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The Past, Present and Future of Falun Gong
A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Benjamin Penny, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2001
There are three things I should make clear from the outset. First, I have come to study Falun Gong from a background of studying the religions of China, largely in the pre-modern period but also in more recent times. And I have approached my study of Falun Gong in the same way—examining the writings of Falun Gong as I would examine the writings of the Daoist or Buddhist religions—by seeking to understand its doctrines, the way it presents them and how it relates to the world around it. My second point is that I am not an adherent of Falun Gong and, I should add for reasons of balance, neither am I linked to the Chinese Government. This brings me to my final preliminary comment. There are two main sources of information on Falun Gong: Falun Gong itself and the Chinese Government. Currently, as I’m sure you are aware, these two entities are not well disposed towards each other and their information services are resolute in their respective condemnations. In these circumstances, one has to be reasonably careful in taking any claim from either source at face value.
* * *
Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, and the name of its leader Li Hongzhi, came to the world’s attention, or perhaps to be more precise, the attention of the foreign media based in Beijing on Anzac Day 1999, which was a Sunday. About 3 a.m. on that day people started gathering around a compound called Zhongnanhai, in the heart of central Beijing, and sat down on the footpath. By 8 o’clock that morning, between 10 and 15 thousand people were there in a line stretching more than 2 kilometres around the north and west walls, in some places eight people deep. Compounds are often surrounded by high walls in China, and this one is no exception, but Zhongnanhai is important because it houses the places of residence and work of the Chinese leadership. At about 9 a.m., Premier Zhu Rongji saw a delegation of protesters and instructed three staff members to hear their complaints more fully. By 9 o’clock that evening, the locals had quietly made their way home and those from outside Beijing had been taken by bus to the railway station and given tickets home. By all accounts the police were polite and low-key. The protesters apparently did not shout slogans, hold banners or hand out leaflets. It is reported that they collected their litter before they left.
Falun Gong is certainly one of the most important phenomena to emerge in China in the last decade. The April demonstration marks the emergence of Falun Gong on to the world stage and it may be that, in the future, we will look on that day as a genuinely pivotal moment in modern Chinese history. So what, then, do Falun Gong practitioners believe and do? The best way to describe Falun Gong is as a cultivation system. Cultivation systems have been a feature of Chinese life for at least 2 500 years and probably much more. They are sets of mental and physical regimens that may involve special techniques of breathing, exercises, visualisations, meditations, diets, behaviours, or sexual practices that aim at refining the body into a higher form. The various versions of qigong are all cultivation systems, though some have been stripped down to the simple physical aspect. Taiji quan—or taichi as it is known here —is one of these.
At the beginning of the first chapter of Zhuan Falun (Falun Gong’s main text, first published in 1994), Li Hongzhi, its leader, explains that Falun Gong differs from all other varieties of qigong which were concerned solely with healing and fitness. Li, claims that, ‘At present, I am the only person genuinely teaching qigong towards higher levels at home and abroad’.1 What does this mean? Li answers, ‘Isn’t this offering salvation to humankind?’ 2
Given this high ambition—nothing less than offering salvation to humankind—Falun Gong’s physical exercises claim to be superior to those of all other cultivation systems. What is particularly novel about them is that Li Hongzhi promises that, while cultivating, one of his fashen or law bodies will protect the practitioner. Law bodies are one of the marvellous things that develop as one cultivates. ‘Fashen,’ Li explains, ‘looks the same as the person does. You don’t have fashen now. When your cultivation has reached a certain level, you will … enter into an extremely high level. Only then will you develop fashen’. High level qigong masters have them, and apparently, ‘The fashen (law body) of a high-level qigong grand master is controlled and dictated by the thoughts of the main body. Fashen also has his own thoughts, his own independent ability to solve problems and carry out tasks. He is an entirely independent self. At the same time, fashen knows the thoughts of the qigong master’s main body, and carries out tasks according to those thoughts. For example, if the qigong master wants to treat a particular person, the fashen will go there. Without that thought, he would not go. When he sees an extremely good thing to do, he will do it on his own. Some masters have not reached the state of enlightenment. There are a few things he does not know yet, but his fashen already knows’.
