From Healing to Protest: Conversion Patterns Among the Practitioners of Falun Gong

Susan J Palmer. Nova Religio. Volume 6, Issue 2. 2003.

On 19 May 2001 I beheld Master Li. He appeared at noon, unannounced, at the Ottawa Congress Centre, where a thousand-odd Falun Gong practitioners—overwhelmingly Chinese—sat in silk suits for the day of testimonials that is the essence of all their Experience-sharing Conferences.

Li Hongzhi, who disappeared from public view shortly after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government’s crackdown on Falun Gong began in July 1999, had surfaced only twice since to deliver short speeches. But now he stood at the podium, in front of his eight-foot photograph, tall, dressed in a business suit, his black hair combed neatly to one side. He spoke in Chinese, his tone of voice authoritative but sensitive, for twenty minutes—then saluted his disciples and left through a door behind the podium, ushered out by bodyguards.

I was wearing headphones, but the translator was so excited she kept correcting herself, so it was hard to follow. He announced that we were living a unique period of history, so it was important to “eliminate the evil.” At the end of the day his videotaped appearance was replayed, accompanied by a good translation. His speech appeared on the Internet2 within three days. What Master Li had to say was fascinating.

Master Li’s message was unabashedly apocalyptic. He made statements that indicate Falun Gong’s catastrophic beliefs have intensified under the influence of heavy persecution. First, he said the aim of “cultivation” is no longer “improvement” or even spiritual enlightenment (referred to as “consummation”). Second, he reminded his students they were living in the “rectification” period (when the fa, or Universal Law, triumphs over the force of evil in a vast cosmic struggle). Third, he insisted that the appropriate action for all disciples is to engage in the collective work of activist protest against Jiang Zemin’s persecution of Falun Gong, saying, “we Dafa disciples…have been entrusted with a great historic mission…to safeguard the Fa…expose the evil….”

At this conference in Ottawa, there were events scheduled to raise the public’s awareness of the persecution of practitioners in the PRG. Photographs of dead victims lined the path to the House of Parliament where the Falun Gong disciples were performing qigong. Professor Zhang Kunlun, who had been tortured in prison gave a speech. In this context, Master Li’s speech encouraged continued civil disobedience despite overwhelming reprisals—but offered a “way out” through magical techniques of self-defense. He introduced a new ritual to his students, instructing them to hold their hands in the Jieyin position and “think about eliminating evil in the Three Realms.” At the end of the day, we watched the videotape of his speech, and a contact person from Toronto stood up and walked us through this freshly-minted ritual, urging us to “help Master Li suffocate the evil.”

As I joined in this ritual, I was reflecting on this new divagation in a Chinese resistance movement that shows signs of making a cultural impact as significant as Gandhi’s satyagraha (“force of truth” or “holding on to truth”), the nonviolent resistance movement against British rule in India. Beneath Falun Gong’s pursuit of human rights and the familiar rhetoric of religious liberty, a rapidly evolving apocalyptic theology is evident. While Western politicians, journalists and human rights groups respond to social justice arguments, for the practitioners themselves, it is spiritual and apocalyptic expectations that fuel their civil disobedience.

The Master’s message at the Ottawa conference underscored a dramatic strategic shift in his movement. Falun Gong’s ongoing protest demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the cruel reprisals of the PRG government are well documented in the international news media—but the esoteric philosophy that fuels their civil dis-obedience has been virtually ignored.

This article will focus on the process whereby Chinese practitioners in the West gradually came to embrace an apocalyptic worldview that demands extraordinary activism and intense commitment to the cause—often at the cost of jeopardizing their own families and hard won careers. I will trace the route whereby practitioners arrive at this point and will explore their understandings of the apocalyptic ideology that drives Falun Gong’s resistance to the PRG.

