History for Falun Gong: Popular Religion and the Chinese State Since the Ming Dynasty

David Ownby. Nova Religio. Volume 6, Issue 2. 2003.

There is a timeless quality to many of the representations of Falun Gong encountered in the media. Falun Gong practitioners see their “cultivation system” as an ancient form of Chinese wisdom containing the secrets of the meaning and function of the universe, made available to the public for the first time in human history by Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi. The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) sees Falun Gong as the incarnation of a transcendent form of evil, found both in the religiously inspired popular uprisings which have punctuated Chinese history from time immemorial, and in “evil cults” found throughout the modern world. Such representations tell us little about the historical and cultural contexts which gave rise to Falun Gong—or to the larger qigong movement out of which it grew.

This essay will address itself to these missing contexts, and seek to make sense of Falun Gong from within the history of Chinese popular religion. I will write as a specialist in the history of Chinese popular religion and popular movements, but for an audience of non-sinologists. I will keep references to sinological esoterica to a minimum (and will not cite works in Chinese or Japanese) and allow myself to speculate and generalize in a way that I might regret were I writing for my sinological peers. My argument is that both qigong in general and Falun Gong in particular should be seen as modern reincarnations—although considerably transformed in important ways—of a particular strand of traditional Chinese popular religion generally referred to in Western scholarly literature as the “White Lotus Tradition” or as “folk sectarianism.” A related point is that just as the study of China’s past religious experience sheds light on Falun Gong, so study of Falun Gong affords new insights into the significance of the traditions on which it has built. Indeed, studying Falun Gong—or qigong— in its proper context, rather than debating whether Falun Gong should be viewed as a heterodox cult, will enable us to come to a new understanding of the role of such practices in Chinese society and culture.

Religion, Popular Religion and the State in Late Imperial and Modern China

Generalizations about Chinese religion, or the history of Chinese religion, are elusive, in part because Chinese religion does not look like Western religion. Most non-academic Westerners, asked to define religion, think immediately of churches, denominations, hierarchies, and doctrines. Westerners are generally assumed to belong to one church at a time, and this church identification is often assumed to be a significant aspect of their social identity. Because of their unique history, Americans have been taught to think of religion as separate from the state, although they often approve of state intervention when new religious movements fail to seek the certification of acknowledged ecclesiastical institutions or engage in unusual behavior.

Few of these ingredients of religion are to be found in the Chinese context, or at least not in the same mix. Many Chinese temples in Hong Kong or Taiwan—which have carried forward late imperial popular religious traditions—teem with the gods of a variety of religious traditions, and many Chinese believers seemingly exhibit little loyalty to any particular denomination, going from god to god and temple to temple according to their perception of a particular god’s efficacy. Many popular gods have no particular scriptural corpus attached to them, and although one often finds Buddhist or Daoist (also spelled Taoist) monks attached to the temples of popular religion, many acts of worship are carried out entirely by the individual, unmediated by religious professionals. From a Western perspective, much of Chinese religious practice in the late imperial and modern periods appears to be recklessly underdefined.

An important reason for this state of affairs is that the major Chinese historical religions have been institutionally weak for some centuries. Buddhism, which arrived in China from India in the first century C.E. and implanted itself in China during the troubled interregnum between the fall of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E-220 C.E.) and the rise of the Tang dynasty (618-906), may well have approached the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in pre-Reformation Europe during the first half of the Tang. Buddhist monasteries possessed enormous spiritual and economic power during this period, and several emperors openly endorsed what was by that point a largely sinicized religion. Similarly, Daoism, often referred to by specialists as China’s indigenous higher religion, flourished during the same period, having emerged in ecclesiastical form toward the end of the Han dynasty. Largely in response to the sophisticated institutional and doctrinal practices of Buddhism, Daoism too developed bodies of sacred literature, rites of ordination, and monastic and ecclesiastic traditions. If there were fewer Daoist than Buddhist monasteries during the Tang dynasty, and perhaps less interaction between the Daoist church and the population at large, Tang emperors still claimed to be direct descendants of the supposed founder of Daoism, and questions based on Daoist scriptures figured in examinations for the civil service.

Institutional religions reached the peak of their power and influence in China in the early Tang period. In the eighth and ninth centuries, however, a Confucian reaction against the Buddhist establishment targeted both the fabulous wealth of the monasteries and the supposedly foreign character of the faith. Although conventional scholarship identifies an inexorable decline in Buddhist fortunes in China from this point forward, it is probably more accurate to speak of a revitalization of institutional Confucianism which reduced—without eliminating—the influence of Buddhism in government, the economy, and eventually in society at large. The Daoist establishment was never the target of a specific campaign in this way, but lost ground nonetheless to the Confucian revitalization which continued through the succeeding Song dynasty (960-1279), as Confucian thinkers reworked Confucian doctrines, incorporating many philosophical and cosmological elements from both Buddhism and Daoism, and the Chinese state adopted a regulatory attitude toward both institutional and popular religion which was to characterize its posture for the rest of the imperial period, and which modern Chinese governments have largely carried forward.

