cults” to which the PRC government has referred since its establishment in 1949: A reasonable question is to what extent Falun Gong is a new phenomenon in Chinese culture.

I propose to view Falun Gong from the perspective of the study of Chinese religions. In particular I ask to what extent Falun Gong teachings can be classified together with the teachings of sectarian groups. This inquiry brings up two related questions relevant to the study of Chinese religions. What is the scope and limitation of “sectarian” as an analytic category? To what extent is this category relevant, either as a continuing tradition still evolving, or as an academic term useful in discussing the mass of religious groups encountered in China?

Another theoretical issue is the way in which new religious groups form, how they organize and coalesce in Chinese cultural space, often springing forth seemingly fully formed and vibrant, yet unexpected. I have no problem with the use of the term “religious” for Falun Gong, since it meets essential traits of a religious group: an organized social grouping adhering to common teachings and, often, leadership, with shared ritual, ideology, myth, and an orientation toward an ultimate reality beyond the everyday. Popular press accounts rarely refer to the group as a religion, however, and still grope for an easy way to characterize Falun Gong. Official PRG government statements refer to it as a xiejiao, a clear reason to group it with other groups termed heterodox by the state throughout Chinese history.

By “sectarian” I refer to all popular religious traditions which became widespread in Chinese culture from the late Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) on. Many of these can fruitfully be thought of as “fourth way” teachings, to distinguish them from the commonly accepted and state-sanctioned groupings of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, although such a four-way categorization is also an over-simplification of a complex religious terrain that defies simplification. Not all sectarian religious groups were illegal heterodox groups, of course. Still, they appear to have shared some traits: the majority of them were syncretic in thought and universal in scope, with organizational networks that distinguished them from village-based popular religious practices. Their development and key traits have been described in a growing body of scholarly work, from the late-nineteenth century ethnographic studies of J. J. M. De Groot to the foundational works of C. K. Yang, Daniel Overmyer, Susan Naquin, Suzuki Chusei, and others.

Despite their variety of approaches, scholars have had a common tendency to depict these groups as oppositional to the state. We can distinguish between degrees of opposition, with an overt adversarial attitude being the most extreme. Sectarian groups were oppositional sometimes by choice, but often simply by having been deemed heterodox by the state.

My discussion of history and ideological aspects will show that Falun Gong shares only the most general family resemblances with the sectarian examples selected, and is unique in its staunch adversarial stance.

Historical Backgrounds

This paper will discuss Falun Gong history and ideology through comparison with two major religious movements often associated with the sectarian label. The choice of Three in One and Yiguandao is to some extent practical. I cannot attempt here to summarize or distill the teachings of the many religious groups deemed by observers to be sectarian. Instead I use the examples of two major groups from different time periods. Both traditions have been relatively well studied, and textual sources, both primary and secondary, abound. By comparing Falun Gong teachings and practices with these well-known examples I hope to touch on major themes which a formal comparison with all potential “sectarian” groups would theoretically bring out. There will naturally be exceptions and counter examples. Nor is the sectarian rubric universally accepted for Yiguandao or Three in One. Nevertheless, this comparison should yield sufficient material to help place Falun Gong in relation to the broader steam of Chinese religious history.

I will initially give a historical sketch of each of the three groups, before turning to a comparison of their teachings.

Three in One

Three in One (sanyijiao) teachings developed at the height of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a period of political stability but rapid social change. The founder, Lin Zhao’en (1517-1598), was descended from a prominent literati family in Fujian, a province on China’s southeastern coast. In keeping with his patrician background, he also participated in local civic duties such as performing ritual services for those who had died from plague. His literati connections opened doors and insulated his nascent religious group from potential criticism. In fact the close cooperation between Lin’s group and local gentry was symptomatic of the evolving local power structures in the mid-late Ming dynasty, which saw the rise of lower gentry and the gradual loosening of central bureaucratic control over local affairs. Villages also increased in importance during this period, while traditional lineages declined. Displaced scholars who joined the group gained a kind of replacement lineage connection and social status that ran parallel with the power of liturgy. It was also not irrelevant that Lin essentially promoted a Confucian vision that meshed well with imperial ideology. The point is that while Lin’s group could easily have been seen as a dangerous sect, and suppressed, it does not appear to have been seriously opposed by the central authorities in the Ming dynasty.

