“We Are More Chinese than You”: The Ideology and Identity of Falun Gong Movement

Liang Zheng. Journal of International Communication. Volume 17, Issue 2. 2011.


‘Falun Gong’, also known as ‘Falun Dafa’, is a grassroots movement that combines an exercise regimen with meditation and moral tenets. The practice and beliefs are derived from qigong, a set of movements through which one channels vital energies, and Buddhist and Daoist principles. Falun Gong is very suspicious of modern Western science, very concerned with meditation and bodily health exercises and highly respectful of Chinese cultural traditions (Downing 2005). Followers claim that by controlling the wheel of dharma, which revolves in the body, one can cure such ailments as high blood pressure, backaches, and even cancer. However, this group stirs much controversy in China. The Chinese government accuses Falun Gong of resembling a cult; they refer to the unquestioning support of its founder, Li Hongzhi, the interest in end-of-the-world prophecies, and the rejection of Western science. But the followers counter that the practice is voluntary, compatible with mainstream science and culture, and helps develop healthy, moral, and productive citizens. They also emphasize that Falun Gong is not a religion because there is no worship of a deity, all-inclusive system of beliefs, church or temple, or formal hierarchy.

The Falun Gong movement was banned in 1999 after a major demonstration staged by its practitioners, and tens of thousands of them went underground or left China for Western countries to continue their practices. The group of Falun Gong practitioners outside China have formed unique diasporic communities since then, and even if they are living in exile, the group is still claiming that they are better at preserving the authentic Chinese culture, while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is destroying Chinese culture and so must be stopped. The group portrays itself as a more authentic representative of the Chinese nation and culture. This paper intends to examine the construction of this identity and its ideological implications through the critical examination of three news articles selected from the Falun Gong English language newspaper, Epoch Times, which targets Chinese communities outside China. The articles are covering a particular cultural event, Divine Performing Arts, which was sponsored by the Falun Gong movement and toured around the United States.

Falun Gong

Falun Gong is a movement that was born in a context of tremendous social and economic changes in China. The decades of break-neck capitalist growth in China not only generated wealth and development, but also rampant corruption, moral degeneration and massive unemployment. One result of the Party’s embrace of free market reform is a society motivated largely by greed, excessive consumerism and raging competitiveness in the race to get ahead (Thornton 2002). Most Falun Gong parishioners in mainland China are drawn from the elderly, the unemployed, minor government officials—those who have lost out in the shift to aggressive marketization undertaken by the Chinese government (Heberer 2001). As a set of articulated beliefs, Falung Gong incorporates influences from sectarian Buddhism and Daoism with traditional body cultivation practices (qigong) that had enjoyed a revival in mass popularity in the PRC over the previous decade (Penny 1993, pp. 166-167; Jacobs 2009). As the capitalist reform has torn apart the old social and economic fabric, the old communist ideologies also suffered and became one of the casualties of the reform. More people, especially those who lost out in the reform, go to religion or different religious practices for spiritual consultation and peace of mind. Falun Gong offers people one such option by preaching the cultivation of three primary virtues—zhen (truth), shan (compassion) and ren (forbearance)—through an integrated practice of self-study, meditation and a series of yoga-like movements designed to rebalance the flow of energy (qi) through the body. In an official Marxist state, this set of beliefs poses challenges to the official discourse. By offering non-traditional and non-medical methods of healing and promoting the cultivation of paranormal capabilities among their adherents, such groups are implicitly critical of ‘scientific Marxism’ and the material basis of historical evolution, principles to which the communist government espouses loyalty (Thorton 2002). As the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said when justifying the suppression, ‘The Falun Gong cult violates human rights by controlling people’s minds’.

