Eccentric religious sects present a nontrivial problem even for open societies. The early history of the Mormon Church illustrates this; so, more recently, have the People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and Branch Davidian episodes. Issues of public health and the welfare of minors may arise. So may matters of straightforward criminality: the black-racist Nation of Yahweh sect that plagued Miami in the late 1980s had, as its principal sacrament, the killing of an arbitrary white person. The fact that a sect may give us reasonable grounds for disapproval is reflected in our language by the existence of a pejorative word for such sects: “cult.”
In a social order of the imperial-despotic type the problem posed by passionate religious sects is much more acute. It is a central principle of such societies that “there can only be one sun in the sky.” All citizens must at least pay lip service to the approved state dogmas while shunning all other belief systems. (Though in relaxed times, pure nihilism is also an acceptable outlook.) To have citizens’ attention distracted away from those principles that validate state power is dangerous. Thus apprised of the fact that a different account of reality is possible, citizens may begin to question the revealed truths that legitimate their rulers. Further, they may band together in communal worship, and a police state must regard all gatherings not under its control as antisocial.
Hence Communist China’s persecution of the Falun Gong sect. In this brief but surprisingly thorough account, political scientist Maria Hsia Chang not only provides a history of Falun Gong from its founding in 1992, she places the sect in its social and historical context, and gives a fascinating description of its beliefs and practices.
These latter will seem very strange to a Western reader. No aspect of Chinese culture is more impenetrably Chinese than the doctrines of its religions. (Perhaps something similar is true for all cultures.) Try this, for example:
By this time, the practitioner will have reached the state of “Three Flowers Above the Head” (sanhua juding). Rotating clockwise or counterclockwise above the practitioner’s head are three “extraordinarily beautiful” flowers that include a lotus and two other flowers, all of which are not of “our physical dimension.” Each flower is supported by a huge pole as thick as the diameter of the flower, reaching “all the way to the top of Heaven.” “You will be scared,” Li warns, “if you can see them.” Fortunately, the flowers and the poles can be seen only by the third eye.
Uh-huh. Well, I myself was taught in childhood that it is bad manners to mock another person’s religious beliefs. I suppose the Doctrine of Transsubstantiation might seem pretty bizarre to a peasant in Gansu Province. There are, in any case, as Ms. Chang describes, precedents for this sort of thing in Chinese mystical systems going back to the Bronze Age and beyond. Other aspects of Falun Gong theology, like the multifold immensities of time and space it describes, and its cyclical theories of history, derive from Buddhism, present in China since the time of Christ. Yet others trace back to the sci-fi and UFO cults of the 1940s and 1950s: space aliens came to Earth about 1900 to corrupt us with science, and lurk among us still, some of them actually inside our own bodies.
As is usually the case with phenomena of this kind, the Falun Gong sect was engendered by a single charismatic leader, who continues to guide its operations. This is the person named Li whom I quoted in that extract above. His full name is Li Hongzhi (pronounced “Lee Hoong-jrr” — surname first, as always in Chinese). Born in northeast China in 1952, Li emigrated to the U.S. in 1998 and now lives in the New York area. Li is no mere passive transmitter of divine truths, but a key figure in Falun Gong practices. Only he, for example, can implant the “law wheel” into a practitioner’s lower abdomen and set it rotating. (I had better explain that this is done “not in this physical space, but in another space … having nothing to do with this world.”) The presence and rotation of this wheel are essential to the practitioner’s spiritual cultivation. Li claims other divine powers for himself, too: he can fly, walk through walls, and heal the sick. He claims, in fact, to be superior to both Christ and the Sakyamuni Buddha, since his field of action encompasses all the many levels of the universe, while theirs was restricted to merely one. Nor does the Master suffer criticism gladly. When one skeptic challenged the sect to produce a genuine paranormal effect he could not duplicate, Li reacted by secretly inserting a law wheel into the doubter’s abdomen, and set it rotating in the wrong direction.
For all this, it is hard to see anything seriously antisocial about Falun Gong. In a free society there would be no reason for the authorities to pay attention to it at all. China, unfortunately, is far from being a free society, and the sect has been persecuted very ruthlessly there, with hundreds of deaths and thousands of imprisonments. Particularly outrageous to the Communists was the demonstration of April 1999, when thousands of sect followers surrounded the high-walled, heavily-guarded leadership compound in central Beijing. That made it personal, and the crackdown has proceeded this past five years with relentless ferocity.
In a concluding chapter titled “The Persecution of Other Faiths,” Ms. Chang shows us how the rise of Falun Gong has been just one aspect of the hunger for spiritual nourishment in modern China. She points out that Maoism was itself a millenarian belief system making supernatural claims. (This section of the chapter is subtitled “It Takes a Cult to Know a Cult.”) When Maoism lost its credibility in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, other beliefs came up to fill the vacuum. China is now a seething brew of religious and mystical groups. Ms. Chang lists a score of them: The Shouters Faction, Oriental Lightning, The Elijah Church, The Immortal Real Buddha Sect, … Outside the small enclaves of sleek technocrats and business types familiar to foreigners, China is boiling with that widespread spiritual discontent so characteristic, to a Chinese observer, of an imperial dynasty on the way out. What will come heaving to the surface at last is anyone’s guess.