Resistance and Salvation in Falun Gong: The Promise and Peril of Forbearance

Gareth Fisher. Nova Religio. Volume 6, Issue 2. 2003.

As I joined practitioners of the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association in celebrating the birthday of their master Li Hongzhi, I found it increasingly difficult to keep my arms stretched out in the position required for the fourth standing exercise, The Great Heavenly Circuit. As he observed my struggle, the practitioner who had temporarily abandoned his own practice to instruct this obvious novice gently told me not to think about my sore and aching muscles, that the obstacle to continuing the exercises was purely psychological and that if I could feel the spirit behind the movements, I would feel joy rather than pain. The words of my instructor represent a concrete example of Falun Gong’s principle of forbearance (ren) which, along with truthfulness (zhen) and benevolence (shan), form the basic ontology of the Falun Gong universe. Overcoming the physical stress of the exercises is a necessary rite of passage for any new practitioner and forms her first introduction to forbearance. She will later learn to interpret all of her daily struggles whether physical, psychological or social through an understanding of forbearance, and welcome them as opportunities to advance spiritually. As I will explain in my discussion below, forbearance is the source of the Falun Gong practitioner’s salvation, but also his resistance. It is forbearance that characterizes the struggle between Falun Gong practitioners and the People’s Republic of China (PRG) and that has made a group of elderly retirees with no weapons or political slogans the greatest threat to Communist rule since the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Paradoxically, however, it is also forbearance that has led to the first signs of internal division in the heretofore seamless structure of Falun Gong authority.

Falun Gong Theology and Practice: An Introduction

Falun Gong (“the Cultivation Way of the Law Wheel”) and Falun Dafa (“the Great Law of the Law Wheel”) was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, a charismatic high school dropout and ex-army officer. Li founded Falun Gong at a time when the popularity of qigong exercises were at their peak in public parks throughout China. Qigong practice claims to improve health through physical movements that re-direct the vital energies inside the body. Li incorporated qigong exercises into a larger framework of belief borrowed mostly from Buddhism. As the popularity of his own movement grew, Li began to criticize other qigong schools as lacking the power of Falun Gong. He claimed that the power of Falun Gong came from the practitioner’s use of the energy of the universe. This energy was connected to the practitioners’ progression toward spiritual enlightenment. Li also taught that physical health and well-being are inextricably bound to spiritual progress and that health problems can only be fully cured through cultivation (xiulian).

Cultivation is achieved by practicing Falun Gong. Li assists true believers in this goal through the metaphysical installation of a falun, or law wheel, in the practitioner’s lower abdomen. The rotation of the law wheel both expels negative energy and imports positive energy. Its movement is driven by the same forces that move the cosmos and rotate the Milky Way. The perpetual rotation of the falun inside the practitioner’s abdomen has the same effect as the continuous practice of Falun Gong exercises.

Since Falun Gong concerns spiritual as well as physical progress, however, a true practitioner must also practice the universal principles of the universe—truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance—in his daily life. In terms of everyday ethics, these principles amount to remembering to tell the truth, being kind to others and being able to rise above the petty affairs of the ordinary person (changren). While Li believes that the moral standards of society have collapsed, the standard of the universe remains unchanged. The goal of the practitioner is to realize that she is lost in this world and must return to her original self (yuanshen) by adhering to the principles established by truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance. Practitioners are guided in this goal by the dafa, “great law” or fa “law.” Li himself is the representative of the fa at this time in human history and was predestined to expound the fa to anyone who would follow his teachings. Following the fa can help the practitioner to realize the principles of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance in his everyday life and advance spiritually.

Falun Gong quickly became distinguished from other qigong groups by supplementing practice sessions with semi-regular evening study sessions devoted to the interpretations of Li’s numerous books. These books alternate between common sense accounts of practitioners who solved their everyday problems by following the principles of Falun Gong to fire and brimstone injunctions against signs of moral collapse and decay in modern Chinese society. Li’s first book, Zhuan Falun (Turning the Law Wheel), quickly became popular among qigong practitioners. Zhuan Falun has been followed by several other books, most of which appear to be transcribed from Li’s lectures.

