Transnational China Project Commentary:
"Falungong as a Cultural Revitalization Movement:
An Historian Looks at Contemporary China"
Professor David Ownby,
Department of History,
University of Montreal

Talk Given at Rice University
Co-Sponsored by Asian Studies, History and the Center for the Study of Cultures
October 20, 2000
(Text based on audio transcript)

For More Information on Prof. Ownby:
To Contact Prof. Ownby:

Richard Smith:

It is nice to see you here on this lovely Friday when you might be doing other things. My name is Richard Smith. I am Director of Asian Studies at Rice and I am very proud and pleased to introduce our guest speaker, Professor David Ownby from the University of Montreal.

This talk today is sponsored by a number of people: Asian Studies, the Center for the Study of Cultures, the History Department and the Transnational Project of the Baker Institute. I am not going to spend a lot of time introducing our guest. What I would like to tell you is that he is a very distinguished scholar who has written widely and quite brilliantly on various aspects of Chinese religion, theory and practice -- probably more practice than theory -- and is currently working on a book on the topic of today's lecture, Falungong. The formal topic that you may have seen advertised is "Falungong as a Cultural Revitalization Movement: An Historian Looks at Contemporary China". I do not know anything else to say except that I am very pleased to have Professor Ownby here. He is really one of the towering scholars in the field of religious studies and we are very fortunate to have him here. Without further ado, David.

David Ownby:

And thank you all for coming. I will try to live up to that. I am not sure I have ever towered before. As Rich said, I will talk about Falungong from an historian's perspective because that is what I am. I am an historian. I have worked on China from the 18th Century to the present day. If you have encountered Falungong only from media reports, what you find, of course, is a very black and white description. Either Falungong is a cult or it is not. Either it is apocalyptic or it is not. It is either political or it is not. The media, although I feel no need to say nice things about them, are pretty much victims of a war of competing representations. They do not really know what to make of Falungong. Even when journalists attempt to describe Falungon's beliefs or practices or doctrines, they are unable to say much more than that they are a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and folk practices. That is true enough but it is rather like describing Baked Alaska as a combination of starch and dairy products. It does not tell you why anyone would want to eat it, it seems to me.

This Baked Alaska metaphor suggests that I think Falungong is good or good to eat so I should make the important point here that I am not a practitioner. I have gone to practice sessions. I have done the exercises quite badly, although the instructor managed not to giggle at me. I have marched with practitioners in the streets of Toronto. I have spent a lot of time with these guys. I have read most, if not all, of Li Hongzhi's writings in English and Chinese a number of times. I have enjoyed my experiences but I did not feel moved to become part of the group.

To the extent that it is relevant, I could tell you something about my own personal background. I grew up in rural Tennessee in the Bible Belt and my family was pretty much fundamentalist Christian. And I remember very distinctly when I was a kid being pressured to invite Jesus into my heart, which I did, but he did not stay very long, and I am in no way religious now. I do not for example take my children to church. I suspect when I think about my academic interests that there is some small part of me somewhere that would very much like to be religious, and that is what drives me to study groups like the Falungong or the other groups that I have studied. But by the same token the same Doubting Thomas that kept Jesus from staying very long keeps me from joining. So that is my background.

So I am not looking at it as a practitioner but rather as a historian. I should explain to you a little bit the path by which I arrived at this research topic. My first work was on the history of secret societies in China, their origins in the 18th Century. These are the Triads, the people you may know from gangster movies, Hong Kong martial arts films. I looked at where they first came from the 18th Century and of that work what interested me most were the religious elements at the core of initiation rituals and various other symbolic practices that the Triads engaged in. So having finished that project, the next substantial project that I got involved in was a popular religious tradition in North China, a religious tradition that had much more written material than the Triads did. The Triads did not write a lot, which made it hard for an historian to get at them.

This next group that I studied wrote a great deal more, so I translated their scriptures, I rode around the Hunan countryside in the Audi of my Chinese colleague's work unit, investigating their practices. It was really quite a good gig. If we had time for two lectures, I would talk about the sort of guerilla research in the North China countryside in those days. From there it was a fairly quick and easy leap to the Falungong as there are many resemblances, in terms of scriptures and practicees, for instance, between this earlier tradition and the Falungong. Not necessarily the same style of scripture but some of the preoccupations were shared with the earlier religious tradition that I worked on. As Rich said, I am hopeful that this will become a book but I am much slower than Rich so we do not have any idea when this might materialize but the project that I envision is the following. There are some parts that are already pretty well underway. One thing that I try to do and I will talk about it today is to connect Falungong with the history of Chinese religion, which is pretty well unknown. You cannot find this written up in any meaningful way anywhere, and since this is my academic specialty this is one of the things that I want to do is to try to put it into some kind of context and make it meaningful.

Another part of the project that is pretty far along is a content analysis of Li Hongzhi's writings, which is a fancy way of saying I read them and say what I think about them. And that is supplemented by fieldwork among Falungong practitioners in North America, of which I have done a fair bit. I would love to do it in China, but my wife will not let me. It seems counter-indicated for a number of reasons for the moment.