With Lin’s death his key disciples continued to promote his teachings. Schisms inevitably appeared, however, and in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) government persecution forced many of the temples to change their apparent affiliation. The spread of Three in One teachings and liturgy to regions outside Fujian, which began during Lin’s lifetime, also appears to have been blocked in the Qing. Today there remain five active branches confined to the Xinghua region near Putian.


Yiguandao as a modern movement flourished from the 1930s over most of China. The group’s teachings can be traced back to local religious groupings in the late Ming and Qing dynasties, in particular those associated with Huang Duhui (1624-1690) (whose group is referred to as Xian Tian Dao) and Wang Jueyi (1821-1884) (who established a group called Dong Zhen Tang). Song Guangyu surmises that such movements surfaced in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties in eastern China as a result of the newly created wealth gained in such areas as Fujian and the lower Yangtze River region. The term Yiguandao is relatively modern, however. It was first used in 1905 by the sixteenth patriarch Liu Qingxu. The eighteenth patriarch, Zhang Tianran (1889-1947), in 1930 instituted a package of revisions that transformed the small group into a powerful proselytizing organization. He simplified the liturgy, ceased requiring a strict vegetarian or celibate lifestyle, and actively recruited among the rising class of entrepreneurs and petty shopkeepers. This collection of congregations spread quickly along modern transportation and communication tracks, becoming particularly strong in urban environments. New members were attracted to the mix of Confucian-based morality, Maitreyan millenarianism, and focused ritual.

Yiguandao groups spread quickly during the anti-Japanese war (1936-1945), during which the Japanese military and a puppet government controlled much of urban China. There is disagreement on the extent of cooperation between Yiguandao and the new authorities. What is undeniable is that Yiguandao has been associated with such collaboration in the minds of many Chinese. Partially as a result of this perception the movement was vigorously suppressed both in both mainland China and Taiwan. The branches in China effectively ceased to function after 1950. The remaining branches overseas, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, gradually built up membership until today Yiguandao (now generally called Tian Dao, “the Way of Heaven”) temples are common in Taiwan and throughout Chinese Southeast Asia. These groups and their leaderships have been adept at targeting businessmen and factory workers, two social sectors whose ranks have swelled in the post-World War II era. In general, in many areas Yiguandao has grown in tandem with Chinese commerce.

Many social and historical factors can be invoked to explain Yiguandao’s development, from its roots in the eastern plains (Shandong province) to the opportunity provided by the war and the relative political chaos of the 1930s and 1940s. The vital ingredients are Zhang Tianran’s revision of the teachings and practices he inherited from the previous leadership, and the clear association of Yiguandao with Chinese capitalism in the areas in which it now survives.

Falun Gong

Based on what records are available, Falun Gong’s genesis is recent. It started a mere ten or so year ago and sprang onto the world scene only in 1999. The founder and key entrepreneurial spirit behind the movement is still alive and guiding the network; although a near recluse, Li Hongzhi continues to make occasional entrances at rallies overseas. Very little is known of his background. However in the group’s emphasis on qigong practice there is a probable link to the upsurge in qigong groups seen in the 1980s in many urban centers.

If its derivation is unclear, its current predicament is apparent to most observers: Falun Gong is engaged in a very public campaign of criticism of the PRG state and its actions internationally and, within China, civil disobedience. At the same time it has become established in many cities in Asia, Europe, and North America as a viable spiritual practice. Its success is most likely tied to a combination of the appeal of a clear, simple exercise and ritual practice with the vision encased in Li Hongzhi’s teachings. Clearly, it is not enough to say that Falun Gong grew simply because it filled a gap in a rapidly transforming Chinese socio-spiritual landscape associated with recent liberalization and modernization of China’s economy; the many chapters overseas indicate it appeals to people untouched by China’s rapid economic transformation as well.