Many of my informants had faced the threat of prison, torture, even death. They all knew fellow practitioners who had been killed or imprisoned. And yet, in most individuals’ lives, it had all started out as a quest for healing and power, for the mysterious force latent in ancient “cultivation practices”—what we in the West might refer to as “traditional Chinese folk medicine.”

Research Methodology

My initial research was undertaken with David Ownby, professor of Chinese History at Universite de Montreal. This involved field research at Experience-sharing Conferences in Montreal in February 2000 and Ottawa in 20-22 May 2001. We distributed two “membership” questionnaires in Chinese and in English. I interviewed English-speaking practitioners in Toronto’s old, well-established Chinese community over the weekend of 28 January 2000, and returned for the 13 May 2000 World Falun Dafa Day of public demonstrations, while Ownby conducted his interviews in Chinese. I also interviewed Falun Gong practitioners in Montreal, Ottawa, New York, Waco and Dallas, Texas. Altogether I have notes from around sixty in-depth interviews, and thirty brief or partial interviews. I have tended to limit my research to Chinese practitioners, since Western disciples are a minority in the movement and tend to fit the idiosyncratic portrait of spiritual seekers.

The conversion stories of nearly all my informants fit very nicely into Lofland and Stark’s seven-step model of conversion, beginning with “tension” (usually a health crisis) and culminating in the seventh-stage commitment of a “deployable agent.” However, after attending three Experience-sharing conferences, it became evident that the style and content of many of my informants’ supposedly spontaneous conversion tales were shaped by a standard model of a ritual testimonial that has evolved in the movement. These ritual narrations can be deconstructed by a few judicious questions, so as to fill in the missing data and flesh out the complexities in their personal lives. From these data, it is possible to construct a tentative model of a four-phase process of conversion and commitment to Falun Gong.

Four Phases of Conversion

Falun Gong practitioners typically describe four aspects of their own conversion process. These can be identified as the healing phase, the moral reform phase, the spiritual phase, and the activist/apocalyptic phase.

By “phases,” I do not mean to suggest a precise chronological sequence in each individual’s life. Different practitioners emphasize different aspects and benefits of the teaching. Nevertheless, I observed a general shift in the focus of the movement between early 2000, when healing and moral reform were the main topics, and the spring of 2001, when spiritual/apocalyptic ideas and the collective struggle for human rights were the main issues.

Falun Gong’s initial attraction, for most of my informants, lay in the healing potential—not only of the qigong exercises, but of what they refer to as “The Book,” Zhuan Falun. Once healed, the practitioner’s goal shifts. The next concern is for moral reform, with a focus on cultivating xinxing (translated in Falun Gong pamphlets as “moral qualities”). These are worked on through self-observation and the conscious handling of discordant relationships at home or at work. Many described a sudden detachment from materialistic concerns, and a renewed compassion for troublesome relatives.

For the mature practitioner, both the healing and the moral upgrading are later understood as early stages in a process of purification, a letting go of “attachments” and liberation from karma that propels the individual towards “consummation” or enlightenment. Disciples reported mystical or paranormal experiences. They interpreted these as side-effects of purification and increased spiritual sensitivity. These tend to be downplayed, for it is considered bad taste or “showing off” to dwell on them. It is important to note that the great majority of Chinese practitioners espoused a scientific worldview when they first encountered Falun Gong, as products of a secular Chinese background having been raised as members of the Communist party. Unlike nearly all the Westerners I spoke to, the Chinese claimed no prior interest in “fringe” spiritual matters. Their initial interest in qigong, as they explained it, not as a spiritual path, but rather as an investigation of ancient Chinese “cultivation practices.”

Li Hongzhi, unlike many of the successful qigong masters, brought a sophisticated, eclectic cosmology to the practice that pieced together disparate fragments of China’s occult underground. Master Li taught qigong, but also added a moral vision, a creation myth, and outlined a spiritual path leading to enlightenment.

I will describe these phases as they were communicated to me by my informants.