One of the most distinctive claims about Falun Gong as a cultivation system is that you can cultivate 24 hours a day, even though you are not doing the exercises. According to the Falun Gong texts, ‘the fa [or law] refines the practitioner’. The reason behind this is that in cultivation you will form a law wheel or falun in your lower abdomen. [This is where the name Falun Gong comes from.] If you are lucky enough to attend lectures by Li Hongzhi himself, he will install one in your body while you are listening to his lecture. Li says, ‘The falun of Falun Gong is an intelligent and spinning body of high-energy substance. It rotates according to the order of movement of the entire celestial cosmos. To a certain extent, falun is a miniature of the universe’. What does the falun do? The falun ceaselessly rotates itself after it is formed, it exists in the form of an intelligent being, regularly and continuously collecting energy at the lower abdomen area of the cultivator. Falun automatically absorbs energy from the universe via rotation.
This is claimed to be particularly convenient for busy people in the modern world who cannot always afford to set aside a certain amount of time each day for practice. When you have reached a high level of cultivation, wonderful things happen to you. You acquire ‘supernormal capabilities’ such as precognition, clairvoyance, the ability to transform one kind of object into another kind of object, remote sight, and so on. You will also look better with your wrinkles disappearing, your skin glowing and ‘What’s more, the old women will even regain their menstrual period’. Your powers become ever greater as you reach higher and higher levels of cultivation. You should not, of course, display these abilities and they should not be your goal in cultivation. The practitioner passes through various levels until he or she reaches ‘the cultivation of a Buddha’s body … At that time, he has unlimited power, becoming very powerful. When reaching a higher realm, he will cultivate to become a great enlightened one … Dedicated cultivators acquire the Righteous Law, and obtain the Righteous Attainment; and that is the successful completion of cultivation’.
Along with the exercises comes a moral code. The core of this moral code is the three-word combination ‘truthfulness–benevolence–forbearance’ (zhen–shan–ren in Chinese; the shan used to be officially translated as ‘compassion’). These three words form a kind of slogan for Falun Gong appearing on posters, websites, t-shirts, banners and so on. The three words sum up a moral attitude: one that is aimed at guarding what practitioners refer to as their xinxing, or ‘mind-nature’. The cultivation of xinxing is the top priority of the practitioner. Xinxing, says Li, is involved with gain and loss. ‘ “Gain” is to gain conformity to the characteristic of the universe. The characteristic that makes up the universe is zhen–shan–ren (truthfulness–benevolence–forbearance) … “Loss” is to give up those ill thoughts and conducts of greed, personal gain, lust, desire, killing, battering, stealing, robbing, deceiving, jealousy, etc.’ This kind of good behaviour is not, however, an end in itself. The cultivation of xinxing leads to the dissolution of karma and its transformation into virtue. Virtue, in turn, is transformed into cultivation energy, or gong. This is also what your law wheel will do: it collects energy from the universe and transforms it into cultivation energy.
Virtue and karma are understood in Falun Gong rather differently from other systems of thought. Virtue, or de, is understood as a white substance and karma as a black substance. When you behave badly you create karma—and you can accumulate it from bad deeds in past lives. Unusually, Li maintains that you can also have karma passed on from ‘ancestors, family relatives or close friends’. There are two very important doctrines related to karma that explain a great deal about the relationship between Falun Gong practitioners and the Chinese authorities. First, Li claims that ‘karma is the primary factor that causes sickness in people’. This is important as it is at the root of the discussion over whether Falun Gong prevents its members seeking orthodox medical treatment—if disease comes from karma and karma can be eradicated through cultivation of xinxing, then what good will medicine do? Secondly, Li says that ‘When one throws punches at someone else, he also throws out his white substance [that is de or virtue] to the other person, and the vacated area in his body will be filled with the black substance [that is karma]’. This is important as it goes some way to explaining why Falun Gong practitioners have been apparently so willing to go to public places in China and do things that will get themselves arrested and, as they claim, brutalised. If a policeman were to beat you up, he is actually passing on his de to you and that space in him is taken up by karma! You win—he loses.
