Enlightened Martyrdom the hidden side of Falun Gong

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Enlightened Martyrdom The Hidden Side of Falun Gong[1]

Introduction[edit | edit source]

James R. Lewis and Huang Chao

Falun Gong adepts are fearless of persecution and even seem, by their provocative acts, to deliberately seek it: persecution validates their doctrine and brings them closer to the salvation promised by Li Hongzhi. (Palmer 2001)

When it became evident that the People's Republic of China (PRC) was on the verge of banning the Falun Gong movement, Li Hongzhi, the movement's founder, and his family escaped China, relocat- ing permanently in the United States. Subsequently, the dramatic crackdown on Falun Gong in 1999 made international headlines. From the safety of his new home, Master Li encouraged his follow- ers left behind in the PRC to vigorously demonstrate against the Chinese government, even if it meant imprisonment or martyrdom. Alternately, he could, of course, have instructed his followers to just lie low and continue the practice secretly. Instead, he held this kind of cautious approach up for ridicule, e.g., "There are also many new practitioners who practice in hiding at home, afraid of being discov- ered by others. Just think: what type of heart is that?" (Li Hongzhi, cited in Palmer 2007, 253).

  At a gathering in Canada in 2001 that was attended by the sociol- ogist of

religion Susan Palmer (not to be confused with the sinol- ogist David Palmer), Li Hongzhi "congratulated the martyrs of Tiananmen Square who 'consummated their own majestic positions' and presumably earned posthumous enlightenment, or a crown of martyrdom: 'Whether they are imprisoned or lose their human lives for persevering in Dafa cultivation, they achieve Consummation"" (Susan Palmer 2003, 356). Palmer discusses the philosophy of karma and martyrdom behind these protests, and rightly notes that, "While Western politicians, journalists and human rights groups respond to social justice arguments, for the practitioners themselves, it is spiritual and apocalyptic expectations that fuel their civil disobedience" (ibid., 349).

  Further, Master Li actively discourages his followers from telling outsiders about

his esoteric teachings; rather, he explicitly directs them to say that Falun Gong is just a peaceful spiritual exercise group being persecuted by the PRC. A quick internet search for "Falun Gong" reveals that they have succeeded in propagating their side of the story at the expense of the People's Republic of China. Another little-known fact about Falun Gong is that the group will vigorously protest any news story that disagrees with their point of view. Thus, for example, in response to an Associated Press (AP) piece in 2005, "Chinese Show off Repentant Falun Gong," practi- tioners staged a mass protest at AP headquarters in New York City, demanding that the report be withdrawn. In more recent years, Falun Gong has attempted to silence critical scholars, including three of the contributors to the present volume.

  The present collection provides a comprehensive overview of Falun Gong: the

movement's background, history, beliefs, and prac- tices. But whereas previous treatments have generally tended to downplay Falun Gong's "dark side," in the following pages we have made an effort to include treatments of the less-palatable aspects of this movement. Enlightened Martyrdom will, in other words, pro- vide a recap of what has been discussed in earlier scholarship, but will move forward to cover Falun Gong's subsequent conflicts, as well as the movement's strident efforts to muzzle critical analyses of its ideas and its struggle.

  The lead chapter in the book, Junpeng Li's "The Religion and Politics of Falun

Gong," applies the conflict-amplification model to the development of Falun Gong. Falun Gong emerged in the early 1990s as a health-enhancing practice and part of the state-sanctioned qigong and fierce competition from other groups, it metamorphosed qigong movement in China. Faced with increasing state suspicion of into a new religious movement in the mid-1990s. State efforts to keep Falun Gong out of the political realm had the effect of releasing the group's political potential and led to its campaign of "truth clar- ification," which further alerted the state to its ideological challenge and capacity to mobilize. Through a process of mutual feedback, the antagonism between the two parties culminated in religious vio- lence and in Falun Gong's transformation into a political movement.