Healing (Guanding)

My first impression of Falun Gong was of a “Chinese Lourdes in the West,” with a theory of disease that closely resembled Christian Science. During my research trip to Toronto in January 2000 I heard countless testimonials of miraculous healings. Later, I discovered that, although the healing power of Master Li’s brand of qigong was certainly the strongest element in the initial appeal, it was by no means an ongoing concern for committed practitioners. Indeed, once healed, practitioners counted on Master Li to “take care of their health, and displayed indifference to matters of the body.

An important factor influencing their choice was that Master Li’s version of qigong is virtually free. One man compared it to another qigong master, Yan Xin: “The master charges a lot. Early in 1997 the group trip to New York cost $300 U.S. with no transportation, then it was $400 for a two-day seminar. Master Li is free.” Zhuan Falun can be downloaded from the Internet, and one man recalls he was offered a tape by a practitioner for $2.06. (“Gee, that’s dumb business! You don’t make any money that way!”)

A Chinese bank worker explained, “I discovered I had diabetes when I arrived in Canada, and was expecting to face high medicine costs. I had no work insurance, so qigong was the last resort!”

The theory of illness advanced by Master Li is that disease is caused by karma, the results of bad actions. In Falun Gong, bad karma is believed to be a black substance in the body. Qigong is a process that purifies the body of (negative) karma and the Master “takes care of the practitioners and helps free them of disease. A woman in her late fifties who had been diagnosed with breast cancer claimed to have found a cure simply by reading Zhuan Falun, even before she began practicing the qigong exercises. She described a dramatic healing experience through guanding (purification of karma):

As I was sitting I could feel my karma that was attached to my body fall as if it were being pulled away! It was like being wrapped in duct tape, excruciating! Painful! I could sit in lotus for 1 1/2 hours and feel my karma moving down my legs and out the soles of the feet. I would cry sometimes for a whole hour, not just physical pain. Sometimes I felt overwhelming remorse.

A 67-year-old Chinese woman had been diagnosed with cancer of the bowel in 1992. Half of her stomach was removed, and parts of her intestine and spleen. She was in the hospital expecting to die in six months, when a friend told her, “Master can save you!” and brought her Zhuan Falun. She decided to stop all medications and treatments to read “the Book.” “I am thinking if I only have six months, the xinxing will go up, my next life will be better! It will prepare me for next life.” She rallied, took the long bus ride to New York to hear the Master, and is now walking in the Falun Gong parades and attending study sessions, although she says, “sometimes I need a nap.”

In Falun Gong, good health is seen as a natural by-product of spiritual progress, but so are renewed youth and increased beauty:

  • Look at my mother-in-law’s hair. It used to be all grey, but since she has been practicing Falun Gong, the black hair has grown back!
  • Look at her, she is over 55, but her period has come back!
  • Everyone looks younger than they really are!
  • My skin is lighter, more white than it used to be.

This “faith-healing” method is explained as “mind over matter.” One man said, “if you worry about the disease, have doubts, you award it reality, existence. Disease is an illusion, a by-product of the human mentality.” Relapses were explained as “karma working itself out.”

While within the Falun Gong community there is considerable social pressure on practitioners to abandon conventional medicine, they do not all necessarily do so. One Western woman rattled a bottle of her kidney stones in my face, that had been removed by a surgeon. Master Li does not actually go on record telling practitioners not to consult doctors.

Moral Reform (Xinxing)

Once health crises are resolved, practitioners tend to focus on the equally dramatic phenomenon of moral regeneration. Morality means the “giving up of attachments” (bad habits, selfish indulgences) and cultivating the virtues of zhen-shan-ren. They report feeling less work-driven, less materialistic, more family-oriented.

A Taiwanese man of 34 said, “We are taught to take over responsibilities, make a better effort as family members, citizens. We take our gains and profits more lightly, let things go according to natural law, “let the chips fall where they may.”

Other informants said that, “[b]y doing things for others, we are increasing our xinxing.” And, “[w]e are much more sincere. We don’t exaggerate or tell stories. We refrain from criticizing other people.”