The other part of the project that is also pretty well along now is a study of the sociology of Falungong in North America, by which I mean I go, with or without colleagues, to experience sharing conferences and other events that the Falungong organizes. And I circulate questionnaires, I do interviews, to get a sense of who they are and what their stories are. So those projects are all pretty well along and I can talk to them in some detail either in the talk that I give or after if there are questions that you would like to ask of me. Other parts of the project that I have begun but still have a lot work to do would include a study of Li Hongzhi himself. This is somewhat difficult because he does not talk much about himself. A lot of rather silly things have been written about him. It is kind of hard to get past the propaganda to get at what he may be, but we do have videotapes that can be studied and we can get a sense of what he represents and who he is.

Another aspect that is surprisingly hard to write about is the history of the movement. It is very recent, of course, but nonetheless, people are now starting to put together a chronology so we know at what point what happened. This would involve the history of the organization in China, which is very interesting to me. The matter in which the organization was set up. The problems that Li Hongzhi may have had in controlling it. Many of his writings, for instance, are addressed to people in the activities centers, study centers, and cultivation centers in China, and he was dissatisfied with the way that they were handling new recruits or new people who came to cultivate, so it is very interesting to try to get a sense of how that was set up, what the problems were. One aspect that I will write is the State's suppression, in part from a historical point of view, because the Chinese government has suppressed movements like the Falungong hundreds of times over the course of Chinese history. And having worked myself on the Triads and other religious groups it is quite obvious that this is a repeat, even though there are particular nuances, of course, that change with each recurrence. Still I will be able to add some context, as well as to try to put this in order. And one final aspect that I am working on, together with a graduate student, is the Qigong movement, the larger movement out of which Falungong emerged over the course of the 1990s.

So I thought what I would do today would be to draw on two parts of my study that are the furthest along and take questions on other aspects or on those two as you wish. So I want to make two big points. One is to try to describe where Falungong came from, what it might mean in the context of modern Chinese religious history. Not so much history as such, but just in the context of Chinese religious history. And the point that I will try to make there is that study of Falungong enables us to understand a whole host of similar groups that we have known about in the past but did not really know what their significance was. And I am tempted almost to talk about a sort of Chinese popular fundamentalism that would be a largest category into which we could place Falungong, certain practices of Qigong, a whole range of historical examples that I will go through today. And the second big point I will try to convey, if we have the time, is to give you some sense of how I read Li Hongzhi. Or in other words, to give you some sense of what I think is his version of this fundamentalism, or of what this larger category might be.

So let me begin then with the first big point I want to make, that is to describe the larger religious context from which Falungong emerged and to comment of the significance of this. In my opinion, the Falungong, or the Qigong movement as a whole, are contemporary reincarnations, with numerous and important alterations of a popular religious tradition, or a number of related traditions, that date back in their organized form to the middle of the Ming Dynasty. We are talking about the 14th, 15th century here. In Li Hongzhi's writings or in talking with practitioners, they will talk about cultivation as the larger category to which Falungong or Qigong belong. And that, of course, can go way back. They are all aspects of cultivation that can go back to the very origins of Chinese civilization probably. And we can find bits of what Li Hongzhi talks about certainly in the very earliest Taoism and Buddhism. But as an organized phenomenon this did not really happen on a regular basis until after the mid Ming.
What we call this tradition is problematic. And for me as an historian one of the most exciting things about working on Falungong is it gives us a chance to rethink or to re-characterize a body of knowledge that we have possessed for some time, but which has been, in my opinion, inadequately characterized. What I mean by that is, if you tried to go and read up on the antecedents to the Falungong you would find in the existing literature basically two terms to describe things that looked like Falungong prior to the 20th Century. One term is the White Lotus.

Historically, White Lotus was a set of folk Buddhists lay practices that dates back to the Song Dynasty. At the beginning it was holy orthodox and it was simply designed for lay people who were deeply interested in Buddhism, but not to the point of joining a monastery or devoting their entire life to it. Over time it came to have other connotations added to it. For instance, when you read in the literature about this we find the following set of characteristics attached to what is called White Lotus Folk Buddhism. The basis of daily practice of this kind of faith would be moral behavior very broadly defined. Mantras that were chanted, protective talismans that were used for health or other purposes. Certain breathing practices that often went with meditation, magical or folk means to cure illness and to maintain health.

At a scriptural level, because this was a tradition that often had scripture attached to it, we find a sort of universal salvation, the idea that most people, if not everyone, should be saved. There was evocation of a goddess known as the Eternal Venerable Mother who had created mankind and now waited in her heaven to welcome the elect back to her paradise. There was also a belief in a Buddhist theory of history that saw time enfolding in terms of huge eons known as kalpas or "jie"in Chinese. Many groups associated with this tradition believed that the final kalpa was coming and that its arrival would be accompanied by the descent of a particular Buddha called the Maitreya, or future Buddha, who would usher in a new age. This Buddha was often seen as having been sent by the mother figure to save her children. Other times they were seen as sort of separate figures, it depended on the group. Most groups possessed scriptures of some sort that would have been composed by group leaders. These would not be scriptures that were orthodox in the sense that they would have been produced by people belonging to the Buddhist clergy. Instead it would be generally lay figures who compose their own scriptures. Sometimes they were handed down in hereditary ways, so it was not the case that every group had to write its own scripture. That would be rather demanding, it seems to me. The contents of these scriptures emphasize morality, magic, and a whole variety of other themes.