Historical Conclusion

This synopsis confirms that there are no easy connections or obvious derivations between the three groups chosen. Each group sprang from a unique set of historical circumstances. The Ming dynasty period in which Three in One developed was characterized by the dispersal of local power from traditional lineages and central state representatives to villages, plus population pressures and an expansion of literacy. The Republican era (1911-1949) in which Yiguandao first flourished was a period of rapid industrialization and the rise of the petty bourgeoisie. Falun Gong developed within the Deng Xiaoping period of economic liberalization and opening to the outside world (1979-1997), a time of restructuring of state industries and the rise of a new entrepreneurial class. To say that each group developed under conditions of extreme social dislocation and change is apparent and not helpful; social change is evident throughout all three periods, and by itself is inadequate as an explanation.

Similarly, the respective founding leaderships show few outward similarities. Lin Zhao’en was a traditionally trained scholar from a patrician background. Zhang Tianran, the effective founder of modern Yiguandao, was an urban shopkeeper who had attended private academy (sishu) for ten years as a child, before the imperial examination system was formally abrogated in 1902. As for Li Hongzhi, we know he was in the military and, later, an employee of a government industry. He is, at the very least, a product of the Chinese socialist system in place from 1949.

Falun Gong and Selected Sectarian Teachings Compared

In the following sections I turn from a historical perspective to a brief exploration of ideology. I will do this by focusing on key features of the Falun Gong teachings, and bring out Falun Gong’s overall ideological framework through comparisons with Three in One and Yiguandao teachings. Again I will conclude that Falun Gong shares general traits with the other two groups, but none which can allow us to conclude that they can be grouped together as sectarian. Instead, Falun Gong clearly has predispositions that lead me to posit an alternative model of new religious group formation in contemporary China.


The three groups have clear yet differing visions of the universe. Yiguandao mythology is centered on the Wusheng Laomu narrative with its well-documented myth of separation from the creator and fall of humanity. While the idea of humankind’s loss of divine status is similar to Falun Gong’s, Yiguandao and other sectarian groups put equal emphasis on the separation from the maternal figure, something missing in Falun Gong.

Like Falun Gong, the Yiguandao universe is composed of multiple layers of deities and powerful figures. But these are spelled out in much greater detail, with traditional titles, than in Falun Gong, which at least in its texts limits discussion to broad categories of deities.

The Three in One vision of the universe revolves around the social order with human relations at the center. The universe is created from chaos, and savior figures and deities interact with that human society, but core problems are essentially those associated with human interaction. The need to uphold Confucian values, the five primary social relations (ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and friend to friend), is paramount.

Falun Gong’s cosmology posits a universe of multiple dimensions in which humans are one of several inhabitants. Perception within these dimensions depends on level; the system as a whole is a ranked hierarchy. Humans, although located at the “lowest descent level,” are, nevertheless, blessed with the opportunity to work on raising perception, enter higher realms, and see other dimensions. The theme of multiple dimensions is returned to often in Falun Gong, because these explain many phenomena that would appear miraculous or superstitious without understanding their roots in other dimensions. Examples of such phenomena include clairvoyance, out-of-body travel, reversing the effects of old age, and many of the actions of the Master, Li Hongzhi, such as his ability to cleanse the sincere practitioners’ bodies and implant the rotating wheel of dharma. There are in addition multiple beings observing human actions. Some are referred to as Buddhas, some as “guardians” of the Law; others are ghosts or demons, as well as “foxes, yellow-weasels … and snakes.” Such beings coexist in the same space as our own but are not known to those with mere “ordinary” awareness.

How humans came to be in this state is related indirectly as an account of the degeneration of humanity. “You … dropped down from the pure and incomparable splendid world” to the filthy world because you developed mental attachments. Human realms have been destroyed and recreated eighty-one times; evidence for this is to be found in archeology and prehistoric sites such as those which are said to exist at the bottom of the ocean.

Referring to the ordinary person, Li states, “… he [remains] lost in a maze, and he is not allowed to see the truth of the universe, which can be seen in all other dimensions. In this maze and under such conditions, he is given such an opportunity. Because he is in a maze, he also suffers most. With his body, he will be able to suffer.”

In sum, while all three groups acknowledge a universe that extends beyond humanity, Three in One limits conjecture to Confucian concerns, Yiguandao has an elaborate maternist (related to worship of a mother deity) myth of separation, while Falun Gong’s vision is a less articulated one of the degradation of humanity.