Spiritual Salvation

Mystical experience in Falun Gong is often expressed as a vision of the falun, the wheel of law, spinning in space, with flashing colors. Some informants described it entering their lower abdomen, and some felt a churning motion in their bellies. One Western woman claimed, “I saw the falun—it was yellow and purple, then I saw the nine colors.” A middle-aged man, healed of diabetes, shared his vision of the falun, as follows:

I had sitting meditation, and I saw with my flesh eyes the falun wheel in the air, coming from the skies. It came down and went right into my lower abdomen. Master Li said “for every practitioner, I will install a Law Body in your lower abdomen.” Since then I no longer suffer from cold in the winter, nor any illness.

Another common phenomenon is to encounter the Original True Self (yuanshen). A 20-year-old Western student reported:

I felt a warm sensation as I was sitting, a warm current swept upwards from my toes to my head. I cry a lot, and I began to cry dramatically. Then when it subsided I looked up and saw my face in the mirror. I had found my Original True Self! She was there in the mirror, so beautiful. I smiled at her, “I found you at last!”

A recurring experience among practitioners is gaanding, the purification of karma, accompanied by strong physiological sensations. A young Chinese man recollected:

For the first few months I couldn’t feel anything, while people around me were saying, “Hey I feel energy! I can see!” Then, the fourth month, as I did the exercises, the second set in my room, I feel something—guanding—it clears the body, head to foot. I cried, the tears dropped on my legs. Oh! It’s real! I thought. I was shocked! I felt the energy rushing through me for the next 24 hours.

Prescient dreams, paranormal experiences, glimpses into alternate universes with beings in other dimensions, and miraculous avoidances of traffic accidents are common features in the practitioners’ inner life. Many of my informants related visions of “the Book”:

One night I fell asleep and dreamed I was reading the Book. I seemed to be in another dimension. The Book was golden, shimmering. I seemed to understand every word I read. Our teacher stood beside me, kindly turning the pages, showing me things I do not understand. It was a beautiful dream, and I was excited.

Apocalyptic Activism (Fa-rectification)

The fourth phase requires participation in public demonstrations against the PRG government’s persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. At this point, the goal of individual enlightenment appears to be subsumed into the self-denying participation in the apocalyptic cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, known as “fa-rectification.”

There is no formal invitation to join an activist team, no organized induction, nor does Master Li issue specific instructions on how to protest. Rather, these exercises are planned in local meetings at the grassroots level. The heroic roles of the protester and the martyr are modeled in testimonials and stories at the Experience-sharing Conferences.

One McGill student in his early thirties who spoke at the Montreal conference in Febraury 2000 is a striking example of conversion to the protest movement. He described how he was inspired by stories of protesters who had returned from the PRG. Until then he had been practicing at home, focusing on his studies in engineering and refusing to get involved in the demonstrations. Suddenly, he felt he had a “dirty heart” in valuing his diploma too much, and not wanting to let go of money and good life. So he bought a $1,000 plane ticket leaving for China before exams. His wife was very angry. He departed, leaving a letter for her saying, “I am going to Beijing for the appeal.” He gave out Falun Gong literature on the plane and packed a 5-meter banner for Tiananmen Square. The customs officer took away his passport, detained him, but on seeing he was a McGill student, did not arrest him. While waiting to return to Canada, he had a dream of a yellow hand standing on the ground. It was “the hand of opportunity” he decided, so he returned to Montreal just in time to take his exams, and passed with flying colors. His wife had left home with their baby son by the time he returned.

Having proposed a four-phase model of conversion for the Chinese practitioners, I will now address some of the enigmatic features of their two-tier protest movement—that seems to combine an exoteric movement (the rational, respectable pursuit of human rights expressed in the international arena) with an esoteric movement (an apocalyptic ideology and ethic of martyrdom).