These groups were also, on several occasions, implicated in rebellion. Now the thing to note about this, and I am being sort of unclear about it because the whole thing is rather unclear, is that there were groups that resembled the composite that I just described for you. But more often when you find the word "White Lotus" used in a Chinese historical document, it was a document written by the State and used to label groups that they did not like. If you are familiar with anti-cult literature of any sort, it is the kind of labeling that you find in there. Or if you look at the history of anti-semitism, for instance, the way that the Christian church talked about Jews over the centuries, it is a kind of labeling that has very little to do with the Jews in question. In this case it had relatively little to do with the White Lotus.

So you had on the one hand a body of people practicing things that were sort of like this, although it is very hard to say to what degree. And then on the other hand you had the state that did not like these people because they did not like unorthodox groups and labeled any group that even vaguely resembled this with this kind of appellation in order to brand it as heterodox. So, in other words, it is very hard using the Chinese historical record to reconstruct what these people really were because the records that we have are the records of suppression. The state would go out and arrest these people and torture them until they confessed. And the questions they usually asked these people were not very interesting. They wanted to know who led you to this group, how many pitchforks did he have in his house, when were you going to rise up, who told you to rise up. If they found scriptures they usually destroyed them. They did not want them to circulate. And if they copied bits of the scriptures into the historical record, the bits that they copied, of course, were the most incendiary bits, the bits that were the strangest.

And I suspect, and my own research bears this out to some degree, that in the process of suppression, all the moral elements of scripture or of believers' statements, the morality that could have had either a Confucian or a Buddhist base, was just left to one side because it was not seen as very interesting. It did not make their court case to read the parts of the scriptures that talked about "It is important to be nice to your father". What made the court case were the parts that said, "The end of the world is coming tomorrow, let us get ready to meet the coming of the end of the world".

So if you tried to understand where Falungong came from and you looked in the historical record about it this is one label, White Lotus. And this is problematic for the reasons that I just described. That is not a value neutral description. It is very hard to get past what the state described, to get a handle on the historical reality of groups who may have been peacefully cultivating in a way that was fairly similar to Qigong or to Falungong but which wound up being labeled, in spite of themselves, as a subversive group. There were, of course, groups that did use these ideas to foment rebellion. Let us not brand them all as completely innocent, but my suspicion is that there was a wide range of these kinds of peaceful groups and that we have had a very narrow fix on them because of the Chinese state's preoccupations.

The second term that you find if you want to try to understand from an historical vantage point where Falungong came from is Folk Buddhist Sectarianism. A very academic term obviously. This did not come from the Chinese government. They never would have used that word. Folk Buddhist Sectarianism comes from academics who write about sectarianism and who have borrowed the idea of sectarian from Western religious history.

Now there is nothing really wrong with this term except that sectarian means a branching off from something else. That is the whole idea of what a sect is. But this tradition of people practicing cultivation, if they are sectarian, what tradition are they branching off from? It is not Orthodox Buddhism. Orthodox Buddhism had within it its own sectarian traditions. The people I am talking about, the cultivators if you will, would not have been recognized by the orthodox Buddhist establishment. So what is missing when you talk about folk Buddhist sectarianism is the larger entity from which the sects branch off. We have never had a word for it and we have just sort of taken it for granted. So both of these things are to my mind very limiting in their ability to convey the historical reality. In other words, we have just described bits and pieces that have been left to us by the Chinese state on the one hand or we have sort of reconstructed a tradition based on western ideas of sectarianism on the other.

When we look at the early 20th century Chinese history we find another set of evidence that will tell us something about the history of Falungong or its origins. The history of 20th Century China is generally written as the history of revolution, and rightly so, as there has been any number of them. It is unclear whether the Chinese Revolution has reached a final point of equilibrium or not. In any case, when you turn to textbooks on Chinese history of the 20th Century you find almost no discussion of religion at all, particularly in the Republican period. These are the years from 1911 to 1949 on the Mainland, and then Taiwan, which remains the Republic of China. None of the textbook treatments even mention religion in any meaningful way with the exception perhaps of the missionary presence and the Christian Chinese.

More recent work, however, has illustrated that there was a huge religious presence in China or religious, what we call it "ferment", if you will. There were dozens of new religious groups founded during this period. If we count the branches that went from a national center out into localities there were probably hundreds of new religious branches founded during this period. There were probably millions if not tens of millions of people enrolled at one time or another in these sorts of religions. Now what were these religions? There was a wide range of them. What is important for out point of view is that many of them inherited much of the orientation of the cultivators, the White Lotus. There is no other term for them so I have to use the term that I do not like. So we find in some instances that in the Republican period they borrowed from the "White Lotus" complex the whole set of gods, the cosmology, the idea of the end of the world, the idea of universal salvation. That it is just the same thing repackaged in a slightly different way with different scriptures.

