February 15, 2001

MONTREAL - China's Liberation Army Daily recently condemned the Falun Gong movement and its leader [...] as "Western anti-Chinese forces" - a new wrinkle in a government campaign to [defame Falun Gong].

Most Chinese Falun Gong practitioners I have met in North America, however, are youngish and highly educated - most often in the hard sciences - and feel that their practice of Falun Gong has reacquainted them with aspects of Chinese cultural tradition that had been ignored since the Communist Revolution in 1949. But in the context of modern Chinese history, traditionalism can be subversive, and Falun Gong - by bringing together science, spirituality and Chinese nationalism - has proved to be explosive.


That attitude is critical to understanding Falun Gong. Li Hongzhi, its founder, sees his message not only as a return to a neglected spiritual tradition, but also as a major contribution to modern science. Quarks and neutrinos figure in Mr. Li's writings as frequently as Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and he insists that truth, benevolence and tolerance are the physical qualities of the universe, not simple moral platitudes. In surveys I have circulated at Falun Gong "experience-sharing" conferences in Montreal and Toronto, practitioners identify the intellectual content of Mr. Li's teachings - in particular, his physics - as equally or more important than spiritual enlightenment when they explain what drew them to the movement. Indeed, the greatest difference between Falun Gong and the larger qigong movement, from which it emerged in 1992, is precisely Li Hongzhi's emphasis on "scientific" theory.

Widespread practice of all forms of qigong - a varied set of exercises, meditative techniques and spiritual practices, based on ancient Chinese wisdom - spawned a mass movement of some 200 million people in China in the 1980's. Even now, most Chinese accept that qigong is real and helpful in achieving physical and mental well- being. The Chinese state once supported qigong, including the Falun Gong variant, and established the Chinese Qigong Scientific Research Association in December 1985 to coordinate and finance experiments to prove that qigong has a scientific basis. (Official support for qigong lasted well into the 90's.) At a time when Deng Xiaoping was opening China to bring in Western technology, China was investing in qigong, hoping to prove the existence of an indigenous science. For a brief, heady moment, it was possible to be modern and Chinese at the same time, as the twin goals of China's modern experience came into focus.


The authorities could not control the message. Qigong as Chinese science gave way to moral exhortations, supernatural powers and miraculous cures, all of which took as their point of departure traditional Chinese culture as defined by qigong masters and practitioners. The qigong boom had the air of a cultural revitalization movement, although one should hasten to add that traditions are always transformed as they are revitalized.

The Chinese Communist Party survived the catastrophic failure of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution by liberalizing the economy and appealing to patriotism. But the party's proud victories against the Japanese and the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek are now more than 50 years old. China's rapid economic development has brought with it inequality, corruption, and "Western" consumerism. Qigong and Falun Gong have offered a return to a timeless cultural pride based on reasserted Chinese values. Neither appears to have had overt political ambitions at the outset. But their evocation of a different vision of Chinese tradition and its contemporary value is now so threatening to the state and party because it denies them the sole right to define the meaning of Chinese nationalism, and perhaps of Chineseness.