The Individual

Each of the three groups assumes the existence of a true self that the individual fails to recognize. Yiguandao doctrine posits a clear separation between the indestructible soul or true self, zhenwo, synonymous with lingxing (soul), or foxing (Buddha-nature) and the body, or false self (jiawo). Evil per se is not seen as intrinsic to human nature, however. Most teachers will explain all souls as good but simply misguided and unable to see their true natures. True souls are, then, “contaminated” in both Falun Gong and Yiguandao.

Three in One texts also depict the individual as being out of touch with the true self. At birth an individual’s nature divides and resides in various internal organs: the xing or underlying nature progresses to the heart and is thereafter known as shen or spirit, while the ming or life force migrates to the navel and kidneys and is referred to as qi and jing energy. The goal of Three in One’s heart meditation alchemical practice is to reunite these forces, creating one’s own universe (zao qiankun) of internal and, eventually, social harmony.

The individual in Falun Gong is described as being a container filled with some good, some bad elements, the Buddha-nature and the demon-nature. These dual natures are actually visible to those of higher perceptions as white or black substances. The white is de, understood as a physical field surrounding the body, which is accumulated through hardships, and the black is called karmic force (yeli) accumulated through bad actions over innumerable lifetimes. The goal of Falun Gong cultivation is to transform the de gong, cultivation energy, through the assistance of the master. This de/gong energy level is apparent because it grows in a vertical spiral, the gongzhu, from the top of the head, which again is visible to some.

In addition to gong energy an individual is characterized by her xinxing, “mind nature,” level. Xinxingis an aspect of the person which includes de plus other characteristics such as tolerance, “enlightenment quality,” the abandonment of attachments, and the ability to suffer difficulties. Xinxing development, which results from diligent cultivation practice, is up to the practitioner. Xinxing thus develops in tandem with de/gong.

A third aspect of an individual mentioned in Falun Gong literature is the overtly ideological: “people,” in Li’s words, “more or less have a problem of ideological contamination …” The person contains a “pre-natal impeccable innocence” that is innate, to which outside messages—impure concepts—accrue.

These three facets—de virtue and its transformation into gong cultivation energy, the xinxing mind nature, and conceptual innocence mixed with contaminated concepts—make up three aspects of Falun Gong’s depiction of the individual in all her potential. It is also assumed that the individual possesses a soul, the yuanshen, which is indestructible. But the key to progress in this life is a receptive heart—the first requirement to becoming a practitioner.


Individual cultivation leading to meaningful understanding is a trope widespread in Chinese culture. Yiguandao describes itself as a system of teachings meant for those engrossed in daily affairs. Receiving the Dao (de dao), the key initiation rite, is simply the first step; the practitioner (daoqin) must constantly strive to cultivate the Dao (xiu dad), work the Dao {ban dad), and finally achieve the Dao (cheng dad) in the final release of death and transit to a position in Heaven, which will be determined by merit. This cultivation framework, with different terminology, is essentially parallel to that of Falun Gong.

Yiguandao places less emphasis on conflict and its benefits. While there is a strong Yiguandao tradition extolling the value of suffering in order to achieve spiritual advancement, in practice Yiguandao groups today do not extol suffering. They work to fit into society. There is, then, only partial congruence in values between the two groups. The Falun Gong emphasis on the benefits of conflict stands out.

Like Yiguandao and Falun Gong, the teachings of Lin Zhao’en, the founder of Three in One, and his successors emphasize that practice, the kongmen xinfa, should be integrated into everyday life and not be an isolated meditation discipline. The notion that cultivation is a worthy goal and an imperative is palpable. Beyond this, however, the individual who is only partially successful in the practice has access to the group’s support, the temple community and the deities within. Social cooperation is the goal, and conflict is undesirable.

Falun Gong espouses a life oriented around both practice and cultivation, in order to cease being “ordinary,” a word used frequently, and transform oneself into a supernormal. Cultivating Buddha-nature involves “removing your demon-nature and fulfilling yourself with Buddha-nature.” Buddha-nature is in turn defined as shan, “compassion, altruism, and the capability of enduring suffering.” Travails and suffering encountered in everyday life are interpreted as tests of xinxing and ways to repay one’s karmic debts.