By 1996, Falun Gong’s increasing membership had drawn the concern of the authorities, who launched a detailed investigation into the group’s activities. The government was particularly concerned about the size of any group that was not officially registered. That same year, Li moved to the United States and began to organize the movement from New York. By 1998, the state’s policy of cautious pessimism and secret internal investigation had given way to a series of articles in the state press that systematically pointed with alarm to the group’s growing unofficial membership and its criticism of Western medicine. On 25 April 1999, more than 10,000 practitioners gathered for a mass practice session outside Beijing’s Zhongnanhai, the walled compound housing the residences and offices of senior PRG officials, to gain official recognition. The largest demonstration since the ill-fated Tiananmen Square student protest of 1989, this “practice session” alarmed the government and Falun Gong was soon banned. Far from going away quietly, however, many PRG citizens continue to assert their right to practice Falun Gong through daily acts of civil disobedience in Tiananmen Square and in public parks throughout the PRG. While Falun Gong practitioners have remained active, however, Li himself went into hiding. He was not seen in public from August 1999 until November 2000. A number of close advisors and “spokes-people” in New York continued to make statements on his behalf and operate the group’s website, but the exact nature of their organization and connection to Li was unclear. As we will see, the credibility and authority of this leadership group has been contested.

Falun Gong in Hong Kong

While it is difficult to provide an accurate count, I estimate the number of Falun Gong practitioners in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) somewhere close to 500. Falun Gong activities in Hong Kong can be broadly classified into three types: 1) practice sessions; 2) study sessions; and 3) large group activities. Practice sessions form the core of Falun Gong cultivation practice and enjoy the largest level of participation, usually over 75%. Approximately one-third of all Hong Kong practitioners also attend study sessions that take place twice a week at the home of a practitioner. Finally, about one-half of all practitioners take part in special activities on Sundays and holidays. These include large practice sessions in prominent locations throughout Hong Kong including Chatter Park in Central, the Peak and the Tiantau Buddha statue on Lantau Island; large group readings of Li’s texts; and group discussion and sharing of conversion experiences.

Most of the activities described above take place under the auspices of the Hong Kong Association of Falun Dafa (Xianggang Falun Foxue Hui). The Association is not the only active group of Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong, however. The special administrative region has become the central meeting point for a loose connection of Falun Gong practitioners who engage in a variety of public practice sessions, marches, and activities of civil disobedience that are neither endorsed nor supported by the Hong Kong Association or the New York-based leadership of the international group. This “splinter group” as it has been dubbed by the Hong Kong press is led by Belinda Peng Shan-Shan, a Hong Kong businesswoman who was originally a contact person for the Association. A rift seems to have developed between the Association and Peng when the latter scheduled press conferences and protests against the PRC government without informing other leaders in the group. The final straw appears to have occurred when Peng and other practitioners went ahead with a practice session in Macau when the former Portuguese colony reverted to PRC rule on 20 December 1999 over the opposition of the group’s leadership that resulted in many arrests. Since its semi-official estrangement from the Association, the “splinter group” has organized a “conference,” a public practice session at Lantau Island and several protests outside the Xinhua News Agency’s Hong Kong branch. Despite having met to this point in Hong Kong, the splinter group seems to be made up almost exclusively of non-Hong Kong residents. The splinter group also maintains its own website which features information about study and practice as well as pictures and accounts of its own activities. Several articles written by “overseas practitioners” who participated in the Lantau Island practice session suggest that Peng is now the “true master” (zhen shifu) of Falun Dafa, continuing the work begun by the absent Li. Whether or not Peng herself accepts this role is unclear. When I interviewed Peng in May 2000, she suggested that a phone call she received from someone claiming to be Master Li informing her to cease her political activism and cooperate with members of the Association was arranged by enemies of the fa and that she was continuing to follow the true wishes of the master. A reference to Peng in a statement purported to have been written by Li was released on one of Falun Gong’s main websites in July. The statement referred to Peng as “a vile person in Hong Kong who lost her senses” and a “saboteur.” It went on to report that Peng had “severely interfered with Dafa by saying absurd things—due to demonic interference from her own mind.” The publication of this statement on along with a letter from the Hong Kong Association denouncing the splinter group suggests that this controversy has moved beyond Hong Kong. As we will see, the nature of this split is very much influenced by the concept of forbearance.