Thorton also identifies that the official perception of qigong practitioners as potentially subversive is bolstered by the claims of some qigong masters linking the perceived ‘symptoms’ of their followers to pressing social problems. He points out that:

Falun Gong texts are particularly explicit in this regard, first presenting a diagnosis of the Chinese body politic that assigns moral responsibility for somatized social ills to the party-state, and then prescribing a course of treatment which implicitly pits the individual practitioner against the moral foundations of the regime. (Thorton 2002, p. 674)

Despite the direct challenges to the official discourse, Sinclair (2002) identifies two more motivations behind the official crackdown. One is the concern that Falun Gong’s deep identification with Chinese nationalism might offer a popular ideological alternative to the CCP’s nationalist discourse and would thereby contest its monopoly on power. The other is the relationship with the United States, which constantly picks up human rights, such as Falun Gong as a useful stick to punish the Chinese government. Deep down, the CCP’s fear is due to the fact the Falun Gong is reminiscent of the underground organization of the CCP itself before 1949, and may therefore be particularly worrisome to the regime (Heberer 2002). Thus, the Chinese government regards any domestic movement with independent mobilizing power as a serious threat. The year 1999 was a turning point for the development of Falun Gong in China. The massive demonstration outside the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing angered the Chinese Communist Party leaders and a nationwide crackdown ensued. Since then, many practitioners have left China and continued their practices in overseas Chinese diasporas.

Diaspora and Identity

Diaspora is a concept that initially described the forced dispersions of Jews and Armenians who maintained strong identification with their homelands and distinct group identities through community boundaries shaped by hostile responses in places of settlement. The concept features their consciousness created and reinforced by common origins, shared experiences of displacement, and a material or symbolic attachment to the homeland (Safran 1991). A more recent interpretation of the concept has defined diaspora as ‘transnational, spatially and temporally sprawling socio-cultural formations of people, and at the same time creating imagined communities whose blurred and fluctuating boundaries are sustained by real and/or symbolic ties to some original “homeland”’ (Ang 1994). The term once used to describe ‘Jewish, Greek, and Armenian dispersions now shares meanings with a larger semantic domain that includes words like immigrant, expatriate, refugee, guest-worker, exile community, overseas community, and ethnic community’ (Tololian cited in Clifford, 1999). Ang believes that diaspora is the myth of the homeland, the object of both collective memory and of desire and attachment, which is constitutive to diasporas, and which ultimately confines and constrains the nomadism of the diasporic subject. Clifford (1994) suggests that the term diaspora is a signifier, not simply of transnationality and movement, but of political struggles to define the local, as distinctive community, in historical contexts of displacement.

Identity is one of the central concerns of diasporic research. Stuart Hall (2003) suggests that instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, we should think of it as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. Clifford (1994) argues that peoples whose sense of identity is centrally defined by collective histories of displacement and violent loss cannot be ‘cured’ by merging into a new national community, and positive articulations of diasporic identity reach outside the normative territory and temporality of the nation-state. Drzewiecka (2002) argues that diasporas today no longer maintain a temporary status nurtured by desires to return home. They have become ethnic groups incorporated into the dominant culture to at least some extent and maintain their cultural distinctiveness at various levels. For such groups, diaspora is an aspect of their identity and communication employed only in certain circumstances in ‘political struggles to define the local as a distinctive community, in historical contexts of displacement’ (Clifford 1994, p. 308). Avtar Brah (1996) proposes to use ‘diasporic space’ instead of diaspora to address the global condition of culture, economics, and politics as a site of ‘migrancy’ and ‘travel’, which seriously problematizes the subject position of the ‘native’. He argues that ‘diasporic space’, as a conceptual category, ‘is ‘inhabited’ not only by those who have migrated and their descendants but equally by those who are constructed and represented as indigenous’ (Brah 1996, p. 181). Arising from Brah’s conceptualization is the question of ‘how diasporic identities are constructed, not as marginal identities in clear contrast with the dominant one, but as moveable identities equally engaged in redefining the cultures in place’ (Echchaibi 2011). Echchaibi suggests that diasporic research should focus more on hybridity because of the potential of diaspora to ‘change and feed both cultures of origin and those of settlement’. He further points out that the modes of inquiry should move beyond the politics of dislocation and displacement to the space in which the narratives of each diapora is constructed, contested, and interpreted based on where they live and not only where they come from. Thus, diasporic media can be a perfect site to study such narrative because these media offer a range of cultural positioning that better explains the complex nature of the diasporic reality and call into view the historical dynamics of cultural belonging based on territory of origin (Echchaibi 2008). This theoretical shift to focus on local or host society rather than an imagined ‘home’ is relevant to the discussion on the Falun Gong movement.