The first stage in Falun cultivation practice is the purification of one’s body by the master; this is the level of qi. This purification in essence constitutes an initiation. In the next stage one cultivates within the shijianfa, that is, subject, literally, to “the laws of this world.” This traditional Buddhist term implies that the individual remains immersed in suffering and the operation of karma. Finally the practitioner breaks through and achieves chushijianfa, “exiting the three realms [of traditional Buddhism, that is, matter, life and mind].” After transcending the three realms, the body is completely replaced, in every cell, by high-energy matter. The ultimate goal, again, is “to attain the Tao and complete cultivation.” Falun Gong is a method to shorten the necessary cultivation.

In sum, die individual should simply cultivate ceaselessly in daily life, as well as perform the Falun Gong system of five basic physical exercises. In fact Li encourages people not to drop out of society in order to devote themselves to cultivation practice, since this would remove opportunities for cultivation. Falun Gong is a pragmatic soteriology meant for the individual living in society, a trait shared by Yiguandao and Three in One.

Millenarianism and the Position of Maitreya

Chinese millenarian thought is often associated with the image of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Yiguandao, for instance, is deeply and openly millenarian, with many references to the end of time and the imminent return of the savior figure, Maitreya. Maitreya was originally a bodhisattva figure from India who in China became associated in the popular imagination with the portly image of a Song Dynasty monk, Bu Dai. In many sectarian groups the Maitreyan narrative later merged with the myth of the Unborn Mother, Wusheng Laomu. Wusheng Laomu sent Maitreya to the world to save humanity. The urgency for Yiguandao is to initiate as many members as possible, and thus assure their salvation, plus, coincidentally, the growth of the organization.

Three in One teachings recognize Maitreya, but associate this savior’s image with the group’s founder, Lin Zhao’en. As a result the Maitreya icon is not frequently seen in Three in One temples.

Like Yiguandao, Falun Gong clearly teaches that the current cycle of the universe is bound to expire and end in catastrophe, “the Final Period of the Last Havoc.” The mofa period of decline of traditional Buddhism is today. A new age will result. The time to cultivate, apparently, is now, before the new age comes. However Falun Gong emphasizes that not all will or can be saved; only those of “good heart” and enlightenment quality can be cultivators of the dafa (Great Law clearly). Thus while in practice both organizations posit an elect consisting of the initiated, Yiguandao appears to cast its net more widely.

Along with such millenarian expectations often comes the figure of a savior. Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong have confirmed to me their belief that Li is Maitreya Buddha returned to earth. Li at times appears to acknowledge this. However the acknowledgement of Li as Maitreya is not spelled out clearly in Falun Gong textual materials.

In sum, the three groups treat Maitreya differently. In Yiguandao this deity’s iconic image is omnipresent and widely venerated. In contrast both Three in One and Falun Gong emphasize the founder’s image rather than any particular deity’s. Both Lin Zhao’en and Li Hongzhi have been associated with Maitreya, however, so the difference is one of sublimation in contrast to Yiguandao’s overt veneration of the image of Maitreya.

Discursive Focus

Discursive focus refers to the themes and topics around which written and oral discourses cluster. The discursive focus in Yiguandao teachings is without a doubt the Dao, a multi-layered discursive object open to a bewildering number of readings.

In Three in One teachings, as in all Confucian discourses, the concept of the Dao is similarly encountered constantly. Yet given the textual evidence available it is inadequate to characterize Three in One as having a single discursive thrust. In fact its emphasis over its long history has changed in step with its circumstances, from an early emphasis on cultivation to a later focus on Confucian social principles to, today, its emphasis on gaining social legitimacy.

Many Falun Gong texts focus on enumerating the dafa, “great law” or “great dharma,” or fofa, Buddha Law. The fofa is “profound, mystical and supernormal, and all-encompassing.” As such it is truth and the source of all in the universe. The promulgation of the Great Law can rectify the universe, repress evil, and harmonize all things. The Great Law is, most importantly, Li Hongzhi’s Law, synonymous with his teachings. In a sense Li Hongzhi’s equation of fofa with the Dao simply continues the sectarian tradition of weaving teachings using the thread of the Dao, under a pseudonym.