The Emergence of an Apocalyptic Theory

Li Hongzhi has forged an apocalyptic theodicy for making sense of the PRC government’s suppression of Falun Gong, and for motivating his disciples’ civil disobedience. This apocalyptic ideology has been stimulated by and flourished in the hostile environment of persecution and injustice in the PRC, that has escalated steadily since July 1999. The United States-based Falun Dafa Information Center reported in February 2002 that 365 practitioners had died in custody, and over 50,000 were in prison, labor camps or mental hospitals.

The emergence of Falun Gong’s protest movement can be analyzed as the result of a give-and-take relationship between the charismatic Master and his disciples. While Master Li supplies the ideas, his disciples choose how to put them into action. Master Li then responds to their actions in his next article, alternately commending, encouraging, cautioning or castigating. He provides occult interpretations of the ongoing struggle in China, and fresh spiritual motivation for continuing dissent.

Apocalyptic undercurrents were already present in his speeches before the crackdown escalated. In Zhuan Falun terms like the “dharma-ending period,” or “Last Havoc” are inherited from the Buddhist tradition. Master Li cited Nostradamus in his speeches in Toronto, May 1999 and in Chicago, June 1999, as predicting the crackdown. He identifiedjiang Zemin as the “Third Antichrist,” after Napoleon and Hider, as prophesied by Nostradamus.

In 1999 Falun Gong was still fervently apolitical and optimistic that the PRC government would soon recognize practitioners as loyal citizens and grant them freedom to practice. Since Spring 2000, however, Li’s articles on the website began responding more directly to the suffering of his disciples.

As late as June 2000 the goal of individual consummation was still possible and relevant. Master Li was still advising practitioners to ignore the political climate, study the fa and keep on practicing. But he congratulated die martyrs of Tiananmen Square who have “consummated their own majestic positions” and presumably earned a posthumous enlightenment, or crown of martyrdom: “Whether they are imprisoned or lose their human lives for persevering in Dafa cultivation, they achieve Consummation.”

The Master’s message was summarized in August 2000 as a call to battle at a time of “cosmic changes,” with an insistence on activist involvement in “validating Dafa.” The catch phrase “Power of Truth” as a means to defeat “malicious beings” was reminiscent of Gandhi’s satya-graha. But prudence was advised. Disciples were urged to be “intelligent and flexible”; there were “various ways” to inform the public.

Volunteering for death and imprisonment was not the only path to salvation, for “the police vans are not the Law boat, the prisons are not the temples, labor camps are not the environment for cultivation. Going to Tiananmen Square to appeal is just one of the various means.” The activist efforts in the West were commended, that “call for release of innocent arrested practitioners.”

Master Li echoed this voice of caution in his 12 August 2000 letter entitled “Rationality” in which he attempted to rein in his disciples’ self-destructive impulses:

Some students suggest that the best practice of cultivation is to get placed into detention centers or labor camps, or get sentenced to jail in order to validate the Fa. Students, it is not so.

But he appeared to contradict this statement two days later when he seemed to advocate martyrdom: “let go of the thought of life and death under any circumstances,” and invited them to join the cosmic battle in the Three Realms.

By 28 September 2000, participation in rectification had become the only path to salvation. He condemned those who still sought individual enlightenment through the peaceful route of meditation: “In the midst of Fa-rectification…[n]o matter how he persists in studying the Fa and doing exercises at home, he is being controlled by demons and is enlightening along an evil path.”

On 21 October 2000 Master Li emerged from hiding to deliver his first public speech since the crack down began. He left his disciples no option but to participate in the cosmic battle as a great honor, since no other reality was left: “a tribulation like this has never taken place in history… You…are linked to the Fa.” He warned, “no human attachment can be taken to heaven” and that “[f]ruit status demands…a massive test” and that “evil demons are behind the tribulation.”