Chinese Diaspora and Identity

How should we define a Chinese diasporic identity? Sun (2006) identifies different meanings of being Chinese, especially when these meanings are affiliated with different political forces. The multiple affiliations bring about the internal incoherence of a Chinese identity. Being Chinese outside mainland China is really difficult to connect oneself to a single and unified home/state. One has to choose between different political realities to pledge his allegiance. As Huat (2006 p. 75) points out:

the politics of China was a constant factor that activated and divided this diasporic population into different camps, with different ideas about how to save China and lift the Chinese people out of the decaying dynastic, imperial regime and stifling tradition, so as to propel both into the modern world.

Chun (2001, p. 105) argues, ‘The more Chinese ‘identify’ with the various national regimes in which their routine of life is situated, the less likely it will be in the long run that one can view them as being part of a single universe of discourse, regardless of the disposition of their ethnic culture. Shi (2005 p. 69) in her article argues that the identity of members of Chinese diaspora is fragmented: ‘Within their lives of paradoxes, media and ethnic media in particular appear to be crucial to their identity construction’. At the same time, some of these scholars question the validity of ‘diaspora’ in defining Chinese identity. Huat (2006, p. 76) problematizes the term by saying that ‘the ethnic Chinese population outside the “Chinese nation” has undoubtedly become a “cultural” community without any presumption of a “homeland”. In this contemporary sense, the appropriateness of calling this population a diaspora is highly problematic’. Chun (2001, p. 103) suggests that the Chinese make explicit choices that grounded in a context of territorial settlement, cultural assimilation or political incorporation into their local society rather than their diasporic extension to a previous homeland. The Chinese hybridity eventually will lead to the absorption of Chineseness into increasingly local or indigenous frameworks of meaning. Thus, the maintenance of a bounded ethnic identity has been viewed as irrelevant (Chun 2001). When it comes to the Chinese identity, Ien Ang (1994) proposes that Chineseness is a category whose meanings are not fixed and given, but constantly renegotiated and rearticulated, both inside and outside China. She claims (Ang 1994, p. 36): ‘If I am inescapably Chinese by descent, I am only sometimes Chinese by consent’ because this diasporic identification with a specific ethnicity can best be seen as forms of ‘strategic essentialism’.

While the qigong boom was the fundamental condition that made possible the emergence of Falun Gong, China’s openness to and involvement in the international world have been equally crucial to Falun Gong’s development (Ownby 2008, p. 125). Since the ‘reform and opening up’ was initiated in China in the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have emigrated to the United States and Canada, and in comparison with previous waves of immigrants, ‘the post-Mao arrivals generally spoke Mandarin and were very often well-educated, and it was precisely this body of newly arrived Chinese immigrants who make up the bulk of Falun Gong followers in the US and Canada’ (Ownby 2008, p. 129). According to Ownby (2008), the existence of worldwide Chinese diaspora gave Falun Gong an offshore base of operations from which to continue its operation even as the Chinese state came to have increasing doubts about Falun Gong within China. The 1999 crack down on the Falun Gong practitioner in China permanently sever its ties to the Party and drove this group to resettle in various diasporas, where they continue their ideological competition against the CCP.

Analytical Framework

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is applied in this study. CDA sees discourse as a form of ‘social practice’, which implies a dialectical relationship between a particular discursive event and the situations, institutions and social structures that frame it (Fairclough and Wodak 1997). CDA states that discourse is socially constitutive as well as socially conditioned. Furthermore, discourse is an opaque power in modern societies and CDA aims to make it more visible and transparent (Blommaert and Bulcaen 2000). The purpose of CDA is to analyze ‘opaque as well as transparent structural relationships of dominance, discrimination, power and control as manifested in language’ (Wodak 1995, p. 204). More specifically,

CDA studies real, and often extended, instances of social interaction which take (partially) linguistic form. This critical approach is distinctive in its view of (a) the relationship between language and society, and (b) the relationship between analysis and the practices analyzed (Fairclough and Wodak 1997, p. 173)

Fairclough and Wodak (1997) point out that discursive practices may have ideological effects that can help produce and reproduce unequal power relations between social actors through the ways in which they represent things and position people.