The Nature of the Universe

I mention the way the universe is described because it is stressed so strongly by Falun Gong. The author of Zhuan Falun repeatedly emphasizes the basic nature of the universe as being zhen-shan-ren, truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance. This compact statement of the fundamental character of the universe is the Great Law (dafa). Humans share these three original properties upon birth; we are therefore reflections of the universe, in miniature. This three-way characterization unites Buddhism with Daoism, since Buddhism is said to emphasize shan, while Daoism emphasizes zhen. Falun Gong is thus said to be broader than and inclusive of both groups of teachings by emphasizing all three characteristics.

This position is an apparent echo of sanheyi, three-in-one doctrine, a line of thinking fundamental to sectarian religious thought dating from the Song Dynasty, of which Three in One itself is an early exemplary expression. The three teachings referred to in this label are of course Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Three in One syncretic teachings for the first time consciously combined these under the unifying concept of Xia (great), the original substance of the universe supporting all else.

Does Falun Gong’s third term, ren (“forbearance”), then represent Confucianism? Ren does indeed appear in Confucian classics, primarily the Analects, in the senses of “condoning,” and, in the Xunzi, as “control.” There are, however, also Buddhist connotations: ren tu is the equivalent of shapo shijie, Saha, the locus of enduring, the universe. This reading is perhaps more in line with the other two terms as an additional facet of the nature of the universe. Therefore any purely Confucian sense attached to this term is unlikely.

Overall, the Falun Gong principle of zhen-shan-ren is not found in sectarian writings, as far as I can determine, and is likely therefore to be an original reworking of sanheyi values.

Self Image within Society: Political Roles

In the political realm the contrast with Yiguandao and Three in One is dramatic. I am not aware of any political teachings or concerted political demonstrations by Yiguandao groups, now or in the past. Instead such Yiguandao groups have generally preferred to exert behind-the-scenes influence through cultivating influential members with powerful connections. And Three in One has for its part focused internally and not attempted a larger social role since the time of Lin Zhao’en.

In contrast, the author of Zhuan Falun and Falun Buddha shows a keen awareness of Falun Gong’s ideological and historical environment. There are frequent comparisons to the traditional religions of Buddhism and Daoism, to qigong groups popular in the 1980s and 1990s, to “sham” religious groups, to science, superstition, the state, and to society at large. Qigong, for instance, is dismissed as a “newly crafted terminology to comply with the ideology of the contemporary people.” Falun Gong, in contrast, is a “complete cultivation way of mind and body,” which, although only one of the many (84,000) mentioned originally by the Buddha, has never been taught publicly before this time.

Several statements reflect subtle digs at the official policy positions of the PRG in the 1990s. “Materialists” are those who cannot see anything “beyond their knowledge or beyond the recognition of science.” Mixin (superstition), a common label of criticism attached to traditional beliefs and practices in socialist as well as Republican China, is seen as “the most irresponsible pet phrase of those who are simple-minded and obstinate.” The state is expected to be against the truth; as such, criticism and mistreatment by society is to be expected: “Isn’t how a society treats us testing a practitioner’s heart?”

Falun Gong is not, it is claimed, involved or interested in politics; practitioners are told to stay clear of national affairs. However, when in one instance in 1998 student practitioners went to the state propaganda organs “to explain the truth,” in an example which foreshadowed the Beijing demonstration of 1999, it is interpreted as a spontaneous action, and not an example of political involvement. Currently Li’s recent statements extol the value of informing the people of the world (shiren) about the evil forces currently attempting to destroy the Buddha Law, a position which surely means taking a stand in society and expressing a political position. This Great Law is meant for all humanity, not any particular nation. All these positional statements point not to an advocacy of open hostility to the state, but to a position of opposition in ideological terms, an adversarial stance.

A new religious group needs to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of current and potential members. In addition it seeks to impress attitudes toward the world in its members that reflect a cosmology, that is, an all-inclusive and firm explanation of the nature of the universe and human experience. Here it is clear Falun Gong is intensely interested in emphatically establishing its ideological primacy vis-a-vis other con-tenders, including in particular the PRG with its emphasis on science, materiality, and modernity.