At times Master Li seemed to advocate what his critics might interpret as a fanatical dehumanization process for the forging of fearless martyrs: “a veteran disciple…should…regard himself as a particle of Dafa…play the role of a Dafa particle.” He consistently emphasized free choice, however, and the need for self-initiated actions. He kept insisting “it is not for him to spell things out.”

A new development occurred in the important letter of 2 January 2001, “Beyond the Limits of Forbearance.” Master Li urged practitioners to continue standing up against the “evil,” but to develop some self-defense reflexes.

Forbearance is not cowardice, much less is it resigning oneself to adversity…. But Forbearance does not mean tolerating evil beings…. If the evil has already reached the point where it is unsaveable and unkeepable, then various measures at different levels can be used to stop it and eradicate it.

He advised his disciples to stop cooperating meekly with their persecutors. He clearly identified Jiang Zemin’s security officers as “evil beings” devoid of “human nature.”

His next letters reaffirmed the apocalyptic significance of the struggle in China. He assured disciples that the evil regime in the PRG cannot last, and that the cosmic war has already been won in the higher realms. He prophesied the collapse of the “ruling party and its regime” due to the people’s mistrust. The persecution is useful as a test “to solidify dafa and remove cultivators’ fundamental attachments so as to free cultivators from the shackles of humanness and karma.”

In March he presented the vision of a large-scale judgment, where good will be separated from evil: “in the future several billion people are to obtain the Fa…once this evil drama is over a large-scale elimination of humankind will commence.” He awarded Jiang Zemin’s regime cosmic significance as “old forces” that “utilized the evil.” Falun Gong disciples were, in stark contrast, “sacred, magnificent.”

In two of his letters Master Li came dangerously close to blaming the martyrs for getting themselves killed as the result of their own “human attachments” or “karma.” He cryptically said, “I can tell you that if a person doesn’t have that much karma, he won’t have tribulations that severe.” Another troubling letter threatened the crown of martyrs: “The most severely persecuted ones are precisely those students who harbor attachments. The more fearful they are inside, the more evil will go after such students.” When I asked practitioners about these passages, they assured me he was referring only to the “reformed” apostates who broke under torture.

At the 2001 Canadian Experience-sharing Conference, Master Li assured his students that they were “entrusted with a great historic mission…amidst Fa-rectification.” He made it clear, once again, that cultivation for the purpose of “improving themselves for Consummation” is not an option in these emergency times. He polarized the forces of good and evil and demanded a more forceful policy: “The contrast between this evil and our goodness is dramatic. So in the process of eliminating it, don’t be lenient at all—just eliminate it! Here I’m not referring to humans but to those evil beings that manipulate humans.” He advocated the cultivation of magical powers in order to overcome the enemy: “Actually my disciples all have abilities” and assured them they could levitate, given a correct understanding of molecular physics.

Towards a Philosophy of Protest

In order to understand Falun Gong’s protest movement, it is obviously important to invite practitioners to convey their own views of what the movement means on spiritual and cosmological levels.

This is not easily accomplished, however, for there is no tradition of exegesis in Falun Gong. In a sense, the charisma of Master Li requires that the students confine themselves to an oral tradition. The students read Master Li’s writings over and over again in their reading groups, and resist any tendency to codify, summarize or analyze their content. There is no priesthood or hierarchy of teachers. Since Master Li’s statements are often enigmatic and his references ambiguous (not to mention his use of specialized Chinese terms), I was constantly asking disciples what he meant. They would always preface their comments with “according to my understanding” or “this is only my opinion,” followed by a disclaimer to the effect that Master Li was coming from another, higher level of reality, so it was impossible for us to grasp his meaning completely.

Falun Gong is still essentially an oral tradition. Disciples read out loud from Li’s published speeches, and do not question or summarize their content. While textual analysis is taboo, they are encouraged to relate personal anecdotes when a certain passage evokes memories. These communications were didactic and inspirational, and evidently facilitated a bonding between group members.