The Tang-Song Confucian reaction and revitalization undoubtedly influenced the shape of institutional religion throughout the remainder of Chinese history, and particularly the relationship between institutional religion and the Chinese state. Deprived of the state support they had once enjoyed, Buddhist monasteries lost much of their land to wealthy locals in many parts of the country as a consequence of the growth of gentry society in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties; their Daoist counterparts, often located in inaccessible mountainous regions, had less land to lose, and in any case had never played quite the same role that Buddhist monasteries did for the Buddhist faith. As a result, the institutional expression of these two religions was rather weak over the course of later Chinese imperial history, and probably weakened over time.

One should not, however, conclude from this that the Buddhist or Daoist impact on Chinese society disappeared after the Tang period. Both religions experienced some of their most important doctrinal and ecclesiastical developments under the Song, and both were intricately interwoven into the fabric of elite and popular culture throughout the later imperial era. Buddhist and Daoist monks were familiar sights on the highways and byways of China until the Communist revolution of 1949. Popular novels, drama, music, and art were suffused with Buddhist and Daoist symbols, themes, and vocabulary. Trying to understand late imperial Chinese society without a basic knowledge of Buddhism and Daoism is like trying to understand early American history without a basic knowledge of Puritanism. Nor should the institutional weakness of the Buddhist and Daoist establishments be taken as a reflection of a general lack of religiosity in Chinese society. Instead, this institutional weakness was a product of state policy, and meant—among other things—that the Buddhist and Daoist churches were rarely empowered to define and enforce centrally sanctioned visions of orthodoxy, as was the Roman Catholic Church in Europe during several centuries. Instead, the burden of defining and enforcing orthodoxy fell to the imperial government, a highly ambitious under-taking for a state whose formal apparatus did not descend below the county level. Over time, the Chinese state established a network of state-supported cults, and co-opted or otherwise supported local cults whose deities seemed to reflect desired values. Unsanctioned groups that grew too large or preached messages the state found threatening were subject to periodic suppression—through arrest or military campaign, if necessary. Indeed, the imperial Chinese state’s self-appointed role as guarantor of orthodoxy served to politicize certain religious groups and practices long before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power.

Nonetheless, if the imperial state could blunt the power of institutional religions and set itself up as sole guarantor of orthodoxy, in practice the state simply did not have the means to intervene in local religious practice on a daily basis. Thus the shape and texture of popular (in this context, non-institutionalized) religion over the roughly one thousand years between the Confucian revitalization of the Tang-Song period and the twentieth century was surely influenced as much by a lack of elite control as by thoroughgoing state regulation. This relative lack of control gave rise to the exuberant and poorly defined phenomenon scholars refer to as Chinese popular religion, a protean mixture of pan-Chinese practices (such as ancestor worship), local territorial cults (often controlled by local power-holders), charismatic spiritual figures and unregulated spiritual discourse. Most of these practices had of course long existed in China, but the particular forms they took in the late imperial period were the result of the specific factors I have just enumerated.

The Roots of Falun Gong

The antecedents of Falun Gong and of qigong are one part of this tradition of late imperial popular religious practice. As already mentioned, scholars have generally referred to the particular tradition (s) in question as White Lotus folk Buddhism or as the sectarian tradition. The central elements of these traditions are generally taken to be: a goddess, known as the Eternal Venerable Mother, who created the world and waited in her paradise for her believers to return from worldly exile; the Maitreya, or Future Buddha, whose messianic arrival on earth would signal a moment of world renewal and the salvation of believers; scriptures (often called “precious scrolls”) written by charismatic group leaders and handed down through the generations; a mixture of practices, drawn from popular religion, folklore, and Chinese medicine, involving meditation, breathing practices, chanting of mantras, use of talismans, keeping of vegetarian diets, and much else. Although there is no doubt that there are historical examples of groups sharing some or all of such beliefs and practices, some of which may indeed have called themselves “White Lotus,” the terms “White Lotus” and “sectarian tradition” remain problematic, in my opinion. This does not necessarily mean that all scholarship employing these terms should be rejected, but rather that those wishing to draw on this scholarship should bear in mind a number of considerations.