Technical terms and frequently used expressions are enticing clues to ideology and historical descent in newly formed religious groups.

Falun Gong has a distinct set of often clearly defined terms used frequently, some of which I have mentioned. Many terms are used in common with Chinese Buddhism—such as mofa (period of decline of the dharma), guowei (achievement status in a course of cultivation), and pudu (universal salvation). These terms are also encountered in Yiguandao and other religious groups, however, thus illustrating that their use is hardly sufficient to class Falun Gong as Buddhist. Other terms are Daoist in origin—xuangaan (fatal pass), and dantian (energy center in the lower abdomen), for instance — or found throughout Chinese culture—tianming (heavenly decree), qiqingliuyu (seven emotions and six carnal desires), and such polysemic concepts as de (virtue), xin (mind) and xing (nature).

What Falun Gong terminology does show is that a specialized set of terms is necessary to impart the teachings; the language is the vehicle for the ideology. The contrast such usage brings to the fore is that between Falun Gong and secular society—the “ordinary” mindsets found in the work unit, the media, the scientific establishment, and the state. Ideologically, this contrast with secular society, not any distinction between Falun Gong and other religious groups, is the starkest, most dramatically drawn distinction in the texts, though such other differences are present as well.

In sum, the disparate sources of Falun Gong terms point to a generalized borrowing from several non-secular traditions, without necessarily borrowing the same meaning senses. Such creative borrowing is consistent with the practice of most sectarian groups, including Yiguandao and Three in One.


What is true for terminology is true for the group as a whole. In terms of doctrine, there are multiple affinities but few identical matches. This is hardly surprising when comparing religious systems, which claim to be universal and have clearly articulated teachings. For example, the discussion in the previous section shows an overall orientation toward Confucian morality for Three in One and Yiguandao, while Falun Gong appears to have a less clearly articulated moral system. Promotion of vegetarianism is strongest in Yiguandao and not required in Falun Gong. Three in One and Yiguandao accept the traditional cosmology of deities, while adding their own figures. Falun Gong, while not disowning such a cosmology, is vague. Meditative practice is strongest in Falun Gong, weakest in Yiguandao. Each group has founding myths, including narratives of the birth of the founder and dream premonitions. Yiguandao is firmly within a tradition following Wusheng Laomu (Eternal Mother) worship and the promise of the imminent arrival of the Maitreya Buddha as savior. While elements of Maitreyan eschatology were a minor part of Three in One teachings and strengthened after Lin Zhao’en’s death, Three in One clearly does not fall within the Wusheng Laomu tradition. Falun Gong is similarly outside this stream.

All three groups emphasize cultivation, although each promotes different methods. Falun Gong offers its exercise and meditation program, Three in One teaches the nine-stage kongmen method of heart cultivation, while Yiguandao promotes moral cultivation and ritual action as a cultivation path.

Finally, each group is openly syncretic, invoking elements from popular religious practice, imperial ritual (in Yiguandao), philosophies, traditional Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, and popular para-religious techniques such as qigong. In this regard Three in One is exemplary, since it is widely recognized as being the first major creative synthesis of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. But again, this trait—syncretism—is so widespread and variable in popular religious traditions that it is insufficient to tie any two groups together.

One variable highlighted in this discussion is the aggressive stance vis-a-vis the state taken by Falun Gong. This is clearly in contrast to the other two groups, which from all accounts attempted accommodation with secular powers of the time.

The Sectarian Model Revisited

I wish to turn again to the question of the suitability of the sectarian model for understanding Falun Gong. First, as concluded earlier, there are no clearly discernible ties of genealogy between these three groups. In terms of ideology and practice, there are detailed overlaps and tantalizing parallels between parts of the three groups. Clearly, each has blended its own synthesis of ideas after which they have gone on to build organizations and reinforce loyalties. If we grant that Three in One and Yiguandao are sectarian groups, then the most we can say is that Falun Gong resembles sectarian religions in some ways. Based on this material, the sectarian label is limiting.