Others, by contrast, drop the specific mentions of gods. In other words, the Mother disappears, Maitreya disappears, but you have still the same cosmology, the notion that the world is coming to an end, that moral behavior will help to save yourself and perhaps even save the world. So in other words, it is sort of a secularized version of the religious vision even though people are being saved by means other than the old Mother and the Maitreya Buddha. Many of these groups also added to their practices all sorts of charity works, famine relief, education, opium-addiction cures, women's education, what have you. And this suggests one of the important changes that occurred in this period, which was that a more elite presence came into these groups. We heretofore thought of White Lotus or folk Buddhist sectarianism as being a very vernacular tradition. In the Republican period, by contrast, we find considerably more presence of middle class and, even perhaps upper class participation in these groups. One of the reasons they were able to do this, that we have this religious growth or multiplication, is that the state was no longer strong enough to really govern or regulate religion in the same way that it had under the imperial regime. In fact many of these religions emerged during the warlord period when the governments were specifically searching for sources of legitimacy and they gave their imprimatur to these new religious movements. So you find very famous politicians and warlords in Republican China standing together with religious groups that in many of their practices are carrying forward the ideas, practices, rituals, etc. of these groups that I talked about a minute ago.

Most of the groups that emerged in the Republican period were eventually suppressed right after the Communist Revolution. There was a wide-scale suppression then from 1950 through 1953 or 1954, depending upon the region. But we are talking about again, millions of people. We do not have good numbers about how many people were involved and what do you do with millions of people? You cannot put them in jail for very long. You do not have that much jail space. So what they did, the Communists, was the same thing the imperial state had always done, which was to arrest and generally, not always, execute the leaders and pretend to reeducate the others and send them back home and hope that they would be good people from there on. That is all they could do. There were just too many people involved and there were too many other things to do. So this did not really put an end to it.

We have not paid a lot of attention as scholars to these trends in China because we did not have much information. But we have information now that has come out since Mao died and historical research has been opened up in many ways. And we now know that there were any number of rebellions, dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred, rebellions between say 1955 and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution that were organized by these same religious groups that had been suppressed during this period. Many of them were ancestors of the Republican period groups and you can trace some ancestry even further back.

After the Cultural Revolution and Mao`s death, the lid was taken off of Chinese society, lots of these things came back again. In many instances it was people who got out of jail and, to look at it cynically they had no other thing to sell. They could sell their religious practices. Less cynically they remained convinced that their practices had value. So groups such as the Yiguandao, for instance, which is one of the better-known and least-liked groups in China, emerged very rapidly in the 1980s after the Communists basically removed themselves as a constant presence in the rural areas. But there were all sorts of other groups too.

So you can find books on the religious revival in China during the 1980s and 1990s and it usually covers Taoism, Christianity. Those are the two big things, the most popular religions at that point as discussed by Western scholars. But the revival of the traditions we are talking about today was occurring as well. And in fact the big example of the reemergence of the tradition that I am talking about was the Qigong movement that started even before the end of the Cultural Revolution on a smaller scale but then really blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s. Qigong, as many of you know, was at that time, and remains so, largely a set of technical practices involving exercises, breathing, meditation on occasion. There are a number of different forms of them. It is very much oriented toward the body, and health, and supernormal powers and this emerged because it could emerge at this time.

The Chinese government supported Qigong at the very beginning. Why would the Chinese government do something like this? First, these beliefs that one can, through exercise and through proper technique, channel certain forces, are widely shared in Chinese society. It is like jogging in the West. In the same way we think that is good for our heart, the Chinese believe that Taijichuan or any kind of Qigong is good for muscle tone, good for what ails you. So the Chinese State saw nothing at the outset in it to suppress.

Secondly there was during this period a whole host of experiments done on Qigong masters and Qigong practitioners. These experiments were supported by the Chinese state for a variety of reasons. First, I think they were very proud. This was a variety of Chinese science. They were trying to make it into a scientific practice. So there were research grants given to institutes in China to work on proving on how Qigong works this and Qigong works that. Or people would bring seeds and have a Qigong Master do his Qigong over them and take the seeds back and plant them and check and see whether they grew better. And there was sort of a national pride, I think, both on the part of the government and on the part of practitioners and Qigong masters. And why not? It is ancient Chinese wisdom. It has now come back. We can display it to the world. And also I think the Chinese government believed that if large numbers would practice Qigong, and this may well be true, that it would reduce systemic health care costs. Everyone would get healthier. The hospitals would be emptier. People would be happier. There is nothing wrong with that. So let us support Qigong.

So for a certain period, for a good 10-15 years anyway, Qigong was given the go ahead and groups were allowed to organize legally. You could sign up with a Qigong research institute as a legal organization and what began to happen was quite remarkable, a phenomenon of modern marketing. It came to be very much like what you see on televangelism in the United States. In other words, Qigong masters would go around the country and give lectures in all the major cities, and minor ones as well. And they would charge entry fees, then they would sell books, they would sell audio cassettes, video cassettes, just like morning talk shows in America - you know, Julia Child sells her latest cookbook or whatever -- and these guys made a ton of money. They even got outside of China, went to Taiwan, to Hong Kong. It got to be a major phenomenon to the point that again, there were, I do not know how many millions of people involved, but it was a very widespread phenomenon. Many people here I am sure can confirm this.