Three Directions in the Protest Movement

I found three different levels of interpretation of Master Li’s philosophy of protest among three Falun Gong communities I visited. The first emphasized the mythic, apocalyptic aspect of the Chinese branch of the movement, the second focused on the global human rights and public relations aspect, and the third sought to expand a viable new religious movement among Chinese expatriot communities in the West while they engaged in demonstrations to release prisoners in the PRC.

When I visited the Ottawa Falun Gong community, mainly composed of Chinese couples in their mid-thirties, software designers and computer programmers who worked for Nortel, I asked “why do practitioners stand up against the Chinese government?” There was a strong concern for the future of China. Some referred to China’s divinely-ordained central role in Master Li’s apocalyptic vision. The most frequent replies cited the Master’s apocalytic language: it was necessary to “defend the Dafa” because we are in a “critical juncture in human history,” the “dharma-ending period,” and must “face the tribulation” in order to assist in “rectifying the universe.” One activist explained:

We are in a special period, helping in the purification of the universe. We melt ourselves into the Law in order to protect the Law, like microscopic electrons. It is the rectification. Millions are melting themselves into the Law in Beijing. In order to assist in the rectification, they have left babies at home, quit their jobs.

Many of my Chinese informants regarded the victims of the crackdown as martyrs, who died for the Truth. The belief was shared that, by laying aside personal “attachments” and “melting into the fa,” these people would be propelled instantly into consummation. “If we are quiet, then the Great Law won’t be protected. We must be selfless and endure at this time. For some, who can put aside themselves, and stand up for Truth, for sure they will be enlightened!” But consummation seemed to be a by-product of martydom, rather than the initial goal: “I don’t think any of them thought about individual consummation before. They sacrificed their own body to awaken more people.”

One couple held up the examples of Chen Zixiu and Chen Zhao Jinghua who were tortured and chose to die rather than renounce their faith. “These individuals endured something that could not be endured by ordinary people,” the husband said. “I feel part of their mind or body has the quality of enlightened beings or they could not endure.”

Many testimonials I heard at the Experience-sharing Conferences conveyed the esoteric meaning of disciples’ activism:

  • I was incarcerated for 40 hours! Cultivation is superpersonal, Master Li will take care of everything.
  • Endure the tribulation. Like a drop of water in the sea, we go to Beijing.
  • Falun Dafa is experiencing such great disruptions and demonic interference, we must defend the Dafa.

I found a very different type of activism when I visited New York over the American Thanksgiving weekend in 2000. Western disciples who were the spokespersons for the New York group were, I found, reluctant to embrace the apocalyptic ideology behind Falun Gong’s activist movement. For them, the goal of cultivation was still personal spiritual evolution, and the reason for the protest was a purely secular one—to stand up for human rights and social justice.

I interviewed two friends, a man and woman, who had done extensive lobbying work with the media, embassies and human rights groups. The man, who is a successful rock musician, described his moral regeneration through the practice of Falun Gong, which enabled him to give up drugs, alcohol and resist the advances of beautiful groupies. As an African American he confessed to feeling like an outsider in the Chinese community of practitioners. I asked what they felt was the point of the resistance movement in the PRC. “Why not ask what’s the point of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement?” he rejoined. “Sure, a few people got hurt, but should we go ahead treating blacks as inferior to whites?” “Why did Gandhi organize nonviolent dissent in India? It worked, didn’t it?” the woman added.

But when I asked them about whether martyrdom indicated a post facto state of consummation, or mitigated the bad karma of China, they dismissed these notions as idiosyncratic heresies emanating from individual practitioners’ misinterpretations of the Master’s wisdom. These Western disciples stuck to human rights, religious freedom and social justice arguments. They were simply not interested in the esoteric motivations for martyrdom.