First, the term White Lotus was used to describe large numbers of groups who did not refer to themselves by this name—in addition to those few that did—and its use as a category designation was the product of state suppression of popular religious activity. In other words, “White Lotus,” like the term “cult” in popular usage, appears to have been a label employed by the Chinese state to inculpate groups whose activities they found suspect and to justify their suppression. This means of course that we have to be extremely careful when using documents whose source is the Chinese state—unfortunately one of the major sources of information for the late imperial period—since officials anxious to finish up a case, or to justify an intervention in local society, could easily assign the attributes of the supposed “White Lotus” to any group they chose. Not all scholars working on the topic, however, have realized the degree to which “White Lotus” is a discursive invention by the state, and they thus reproduce the errors committed by the Chinese state in their own scholarship.

The term “sectarian tradition” is perhaps less problematic, if we ignore the pejorative connotations attached to the term “sect” in contemporary times and retain the original sociological sense of a group branching off from an established tradition. The problem, however, is that the “established tradition” is not identified in this case. The tradition cannot be Buddhism, as mainstream, orthodox Buddhism had its own history of sectarianism, which did not include any of the groups under discussion here. Neither the Buddhist community nor the state would have associated the traditions the state branded as “White Lotus” with the mainstream Buddhist community. Thus what is missing from the more scholarly label “folk sectarianism” or the “sectarian tradition” is the larger body to which these groups were attached or from which they branched out. “Lay Buddhism” or “folk Buddhism” might suffice, but so little serious work has been done on these topics that it is difficult to know how to situate our groups vis-a-vis lay Buddhist beliefs and practices—even if it is clear that Buddhism is a major source of inspiration for most of the groups under consideration.

Setting aside for the moment the problem of nomenclature, allow me to offer a narrative overview of the traditions in question. Several important features of these traditions seem to trace their origin to Luo Qing (1442-1527), a towering figure in the history of Chinese popular religion, later revered as the founder/patriarch of the Luo Teachings, also known as the Non-Action Teachings. Luo was born in North China (Shandong province) into a poor family of hereditary soldiers, and was orphaned at a young age. He later served in the army himself, but motivated perhaps by an orphan’s sense of loss and abandonment, devoted himself to a search for spiritual meaning. After thirteen years of study and practice with a variety of masters and practices, Luo achieved enlightenment, and subsequently recorded his experience and insights in a body of scripture known as the Five Works in Six Volumes.

Although Luo became a controversial figure in his own lifetime and his writings were eventually condemned as heretical, it is important to point out that Luo saw himself as completely loyal to the Buddhist heritage. The enlightenment he achieved was thoroughly Buddhist: it involved intellectual understanding and emotional embrace of an emptiness which was at the origin of all things and which belied the apparent—but false—dualities of life and death, happiness and suffering, salvation and reincarnation. Luo was radical only in his insistence that lay practitioners possessed within themselves all they needed to attain salvation, but even in this radicalism he was much indebted to Chan (in Japanese, Zen) texts and practices. Similarly, Luo was critical of many practices current in the Buddhism of his day, but only because they were “activist,” in his terms, prescribing chanting, or vegetarianism, or monastic isolation as the keys to enlightenment. To Luo, these were at best useless distractions, but his criticisms remained nonetheless rather mild and we find little of the angry outsider in his writings.

In fact, what makes Luo Qing stand out is not so much the uniqueness of his vision, but rather the fact that he committed this vision to writing and that it achieved wide circulation, even as Luo remained outside the clerical establishments. Luo’s success in this regard is probably related to rising rates of literacy in Ming China, and to a widespread revival of scholarly and popular interest in a variety of philosophical and religious doctrines over the course of the late Ming. It seems in any event that during this period a larger market for scriptures or for other religious materials was created, thus motivating others, who for whatever reason felt called to do so, to imitate Luo Qing and pen their own scriptures. Authors presumably drew on more orthodox scriptures, on what had previously been oral traditions, and on one another.

It is this process that created what has been called the White Lotus sectarian tradition, as groups such as the Yellow Heavens Teachings, the Yuandun Teachings, the Eight Trigrams Teachings (to name but a few of the better known groups) appeared over the course of the latter imperial period. Although it is difficult to generalize about group founders (none was as well known as Luo Qing, and many remain unidentified), most were probably charismatic preachers, even if over time, sons and daughters of charismatic figures inherited the father’s (or mother’s) charisma, along with the scriptures, in an interesting routinization of popular tradition. In some cases, the scriptures themselves, often seen as possessing sacred, talismanic powers, came to possess as much if not more charisma than the descendant who inherited them.