The third part of the doctrines of Falun Gong that I want to discuss briefly is its general worldview. Li maintains that ‘The planet we are living on has been destroyed many times, and every time after the planet has regrouped, humankind starts to multiply again’. The evidence Li provides for this is that there is archaeological evidence for highly developed civilisations earlier—much earlier—than the time when humans are supposed to have evolved on earth. For instance, ‘In the museum of the National University of Peru, there is a large rock on which a figure was engraved, holding a telescope observing celestial bodies. This figure is more than 30 000 years old … How could there be a telescope 30 000 years ago? There is an iron rod in India whose iron content reaches over 99 per cent. The use of modern smelting technology cannot even produce iron with such high purity as it already surpassed the level of modern technology. Who created that civilization? Human beings should have been micro-organisms at that time, so how was it possible to create these things?’ These two examples, along with a two billion-year-old nuclear reactor in Gabon and some frescoes in the Alps, belong to the same repertoire of quasi-archaeology made famous by Erich von Daniken in the late 1960s in the West. But where von Daniken and his ilk see such phenomena as evidence of prehistoric extra-terrestrial technology transfer, Li sees them as proof of civilisations on earth prior to our own. Thus, ‘there existed more than one period of civilisation before our civilisation. Through unearthed relics, we have found products that are not of only one period of civilisation. It is thus believed that after each of the many times when human civilisations were annihilated, only a small number of people survived and they lived a primitive life. Then, they gradually multiplied in number to become the new human race, beginning a new civilisation. Later, they were again exterminated and would then once again produce a new human race’. Li says, ‘I made a careful investigation once and found that humankind has undergone complete annihilation 81 times’. Several times in his writings, Li says that we are living in the ‘last days of Last Havoc’, the last of three phases of evolution of the universe, and that he has chosen this time to make Falun Gong public. This mix of an ideology based on moral purification, the enhancement of personal power, the cyclic destruction of civilisations, a ‘last days’ message, and a master who proclaims that his message offers salvation to humankind—combined with very real persecution in its homeland—goes a long way to explaining the potency of Falun Gong both in China and overseas.
The Zhongnanhai protest clearly caught the Chinese leadership as much by surprise as it did the foreign press. The date 25 April 1999 was, of course, only about six weeks before the 10th anniversary of the brutal suppression of the students’ occupation of Tiananmen and most eyes, local and foreign, were fixed firmly on that. Some of the later, much more extreme, official reaction to Falun Gong can perhaps be put down to the state of mind of the leadership at that very particular time.
This unusual protest did not, of course, come out of nowhere. The specific and particular spur for it actually took place outside Beijing itself, in nearby Tianjin. On 11 April a small magazine aimed at youngsters called Teenage Science and Technology Outlook published an article by He Zuoxiu called ‘I’m Opposed to Qigong Practise by Teenagers’ which inter alia, was critical of qigong in general and Falun Gong in particular. He, one of China’s most eminent physicists, who is famous for helping design China’s hydrogen bomb in the 1960s, described as nonsense a Falun Gong claim that an engineer, by practising Falun Gong, was able to separate his ‘true’ spirit from his body and enter a steel-smelting furnace. At another point, He writes, ‘I mentioned that a postgraduate in my institute had two relapses of mental disorder each time after he practised Falun Gong’.3 In response, several thousand Falun Gong practitioners protested outside the offices of the magazine. Their protests were met with action by police, and some people were detained. In my introduction I noted the difficulties with different sources of information on Falun Gong. Here is a case in point. Falun Gong sources, including the very sympathetic Danny Schechter, author of the recent book Falun Gong’s Challenge to China : Spiritual Practice or ‘Evil Cult’?, say that it was riot police who were involved and that 45 people were arrested.4 The journalists of Asiaweek magazine say that ‘police’ detained five people.5 The day after the protest, The South China Morning Post quoted ‘a demonstrator’ in the Beijing gathering to the effect that ‘50 people were detained by police; someone was also beaten up’.6 Whatever the case, the response of Falun Gong was to seek redress from the leadership of the country by going to them and, albeit very quietly and politely, making it clear that they would not be treated so shabbily.