  The second chapter, David A. Palmer's "The Doctrine of Li Hongzhi: Falun

Gong Between Sectarianism and Universal Salvation," proposes a brief analysis of the doctrine of Li Hongzhi (LHZ), the founder of Falun Gong. Four main themes dominate LHZ's writings: (1) an apocalyptic theme, stressing the moral dec- adence of humanity and the omnipresence of the forces of evil. In particular, extraterrestrials are infiltrating themselves in the body of humanity through modern science, the great enemy of virtue; the Buddhist prophecy of the imminent destruction of the world and inauguration of a new universal cycle is close to being fulfilled. (2) An exhortation to rigorous spiritual discipline, calling on followers to purify their hearts of all attachment to the things of this world. The gods have abandoned the orthodox religions of the past, which have already completely lost the spirit of the true Dharma. (3) A messi- anic theme: Li Hongzhi is the omniscient and omnipotent savior of the entire universe. He has revealed, for the first time in history, the fundamental Law of the universe, which is the only protection against the apocalypse. (4) A sectarian practice: Li Hongzhi's dis- ciples must concentrate exclusively on Falun Gong; it is forbidden to read or even think about any other religion, philosophy, or school of thought or of qigong. They must devote themselves heart and soul to Falun Gong's psycho-physiological discipline; the perceptions and visions triggered by this practice are attributed to Li Hongzhi's supernatural power.

  Susan J. Palmer's "From Spiritual Healing to Protest: Falun Gong's Emerging

Culture of Martyrdom" explores Falun Gong's emerging resistance movement and the escalation of Master Li's apocalyptic ideology in response to the PRC's draconian measures of social control; factors which have stimulated a culture of martyr- dom among his disciples. On the basis of field research and inter- views with practitioners, this study proposes a four-phase model of conversion, culminating in an activist's commitment to the Master's call to serve in the protest demonstrations against the People's Republic of China's persecution of Falun Gong. Since Falun Gong's civil disobedience led to the death of over 343 practitioners in 2003 (and estimated deaths in the tens of thousands by 2016), it is import ant to analyze the process of conversion/commitment to the cause and the practitioners' own spiritual understanding of their activist efforts in a two-tiered resistance movement that is concerned both with global human rights and also with a cosmic battle between gods and demons, an apocalyptic process called fa-rectification.

  On January 23,2001, a small group of Falun Gong practitioners set themselves

on fire in Tiananmen Square. One practitioner died in the square and four were seriously burnt (the youngest burn vic. tim subsequently died in a hospital). The government quickly held up the incident as an act of "cult violence," while the Falun Gong movement just as quickly accused PRC authorities of having staged the incident in order to discredit Falun Gong. In "Burning Faith: Interpreting the 1.23 Incident" James R. Lewis sets out to assess the plausibility of these conflicting interpretations. Naturally, the two major parties to the controversy which forms the background for this incident dismiss each other's perspectives as self-evidently false. Specifically, PRC authorities consider that FLG's defenders have been duped by Falun Gong propaganda, while FLG support- ers summarily dismiss everyone who gives serious consideration to the Chinese position as being either on Beijing's payroll or mind- less zombies, and every single piece of accusation against them as Beijing-backed propaganda. Lewis restricts his analysis to discuss ing the strong points made by each side of this controversy regard- ing the details of the 1.23 Incident, and then puts forward evidence to support an alternative interpretation of the event.

  Falun Gong practitioners claim that their most important task is to return human

beings to their real (spiritual) home. As such, they consider Falun Gong's opponents to be devils, who are chal- lenging the laws of the universe. In Falun Gong, it is believed that devil's reside amongst the common people, posing a treat to Dafa (Dharma). As Fang Yong argues in "Devil Killing and the Essence of Falun Gong," some practitioners conclude that it is necessary to eliminate these devils, an interpretation which has led to the deaths of ordinary people. A clear distinction is made by Falun Gong prac- titioners between themselves and ordinary people. Part of the Falun Gong doctrine includes the idea that the common people should be thankful to Falun Gong for seeking to eliminate devils. The idea that devils reside in society leads to the real-life practice of "devil killing." This practice tells us not only that Falun Gong is intolerant of those who oppose its views; in essence, the organization is also operating in a way that threatens human safety.

  Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong, asserts that medicine does not touch the

source of illness, which is karma. All that medicine achieves is to drive bad karma back into the body, thus delaying the maturation of the "bitter fruits" of disease. With this in mind, Li rec- ommends that his disciples relinquish medical therapy and simply bear the suffering of illness. Li also insists that alternative practices like qigong cannot be used to eliminate illness and bad karma; it is only Li himself who has the divine power to rid his disciples of their ailments. Additionally, Li indicates that he has the power to reintroduce bad karma to his disciples' bodies if they do not properly follow his doctrine. In "The Self-contradictions in Li Hongzhi's Statements about Illness" Cao Yan asks, how can the contradictions in Li's claims be resolved? Can he uphold his contention that he can totally eliminate bad karma if he also asserts that he can cause it to return to people? Such a statement implies that this karma was never completely removed in the first place; if it has ceased to exist, then surely it cannot be returned. It is argued here that Li's words are more than mere statements about illness; they are also used as a tool to facilitate control over his followers, as revealed in these contradictions.

  As many researchers have argued, the use of science to justify beliefs has long

been a popular "legitimation strategy" in new reli- gions. In contrast with other new religions that have adopted science as a source of legitimation, however, Falun Gong's use of "science" discourse is confusing and inconsistent. While it is sometimes claimed by Falun Gong that its doctrines, creeds, and beliefs can be well explained by modern science, at other times its teachings are positioned as transcending the realm of natural science. Li Hongzhi has even gone as far as to suggest that science is responsible for and environmental problems). In "Scientific or Anti-scientific: A many different types of modern social "disease" (including social Critical Analysis of 'Science' Discourses in Falun Gong," Wang Chengjun offers critical reflections on the science-related discourses present in Falun Gong. First, he analyzes such science-related dis- courses, arguing that they fall into three different categories. Second, he traces these discourses back to their origins in order to suggest that, even if science-based legitimation of the faith is effective in persuading its practitioners, it is by no means successful in a wider sense. Finally, he concludes with some more specific remarks on the ways in which "science" discourses have been used by Falun Gong.

  One of the most unusual claims made by Li Hongzhi is that technology and

science were introduced to Earth by sinister aliens. Such aliens manipulate human beings, keeping them in a state of discord and corruption and planning eventually to take over the whole planet. Some of these aliens already live on Earth, disguised as human beings. Such teachings emerged initially in Falun Gong's literature, but were made visible to the public in a 1999 interview for Time magazine. These ideas have also been reiterated by Master Li at various conferences and in later texts. Master Li's "alien theory" or "alien theology" can be studied from a number of dif- ferent perspectives. In "You Don't Want to Have That Kind of Thought in Your Mind': Li Hongzhi, Aliens, and Science," Stefano Bigliardi focuses on alien-related claims made by Li Hongzhi in order to try to reconstruct their role within his teachings as a whole, looking in particular at his conceptualization of science.

  In a progressive Western democracy such as Australia, academic freedom is

something usually taken for granted. With impunity,academics can critique government policy,make a stand with or against matters considered important to society, or bring to light those things that may be unknown to members of the general public. In this environment, as an academic in the discipline of studies in religion at Australian University Falun Gong wrote number of book chapters about the then little-known Chinese move- ment Falun Gong. As a consequence, she attracted the attention of a member of that movement, who took exception to what she wrote. In "Falun Gong's Attack on Academic Freedom." Farley describes the systematic attempt made by that individual to discredit her as an academic and to have her dismissed from her employment. It describes her employer's responses to the event, and the responses of other academics, societies, and publications in the field. Upon further investigation, she discovered that she was not the first aca- demic to have received this sort of treatment from aggrieved Falun Gong practitioners. Her chapter looks at how Falun Gong practi- tioners justify their persecution of academics who are seen to have presented Falun Gong in an unfavorable light.

