Photo Credit: Friends of Falun Gong
We’ve written about mainstream religions in Taiwan. We’ve even covered ghost culture, divination, the folk goddess Matsu, and extraterrestrials, but thus far, we have been a little resistant to peer through our looking glass at Falun Gong. Nonetheless, we are here to help you develop your Formosa-savoir faire, and, similar to the importance of identifying shiny leaves of three, it is vital to know how to navigate the landscape.
You might have come across Falun Gong folk before on sidewalks, appearing a little like a cross between buddhist monks with alms bowls and Iraq War protestors. The ones we meet often have posters and flyers that show human rights atrocities being committed by China along with the importance of qi gong. It sometimes feels like an amalgamation between encountering a Jehovah’s Witnesses and a UNICEF volunteer: you are certain you don’t want anything they are selling, but you’re also not quite sure if you should be giving money? A better analogy might be the feeling of dealing with The Sparrows from Game of Thrones or the troll from Billy Goat’s Gruff, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
If you have not run into them on sidewalks, then there are chances you might come across Falun Gong protests or groups practicing qi gong exercises in local parks (Do NOT make judgements solely based on this last one though as there are far more ordinary qi gong practitioners than Falun Gong-ites in Taiwan). Taiwan has the highest number of Falun Gong practitioners in the world after the group was banned from Mainland China and it is not uncommon to encounter worshipers in daily life around the Island.
And even if you have not seen or heard of Falun Gong before this, we are almost certain you have heard of, or seen a poster for, Shen Yun and the performance that showcases “5000 years of civilization reborn.” Yeah, that one… Welcome to the Matrix. Let’s go find our Hatter.
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”Lewis Carrol
Falun Gong also known as Falun Dafa, is a religious movement that began in China in 1992 that follows the teachings of a man named Li Hongzhi. Meaning, “law wheel practice” in Mandarin, Falun Gong is a set of qi gong and meditation exercises and texts that preach the virtues of truth, benevolence/compassion, and forbearance. Many of the teachings echo elements of Daoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese cultural thought such as inner refinement and enhancing one’s connection to the universe through mind, body, and energy (qi) work.
Through the early to late 90s Li began teaching qi gong and Falun Gong widely throughout China and later in the West. His classes were popular, cheap, or in many cases free, and he quickly gained widespread acclaim and numerous followers. There were numerous schools of qi gong which sprang up through the 80s and 90s but where Falun Gong differed was the promise of salvation and realization through the adherence to Li’s practices, teachings, and texts.
By the late 90s it is estimated that Li had somewhere between 10 million (low estimate) and 70 million (high estimate) followers within mainland China. Although he initially gained widespread praise and accolades from the Chinese government for his teachings, Li increasingly fell under the scrutiny of the CCP especially as he resisted efforts to wed Falun Gong to Party doctrine and control. Other qi gong schools rallied against Li as well, in large part because they perceived him as monopolizing the industry by offering free classes and gaining followers in the millions. Although preceded by a number of events through 1997 and 1998, ultimately, after a protest of 10,000 Falun Gong followers on April 25th, 1999 in the largest protest since Tiananmen in 1989, the group caught the attention of those in Beijing. The official response came on July 20th, 1999, leaders of Falun Gong were rounded up and detained. Two days later, on July 22nd, 1999, the government declared the practice Falun Gong illegal and banned anyone from following the teachings or writings of Li Hongzhi. At this point Li had been teaching in the West for years and had also become a citizen of the United States. Many of his followers would not be so lucky. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands were subjected to internment, interrogation, torture, and reeducation camps by authorities.
Some analysts speculate that it was the perceived threat at the growing in popularity of the group that triggered the CCP’s crackdown, others point to the Party’s general distrust and disparagement of religion and anything which detracts from belief in party doctrine, and yet a few contend that it may have been a political move designed to shake up the inner circles within Beijing. We may never know the exact motives, but the end result is that Falun Gong became an exiled and internationally famous religion. Many groups and countries, seeing parallels to Tibet and as a means of pointing out China’s human rights record would find themselves championing the Falun Gong cause. Li Hongzhi would continue teaching and go on to be nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 and 2001.
“This organization preaches heretical fallacies that are anti-humanity and anti-science, and exercises extreme mental manipulation on followers. It is a cult that seriously harms the society and violates human rights, and is a cancer in the body of the modern and civilized society.”From an advisory statement issued by the Chinese consulate in the United States in 2015.
So what’s the catch? “Truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance sound like fairly good tenants to structure one’s life and belief system around. Not to mention, Falun Gong was even at one point touted as a means of saving the Chinese healthcare system billions by promoting healthy lifestyle practices. Well, all we can say is don’t go signing up just yet.
In the aftermath of 1999, Li moved the headquarters of the Falun Gong center to Deer Park New York. From there, he continued to teach and publish and remained a very vocal critic of the Chinese government through the early 2000s. His followers would also help to create both the newspaper Epoch Times, and later the Dance school Shen Yun. And it is around this time when the waters begin to get murky.
Although Chinese state run media and propaganda had labeled Li and Falun Gong a cult and among other things a danger to society, Li himself would prove to be a primary cause of his organization’s undoing. In 1999 he gave an interview with Times Magazine which can only be described as off the deep end — true beaver felt territory. In the context of answering questions about qi gong, Li also diverged to talk about aliens invading the human mind. When the reporter eventually asked him if he was from earth, Li responded by telling them that it was something they couldn’t comprehend:
TIME: Are you a human being?
Li: You can think of me as a human being.
TIME: Are you from earth?
Li: I don’t wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn’t understand it.
Now tangents aside, we at Pop Rooms would like to contend that upstate New York might just be America’s response to the Middle East. Yes, the three Abrahamic religions have greater history and influence, but New York gets to claim the Shakers, the Mormons, Woodstock, and now Falun Gong among others.
Most religious leaders are enigmatic, erratic, and often afforded a degree of wiggle room, however, Li’s behavior along with that of many of his followers have incurred increasing skepticism and derision over the years. In a public conference in 2003, Li went off the rails again with a speech that would have made Hunter S. Thompson green with envy and has left the rest of us wondering if the mercury fumes finally did their work.
If aliens and an aggrandized display of egotism isn’t enough of a spiritual turn-off, then know that Li is also on record stating that evolution is false, advocating for racial segregation, and claiming that homosexuality is a crime. Having gone from being handed out on street corners in NYC, Epoch Times is now a major force in right wing media within the United States and an ardent supporter of Donald Trump. It is not every day that we agree with the CCP but in this case we are okay with calling this tea party for what it is: a crackpot cult.
Which brings us back to Shen Yun. We thought about providing our own rendition, but decided to let another speak in our stead. The New Yorker has a fabulous article on a Shen Yun experience by Jia Tolentino that we can only applaud in its detail and description.
“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships – and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings”Lewis Carroll
Now before you start crying, “What the Falun Gong!” “Off with their heads!” we also want to remind you that practitioners are not their leaders nor their institutions. It is the same distinction that exists between Catholics and the Catholic Church, Jews and Zionism. Not all practitioners are evil or brainwashed or unknowingly led astray. For those handing out pamphlets on sidewalks, their belief may very well be what brings them understanding and joy. Regardless of how we feel on a personal basis, we still have an obligation to treat people with a common level of dignity and respect (especially as guests and foreigners). Meanwhile, the qi gong movements which constitute Falun Gong may still be very good for one’s health and that is also okay. The contradiction is part of what we learn to hold in the looking glass. It’s part of the savoir-fare. And you are under no obligation to touch the leaves.