The official reaction to the demonstration could not, at this stage, have been more different from the reaction to the democracy protesters of ten years before. On the Tuesday, the official Chinese newsagency declared that the government had never banned ‘any health fitness activities’. It described the protest not as a ‘demonstration’ but as a ‘gathering’. But it also warned, ominously as it turned out, that ‘those who jeopardise social stability under the pretext of practising any gong shall be dealt with according to law’. Nonetheless, adherents still, clearly, felt able to speak to foreign journalists.7
Before I go further in this narrative of events, I’d like to pause to consider how the press at the time described Falun Gong. Caught off guard, it is clear that the journalists’ research instincts came into play and there seems to have been a good deal of scrambling to Falun Gong websites to get some idea of what exactly it was that they were dealing with. Their choice of words to describe Falun Gong shows them falling into a very particular vocabulary without too much thought. The first South China Morning Post article is headlined, ‘Beijing Cult Protest Draws 15 000’ and in the opening paragraph Falun Gong has become a ‘qigong cult’. Later, it has become a ‘sect’. Another article on the front page has the headline, ‘Sect Vows to Stop Evil Tide Sweeping Mankind to Catastrophe,’ and says that it is, ‘one of numerous cults and folk religions that are filling a spiritual void’ in China.8 Asiaweek called it a ‘quasi-religious sect’, while the Far Eastern Economic Review, rather more carefully, described it as, ‘an exercise-based movement with mystical elements’. The knee-jerk reaction, then, was to fall into the language of cults, sects and quasi-religions. For an English-speaking audience in particular, this immediately placed Falun Gong in the same category as Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, Sun Myung-moon’s Unification Church, the Branch Davidians, the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and so on. It is no wonder that only a short time later, Jasper Becker could write in The South China Morning Post that, ‘Believers in places as far apart as Dublin, Singapore and South Africa have made protests against newspapers referring to the Falun Gong as a cult’. This language and its referents has, however, become the stock in trade of the Chinese Government in its attacks on Falun Gong. For them Falun Gong is an ‘evil cult’, or in slightly more poetic terms in the title of a free CD Chinese embassies distribute, a ‘cult of evil’. The Chinese authorities have also taken to describing Falun Gong as a ‘heresy.’ The original Chinese term translates more accurately, if more clumsily, as ‘heterodox teaching’.
To return to the narrative: on 22 July 1999, the Ministry of Civil Affairs banned Falun Gong, declaring it an illegal organisation. There followed a widespread crackdown. On the propaganda front, the authorities went all out with editorials in the People’s Daily and all other major newspapers, feature articles, television specials, information on websites, and so on, as well as denunciatory articles in the much smaller circulation but, in this case crucial, qigong press. Many ordinary practitioners protesting the crackdown are reported to have been detained by the police but most were released after a few days. At the time, police arrested 70–100 alleged leaders of the movement and hundreds of teachers at lower levels. For the party members who were involved, there were self-criticism sessions and demands that they denounce the teachings and the teacher. Television featured film footage of heavy equipment destroying videos and tapes. All the books disappeared from sale.