Fairclough (1993) proposes a three-dimensional framework for conceiving of and analyzing discourse. The first is discourse-as-text, like the linguistic features and organization of concrete instances of discourse. The second is discourse-as-discursive practice, which refers to discourse as something that is produced, circulated, and consumed in society. The third is discourse-as-social practice, which refers to the ideological effects and hegemonic processes in which discourse is a feature. Fairclough (2001) suggests any text, as simultaneously having three main categories of function, each of which has its own systems of choices: ideational, interpersonal, and textual, and the analysis of a sentence in a written text might focus upon three aspects: (1) particular representations and recontextulizations of social practice, (2) particular constructions of writer and reader identities, and (3) a particular construction of the relationship between writer and reader (Fairclough 2001).

One of the central focuses of CDA is discourse and ideology. Fairclough and Wodak (1997) suggest that ideologies are particular ways of representing and constructing society that reproduce unequal relations of power, relations of domination and exploitation. They argue that it is not enough to analyze text to determine if a particular discourse does ideological work; one also has to consider how texts are interpreted and received and what social effects they have. An important venue for ideology to take effect is in language. Fowler (1991) believes that language is a reality-creating practice and argues for the need to critically examine the role language, which continuously insists on systems of beliefs that legitimize the institutions of power. Fairclough (2001) also points out that the choice of words is able to determine the way that an event is perceived and understood. The mass media play a pivotal role in the ‘establishment and perpetuation of power relationships, as it is through the discursive practices of the media that the dominant ideology is disseminated and reinforced’ (Fairclough 2001, pp. 28, 43-5). Thus, CDA is especially suited to the study of media discourse because of its unequivocally socio-political outlook, given that a central principle of CDA is to uncover and examine ‘the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of dominance’ (Van Dijk 1993, p. 249).

In recent years, various studies have demonstrated that in their daily operation, media institutions construct reality in a manner congruent with their underlying ideological and political functions (Fowler 1991; Tuchman 1978). Thompson (1990) elaborates on the relations between ideology and mass communication and then concludes that the key issue in the analysis of a specific medium’s ideological character is how the messages are conveyed, interpreted and merged into aspects of the recipients’ life and culture. Lee and Craig (1992) identify the ideological framework that the US newspapers are using to create distinction ‘us’ and ‘them’. Lee and Craig argue that the different treatments, which Poland and South Korea received in labor strike reporting, reflects one of the foundational ideological positions of US newspapers: anti-communism. In Fang’s study (1994) of riots and demonstrations in the Chinese press, she argues that the People’s Daily conducted reports based on its own ideological positions, and the labels given to the event and the syntactic structures used in the reports provide a frame of reference that is congruent with the views of policymakers. In Lu’s ideological and cultural analysis of political slogans in Chinese press (1999), ideology plays an important part to meet the changing needs of social conditions as well as the need of authorities to establish control. Thus, CDA has made significant contributions to illuminating the relationship between language and ideology in media discourse due to its emphasis on the need to critically examine the role of media language. According to CDA, the ideology of media discourse is hidden in the subtle choice of linguistic forms, and only by examining linguistic structures in a ‘critical’ way can the ideological underpinnings of news discourse be unpacked.

The critical discourse analysis of this paper will draw mostly from Fairclough and Van Dijk to study the headlines, lexical choices and quotations of three news articles from a newspaper affiliated with Falun Gong. Headlines usually suggest the most important aspect of a story to readers, and Van Dijk (1988) argues that a particular topic of discourse may be categorized as the most important and summarizing idea underlying the meanings a sequence of sentences in a discourse. In addition to summarizing the most important information of the report, headlines also have cognitive and ideological functions (Van Dijk 1988, 1991). Cognitively, headline information is strategically used by readers to construct the overall meaning of the news text. Ideologically, the summary offered by the headline necessarily implies an opinion or a specific perspective on the event; they may bias the understanding process and influence the interpretation made by the readers. Sykes (1985) also contends that the choice of different words for referring to the same thing by different speakers reveals ‘different ideological affiliations’. At the same time, the mentioning of a particular participant and the exclusion/inclusion are also common and powerful strategies to shape viewer’s perceptions of a news event, because ‘presentation, syntactic and lexical style are manifestations of underlying meaning and reference (Van Dijk 1988).

