In China, Spiritual Hunger, State Power Collide

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 25, 2004 | Go to article overview
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In China, Spiritual Hunger, State Power Collide


Eccentric religious sects present a non-trivial 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."

As Maria Hsia Chang demonstrates in "Falun Gong: The End of Days," 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, the author, a political scientist, 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 transubstantiation might seem pretty bizarre to a peasant in Gansu Province. There are, in any case, as the author describes, precedents for this sort of thing in Chinese mystical systems going back to the Bronze Age and before.

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.

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In China, Spiritual Hunger, State Power Collide


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