The following activities were explicitly banned: hanging up or posting banners, images, symbols, and logos; distributing books, audio-video products, and other propaganda; gathering a crowd to conduct activities; holding meetings, parades, and demonstrations in the form of sit-ins or visiting superior authorities; disturbing the social order by means of fabricating or distorting the facts and deliberately spreading rumours or using any other means to instigate, organise, link up, or direct activities opposing decisions of the government. The propaganda effort focussed on five main topics concerning Li Hongzhi. First, Li is alleged to have falsified his own background claiming a strange and wonderful spiritual life. Secondly, it is alleged that he propagated ‘heretical ideas and fallacies on every possible occasion’. Thirdly, that in advocating ‘heretical ideas’ he sought to ‘control the minds of the practitioners of ‘Falun Gong’. Fourthly, that his activities ‘infringed on other people’s rights and seriously disrupted the social order’. Finally, that Li used Falun Gong to ‘amass dirty money’, and committed ‘economic crimes of tax evasion and money laundering’. The main evidence produced for the public to criticise Falun Gong centred on the dual claims that Falun Gong induced some of its followers into self-destructive behaviours and that in general, they were forbidden to visit doctors and seek orthodox medical treatment.
This crackdown has continued at various levels of intensity ever since. There have been televised court cases of high-ranking officials who were sent to gaol, official statements of the seriousness of the threat still posed by the movement, continuing arrests, alleged cases of self-immolation. Falun Gong sources claim that by March 2001, 162 people ‘have died as a result of police torture and brutality since the crackdown began’.9 An official commentary slightly earlier, in February, claims that ‘the year-long campaign has helped more than 98 per cent of the followers reject the fallacies of Falun Gong and throw off the spiritual control exercised by Li Hongzhi. The base of the cult is being destroyed day by day as, more and more, its followers have come to realise their errors and have mended their ways’.10
The question that is most often asked about the whole Falun Gong affair is ‘why is the Chinese Government so concerned about this group?’ I don’t intend to answer that question directly—we are not privy to discussions at the highest level of the Party—however there are perhaps several obvious reasons we might start with. First, whether you believe the figures of the Chinese authorities or of Falun Gong, this group was large, numbering in the tens of millions. There are, of course, serious difficulties in assessing exactly how large because practitioners have never signed up to Falun Gong as people would to a political party or gym club. And, like any movement of this kind, there are those who are deeply committed and those who are only mildly committed. When the crackdown came, one can imagine that for many people letting go of Falun Gong was not onerous at all; they just moved on to another, more acceptable, form of qigong.
How many people in the People’s Republic are still seriously committed to Falun Gong, in spite of the crackdown, is impossible to tell. One thing that is certain, given the history of more orthodox religions as well as sectarian traditions in China, is that when and if Falun Gong practitioners are allowed to be public again, many will re-emerge. As well as having a large number of practitioners in China, Falun Gong also seems to have had a large number of adherents who were Chinese Communist Party members. We shouldn’t really be surprised by this as the group, as I will show soon, was well in the mainstream of acceptability for several years and its early publications were in fine upstanding presses, including one that belonged to the People’s Liberation Army. Nonetheless, as it became clear that Falun Gong was not simply a standard qigong method, but one that possessed a reasonably well-developed ideology and that ideology was clearly not compatible with the ideology of the Party, perhaps a crackdown became inevitable.
It has to be noted here, in this talk of large memberships, that Falun Gong was by no means the only group of this kind in the mid-to-late 1990s. It probably wasn’t even the largest. Also notable was the group known as Zhonggong, which was banned in January 2000, with a leader, Zhang Hongbao, who currently resides on Guam. Others continue to practise in China and have, like Falun Gong, an increasing presence overseas.
Clearly what made Falun Gong the target that it became was the demonstration of April 1999. As I noted, this came as a surprise and it is the fact that it somehow slipped under the official radar which points to another important reason for real government concern. If large numbers of polite and well-behaved people can gather outside Zhongnanhai unannounced and unnoticed, so presumably could a group of rather less well-behaved people. In other words, Falun Gong had developed a method to mobilise ordinary Chinese people that the Party had neither control over nor cognisance of. Imagine if, in April 1999, it was not Falun Gong members but, say, unofficial trades unionists that had surrounded Zhongnanhai. This method of mobilisation implies that the network of largely autonomous practice groups, through teaching sessions, lectures and so on, allowed a very efficient means of communication, especially when assisted by email and the mobile phone.