On college campuses in the 1980s and part of the 1990s there was what was called the "Qigong re" the Qigong craze. Everyone was sort of into Qigong and there were ideas that you could capture the Qigong from trees. Later on they decided it was not nice to the trees so they moved on to something else. But it was just a craze that hit and it was seen as entirely normal, I think, by most people. I think most young people just thought it was sort of fun -- the people I talked to anyway. They did not really know why these things worked but they certainly seemed to work for certain things, certainly for health. This all comes back to health, pretty much.

The earliest qigong writings to emerge were both symbolic and practical with no real description of anything except the movements. I have not read many so if I am giving you a bad impression, please forgive me. But it is not like Li Hongzhi's writings. Li Hongzhi's writings, for instance, have a great deal of moral content. The earliest qigong writings did not. They would be like downloading a proper exercise routine from the internet as opposed to getting a book on physiology. You know, one describes how cells and bodies and muscles work as opposed to lifting the ten pound barbell twenty times, then go have a drink of orange juice, come back and do it again. That is what the Qigong books were, very mechanical, it seems to me.

But within this larger movement, as I said, such people as Li Hongzhi, or Yan Xin, another Qigong master, began to develop larger bodies of writing, almost scripture, I guess, to go with it. And these had a much more moral-religious aspect to them than did the original Qigong books. So this then is the overview of where Falungong came from. It can be traced back as an organized form I think to the mid-Ming, as I just said. What happened in the mid-Ming was that religious thinkers began to write their own scriptures and circulate them. That is a central phenomenon that begin then and which has marked popular religious history ever since.

All of these groups are bound together in varying ways by the following characteristics. All of them have what you might call a discourse of the body, so they are all body oriented. On the one end you have the discourse of the suffering body, that through some kind of practice, be it moral or technical, one can reduce suffering, make it go away, and become healthy. At the other end of the spectrum we find what we would call in the West the discourse of limitless human potential, the notion that we can fundamentally change the biological elements of who we are to become some kind of superman. Be it the superman you see in Gongfu movies or Wushu movies, where they can do magical things with their fists and their feet or, certain characters in popular fiction. I do not know if you know the Monkey King and all the feats that he could accomplish. That sort of ties into the limitless potential. And the Qigong masters too who could do all sorts of things once they had mastered these techniques or in the case like others like Li Hongzhi had become enlightened. So there is this discourse of the body that is very central to all of these groups, in varying degrees of course.

A second major feature that binds together all of these groups is that physical transformation is affected first and foremost through moral practice. In other words these things are based on morality. And again there is a range of emphasis from groups that do not really care much about whether or not you are a good person--they just emphasize proper hand techniques and proper manipulation of qi--to other groups for whom morality is very central. So to me those two are very central, the discourse of the body and the discourse of morality.

There is a larger structure on which these are grafted. This larger structure includes of a discourse of exile and return. The notion that we once were good, we once were happy, and something has happened. The world has become a bad place and we should go back to where we were. This comes up over and over again in a whole range of scriptures. The notion that we have been exiled, that someone is waiting to take us back, that we will find once again who we once were.

This ties into all sorts of mythologies, cosmologies, cosmogonies. I talked about the world renewal through Maitreya , intervention or simply through the mechanics of the turning of the Kalpa . So there was this redemptive, salvationist impulse built in. Obviously this ties into apocalyptic beliefs or millenarian beliefs as well. I suspect that these millenarian beliefs were as incendiary as similar beliefs in the West. Which is to say they could be very incendiary on occasion. I remember growing up as a child we sang "Jesus is coming soon every morning or night or noon," pretty much every Sunday but the bankers in the audience still made loans and people went on about their lives. So people can incorporate these apocalyptic notions into their heads and live with them as sort of a metaphor without necessarily going out and acting on them. So I think in China probably these ideas were very, very widespread. The Chinese government has acted as if the Falungong made them up, or recycled an unknown, esoteric discourse. This is simply historically ungrounded. These things go way, way back. They are very widespread. Everyone in China, virtually everyone would have known about these ideas and, I do not know, probably the same percentage of people took them seriously in China as take them seriously here. These discourses, mythological or cosmological, were heavily indebted to institutionalized religions such as Buddhism, particularly Buddhism, and to Taoism, as well as to common sense moral discourse. In other words they did not create a lot of new moral precepts. They drew heavily on what existed already. Although they were self-consciously often sectarian in the sense that they criticized existing religions, be it Buddhism or Taoism, for not living up to their own self image.

Another feature that binds all of these groups together is the unregulated creation of scriptural truth. In other words most of these groups or many of these groups felt the urge to create their own scripture. There was no authority to tell them how to do it. Hence, it is unregulated. And you find a wide range of this kind of scripture over the centuries from what were called "Precious Scrolls" in the Ming/Qing period. Then there were other practices whereby someone goes into trance and writes on a sheet of sand. The gods speaks to them in trance and then someone reads those and they make books out of those. They are called morality books, those books, and many of the themes that come up in those sorts of books are the same sorts of things that I have been talking about here. Li Hongzhi's transcripts of his speeches are another variety of this sort of thing. So these are all unregulated, as they would have to be, because there is no one to regulate them other than the state and their sole regulation is to suppress. So there is a sort of embrace of accretion or bricolage of putting together what they can put together for their own specific purposes.