Forbearance as Salvation

As I mentioned earlier, according to Falun Gong theology, forbearance is one of the basic characteristics of the universe. While the condition of our lives may be in constant change, forbearance remains the same. Learning forbearance in her own cultivation practice is essential to the development of a practitioner’s inner nature (xinxing). As a result, Li writes that when a practitioner begins cultivation, she should expect adversity and welcome the chance to overcome it:

[Y]ou will run into all kinds of difficulties in your future cultivation practice. How can you practice your cultivation without such difficulties? How can you upgrade your xinxing by just sitting there when everyone is good to each other without conflicts of interest and the interference of the human minds? That is impossible … Why do you run into these problems? They are all caused by your own karma. We have already eliminated many pieces of it for you, except that tiny bit which is left and arranged as obstacles in different places for upgrading your xinxing … Therefore, when a problem comes up, it does not exist accidentally … If you can endure it, your karma will be eliminated and your xinxing also be improved, and so will be [sic] your cultivation energy.

We can see from this passage that not only should an initiate prepare to encounter adversity as part of his everyday life, he should expect to encounter even greater hardship once becoming a full-fledged practitioner. This hardship has been arranged as an opportunity for him to improve. A true practitioner need not fear this adversity, however, for he is ultimately protected by Li and his Law Bodies (fashen), emanations of the master that can split off to help individual practitioners in their cultivation:

A building was under construction nearby a practitioner’s home. Nowadays, buildings are built very tall, and the scaffold is made of iron poles that are two inches in diameter and four meters in length. Before this practitioner walked very far from his home, an iron pole fell down vertically all the way toward his head from the high-rise building. People on the street were all astonished. He said, “Who patted me?” He thought that someone had patted his head. At that moment, he turned and saw a big Falun rotating above his head. That iron pole slid down along his head and stuck into the ground without falling.

While the above passage describes an unusual and supernatural event, for the ordinary practitioner, the opportunity to gain merit through forbearance comes as a result of physical reactions to practice or even reading the books. In addition to building up enough energy to practice the exercises, many Hong Kong practitioners described experiencing a short period of ill health shortly after beginning their practice. One practitioner described experiencing a period of intense nighttime fevers while another claimed that he grew sick as he felt negative energy leaving his body. The following report transcribed and translated from a taped interview with a practitioner at my field site is typical:

During the second half of 1997, an elder sister gave me two books, China Falun Gong and China Falun Gong (The Edited Version) . After I took these two books back home, I read them every night until midnight, sometimes until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. After that, everything began. Master Li began to clean my body. At that time, I had not met Master Li and I had not yet started to practice but I already knew what kind of feeling cleaning one’s body was like. My eyes became red as though I was catching a cold. I had several bouts of diarrhea. The elder sister who introduced me to Falun Gong asked me: “How about going to see a doctor?” I said: “I don’t think so. The books say that I should experience the cleansing of my body. I’ll wait several days and see how I feel.” However, there is a small clinic nearby where I live … The elder sister took me over there and suggested, “It doesn’t matter if you simply have a visit.” I replied: “All right, I’ll just go for a visit there.” The doctor said: “[Your throat] looks really red. I’m afraid you’ll have to go to the hospital to have an operation.” But I finally didn’t go to the hospital. After two months, I had recovered but within the two months, I had no voice: I had a sore throat and could barely talk on the phone. But I was able to overcome my illnesses through forbearance [ren]. The infection in my eyes started to disappear after one week and my digestive problem did not prove serious and disappeared after two to three days.

Hoping that my own research would lead me to convert to the movement, many practitioners in my field site asked how I felt physically as I read Zhuan Falun and practiced the exercises, waiting for signs of a visceral reaction to Li’s teachings. When I contracted a mild case of glandular fever, some practitioners saw my illness as a sign of spiritual progression. Most practitioners referred to this period of ill health as “the cleansing of the body” (qingli shenti), an important stage in the process of “removing [negative] karma” (xiaoye), which must be accomplished before the practitioner can move to a higher soteriological level. A practitioner does not suffer real illness, only xiaoye. She should approach her afflictions not with fear and dread but following the principles of forbearance, calm and happiness at the prospect of being provided with an opportunity to progress spiritually.