Falun Gong also has a very extensive Internet presence. I invite you to do a search on the terms ‘Falun Gong’ or ‘Falun Dafa’ in your favourite search engine. You will see what I mean. The three main sites, which have English and Chinese versions, are Falundafa, Minghui—called in English Clearwisdom, also with French, German and Russian versions—and Faluninfo. The first is a general introductory site. The second offers daily news updates including the latest writings of Li Hongzhi. The third is aimed at the Human Rights market. There is also a site devoted to some practitioner’s views on quasi-scientific topics called Zhengjian, with its English version, Pure Insight. There are four Australian-based Falun Gong websites offering local contacts, local activities and local practice sites while mirroring a great deal of information from the main Falun Gong sites. These sites display a high degree of discipline, with the branch sites effectively mirroring the main sites’ contents, quickly and accurately, by adding and removing material.
This is where Falun Gong is now. Where did it come from? Falun Gong has its roots in the qigong boom of the 1980s. According to Falun Gong sources, Li Hongzhi developed Falun Gong from 1984, after himself being the recipient of the teachings of ‘more than 20 masters’. Testing the new system out on several disciples first, he made the system public in May 1992. This is also the date at which Falun Gong enters official history, as this is when it was registered with the Chinese National Qigong Scientific Research Association. In December 1992, Li Hongzhi made the first public demonstration of his skills—at the 1992 Oriental Health Expo in Beijing. Apparently, he caused a paralysed and wheelchair-bound man to walk, destroyed gall and kidney stones and cured ‘difficult and complex illnesses of all kinds’. The director of the fair declared that Falun Gong was ‘the star cultivation system’. At the December 1993 Expo, Li was given two awards: ‘The Award for Advancing Boundary Science’ and the ‘Qigong Master Most Acclaimed by the Masses’. During 1993 and 1994 he gave classes in Falun Gong all over China. By March 1993, when an introductory and laudatory article was written in the journal Chinese Qigong (published by the National Chinese Medicine Association), he had already given classes in Beijing, Changchun, Taiyuan, and in Shanxi province. In July and August 1993, the journal Qigong and Science reported that he gave lectures 10 nights in a row in a 2200 seat university auditorium, with people sitting in the aisles, and, as the article notes ‘no air conditioning at the height of the Beijing summer’. Qigong and Science also reported his appearance on talkback radio in Wuhan in March 1993 while he was giving classes there. On the program ‘Happy Train’ on the Wuhan People’s Broadcasting Station, and later on Hubei Yangtse Economic Broadcasting Station, he conducted hotline consultations and remote healing. Li’s first book, China Falungong was published in April 1993 (preface dated December 1992) through the Junshi Yiwen Press, a publishing house associated with the People’s Liberation Army. A Falun Gong site claims that between May 1992 and December 1994, Li gave 56 public nine-day lectures in all the major cities of China.
In 1994, Li published his second book, Zhuan Falun. Clearly, in this period (1992–1994) Falun Gong was public, advertising its presence and making no attempt to hide the nature of its doctrines. In all this publicity, none of the ‘border science’ content was hidden; it was far from alone among qigong groups in this.
In 1995, Li started to spread his message beyond China, giving lectures in Stockholm and Paris in 1995, Sydney, Houston and New York City in 1996. The period after 1995 also marks the disappearance of Falun Gong from the qigong periodical literature. The year 1995, in fact, is an important point in the history of Falun Gong as it was in December that it left the National Qigong Scientific Research Association. Within the next year or two, Falun Gong’s Internet presence probably appeared and took over its publicity and dissemination functions. I say probably because the current versions of the websites are ruthless in withdrawing old material and it has proved extremely difficult to access previous versions of the sites.