Again, these are the characteristics that I think describe a much larger tradition that we have known existed in the past. I cannot prove it without giving you chapter and verse about a lot of them. That would be very tedious. So whether we call it fundamentalism or something else, and we could discuss what would be the proper term for it, my suspicion is that studying Falungong enables us to understand how all these other groups I have talked about as being part of a larger phenomenom that we had not really known existed in the past. And it is sort of like a cuisine, if you will, if you think about these groups forming their own versions of the practices or of the beliefs. In other words you have a set of ingredients and a set of elements that grow in your neighborhood and you sort of pick the ones you like and you make your own variety of them. And the elements that I just listed, this discourse of the body and the rest, those are the basic ingredients. So they vary substantially. And since there has never been recognition of this tradition, the people that belong to it do not recognize it either because no one has ever made it into a larger thing. No one has ever called it the Baptist Church or the Buddhist Establishment. It is just a whole body of inchoate, yet still logically connected, practices that are brought together by a variety of people for a variety of purposes, so they will quite readily criticize another group as being heterodox. For instance, Li Hongzhi was once asked by a practitioner in his talks, I think in Yanbian, close to the Korean border, about the Venerable Mother, the unborn Venerable Mother, the one that I talked about here. Li Hongzhi was extremely angry, saying, "what are you talking about? These things do not exist at all. Where did you get this heterodox stuff?" Because it had been branded as heterodox throughout history, so it is very hard to get a sense of the reality behind the propaganda wars that had been waged long before Falungong came along.

I do not want anyone to go out of here thinking that what I am saying is that the Falungong simply reorganized the White Lotus beliefs. That is not it at all. What I am saying is that both of these groups and all of these groups belong to something considerably larger that we should get a sense of for reasons both of historical understanding and of our understanding of Falungong and China's future. Because, what I think this means, if I am right about the existence of this larger tradition, is that popular fundamentalism was neither an inconsequential religion of coping in the village, as it has often been characterized, or as a self conscious tradition of dissent because there were rebellions organized around them. It was instead fairly widespread, even if there is no way to know what the membership was. Second, this has been able to evolve and to sort of roll with the punches. It is not confined to peasant villages or North China nor to the Ming and Qing periods, nor to the uneducated. It is here now and it will probably stay into the future.

I see I have already used forty-five minutes. I will quickly go through how I understand Li Hongzhi's version of this fundamentalism so as to leave time for questions.

In my reading of what other people have said about Li Hongzhi they are very quick to single out strange remarks that he has made and to make fun of him. He has made remarks that I find very hard to understand and I confess to having chuckled on occasion in reading some of his books. However, too often I feel that the journalists who have done this, or the scholars who have done this, have done this at the expense of careful analysis. So what I try to do when I read through him is to put aside the things that make no sense to me and to try to find a logical coherence that could explain why so many people could have been drawn to Li Hongzhi in a fairly short period of time. And to boil down to what is a fairly long analysis, I find there are four core elements that help to explain Li Hongzhi's appeal.

First, his message is profoundly moral. This is something that I feel modern journalists, just like the Qing state before them, just do not care about. They find all the discussion about being good to be irrelevant because it is boring. So they focus on something else. But when you read Li Hongzhi's writings, when you talk to Falungong practitioners, over and over and over again they come back to the notion of being good, that the universe itself is good. When we behave in a moral way we align ourselves with the forces of the universe and, thereby, other things happen to us that I will get to in a minute. But this is the first point. And what I have found when I talk to people is that there is a great pleasure in being able to devote oneself to being good. In China over the past decades socialism offered that at one point. I remember asking a friend in China once what she thought socialism meant and she said, "being nice to people". I remember thinking that Marx wrote a lot of books to have it boiled down to "being nice to people," but socialism offered the same possibility or many people in the world, be they Chinese or others, simply want to be good people. Falungong gives them a chance to do it as well.

My second point is that Falungong, Falun dafa, or Li Hongzhi's message, is not only moral, not only a return to a neglected spiritual tradition, it is also scientific. And if you look at Li Hongzhi's writings you will find over and over again he returns to the themes of the blindness and arrogance of modern science, the limitations of the scientific paradigm, and his own vision that replaces scientific understanding. His point, I think, is to relativize the value of science, to suggest that the absolute truth that scientists claim cannot be absolute. And he proves this by bringing in evidence from what we might call the frontiers of para-science, a field I do not know well, and I do not want to make fun of it, it is too easy to make fun of it. But you all know these theories about, you know, runways left by aliens in Peru or the Andes, this kind of stuff. And there are many things that scientists cannot explain. He brings those forward and says, look, scientists cannot explain this, I can, even if you do not believe me, it is obvious that science cannot do what it says it is going to do. So what he is doing is making a space for his own vision. That is one very obvious thing that he is doing.

But the reason that I think he comes back over and over again to science, in addition, is because of the sort of iconic status that science has had in modern Chinese history. Science was to be China's savior for a very, very long time. Beginning in the 19th Century science sort of meant learning western trigonometry and artillery so they could fight back against the West. Then science came to be paired with democracy for a certain period, sort of a twin pair of saviors who were going to come into China in the early 20th century and make China a modern competitive country again. They tired of democracy in large measure because of the behavior of the Western democracies around the time of the end of the First World War. This has to do with the May Fourth Movement and the Versailles Conference. If you want details we can talk about that.