Li explains that, just as Falun Gong is not merely an exercise to improve one’s health, however, forbearance does not only apply to physical discomfort. It has a much broader ideological dimension that pertains to the practitioner’s psychological and social adversities as well:

What is a mind of great forbearance? As a practitioner, you should first of all not fight back when someone beats you up, nor should you talk back when someone swears at you. You must be tolerant. Someone says, “If tolerance is carried out to such an extent, ordinary people will also say that we are too weak and too easily taken advantage of.” I do not call it weak. I say that it is a manifestation of great forbearance as well as an expression of strong will. Only a practitioner can have such a mind of great forbearance. There is such a saying, “When an ordinary person is humiliated, he will draw his sword to fight.” It is only natural for an ordinary person that if you swear at me, I will hit you back as well … It is an ordinary person’s motto that one should live for his dignity. Please think about it. To live for dignity, isn’t it tiresome to do that? Isn’t it painful? Is it worthwhile? Our goals are to reach beyond the level of ordinary people and to strive toward higher levels.

Li also makes a connection between theory and practice:

One can run into all kinds of conflicts in social interactions … For instance, you may find the workplace very abnormal upon reaching there. Later on, someone tells you that somebody so-and-so has advertised you badly and reported on you to the boss, and he puts you in an awful situation. The worse situation he puts you in or the greater impact it has, the more you will endure. And the more he will lose his de [virtue]. Such he will be all given to you … It is just because he has created such a conflict and an opportunity … that you can make use of it to improve your xinxing. Why shouldn’t you thank him? You should sincerely thank him from the bottom of your heart.

The above passage draws attention to Falun Gong’s unique interpretation of karmic retribution. Falun Gong teachings contain little mention of the theology of universal salvation common to many forms of Chinese Buddhism. The assumption that runs through many of Li’s writings is that while Falun Gong should be preached to as many as possible, only a few human beings can expect rebirth in a future, more enlightened world. While a significant amount of merit can be accumulated through the installation of the falun and practice of the exercises, the accumulation of good karma is often a zero sum game. Though the practitioner does not wish ill to others, using forbearance to obtain the good karma of those who willingly wrong practitioners is an important means of spiritual progression.

Practitioners in Hong Kong took the teaching of forbearance very much to heart. Many described to me how they felt calm when facing all kinds of adversity that would have bothered them before they became practitioners. One practitioner’s husband faced difficult brain cancer surgery. She never felt apprehensive, however, because she knew that the challenge would help her improve herself and that her faith could keep her calm. Another practitioner felt compelled to participate in drinking Chinese rice wine to cement business relations even though drinking offended her. After becoming a practitioner, she stopped participating in these gatherings without fear of offending her boss or losing clients.

While the examples provided by the Hong Kong practitioners are relatively recent, the accounts in Zhuan Falun and Li’s other published books predate the 1999 crackdown. Nevertheless, Li’s discussion of ren, in particular its application to the small social adversities an urban Chinese individual faced in everyday life, gave a clear example of how a practitioner should react when faced with political as well as social adversity and repression. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that by the summer of 2000, Falun Gong orthodoxy had accepted the belief that the PRC authorities who repressed Falun Gong were, in principle, no different from the co-worker who tried to create trouble for the practitioner at her workplace. Political repression had become an opportunity to improve one’s xinxing, an adversity to be met through forbearance and with a glad heart. The following passage is excerpted from the account of a Falun Gong practitioner who endured arrest and interrogation in a mainland detention center:

In order to demonstrate Dafa to the world, I went to Tiananmen Square on April 25. Three days later, I was escorted back to the detention center of my hometown. I want to share with you some of the stories about the xinxing tests that I encountered. One day, at noontime, the prisoners including me were taken to parade through the streets. They said it was to interrogate me. When I walked out of the door, the scene in front of me shocked me. The courtyard was full of prisoners on the ground being tied up by police. A white board with a name and the accusation was hung on their chests. I was treated the same way. At that moment, I had righteous thoughts: “do not be afraid; whatever happens will be helpful to improve my xinxing.” It also reminded me of Jesus being nailed on a cross in those days. It would be my pleasure to be able to sacrifice myself for Dafa. Later my family found a lawyer who is also my relative. He attempted to save me from the perspective of ordinary people and helped the police to persuade me. He told me: “You can write to the police a pledge saying that you will give up practicing Falun Gong. I can guarantee that you will not be sentenced.” I said: “That is impossible.” Our conversation lasted only 5-6 minutes. When he realized his goal could not be achieved, he asked me: “Do you need me to visit you again?” I said: “No.” He felt he lost his face and left. The police nearby were quite surprised by my attitude. I knew this was the power of Dafa. There was also one test of love for my parents. My father came to visit me and told me that my mother’s previous mental problems had worsened because of me. I felt a sharp pain in my heart on hearing the news. But I thought, “I have already attained Dafa. If I can be devoted to Dafa, I shall not feel regret even if I am sent to a labor camp.” So I told my father: “What I am doing now is not wrong. Please go home and take my mother to a hospital for medical treatment.” The final result was that the sentence of sending me to a three-year “forced labor” camp was not approved and I was unconditionally released after being detained for one month. It is in this way that Dafa was once again demonstrated to the world and my wish was fulfilled.