As for the scriptures, most of those we possess (the Chinese state destroyed many in its campaigns against heterodoxy) continued to express generally (folk) Buddhist themes, but also added elements from Daoist and folk traditions, so that many of these later scriptures came to be less orthodox, at least in appearance, than those of Luo Qing. For example, Luo Qing often evoked themes of exile in his writ¬ings, and compared his discovery of emptiness to “returning home.” In similar fashion, he likened the original emptiness, in its role as progenitor of all things, to a mother. Later scriptures expressed similar themes much less metaphorically: the central deity in many texts became, as already mentioned, the eternal venerable mother. Linked to the eternal venerable mother and her concerns was an old Buddhist schema of world destruction and renewal. Human history, according to this schema, was divided into vast epochs known as kalpas, each of which was presided over by a particular Buddha. The immorality of the current age, these scriptures argued, was proof that the current kalpa was drawing to close, at which point the Maitreya Buddha would intervene to save believers. Added to this eclectic mix were a variety of practices (not necessarily scriptural) drawn from the repertoire of Chinese popular religion, folklore, and medicine.

Groups associated with these traditions were also frequently implicated in rebellions—or, more accurately, the historical record is richer on groups which ran afoul of the state because the state generated documents in the course of suppression. The majority of groups, who were more peaceful, or in some cases simply lucky enough to avoid the state’s attention, left much less in the way of documentation. In any case, historians continue to debate the supposedly “rebellious” character of the tradition. The social message of most scriptures appears to be mixed on this front. If the very creation of scriptures by uncertified lay figures—including women—perhaps suggests an implicit rejection of Confucian hierarchy, at the same time, many texts explicitly endorse conservative Confucian social values, up to and including imperial rule, and there is a fundamentalist ring to many of the criti¬cisms of the immorality of contemporary society. In any case, the scriptures themselves are hardly blueprints for rebellion. Of course, the millenarian tone of certain scriptures may have encouraged a certain radicalism among already disaffected elements. More likely, the mix of charismatic leadership and the sometimes marginal social position of those who felt drawn to such groups and practices probably made them a magnet for the kind of ambitious character whose goal was to build a personal following. Scholars have examined in depth cases of rebellion where personal desires for adulation and wealth meshed with prophecies of the coming turning of the kalpa to provide the mobilization necessary to set a rebellion in motion. The opposition of the Chinese state added yet another explosive element to the mix. Many leaders and followers were forced to flee for fear of arrest, a pressure which undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the tradition, forced certain branches underground, and provided justification for anti-state attitudes on the part of members who were so inclined.

Taken together, the traditions under discussion here had an important impact on the society of the late imperial era. Their most basic expression was probably in the village society of north China, where innumerable small groups of believers, bound together at the cellular level by personal ties between master and disciple, found spiritual meaning in chanting scripture and sharing vegetarian meals. But the influence of the groups spread far beyond Luo Qing’s own native milieu. A variant of Luo Qing’s teachings came to be the shared faith of many of the boatmen employed to bring grain from south China to Beijing via the Grand Canal, and these “Luo Teachings boatmen” were perhaps one of the mechanisms by which the tradition spread south, for there is evidence of associated groups in Zhejiang and Fujian quite early, and then throughout south China somewhat later. Nor were all such groups necessarily rural. One scholar, attempting to develop typologies of White Lotus groups, has distinguished between more rural groups, where meditation and perhaps martial arts served as the focus of group activities, and swira-recitation sects, more oriented toward scriptures and more devoted to regular religious meetings, when possible in edifices designed for such purposes. These groups “appear to have prospered in cities and away from areas of active government surveillance.”

The “White Lotus” in the Twentieth Century

Scholars once thought that these traditions were part and parcel of traditional village society, and that they had died out under the weight of the modernization and revolutions of the twentieth century. More recent scholarship has found by contrast that many such groups thrived in the first half of the twentieth century under conditions of war, social dislocation, and the relative weakness of the Chinese state. Indeed, it appears that there was a veritable explosion of popular religious activity under the Chinese Republic (1911-1949 on the Chinese mainland; the same government has continued on Taiwan since the Communist revolution of 1949). One scholar refers to an important strain of popular religious activity during this period as “redemptive societies,” because of their pretensions to universal salvation, and notes that they clearly emerged out of the Chinese historical tradition of sectarian¬ism and syncretism. While some of these societies were closely associated with the sectarian tradition including the worship of Buddhist and folk deities like the Eternal Mother, they also represented the late imperial syncretic tradition…which combined the three religions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism in a single universal faith.