But the use of “sectarian” has intriguing implications beyond possible family resemblances. “Sectarian” (jiaopai) is hardly a term used by the groups themselves. It is instead a shorthand nomenclature used by scholars or other commentators who in essence substitute it for the clearly derogatory term “heterodox.” More specifically, “sectarian” implies that a group has been deemed heterodox or is at least not recognized by the state. The sectarian label thus implies opposition. Galling a Chinese group “sectarian” assumes there is an official, sanctioning power opposing it, in all cases the state. All sectarian groups can be seen to be in some ways heterodox simply by virtue of not being state-sanctioned. It is in this sense that Falun Gong could fit under the sectarian rubric.

Falun Gong appears to have elaborated this implied adversarial posture into a key tenet of self-identity. Falun Gong teachings welcome adversity and struggle, as we have seen, since such struggle implies the working out of karmic burden. This extreme adversarial positionality in fact is much more prominent than in Yiguandao or Three in One, or for that matter in any but the most politically motivated sectarian groups from the past. For this reason, then, the “sectarian” label can be misleading when applied to Falun Gong—it does not reflect the full degree of Falun Gong’s adversarial stance.

A Model of Chinese Popular Religious Development

I wish to resolve this issue by returning to the second theoretical issue mentioned earlier, the question of how such groups arise. After reviewing Falun Gong’s case I recommend that we reserve the term sectarian for groups dating from the imperial periods, and instead recognize Falun Gong’s status as a religious group formed in a socialist context by simply referring to it as a new religious movement, or perhaps better yet a syncretic religious movement. The use of this label would indeed tie Falun to the sectarian background of the past through its shared attribute of espousing openly acknowledged syncretic teachings. The syncretic label also firmly highlights the crucial ideological aspect.

In addition to ideology a complete model must discuss such social and organizational factors as social disruption. Mo Bangfu, a commentator writing in Japan, attributes the rise of Falun Gong to the dis enchanted workers who lost jobs due to the restructuring of the Chinese state enterprises. Thomas Beal ties its rise with the “ideological bankruptcy” of the official orthodoxy, in conjunction with rising unemployment, an increasing gap between rural and urban incomes, and a pervasive backlash against corruption.

These psycho-sociological considerations can be combined with the overtly ideological facets I have been discussing in a three-dimensional model of new religious movement development. One dimension would be the socio-historical, including the economic conditions, political structures and degree of interconnection with other social groups. A second dimension would be the “product” itself, that package of core elements presented by the group to members: the cosmology, mythology, specialized terminology, rites, community practices, and organizational style. And a third dimension would be organization: either leadership, that entrepreneurial perception which somehow draws all this together within the context at hand, or, in situations without overt leaders, pervasive social groundswells.

In Falun Gong’s case the religious system components found in the official texts must have been formed through complex interaction with and borrowing from the surrounding culture and social structure. References to common social organizations such as work units, the decline of moral values since the 1950s and 1960s, and common practices such as self-criticism sessions place Li’s writings clearly in a con-text of late-twentieth century mainland China. Despite Falun Gong’s strategic positioning of itself in opposition to the surrounding society and its “ordinary” mentalities, I suggest that the interaction has been mutual, with many of the forms found within Falun Gong taken from the socialist context in which the movement surfaced. These include organization into cells, its concern with control over mass media releases, and the centrality of unified doctrinal and organizational practice, all characteristics of Chinese Marxism and the Chinese Communist Party. The advent of Falun Gong thus shows the resiliency of the tradition of popular-based religious movements within Chinese culture as a whole, as well as the undeniable influence of Chinese socialism.

Falun Gong as a New Syncretic Movement

Falun Gong teachings show a creative recombination of many existing cultural elements into a new entity, a syncretic realignment. The comparisons I have made are clearly insufficient to prove any specific ancestral link between any particular popular religious tradition and Falun Gong. Such links could yet be proven with more historical or ethnographic evidence, however. Still, there is every reason to conclude that the religious entrepreneur behind this new synthesis, presumably Li Hongzhi, was able to call upon the remnants of recently active traditions, as well as other cultural elements in popular religion, traditional and approved religions, and official society itself, to build a set of teachings as well as an organization within the limited space found in the restricted civil society of the People’s Republic of China in the 1990s. This organization is a new syncretic movement noteworthy for its adversarial stance.