The Epoch Times

Falun Gong runs several media outlets outside China. The Epoch Times is a newspaper founded by Falun Gong practitioners in 2000 with their own money (Ownby 2008). The Epoch Times is a newspaper with a mission that of reporting on issues bearing on human rights throughout the world, which allows for considerable focus on China and Falun Gong. Most of its publishers are Falun Gong practitioners, many of its journalists are Falun Gong practitioners too, and at least part of its staff is made up of volunteer workers, many of whom are Falun Gong practitioners (Ownby 2008, p. 222). According to the testimony of Stephen Gregory, one of the newspaper’s English language publishers:

The Epoch Times began publishing a Chinese-language general interest newspaper in May 2000. Since then, the Chinese-language edition has grown rapidly and now has a circulation of 1,179,100 copies in 28 countries, making it the most widely distributed Chinese-language newspaper in the world. The Chinese-language website receives 700,000 page views a day with 80,000 original visitors. This website has shown it is able to breakthrough the CCP’s Internet blockade. It receives 137,000 page views per day and 30,000 original visitors from inside mainland China.

In August of 2004 the English-language edition of The Epoch Times began publishing in Manhattan. In less than one year, the English-language edition has grown very fast. It is now published in eight US cities, three Canadian cities, Australia and the United Kingdom. English-language editions are expected to begin publishing soon in New Zealand, Ireland, and northern Europe. The Epoch Times has also expanded this past year into other languages, and is now published in: French, Spanish, German, Russian, Korean, and Japanese. All of these Epoch Times’ editions also publish a website.

Ownby (2008) suggests that the Epoch Times is clearly political because the newspaper’s focus on human rights is both humanitarian and political, and the paper’s editorial stance constitutes a direct attack on the legitimacy of China’s government and calls for its overthrow. Thus it is reasonable to assume that Falun Gong’s political concerns and discourse are reflected in its newspaper, so the Epoch Times offers a good venue to examine how this group identifies itself in its struggle for legitimacy and in its resistance against the official communist ideology.

The Shenyun Performing Group was founded in 2006 with ‘a vision of cultural renewal’ (see: http://www.shenyunperformingarts.org) with the founder of Falun Gong as its chief director (Li 2008). This art group, however, has been entangled in controversy since its inception. According to its mission statement, the Group is ‘independent of China’s communist regime and seeks to revive the true, five-millennia-old artistic tradition of China that thrived before decades of suppression by the Chinese communist state’ (http://www.divineperformingarts.org/mission). But the Chinese government accuses the performing group of trying to ‘inveigle the public into watching the show’, and, ‘The truth is that the so-called ‘galas’ were nothing but a sheer political tool used by ‘Falun Gong’ organization to spread cult and anti-China propaganda’ (Konigsberg 2008). The New York Times identifies the show as ‘a production of New Tang Dynasty Television, a nonprofit satellite broadcaster started by Falun Gong followers and based in New York’ (Ibid.). As one of the major news outlets of the Falun Gong, the Epoch Times necessarily gives extensive coverage to the Shenyun Performance tour (Epoch Times, n.d.).

The rest of the article applies the critical discourse analysis to the media texts produced by Falun Gong movement in the Epoch Times, hoping to find out the construction of identity and the ideology implications during this process. The three news articles covering Divining Performing Arts are selected from the website of the Epoch Times.

Analysis and Findings

Article 1 (Epoch Times, 3 September 2008)