The groups “ranged from the ‘morality cultivating’ charitable societies to the occasionally violent, secret-society-like entities,” a description which conforms to the traditions I have been describing for the earlier period. Some groups used divination and spirit writing, thus connecting them to local popular culture, while at the same time claiming to absorb the moral concerns of Christianity and Islam, adding them to the Chinese heritage of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Many of the groups, in their universal redemptive mission, continued to sound traditional Chinese apocalyptic themes—even as they engaged in modern charitable and philanthropic work. Better known examples of such groups include the Morality Society, the Society of the Way and its philanthropic wing, the Red Swastika Society, the Fellowship of Goodness, and the Unity Way.

Although much work remains to be done on this period, a number of points seem clear: these groups represent a continuation, albeit with some changes, of the late imperial White Lotus sectarian tradition; taken together, these groups were represented throughout the entire country, and membership numbered in the millions if not tens of millions; many of these groups appealed to members of the elite as well as non-elite; certain groups, often for reasons of expediency, collaborated with the Japanese invaders, or with the Nationalist armies against the Communists, thus strengthening the Chinese state’s ten-dency to view such groups as political in orientation.

All of these groups were suppressed in the immediate aftermath of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a series of campaigns that scholars had generally assumed to have been conclusive—particularly since they were carried out by an avowedly atheistic state which had established a stronger presence than any government in Chinese history. However, faced with the task of arresting and reeducating millions of people who had been involved in one way or another with these groups, the Communist state did what the imperial state had done: arrested and executed the worst of the offenders, imprisoned some others—but simply spoke harshly to the majority and sent them home. This meant that the roots of the traditions remained. And indeed, there were many more local rebellions against the Communists, organized around local religious groups, than we have previously been aware of, particularly at moments of crisis—such as during the subsistence crisis provoked by the disastrous failure of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Presumably, not all involvement in popular religious activities had specifically rebellious, or even political, overtones, but the explicit commitment of the People’s Republic to the suppression of these groups surely accentuated the elements of resistance inherited from past experience.

Mao Zedong died in 1976, and with him, much of the revolutionary zeal which had marked the history of the People’s Republic. Under Deng Xiaoping, China’s leaders redefined “revolution” to mean economic development under strong central authority, and the Chinese state dramatically reduced the scale of its intervention into the daily lives of its citizens. In the spiritual vacuum created by the failure of the Maoist revolution, and in the social space opened up by the Party retreat from ideological micro-management, occurred a resurgence of religious activity. Christianity has attained unprecedented popularity, particularly in the largely Protestant “home church” movement, which is unregulated and thus frequently suppressed. Daoism has reassumed its role in the ritual traditions of many regions, particularly in south China. Local cults of all sorts have been reestablished. A number of White Lotus traditions, such as the Unity Way, have reemerged as well, causing great concern among political leaders and security officials. For both ideological and practical reasons the Chinese state is uncomfortable with most if not all expressions of this religious resurgence, but is at the same time reluctant to reinvest state energy in daily control of religious activities.

Falun Gong did not grow directly out of sectarian revivals, or indeed out of any movement acknowledged as religious, but rather was part of the much larger, and officially sanctioned, qigong movement. Qigong is a twentieth-century term for a wide variety of traditional “cultivation” practices, and the invention of the term, during the Republican period, probably bespoke a desire to separate “cultivation” from “superstition,” to secularize and preserve valuable aspects of traditional practices. Qigong (or ch’i-gong) is for the moment little-known in the West outside of alternative medicine/New Age circles (taijiquan or t’ai chi ch’uan is a form of qigong, perhaps the best known in the West). Qi (or ch’i) means “cosmic breath” or “energy” and refers to a physical force which a practitioner can capture through specific gestures, exercises or meditative techniques (depending on the school of qigong). Most practitioners seek in qigong cultivation improved physical and spiritual health. Qigong received some support from the PRC government during the 1950s as a variant of Chinese medicine which claimed to promote mental and physical health, but given the multiplicity of tasks facing the PRC’s leadership during this period, it is not surprising that qigong never became a top priority.

In the post-Mao period, however, qigong took on unprecedented importance. For both practical and ideological reasons, the state renewed its support for qigong. Practically, the PRC’s leaders hoped that widespread practice of qigong might improve the overall health of the Chinese people, an important consideration for a state hoping to reduce its financial obligations to its population. Ideologically, many of the PRC’s leaders were apparently quite taken with the idea of qigong as a specifically “Chinese science,” as qigong came to be part of the PRC’s “new nationalism,” a frequently chauvinistic claim to cultural greatness and superpower status. Although the qigong boom began at roughly the same time as the religious revival just discussed, and for similar reasons, qigong was not initially considered a religion, either by the PRC authorities or by qigong practitioners, which helps to explain the immense popularity qigong achieved.