It was in 1996 that Falun Gong practitioners in China started to protest outside the offices of newspapers and journals when they felt they had been misrepresented. The first protest was against Guangming Daily in June of that year and there are reported to have been some 300 incidents of this kind until the April 1999 demonstration in Beijing.
During 1995 and 1996 Li clearly spent a lot of his time outside China but it was not until February 1997 that he made the final move and left for good, applying for asylum in New York. In March 1998 a New York publicist and practitioner by the name of Gail Rachlin became involved in Li’s ‘inner circle’. Since that time she has become one of the group’s major spokespeople and media contacts. It was she who introduced Danny Schechter, author of Falun Gong’s Challenge to China, to Falun Gong.
I would like now to examine a recent trend in the movement that has to do with the future: Falun Gong’s interest in prophecy. In late June last year, Li published an article on the Minghui website called ‘In Reference to a Prophecy’. The article begins, ‘Disciples, what is currently unfolding in China was previously arranged. Many people throughout history have prophesied this. They chose not to articulate the matter directly so as to both conform to the deluded way the world is and to warn its people. Therefore, everyday people are only able to realise the meaning of a prophecy after history has come to pass’. This discussion of prophecy was, at that stage, new to Falun Gong although it acknowledges both predestination and the possibility of precognition in highly cultivated individuals. What comes as a surprise here is what follows: ‘For example, with regard to what is happening in China, Nostradamus, the Frenchman, stated the following in his book of prophecy, Centuries, hundreds of years ago, “In the year 1999, seventh month/From the sky will come a great King of Terror/In order to bring back to life the great King of Angolmois/Before and after Mars reigns in the name of bringing people happiness”.’
This quatrain is the 72nd of the 10th set of quatrains in Nostradamus and it is quite famous as it is one of the few to include a specific date—the seventh month of 1999. His words are, however, notoriously difficult to decipher, even if you do regard them as prophetic.
An example of this in the quatrain Li quotes is the reference to the ‘great King of Angolmois’ which is often read as a near anagram of Mongolois, the Mongols, making this line refer to the ‘great King of the Mongols’. Li, however, does not seem to accept this reading, preferring, but not explaining, Angolmois. His first point of commentary reads, ‘What he said about “the year 1999, seventh month, From the sky will come a... Terror, In order to bring back to life the... king” refers precisely to a few people with ulterior motives in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party using their power to initiate a vicious, comprehensive suppression of Dafa and Dafa disciples’. The parts that are difficult to understand are simply left out. His second point of commentary refers to Mars: ‘As to the sentence “before and after Mars reigns”, it means to say that [Karl] Marx is ruling the world before and after the year 1999…With regard to the last part, “in the name of bringing people happiness”, this refers to the communist idea of liberating all of humankind, as well as to Western societies sustaining social welfare through heavy taxation’.
Thus, setting aside the question of whether Li’s reading of this quatrain is any more or less reasonable than any other reading of it, we should note that Li is not using Nostradamus to predict what will happen; he is using Nostradamus to verify what has already happened—it is a kind of prophecy with hindsight. This avoids rather neatly the problem about what to do when a prophecy does not come to fruition—not an uncommon occurrence in the history of religious movements—but more importantly it implies that Falun Gong is part of a great cosmic plan and that the crackdown is also part of that plan. Li concludes this short exposition with, ‘prophecies concerning this time period have circulated in many countries. The few remarks above are only for reference’.
This article seems to have acted as a green light for discussions of prophecy. Following it at regular intervals through the second half of 2000 and continuing to the present, contributions—usually anonymous or pseudonymous—have appeared on the Minghui site. There have been several more that are Nostradamus related, but also disquisitions on two Chinese figures: a monk of the Sui period called Master Buxu, which is a term usually translated as ‘Pacing the Void’—a figure for whom I cannot find any historical reference—and the well-known writer and statesman of the early Ming period, Liu Bowen. Nam Sa-go, a Korean scholar and astronomer of the 16th century, ‘The Book of Revelations’, and the Hopi Indians of Northern Arizona are also mentioned.