Democracy lost some of its cachet during this period, but science kept it and I am quite sure part of the allure of socialism was that socialism claimed to be scientific. And if you read literature, any kind of literature in China from the 1950s, it was all sort of a science fiction kind of atmosphere where through proper planning and through, you know, bringing tractors to the countryside, people's lives were going to be transformed magically overnight. Or if you think of the Great Leap Forward, which again was sort of a magical application of very bad science to a very large range of the population, this again was a romance of science.

So science has had this notion or this status in Chinese history in a way that it does not have in the West. Or in the West I think it is already won. It won so long ago that it does not have the same status. Thus Li Hongzhi has crafted his message in a way to appeal to Chinese intellecutals and others who share this view of science. And he said explicitly many times when he is talking with Chinese intellectuals outside of China, "People wonder why I talk about science so much. Well it is because you guys are all trapped within the scientific paradigm and I am helping you to get past it." So in other words it is sort of a neat rhetorical trick. On the one hand he offers morality in a way that is a throwback, a fundamentalist throwback to being the kind of people we want to be. At the same time he claims that this is a scientific vision.

So you get the best of both worlds. We are traditional Chinese and good, but by the same token we have got science that makes us modern. To give you one more image that came to mind about the iconic status of science in China, I was wandering around Beijing one time and saw what was obviously a peasant woman who had a sign that said "kexue kanxiang," which means "scientific fortune telling". So this is how she was trying to sell her wares. Again this tells you what science means. Science means "new and improved," "the best you can possibly have." So when Li Hongzhi inserts scientific verbiage into his argument my suspicion is that it comes from this.

The third way that I understand the appeal of Falun Dafa is that moral practice brings supernatural powers. So you do not be good just to be good. There is a real payback at the end of the line even if the supernatural powers can be very limited. It can return you to health, which is not so limited, I guess. I got up very early this morning and I am very tired. I wish I had supernatural powers right now so I could wake myself up. That is one part of it but as you go on in your cultivation you develop other powers. The Heavenly Eye that enables you to see into a variety of levels. The powers of distant vision, clairvoyance, levitation, a whole variety of things. He mentions at one point that there are some 10,000 supernatural powers.

He does not list them, of course, because that would be rather tedious. But what basically happens, as he says, is as you cultivate properly under the guidance of a master, your basic body chemistry begins to change and you become younger at first, but then you sort of transcend being human. It is not clear whether this all happens at the same level or whether you retain your body and are transformed at another level. But again the first step toward gaining these powers is being moral. Being moral will burn off your Karma, will set you in the right direction. You cannot do it yourself. You have to have a master. That is what he is there for. If you just do it yourself you can have limited results, you will never get to anything very powerful.

But still, there are controls over this as well. He says that if your design is to have supernatural powers they go away immediately. So in other words you cannot pretend to be good, be nice to your mother, take your dog out three times a day, and get supernatural powers because that is what you wanted. No, it does not work that way. You have to be wanting to be moral to be rewarded with these powers. And if you ever abuse them they go away. Otherwise, he says, people will go to Qigong classes and then go rob a bank because they can do whatever they want to. They can pass through walls. They can do anything. And to me this is the embodiment of what must be one of the oldest desires in the world, that the righteous have the power. And that is quite obvious in terms of the interviews that I have done. It is quite obvious that this is one of the things that people talk about and what interests them.

On the other hand, survey data proves that most practitioners, that I have dealt with anyway, consider themselves at a relatively low level. In other words we do not find everyone claiming that their Heavenly Eye has opened or that these other things have happened to them. You can cultivate for a long time before this stuff happens. Some people are gifted. They are born with less Karma than others, and they can progress more rapidly. Other people need to start on a tricycle and work up very slowly. So most people, while they accept the reality of this, also accept that it is going to take a long time and are quite content. This means then, that they are content with the moral aspects of just being a good person and the rewards of that.

Fourth and finally, I think it is important Falun Dafa has remained completely unabashedly Chinese. I think this is a big ingredient in its success. Even as it spreads throughout the world the message that is conveyed remains wholly Chinese. I have met many Western practitioners and I have talked to them and they have arrived at an understanding of Li Hongzhi's message that I think is better than mine. But I am always astounded because the vocabulary of Li Hongzhi's writings is almost completely Chinese. Almost all of his references to anything are Chinese. He talks about Jesus Christ. He has read the equivalent of Time magazine, so he sort of knows what is going on in the world, but his universe is extremely Chinese. And to go even further, he will say things like, "You cannot really understand the meaning of Zhuangfalun or any of my writings unless you read in Chinese".