The Chinese public enthusiastically embraced qigong. At the moment of the organization of the Chinese Qigong Scientific Research Association (a state-run umbrella organization) in the spring of 1986, Association leaders noted that there were already over 2,000 national—level qigong organizations—and, one assumes, countless local branches and unorganized groups. Official PRG government sources put overall membership at 60 million as of 1990; other sources have put the numbers as high as 200 million. Qigong rapidly became a social phenomenon of considerable importance. Qigong newspapers and magazines appeared in profusion to cater to the public interest in the subject; novelists and journalists explored the topic as well. Some qigong masters organized mass rallies in which paying customers experienced trance, possession, and a variety of otherworldly states, transforming the original small-group, master-disciple pattern into a mass experience. Masters were also quick to capitalize on the phenomenon in the newly vibrant Chinese market economy, selling books, audio-and video-cassettes, and organizing national and international tours (particularly to other Chinese-speaking areas of East Asia) to promote qigong. Qigong practitioners could be seen in public parks and on university campuses, and included the old and suffering as well as the young and curious. To my knowledge, no one has attempted to trace the sociological profile of qigong practitioners; my impression, based on extensive if anecdotal evidence, is that such a profile would resemble that of China’s population as a whole. In other words, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, powerful and powerless, urban and rural, Party and non-Party—representatives from any and all of these categories could be found among qigong practitioners.

Part of the appeal of qigong in the daring post-Mao era was that its definition quickly escaped Party control. Claims to improve health remained central to virtually all schools of qigong, but many masters spoke of supernatural powers which qigong could confer on adepts. Such powers included the ability to levitate, to heal illness, to repel objects (including people) by emitting qi from their bodies, the ability to “read via the ear,” (an apparent ability to read papers folded up and placed in the ear) and a host of other remarkable talents, many of which would fall under our category of extrasensory perception, which qigong could confer on adepts. These possibilities clearly sparked the interest of many Chinese. In addition, as qigong masters delivered lectures and wrote books explaining how qigong worked, they quite naturally recycled traditional “cultivation” discourse, which was rooted in traditional religious culture. Although no one seemed to notice, the qigong boom had become part of the resurgence of popular religion, and the writings of many qigong masters took on the character of scriptures.

The qigong boom was well underway before the appearance of Falun Gong in 1992. In fact, my suspicion is that if we knew more about qigong—a phenomenon to which scholars have afforded little attention—Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong would seem less distinctive. Many commentators have noted that Falun Gong was not the largest of the qigong organizations. When I talk with colleagues who have studied the writings of other qigong masters (Yan Xin, Zhang Hongbao, Zhang Xiangyu), we invariably find that the writings of these qigong masters share much in common (and indeed, the PRG government has come to the same conclusion, having—rather quietly—shut down the organized qigong movement as of the summer of 2000).

In any case, however large Falun Gong now looms as an independent entity, it was at the outset no more than a variety of qigong. Li Hongzhi emerged in 1992 in order to “rectify” the larger qigong movement which, according to Li, was rife with false teachings and greedy and fraudulent “masters.” Li’s writings are highly sectarian, by which I mean that he understands himself and Falun Gong in terms of a centuries-old tradition of cultivation (although Falun Gong has, in Li’s opinion, now surpassed all previous teachings) and Li spends much time in his texts attacking those who are teaching incorrect, deviant, or heterodox ways.

Neither Li Hongzhi nor Falun Gong was controversial in the beginning. Instead, Li became an instant star of the qigong movement, celebrated at the Beijing Oriental Health Expos of 1992 and 1993. Falun Gong was welcomed into the Scientific Qigong Research Association, which sponsored and helped to organize many of Li’s activities between 1992 and 1994, which included, notably, 54 large-scale lectures given throughout the PRG. Li’s appeal at the outset seems to have been, as in many other cases, his promise to help followers toward better health. Like other masters, he charged admission to his lectures—although Falun Gong sources insist that Li’s fees were much lower than those of other schools of qigong. At some point, moreover, the success of Falun Gong enabled Li to stop charging admission fees, and he offered his vision freely to those who wished to attend. He and his movement lived by sales of books, videotapes, and other paraphernalia. In addition to offering his teachings free of charge, Li Hongzhi also began to distinguish himself from some other qigong masters by the character of his message: instead of treating health or ESP or supernatural powers as the goal of cultivation, he sought to develop a larger theory of the history and meaning of cultivation. He also built a nationwide organization of “practice centers” which helped to keep local enthusiasm alive throughout the country as he continued his lecture tours. Some combination of marketing, message, and organization clicked and the movement enjoyed a rapid and huge success. By the end of 1994, Li claimed that there were some 60 million practitioners in the PRG; later PRG government estimates put the number at two million. Since Falun Gong does not compile membership statistics, there is no way to judge these competing claims. By all accounts, however, the movement became very popular very quickly, and, as subsequent events have indicated, its importance is not in doubt.