  1. Headline ‘Audience Describes Young Dancers as “Outstanding”’—The title here focuses on ‘young’ and ‘outstanding’. This title first suggests that the ‘outstanding’ performance of the show is the theme of the article, and the word ‘young’ delivers another message particularly to Chinese audiences. Traditionally, Chinese people believe that age brings wisdom and experience, and thus seniority is widely accepted in Chinese culture and guarantees respect and deference. Moreover, the CCP had a long tradition of gerontocracy that top leaders held various positions for life. The title here tries to tell audiences that even though the performers are young, they are still regarded as ‘outstanding’. The title indicates the topic of this article is on the quality of this performance.
  2. Lexical Choices—The article starts by saying that ‘the consensus was certainly that although the performers are young… they are exceptionally talented…’ The use of ‘certainly’ and ‘exceptionally’ intends to reinforce the title that the performance is a high quality one, even though these kinds of adjectives are not common in standard news reporting. An audience member after the show was quoted as saying that he ‘lamented’ that the CCP has ‘completely destroyed’ traditional Chinese culture. The word ‘completely’ here is an exaggeration because the article fails to present concrete supporting evidence. The word here indicates the performance is doing the right thing, which is unlike the CCP, in protecting traditional Chinese culture. At the same time, the ‘completely’ is an accusation that what the CCP presumably has done is inexcusable because ‘completely destroyed’ indicates the damage is beyond repair. The article continues quoting a businessman who has been in the United States for more than ten years. He was quoted as saying ‘This is the first time he has seen Chinese dance on such a grand scale’. The ‘first time’ indicates there has been a lack of Chinese cultural performance in the States because this is the first time for the man who has settled in the States for more than ten years. The word ‘grand’ is tied with traditional Chinese cultural preference for anything ‘grand’ or magnificent. Thus this word sends a positive message that the performance is a popular one. Those words used by Falun Gong intend to emphasize the contribution of Falun Gong to the promotion of traditional Chinese culture.
  3. Quotations—Three audience members are quoted in the article. The first, Zeng, says he was concerned with those young performers because of their age, but ‘found that the young dancers in the show were truly outstanding’. The quote is used as a justification that young people could still be good performers. This topic of ‘outstanding young performers’ is an implicit rebuke to the CCP’s long-held policy on artists, which allocates more resources for senior artists rather than younger ones. The article mentions that Zeng was a professional dancer, and the recognition from a professional also intends to tell readers that Falun Gong is tapping the young talent pool to promote the traditional Chinese culture. The second, Bian, a businessman, says the performance ‘demonstrates the essence of traditional Chinese culture’. The third, Yang, who is from real estate industry, says, ‘Communism has brought a lot of suffering to human society, while Falun Gong is promoting ‘Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance’, which is what’s needed in this society’. Here ideology is clearly called upon to justify a cultural performance. Since China is one of a few and the largest remaining states that embraces Communism as official ideology, this quote targets the CCP, while promoting the tenets of Falun Gong. Yang’s words are telling readers that first, communism has brought a lot of suffering to human society, and second Falun Gong is capable of correcting what the CCP has done wrong and its tenets are beneficial to traditional Chinese culture and human society as well. The article finishes with Yang’s words: ‘America is a democratic country that emphasizes freedom. Hopefully, the Chinese people can also enjoy freedom in not too distant a future’. Here ideology is used again to reinforce Falun Gong’s message that this cultural performance is more than art and culture; a democratic future should be the ultimate pursuit for Chinese people. Falun Gong connects its cultural identity with an ideological pursuit. The United States is noted in the article as a ‘democratic country that emphasizes freedom’. Obviously, the Falun Gong movement is using the US as a role model for its ideological pursuit, and this reflects the prominence of the US on Falun Gong’s ideological agenda.

Article 2 (Epoch Times, 27 September 2008)

  1. Headline ‘Divine Performing Arts: Rediscovering Cultural Roots’—The title uses a word, ‘rediscovering’, which implies that the cultural roots might be lost or somehow needs a new look. The title suggests the topic of this article is something new or different from what the audiences are familiar with, and the headline implies that the Divine Performance is the rediscovery of this cultural root.
  2. Lexical Choices—Two words in this article are worth our attention. The first is ‘rediscover’. This word suggests the Chinese culture needs to be examined again because some aspects of it might be lost or hidden. To ‘rediscover’ intends to tell readers that Falun Gong is more concerned with the current status of Chinese culture. It is trying to ‘rediscover’ the cultural roots because it believes the contemporary Chinese culture is either detached from its roots or being transformed to something else, so a ‘rediscovery’ is needed. Another term is ‘true’; the article is using many times this word to describe things like ‘true roots’ and ‘true culture’. When ‘true’ is being used, it suggests something false or fabricated. Here Falun Gong is implying the Chinese culture promoted by the Chinese government is not true or authentic, and Falun Gong is the one who is working for the real one.
  3. Quotations—This article quotes several different people. The first two are a pair of twin sisters who left China at a young age. One of them was quoted as saying ‘Tonight’s performance allowed us to reconnect with our heritage and uncover our true roots. We never realized that the Chinese culture was so enriching and full of depth’. Helping overseas Chinese people ‘reconnect’ with their cultural roots is certainly a contribution to the promotion of Chinese culture. Falun Gong is demonstrating its commitment to promote the traditional Chinese culture outside China. Another quote is from Nuami Digon, student from the National Ballet School of Canada. She said, ‘I feel really inspired by their dances, and I’ve really benefited from this performance’. Here the words of a professional dancer are used again to emphasize the quality of performance. The last person who was quoted is a recent immigrant from China. He recalled one of the dances and said, ‘I feel that Chinese people can understand the truth behind the persecution of Falun Gong’. Here the connection between a traditional dance and the persecution seems far-fetched, but this kind of connection again has a political connotation: the cultural performance is more than culture, and the politics is the message that is supposed to come across. Since prosecution is common under repressive regimes, this word reflects the ideological pursuit of Falun Gong for a free society. His words also accuse the Chinese government of lying because there is a ‘truth behind’ the persecution. As the first sample article, culture is used to deliver a political message that targeting the Chinese government.