A third type of activism was found among Chinese who were firm ly established in the United States. On 26 February 2001 I interviewed eight practitioners in Dallas, Texas who were kind enough to meet me at the airport during a long stopover. They explained their understanding of the Master’s recent message in “Beyond the Limits of Forbearance.” “He’s saying don’t cooperate with bad people, these are devil peoples so we should stop trying to educate them,” a young computer programmer explained, “but he makes it clear that there is to be no violence, no anti-government activity.” A woman engineer added:

Normally, we recognize that different people have different understandings; that when people hit you, you don’t hit back. If they create trouble for you, you thank them, for this is how you make progress. But this article tells practitioners that, at this stage, when bad people hit you, they are evil. They are not helping you to upgrade your xinxing, so don’t thank them. They are a danger to the Dafa.

I asked these Chinese Texans what Master Li meant by “fa-rectifi-cation.” Their answers revealed a gnostic edge to Master Li’s cosmology. A young software designer said:

For example, I am a programmer. The program I created is running in the computer the way I designed it, even if I am not there in the office. So, the fa-rectification is kind of like a program still running in the computer, everything going the way it’s meant to be. It works from the top down. In higher places the evil is already cleared up.

This group of activists felt no pressure to fly to China and participate in the protest in Beijing. “We can do much more useful work here in the United States,” they said. They talked about demonstrations they had organized in front of the PRC Embassy in Dallas. They were also less quick to compose hagiographies for the Chinese martyrs or award them posthumous enlightenment, while commending their selfless courage.

These different schools of thought within Falun Gong’s resistance movement reflect the decentralized, grassroots quality of the organization, that is united only through the Master’s charisma mediated through the Internet.


The Falun Gong movement appears to be undergoing a tug-of-war between the global aspirations of an international new religious movement, and the conservative, spiritual undercurrents that are concerned with saving China and preserving ancient “cultivation practices” amidst the expatriot communities of technocratic modernists in the Chinese diaspora.

The variety in interpretative responses is perhaps inevitable in a rapidly changing apocalyptic religion spearheadeded by the enigmatic prophecies of Li Hongzhi who is responding to escalating persecution. Perhaps these different activist approaches contain the potential for schisms between the human rights lobbying groups who focus on social justice, and the Chinese patriots who embrace martyrdom.

The content and tone of Master Li’s articles on the Internet have shifted since the crackdown began. At the beginning, the Master insisted that Falun Gong was not “political,” and urged practitioners to remain loyal citizens, even in the PRC. They should respond to even the most brutal persecution with “forbearance”—meaning to turn the other cheek. By September 2000, Master Li had identified Jiang Zemen and his minions as “demons” and urged practitioners to stop cooperating with “evil.” At the May 2001 Ottawa conference he showed them how to fight back using magical techniques.

The experience-sharing speeches I heard in January 2000 tended to focus on miraculous healings, resolving conflicts at home or at work as disciples upgraded their xinxing. In May 2001 the overriding concern was to “suffocate the evil” in China and participate in the apocalyptic struggle called fa-rectification.

This shift represents a familiar human response to suffering and injustice—to seek transcendental meaning in the deaths that have already occurred, to demonize the oppressors, and to forge an esoteric ideology that strengthens and unites the protesters. There is a heroic, inspiring aspect to Falun Gong’s courageous struggle for justice that resonates with Gandhi’s satyagraha and the American civil rights movement. Hundreds of practitioners have consciously chosen to place themselves in a situation where they have died painfully, and Jiang Zemin’s administration continues to adopt brutal measures of social control against the “evil cult.”

Will the PRC government seize this new opportunity to discredit Falun Gong by staging a violent episode—claiming Master Li told them to “eliminate the evil” in a manner similar to the (quite possibly faked) suicide attempts by immolation in Beijing in February 2001? Will potential martyrs continue to gravitate towards Tiananmen Square, testing their qigong magical defenses against evil. Or will Master Li encourage his students to continue lobbying for religious freedom and justice but to avoid public demonstrations in the land of “Mighty Virtue” and wage their psychic battles from the safety and privacy of their own homes?