We can see from this example that practitioners arrested by the PRG government use the principle of forbearance not only to endure humiliation and physical discomfort at the hands of the authorities, but also the social pressure of relatives and friends who ask the practitioner to publicly renounce his beliefs.

As the above example also implies, the PRG authorities have taken little action against practitioners who have freely given up the movement, and those who remain in prison are promised that their suffering will end if only they will agree to disown it. Continued practice and faith in Falun Dafa, however, is precisely what protects the practitioner. At the time I conducted my field research, most Hong Kong practitioners accepted the view that the PRG government crackdown was itself a test of their belief. Those who had remained true to the movement through its recent trials were true believers and had accumulated for themselves a great deal of merit. By mid-summer 2000, several new statements credited to Li were published on that confirmed the idea of the PRG persecution as a test (kaoyari):

Disciples: What is currently unfolding in China was previously arranged. Many people throughout history have prophesied this … [The PRC authorities] have arrested people, beaten people, sent people to labor camps, sentenced people to jail, and destroyed the books [of Falun Dafa]; they have used the army, the police, spies, and diplomatic means; and they have used all of their radio stations, television stations, and the press to spread lies and carry out the persecution in a villainous fashion. It’s overwhelming magnitude seems to threaten to bring down the heavens, while their viciousness has spread throughout the entire world. With degenerate concepts, the old forces arranged this for the purpose of “testing” Dafa in a destructive manner. The process of Master’s Fa-rectification among humans is, from the Divine Beings’ perspective, just like a process of resurrection.

The concept of the crackdown as a test draws on the basic ideas of forbearance and indicates that it has now found an important niche within Falun Gong eschatology. This statement and others like it have also given Falun Gong practitioner’s new resolve to continue their resistance.

Falun Gong’s Challenge to the Chinese State

To understand how the PRG government perceives Falun Gong, we must first ask why the authorities banned the movement. As I have suggested above, the PRG leaders clearly perceive Falun Gong as a threat to social stability and party leadership. The authorities are often concerned about any large, unregistered group and they were particularly sensitive to any large protest that fell so soon before the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It may also be the case that certain individuals in the PRG government believed the anti-medicinal aspect of Falun Gong theology genuinely posed a threat to public health as the PRG media have claimed and as Patsy Rahn has suggested. I would like to suggest, however, that a major reason Falun Gong was banned was because of the audacity of the protest at Zhongnanhai on 25 April 1999. It was this event that changed government policy from cautious observation to the relatively swift decision to ban the movement outright.

In understanding the boldness of the Zhongnanhai protest, we must look at two factors. First, a direct protest at Zhongnanhai, the home of the Communist party’s leaders, is extremely rare in the PRG’s history. Even the 1989 demonstrators mosdy stayed away from Zhongnanhai and focused their demonstrations on Tiananmen Square, where subsequent Falun Gong demonstrations have taken place. Second, the demographics of fhe demonstrators must have surprised the government leaders. These were not the fresh-faced youth of 1989 who had grown up in a post-Cultural Revolution political thaw. Most of the Zhongnanhai practitioners were elderly retirees, many with positions of leadership within the Communist party. They had experienced a lifetime of campaigns and purges and knew all too well the consequences of resistance—yet resist they did.

For the PRC government, moreover, the solution to the Falun Gong “problem” has proved worse than the disease. The movement continues on in the PRC through almost daily acts of civil disobedience despite the danger of social ostracization, the loss of benefits and, in some cases, the incarceration and torture of its practitioners. Falun Gong practioners continue to resist and many remain unintimidated by the Chinese government’s threats for the same reason that they chose to demonstrate in Zhongnanhai in the first place, because of forbearance. The Chinese state, like many totalitarian regimes, maintains its authority less by brute force than through successfully manipulating the psychological and social world of its citizens. Literature and film accounts of Cultural Revolution angst often focus less on the physical brutality it caused than the psychological toll of constant movements that pitted neighbor against neighbor in struggle sessions. Even in the more open atmosphere of the reform period, the threat of the display of violence shown on 4 June 1989 has been enough to deter many subsequent movements advocating democracy and freedom of speech.