The purport of these essays is consistent: Falun Gong was predicted long ago and seers from across the world and across time have known this. Furthermore, Li Hongzhi occupies a special place in the cosmic plan appearing in these texts (by implication) as Pahaana, the Great White Brother who will come from the East, in the Hopi stories (to none other than Maitreya the future Buddha), in the prophesies of Liu Bowen and Nam Sa-go.
What is happening here? Why has this move to prophecy been made? There are a number of possible answers to this question. First, I think we should note that they have appeared while Falun Gong is being suppressed in its homeland. The prophecies implicitly make the claim that this movement is of far greater consequence than mere political action within one country at this particular time of tribulation. They look forward to the inevitable time when Falun Gong can be practised once again in China and Li Hongzhi, now interpreted as a being of cosmic greatness, can once again lead his movement for human salvation.
Jan Nattier, an estimable scholar of Buddhist movements, provides some provocative thoughts concerning this kind of apocalyptic scenario. ‘Apocalyptic mythology’, she says, ‘is often generated by those recently expelled from power in a religiously based political system … Under these circumstances, such mythology serves to reinforce the threatened identity of those recently ousted from power, while at the same time justifying their reluctance to take concrete (and probably suicidal) political action. The result is the development of what might be called “passive apocalyptic”—an outlook that anticipates the overthrow of the illegitimate religio-political order but expects the initiative for such action to come from divine power(s) without any human assistance’.
We should also note that the prophecies have been discussed only since Falun Gong has left China. It is now an international movement with a large number of expatriate Chinese adherents as well as a growing number of Western adherents. The move to prophecy is one way to satisfy these two groups of the bona fides of their movement. Perhaps of importance to the expatriate community are the references to age-old Chinese texts that reinforce the idea that Falun Gong has roots deep in Chinese culture. I should add parenthetically that religious movements in China commonly fabricate their own histories with spurious genealogies: Chan or Zen Buddhism and the Celestial Masters tradition of Daoism are two clear cases of this. At the same time references to Nostradamus and the Hopi prophecies are deeply embedded in Western New Age discourse. Thus, discussion of prophecy allows Falun Gong to be simultaneously both local and global. If this particularly Chinese cultivation system is to offer salvation to all of humankind, it helps if seers from all cultures have foretold its coming.
In conclusion, I hope that I have indicated both how deeply traditional many aspects of Falun Gong are, and at the same time, how completely modern it is. There are aspects of Falun Gong doctrine that could have been understood by a cultivator in China 1000 years ago, and there are parts of the doctrine that could not have appeared in China before the late 1980s. This synthesis of age-old traditions and contemporary modes of being is not confined to Falun Gong but can be seen in many aspects of contemporary Chinese life. With all the talk of entry into the World Trade Organisation, or China ’s space program, or the vast changes in China ’s economic system, phenomena like qigong movements—even if they attract tens or even hundreds of millions of adherents—are often seen as anomalous. In the media they either appear as suitable fodder for the ‘postcard’ slot on Foreign Correspondent, along with Sumo wrestling and Mongolian horse racing, or else as baffling threats or challenges to the Chinese Communist Party, with little or no attention being paid to the beliefs or practices.
A proper understanding of contemporary China relies on really getting to grips with these widespread and popular movements, at least as much as understanding politics, economics and trade. The fact that they are often difficult for Westerners to understand should not be any reason to relegate them to the anomalous or quirky or kooky. Rather, it should stand as an indication of the shortcomings in our understandings of contemporary China.
1. Zhuan Falun, Internet version, third translation edition (Updated in March, 2000.USA). Downloaded from www.falundafa.org, 30 th January, 2001, p. 7.
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