The conflict between Falun Gong and the PRG government need not concern us overmuch here. It is clear that qigong and Falun Gong had detractors—as well as supporters—within top government and Party leadership from the very beginning. It is also clear that Falun Gong was very proactive in protesting against what it saw as misrepresentation by the PRG media, staging the equivalent of “sit-ins” at newspapers, television and radio stations which aired unfavorable commentaries on Li Hongzhi or Falun Gong. To some extent, a clash between Falun Gong and the Party looks to have been nearly inevitable, even if the precise roles played by such factors as Party paranoia, Falun Gong organizational abilities, and perhaps Li Hongzhi’s ego, are not yet clear. What does seem clear is that Falun Gong, at least prior to the events of the spring and summer of 1999, when the Party banned Falun Gong as a “dangerous cult,” had no specific political ambitions. The leadership of the PRG government must bear much of the blame for changing the rules of the game, stigmatizing first Falun Gong, and later the qigong movement as a whole, and launching its campaign of brutal suppression against Falun Gong.

Falun Gong and Its Place in Chinese History

My goal in this essay has been less to discuss Falun Gong’s very recent history than to construct a framework which allows us to place Falun Gong into the broader context of Chinese history. To recapitulate, while some aspects of Li Hongzhi’s “cultivation system” have very ancient roots in traditional Chinese medicine and religion, it is more helpful to see Falun Gong as part of a tradition of popular religious practice which in (semi-) organized form dates back to the mid-Ming period and to Luo Qing. Because these traditions were popular rather than institutionalized, and because they have always been subject to state suppression, the traditions never developed the sense of historical self-consciousness we associate with mainstream religious traditions. Imagine Christianity, or any world religion for that matter, without the physical monuments, without the historically conditioned corpus of texts, without the ecclesiastical organization so necessary to the creation of a sense of continuous identity. In fact, it is strangely apropos to identify these groups as “sectarian” without specifying the larger traditions from which they branched off, because it is precisely this core, this center, that could never come into conscious existence given the posture of the Chinese state. Consequently, for members of these traditions, history is esoterica: masters who emerge from the mountains, clandestine transmissions of secret knowledge, all shrouded in mystery and “truth.” Falun Gong practitioners, by now highly aware of the role of the Chinese state in defining and enforcing central visions of orthodoxy, still reject out of hand any historical connection to the “White Lotus,” because the only thing they know about that tradition is that it was “heterodox” and “violent.” Of course, the source of this characterization is none other than the Chinese state, testimony to the success of its historical campaign to label such organizations as evil.

If, however, we set aside the labels attached by the state, we might characterize this tradition—or set of related traditions—which includes Luo Qing’s Non-Action Teachings, the groups associated with the White Lotus or folk sectarian traditions in late imperial times, the redemptive societies of the Republican era, and the qigong groups (including Falun Gong) of the post-Mao period, as follows. Sociologically, charismatic masters play an important role in the creation of many such groups, and the binary relationship between believer and master appears to be more important than relationships between and among believers. In other words, the congregation, or community of believers, appears to be of secondary importance. For groups which evade suppression and manage to thrive in time and/or space, the charisma of the original master will obviously be transformed, but the emergence of a master remains a formative moment to many of the groups under discussion. Scripture is another important force for legitimacy for these traditions, and an element which mediates the relationship between leader and followers. Indeed, another characteristic shared by many of these traditions is the independent creation of spiritual truth, which often takes the form of scripture. As one would expect of unregulated traditions largely unaware of one another, there are important differences in form, style, and content distinguishing the scriptures of groups belonging to this tradition at different times. Late imperial “precious scrolls” were often composed in verse form, and teem with the gods and language of traditional popular religion. The “scriptures” of the post-Mao qigong boom are written in fairly straightforward modern Chinese and rarely mention any deifies by name. Some scriptures self-consciously mimic elite styles of composition; others are much more rustic. Still, many of these scriptures, despite their manifest differences, exhibit similarities in terms of content.