Article 3 (Epoch Times, 27 October 2008)

  1. Headline “Performance Conveys Depth of Chinese Culture”—This title emphasizes the ‘depth’, which also highlights the quality of the performance. This title shows that Chinese culture is still the central concern of the article but the focus will be on the depth of culture that is conveyed by the performance.
  2. Lexical Choices—The article begins by claiming, ‘Overseas Chinese were unaware of the breadth and profundity of their ancient culture’. The word ‘breath’ and ‘profundity’ are used to construct the authenticity of Falun Gong in representing traditional culture because the fact that overseas Chinese were ‘unaware’ emphasizes the Falun Gong’s understanding of traditional culture, especially its ‘breath’ and ‘profundity’. These words intend to demonstrate Falun Gong truly understands the traditional culture and could be the representative of this culture to overseas Chinese population. The use of ‘ancient’ instead of ‘traditional’ here calls upon history and connects the performance with China’s long historical traditions. History, in Chinese discourse, spells authenticity and authority in that Chinese people believe anything that they have inherited from the past must be of special value and significance. The use of ‘ancient’ suggests the performance’s connection to the past and the presumed authority in the present. The article goes on saying that after the advent of ‘European communism Chinese culture was quashed’. Here communism is defined as a ‘European communism’, and this definition is in clear contrast to the official Chinese definition, which emphasizes that communism must have a different version to fit in China’s national context. Since 1949, the CCP has been working on a Chinese version of communism to justify its own rule and build its legitimacy, and the concept of communism has rarely been mentioned in official discourse as something from another continent. The definition of communism as ‘European’ intends to highlight the alien nature of this ideology and thus its inherent conflict with traditional Chinese values. Falun Gong takes advantage of an aspect of traditional Chinese culture, which differentiates the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ to construct its authenticity. Chinese people generally tend to trust things that from ‘inside’ rather than ‘outside’, so by portraying communism as a European product, Falun Gong highlights the foreign status of this ideology and is implying it is inherently incompatible with traditional Chinese values. The article says the Divine Performance ‘has been reviving traditional Chinese culture since 2004’. The ‘reviving’ suggests the previous demise of something, and this word echoes Falun Gong’s claim that traditional Chinese culture was ‘quashed’ by the communism. Falun Gong indicates that traditional culture has been destroyed and Falun Gong is the one who is reviving the authentic culture outside China. We may also read from these lines that Falun Gong never intends to cooperate with the Chinese government in the cultural sector because it is convinced that traditional culture has been quashed, and is reviving this culture on its own. The article also says the performance ‘breaks new ground in bringing together Chinese and Western instruments’. ‘Breaks new ground’ is supposed to tell readers that the performance is moving ahead of Chinese national performance in combining both Chinese and Western instruments. Given that Falun Gong is an exile group that has no access to resources in mainland China, this is a demonstration of its determination to promote traditional culture; even if it means the inclusion of non-Chinese elements.
  3. Quotations—Four people are quoted in this article. The first one is the lead dancer of the performance group. She was quoted as saying ‘The mission of our performance is to revive traditional Chinese culture and the values of pure grace, kindness, sincerity, and human dignity’. These words reinforce the theme of the article, which is the revival of traditional culture. The mission statement of this dancer further elaborates on a set of values that includes ‘grace, kindness, sincerity and dignity’, which can be interpreted as universal values that people should embrace. This set of values is used to contrast implicitly to the communist values that are imported from Europe. The second one is Elvis Stojko, the Canadian figure skating champion, and he says, ‘Everything was impressive. Each single act had its own energy and character’. The third is Vanessa Harwood, the principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. She is quoted as saying ‘here’s a lot of depth to it, and a lot of meaning. They take it very seriously, and it’s beautiful to see’. Quotes of these two people again are used as professional voices to emphasize the artistic quality of the performance. Either the Olympic champion or the principal national ballet dancer is generally considered as quite an impressive achievement, so recognition from these people lends support to Falun Gong’s claim that their performance is truly authentic. The last one is conductor, Rutang Chen. He says, ‘Every production is an integrated piece’. His words are used to convey the complexity of the performance and again demonstrate the quality of the performance.