The translations are just the first step done for Westerners, who do not understand as well anyway, and Chinese is the only language capable of expressing this kind of richness. He talks about the glories of Chinese civilization as seen from a cultivation point of view, that ancient Chinese medicine was far more powerful than modern Western medicine. For example, that doctors who had cultivated to the point that their Heavenly Eye opened to do what a CAT scan could do, but they were portable. This is what he said. So there is a cultural pride that is written into this. I do not think it was conscious by any means. I think that is just who Li Hongzhi is and that is his background. He studied with people who have emphasized that sort of point. And I am not sure there was consciousness of it on the part of practitioners in China either. But I think this is where the cultural revitalization stuff comes from. I mean it is already implicit in what I said about the fact that Falungong goes all the way back to the Ming in a certain sense.
But here too this is a very obvious Chinese thing that emerges in the period immediately after Chairman Mao has died and China is searching for a new sort of direction, both culturally and politically in all sense of the word. And here is a very powerful entity that is very clearly Chinese, although it is not reserved for the Chinese. And in my mind I wonder if the Chinese government's decision to suppress Falungong may not eventually bring out these elements that Falungong members may wind up thinking, "Well I am at least as Chinese as those guys are". I do not know if you have read the web page lately of Falungong but some people have begun to refer to Jiang Zemin, the president of China, as a "mogui" a devil. This is an example of the politicization of the movement, and it would not be a very small step from politicization to claiming the banner of nationalism based on the utter Chineseness of this vision. And once another group claims nationalism then the Communist Party will have a very hard time in China because it has been their only remaining banner for some time.

Okay, I have probably confused you sufficiently now, so I will stop and take questions or comments. Thank you very much for coming on this Friday afternoon.


How does Falunggong compare to other Buddhist groups?


I am not a scholar of orthodox Buddhism so I do not know that I could answer that with much insight. The basic differences are simply that they do not use the Buddhist scriptures. So Falungong or other groups like them simply have taken what they like from them and drop the rest of it. Li Hongzhi is quite explicit in criticizing certain kinds of Buddhism such as Zen, or Chan as it is called in Chinese, feeling that it has become a moribund tradition. It does not really speak to the moral concerns of anyone. He is very explicit in criticizing the current Buddhist establishment in China saying, with some justice I believe, that it is become a money-making operation, that monasteries have turned into tourist attractions and that not much cultivating goes on in there. But it would take a better scholar or a different scholar than I am to tell you exactly what the differences are between mainstream Buddhism and what Li Hongzhi advocates.


Could you speculate on the future of the movement in China?


It is very hard to say what the movement itself will become but this larger tradition, there is simply no way to get rid of it. The basic ideas are so widespread that even if Falungong is successfully suppressed, which strikes me as doubtful, what I imagine may happen though, it is pure speculation, is some other crisis may come along to sort of wipe it off the front pages. I mean that is always what happens in any society, really, that any government targets one thing and something else comes along and they have to drop it to deal with that. But again something like this will come back in one form or another. Things like this have been in Taiwan both before and after the democratization of Taiwan. It was very interesting. I met, there is no leader, one of the important figures in Falun Dafa from Taiwan, who is an economics professor at Tai Da, Taiwan University. A very well-spoken man, and he described things in many ways the way I did here. So in other words, it works in Taiwan too. And for the same sorts of reasons, health reasons, moral reasons. And they like Falungong because they did not ask for money. They dispensed the wisdom gratis. So that is all I can say about it. I do not know about the future. It looks pretty bleak at the moment but there are a lot of practitioners who are still there and at some point, one imagines, the Chinese government's attention will be distracted or diverted.


Do they have places to meet, churches?


No, in North America they meet wherever they can, in practitioners' homes or in common areas of apartment buildings. In China it was the same sort of thing. Wherever they can get a common space. Despite the image that one gets from reading the media or listening to the Chinese government accounts, it is very decentralized. I mean there is Li Hongzhi and a web site and then there are practitioners all over the place. In Montreal where I live they practice in the parks, even in the dead of winter. I do not join them. They practice in community centers. They practice in, just wherever they can get space. The meetings are usually on a weekly basis, although it sort of depends. They do not take names or membership information. So it is hard to know exactly who comes and who does not. It is very informal. But no there is no church. In fact they say they are not a religion. Many practitioners would be very upset at my depiction of Falungong as a religion. But I think from any Western academic point it is quite clearly a religion.


Do you have any idea what the Chinese people think of Falungong?


I have seen surveys, polls done on a very limited scale, which suggest that the Chinese government has succeeded in planting the idea that the Falungong is a bad thing. So in other words I think the general attitude was quite negative at the beginning for the same reason that people in the United States did not like David Koresh. If you call somebody a cult no one likes it. It is a bad word. You cannot say, "It is a nice cult". There is no nice cult. It is a negative labeling term. The word that they use in China, "xie jiao", is a very negative term. "Xie" means crooked or heterodox, and it is a term that goes way, way back and that the state has always used. I do not have a lot of information on that because I have not been to China to do this sort of thing. Practitioners who have gone back say that many people's ideas have changed, having watched how brave the Falungong people have been in resisting the suppression. I think it is an uphill battle though. Once the idea is implanted that a group is a cult then it is very hard. I think the Falungong practitioners in North America had a difficult challenge. They were practicing peacefully here before the suppression began and no one knew anything about them. There was just no information. No one cared. They were just doing their own thing just like anyone else. Then all of a sudden after April 1999, it shows up in the news and they have to go out and say, "We are really not a cult". And if that is your first phrase it is very hard to get past that. That is sort of like saying, "I really do not hit my wife." It is just really tough.