Through forbearance, Falun Gong practitioners have found a means of resisting the psychological intimidation of state authority. Falun Gong does not fear repression; in fact, it welcomes it. Everyone fears someone who has no fear. The example of history shows that this way of flunking, usually influenced by religious philosophy, has proved particularly dangerous to those in authority. The early Christian movement eventually usurped its Roman persecutors; Gandhi led a nonviolent insurrection against British colonial rule. In Chinese history, the Boxers resisted colonial rule through sheer numbers and the belief that their faith made them impervious to foreign bullets. The Chinese government is no doubt mindful of these historical examples and, as a result, continues to treat Falun Gong as a serious threat. Yet robbed of its traditional means of authority through intimidation, the state has been forced to go to great lengths to conceal the fact of Falun Gong resistance from the population at large through both periodic media reports that it has solved the Falun Gong “problem” and the efforts of the police in preventing Falun Gong practitioners from unfolding banners in Tiananmen Square. This is no easy task in an era when the Chinese people have more access than ever before to alternative sources of information. The fact that the Western media continue to observe and report acts of civil disobedience on the part of Falun Gong practitioners suggests that even this propaganda battle is not being won. It remains to be seen whether the government’s decision to display graphically the self-immolations of five individuals it claims were Falun Gong practitioners will prove more successful.

Ultimately, the concern of the PRG government may not be so much that Falun Gong or Li Hongzhi are in a position to challenge its political authority but rather that other groups with more obvious political objectives might take heart in the success of the group’s resistance and its theology of fearlessness. Two likely candidates are the Tibetan and Muslim Uygur independence movements, neither of which are strangers to the broader theological ideas behind forbearance. Wang Dachang has also suggested that the Falun Gong’s ability to resist through forbearance may give new heart to pro-democracy movements looking for renewed public support for their cause. Yet, paradoxically, as much as the state may fear Falun Gong and what it represents, the theology of forbearance that has emboldened so many practitioners both on the mainland and overseas to continue a campaign of resistance may also contain the seeds of the group’s own internal division.

Resistance as Salvation

Let us return for a moment to the two Falun Gong groups in Hong Kong and the reasons for their disagreement. Both groups believe in the importance of following the principles of truthfulness (zheri) to correct the false statements that the PRC government has made about the fa. The Association believes it is important to practice the exercises publicly and draw attention to the movement as a peaceful, exercise group, a clear contradiction to the PRC government’s claims that it is a dangerous cult (xiejiao). The practitioners organized by Peng believe this is not enough; the PRC government must be confronted directly through political activism. While the splinter group has succeeded in grabbing headlines, however, its difference from the Association seems to be more of a matter of degree than ideological divergence. The Association, while not having organized any action of civil disobedience, is itself politically active on occasion. It led a protest outside the Xinhua News Agency’s Hong Kong branch to mark the anniversary of the state’s crackdown on the group in July and delivered a letter to Xinhua’s head. It was also active in organizing a second Falun Gong conference in Hong Kong, led a march to remember practitioners killed in PRG prisons, and demonstrated during Jiang Zemin’s visit to Hong Kong in May 2001.

Nevertheless, Li’s vindictive reaction against the activity of the splinter group establishes a firm ideological schism between the two groups. It seems strange that Li would publish a statement on the group’s main website and draw international attention to what had previously been a local controversy unless he believed that the Hong Kong split was indicative of larger tensions within the group. A later statement released by Li suggests that the trend toward increased resistance to political activism is not confined to Hong Kong:

Some practitioners 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. Practitioners, it is not so. Stepping forward to validate the Fa in various ways is a magnificent deed, but this absolutely does not mean that you have to be arrested by the evil … Getting arrested is not the purpose. Validating Dafa is truly glorious—it is to validate Dafa that you step forward … When a wicked person asks whether you practice Falun Gong, you may ignore him or use other ways to deflect his questions. Don’t voluntarily let the evil take you away.