  In "Friendly Fire: How Falun Gong Mistook Me for an Enemy." Heather Kavan

describes how Falun Gong members in Western countries have forged an identity for their spiritual path as a group subjected to human rights violations for simply doing breathing exercises. The new narrative re-cast their apocalyptic leader Li Hongzhi as a hero akin to Gandhi, who has mobilized millions of followers to nonviolently resist an oppressive regime. In accord with this story, practitioners have staged headline-generating events, dis- patched thousands of press releases, and protested against any por- trayal that is not in accord with their new image. But Li's writings to members tell a different narrative to the one told in the Western media. Drawing on her ethnographic research, Kavan discusses the differences between the group's public and private communications. Although practitioners revised their publicly proclaimed ideology to appeal to Western moral ideals of amelioration of suffering and per- sonal freedom, these ideals were not part of their in-group communi- cations. Rather, sacrifice, martyrdom, and exclusivity were intrinsic to members' beliefs and life choices. The chapter closes with an outline of the responses to her study. Kavan discusses the internet passages about her that resulted in several Falun Gong authors being banned from Wikipedia, and the lingering shadowy harassment of her. This harassment was an expression of Li Hongzhi's "stepping forward" ideology, in which practitioners must defend his version of the fa to compete for entry into heaven, only allowed for limited numbers.

  The Falun Gong (FLG) organization has for the last several years placed stories

of so-called forced organ harvesting as central to its sustained and concerted effort to undermine the Chinese govern ment, and specifically the Communist Party of China. These claims have been comprehensively investigated by a team of internation- ally renowned experts in human organ transplantation, and have been dismissed as fabrications. Despite the fact that this expert group reached this conclusion, based on several trips to China, the FLG continues to lobby governments and international organiza- tions with what it claims is evidence of ongoing mass murder of its members in China. There is a clear reason for this; the FLG has invested so much time and effort into promoting so-called forced organ harvesting as its central battleground theme, it must find ways to perpetuate these rumors, fearing loss of face in the international community. The FLG has been careful to position its members as victims, and has used this mentality throughout in order to present its case as an underdog against the might of China. In "The Falun Gong Political Narrative: Creating the Illusion of So-called 'Forced Organ Harvesting."" Campbell Fraser explores the manifestations of this victim mentality, through an analysis of the FLG organization and its supporters.

  The Falun Gong organization has been mostly successful at pro- moting itself to

the world outside of mainland China as a peace- ful spiritual exercise group that is being unfairly persecuted by the Chinese government. This is partly the result of denying or down- playing the aspects of Li Hongzhi's teachings that are vengeful. belligerent, and violent. However, as James R. Lewis argues in the result of a conscious media strategy which involves, on the one hand, creating its own media outlets that focus on persecution and human rights themes and, on the other hand, deploying a sophisti- cated media strategy that takes advantage of anti-PRC sentiments in Western media.


Palmer, David A. 2001. "Falun Gong: Between Sectarianism and Universal Salvation," China Perspectives, 35, 14-24.

Palmer, David A. 2007. Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Palmer, Susan J. 2003. "Healing to Protest: Conversion Patterns Among the Practitioners of Falun Gong," Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 6:2, 348-6.

James R. Lewis is a much-published researcher in the field of new religious movements, and is Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy, Wuhan

University, China. At present, he edits or co-edits four academic book series, and is the general editor for the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review, and Associate Editor of the Journal of Religion and Violence. Recent publications include New Age in Norway (Equinox, 2017), Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2017), and Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Huang Chao is an Associate Professor in the School of Philosophy, and Executive Director of the Research Center for International New Religions and Cults, at Wuhan University, China.

  1. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/enlightened-martyrdom-the-hidden-side-of-falun-gong-james-r-lewis/