We find that Falun Gong in the United States is trying to construct itself as a more authentic representative of Chinese culture than the CCP. This construction is realized by the recognition from professional art workers, the connection of Falun Gong with history to build authenticity, the connection of art performance with political prosecution, and by portraying communism as outside ideology that is internally incompatible with traditional Chinese culture. Falun Gong demonstrates its understanding of the fragmentation and incoherence of Chinese identity, and it goes for a ‘pop culture China’ (Huat 2006), and uses culture as its lunching pad for its political and ideological claims. In addition, Falun Gong does not stop at building an authentic cultural representative identity; it calls for Chinese people to pursue the ‘truth behind the prosecution’, and it goes further by arguing for a democratic future. Building a cultural identity is only the first step in the ideological competition against the Chinese government at ‘home’. Falun Gong is trying to use the cultural identity it builds to sell its larger ideological agenda, which is the political change within China. Unlike other diasporic groups that yearn for an imagined return and longing for the ‘home’, Falun Gong doesn’t anticipate for a possible return in the near future. Instead, it is engaging itself in an ideological competition against the Chinese government in the field of culture, and this competition demands our attention to the local, which refers to the space where the diasporic narratives are constructed, contested and interpreted (Echchaibi 2008). In this sense, ‘home’ is not only a place for the eventual ‘return’, but also a construct that the Falun Gong could shape from within the diaspora.

Falun Gong also does not stop at only challenging the official discourse of ‘scientific Marxism’; it tries to offer readers an alternative ideological prospect (democracy and freedom) to the current political system. Ownby notes that Falun Gong practitioners’ plea for relief from suppression and torture in China ‘grafted onto a Western, Enlightenment-based human rights discourse (freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and religion)’ (Ownby 2008, p. 126). This ideological subversion:

is not only the diagnosis of the current regime and its policies as the source of widespread social ills, but also the promise to dispense a set of immediate and long-lasting cures for those crises which are therefore more compelling than those provided by the formalized institutions of the body politic. (Thorton 2002, p. 678)

Thus, Falun Gong’s challenge against the Chinese media system and state power is ‘more profound in its substance, more widespread in societal reach, much globalized in structure, and more sustained and militant in its efforts’ (Zhao 2003, p. 221).

As mentioned earlier, the United States, where Falun Gong exiled itself, is prominent on its agenda. The group links its own ideological pursuit with the larger US national concerns, in which the promotion of freedom and democracy is on top. Here Van Dijk’s (1995, 1998) notion of ‘ideological square’, which is characterized by positive in-group and negative out-group description, provides a plausible explanation for this finding. Van Dijk maintains that many group ideologies involve the representation of Self and Others, Us and Them. Many therefore seem to be polarized—We are Good and They are Bad, and the ‘ideological square’ functions to polarize in- and out-groups in order to present the ‘We’ group in a favorable light and the ‘They’ group unfavorably. Falun Gong is using this strategy to depict the Chinese government and the CCP as ‘They’, ‘Other’ and ‘Bad’ by highlighting negative qualities of the CCP, especially its negative impact on traditional Chinese culture. At the same time, Falun Gong constructs itself as an authentic representative of Chinese culture by various discursive strategies that highlight the positive quality of the movement and the achievements of its culture performance. More than that, Falun Gong chooses to side with the United States to augment the power of its ideological pursuit because the United States is usually considered as ‘the beacon of democracy’. In this sense, incorporating the mainstream ideological discourse of the host society is a survival strategy for Falun Gong in that it drastically increases the prowess of Falun Gong’s ideological pursuit. Thus, by portraying itself as a more authentic representative of Chinese culture, and being part of the US-China ideological confrontation and competition, Falun Gong successfully distinguishes itself from the CCP, both in the construction of identity and in its resistance and challenge to the official ideology of the Chinese Party and State.