It seems from this statement that some of the mainland cells, now cut off from the broader group, may also have become too politically active. But why would Li speak out against this type of activism especially so soon after he seemed to fuel its fire in a statement likening the struggles of mainland practitioners to a cosmic battle between light and dark? For one thing, Li, or whoever is writing these statements, may fear that if the actions of practitioners become too “radical,” doubt will be cast on the movement’s claims to have no political ambition other than the freedom to practice peacefully and thus lose much of the sympathy it has gained in the international community. I suggest, however, that Li’s greater concern both in his vindictive rebuttal to Peng and his desire to rein in the activities of the mainland groups is that his own authority not be undermined.

Peng is precisely the type of practitioner that organizations such as Falun Gong fear, someone who follows her own religious intuition rather than the directives of others. She feels justified in doing so because the leaders of the Association have no right to power within Falun Gong theology. In this way, Peng has exposed the uneasy paradox between an organization that claims to be egalitarian but that relies on a tight hierarchical pattern of authority to maintain coherence. Peng’s suggestion that the person telephoning her claiming to be Li Hongzhi was in fact an impostor calls into question whether the articles released on the Falun Gong website were actually written by the master himself, a specter of doubt that could fracture the delicate alliance of Falun Gong cells. The reaction to the Hong Kong splinter group must also be considered in the context of the disassociation by the local Falun Gong chapter in Singapore from the civil disobedience of several of its practitioners on 31 December 200039 and the Falun Gong leadership’s denial that the practitioners who immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square on 23 January 2001 were Falun Gong practitioners. While the extent to which these incidents are isolated is not known, it is likely that there are practitioners in several different Falun Gong cells in China operating, to some degree, at odds with the New York-based leadership of the movement. Li’s rejoinder to Peng and his caution about political activism on the mainland suggest that conflicts within the movement focus to some extent on disagreements about the nature and extent of resistance to PRG government repression.

Perhaps most damaging to the New York-based leadership, however, is Peng’s suggestion stated at the splinter group’s conference in May, that the group’s internal conflict is, like the PRG government’s repression of the movement as a whole, part of a larger process of “fa-rectification,” a term coined by Li and used here by Peng to describe a test to weed out the members who truly follow the law. The following statement, released by a member of the splinter group, describes an altercation with members of the Association in July 2000:

In the morning of July 8th, when Master Peng Shan Shan and several practitioners just finished the breakfast, Kan Hung Cheung from Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association along with a group of practitioners came to make trouble. They were angry and violent. Their eyes emitted demonic light. They were here to go against the Lord of Buddhas and Dafa. At this moment, it was also a test for all disciples to see if disciples can step out at this crucial moment to defend and Master. Many of our disciples faced it with a righteous mind, was not interfered [sic] by them and stood in front of Master. Those people held the fake Jingwen’s [sic] and tried to force our practitioners to read … Finally, they left without any results. We understand that this occurrence is a test and it has tested every disciple’s xinxing. Everyone smiles and knows that we have passed another examination.

The splinter group has since stated that the planned deceptions of and the New York-based leadership are tests to overseas practitioners as great as the oppression of the PRG government has been to followers in mainland China. We can see from these examples that, as far as the splinter group is concerned, Falun Gong’s internal division is not qualitatively different from the spells of sickness endured by a new practitioner, the challenges in the workplace or the repression of the Chinese state. Each is an opportunity for the practitioner to improve her own merit and rise to a new spiritual level through the modus operandi of forbearance.


As I have demonstrated, any understanding of Falun Gong practice and the role of the Falun Gong movement in both China and abroad is incomplete without an appreciation of the pivotal role played by the doctrine of forbearance. Forbearance provides the individual practitioner with the means to endure the physical pain necessary to discipline his body to the daily practice of muscle-straining exercises and also the expectation that he will have endure further struggles, both physical and social, throughout the course of his practice. Most importantly, these struggles are necessary if he is to advance spiritually. For the movement as a whole, the doctrine of forbearance has led to an understanding of the PRC government’s oppression of the movement as an obstacle to be overcome through forbearance. Acts of resistance against that oppression also help the practitioner to advance spiritually. Finally, the Hong Kong followers of Peng Shan-Shan describe their perceptions of the deceptive behavior of the New York-based leadership as itself a kind of test. In this case, the result of forbearance has become not just resistance against an external oppressor, but also a theological justification for conflict within the group. In mapping out the theology of forbearance, Li may have created a monster he himself can no longer control.