In terms of the core ideas of many of these groups—which, until very recently, we have known exclusively through scripture—the point of departure appears to have been what we might call a discourse of the physical body. At one pole we might find the discourse of the suffering body, as freedom from illness and suffering is a primary and major claim of many groups which I am attaching to this tradition. At the other end of the spectrum we find what might be called the discourse of limitless human potential, with claims to invulnerability and supernormal powers. This discourse is obviously not confined to the traditions in question, as examples can be seen, for example, in the stunning physical stunts displayed in Chinese martial arts movies such as “Grouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Physical transformation is effected most often by moral practice, another basic notion shared by many of these groups. There are of course technical tricks to be learned or procured—mantras, talismans, planchette, breathing exercises, chanting of scripture—but at base, being good is often a first step toward being powerful. Thus we see embodied in these traditions what must surely be one of the oldest, most common, and most widely shared wishes in the world: that the righteous have the power.

The discourses of the body and physical transformation in turn draw upon a number of larger constructs, which include a discourse of exile and return, of world creation, degeneration, and salvation/renewal, the notion that we have deteriorated from our formerly perfect state, that someone is waiting to take us back, that we will find once again who we once were. The discussion of exile and return draws heavily on Buddhist and Daoist strains of thought, particularly the more apocalyptic strains of those traditions. I suspect that even the popularized versions of apocalyptic renewal were so widespread in Chinese culture as to be no more—or less—incendiary than similar Christian rhetoric in the West (which is to say that it could be very incendiary, given the right time and circumstance). The debts these popular traditions owe to mainstream moral-religious traditions do not stop with apocalyptic imagery. Indeed, most of the discourses conveyed by the traditions under discussion, be they mythological, cosmological, or apocalyptic, were heavily indebted to institutionalized religions such as Buddhism and Daoism, as well as to popular moral discourse, which had a base which may once have been Confucian, but by late imperial times was very syncretic and more appropriately called simply Chinese. In other words, the traditions in question did not necessarily create new moral precepts or a dissenting point of view (or a point of view which would differ from dissent as expressed from within more mainstream traditions). Instead, to the extent that the traditions criticize the mainstream, it is from what one might call a fundamentalist point of view, calling on the institutions in question to live up to their own claims to morality and legitimacy.

Finally, despite general scriptural acceptance of orthodox principles, many of the groups belonging to this tradition have had a problematic relationship to the Chinese state. One source of this problem is undoubtedly the Chinese state’s desire to define and control its understanding of orthodoxy, combined with its fear of any organization not firmly under the control of the state or its allies. Although existing historical records may never permit a clear judgment, I suspect that most groups belonging to these traditions were peace-loving and fairly conservative in their general moral and political outlook. At the same time, there is little doubt that the state’s condemnation and intermittent suppression of these traditions came to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as charismatic masters and their disciples were driven underground, becoming victims of what was surely now perceived as another source of evil to be resisted. Indeed, the idea of resistance may, in some cases, have come to modify the very nature of charisma associated with masters and their “truth.” One should hasten as well to add that the notions of power contained in these traditions could nourish delusions of greatness among group leaders and followers quite independent of state intervention.

I need hardly add that I do not intend this list of characteristics to be definitive. Instead, I see it rather as a first step toward the rehabilitation of traditions which have been misunderstood and mis-categorized for some centuries. As I mentioned in the introduction, the study of qigong and Falun Gong may help us to come to a new understanding of the traditions from which they emerged, and of the importance of these traditions in late imperial and modern Chinese history. Prior to the Falun Gong affair, most scholars working on late imperial and modern Chinese history would have characterized the White Lotus sectarian tradition either as a source of dissent (because of its association with rebellion) or as a part of north China village society, destined to fade from importance with the inevitable economic and modernization of this society. It seems clear even from the sketchy overview I have provided in this essay that such characterizations do not give the traditions their due. Qigong and Falun Gong are modern incarnations of a popular religious tradition with an appeal capable of reaching north and south, town and village, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and, as the case of Falun Gong illustrates, Chinese and foreigner. Furthermore, both qigong and Falun Gong emerged at a historical moment when technology—by which I mean books, audio and videotapes, and television, as well as the Internet—has made it possible for members of such groups to become aware of their size and geographic spread, or in more general terms, to achieve self-consciousness. Indeed, the suppression of Falun Gong in the PRC has mobilized practitioners among the Chinese diaspora, particularly in North America, to push these technological possibilities to the limit, creating a virtual community through websites and email. These same practitioners have added the Enlightenment themes of human rights and freedom of religious belief to the more traditional discourses discussed above.

This is unprecedented and important. The traditions which gave birth to Falun Gong, given their deep roots in Chinese history and popular culture, are unlikely to disappear, no matter how long the PRG government continues its campaign against Falun Gong. If human rights concerns come to be grafted onto the core discourse of qigong-like groups, such groups, paradoxically, may contribute to the creation of civil society in China, even if such considerations are distant from the esoteric truths offered by charismatic masters.