If this book I’m holding here had been published in 1997 instead of 2007, I probably wouldn’t have set out to write my own book on the history and cultural origins of qigong. I also probably wouldn’t have failed in that endeavor and ended up putting my collection of writings up on the Internet in the form of a blog called “Weakness with a Twist”and you wouldn’t be reading it!
Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China, by David A. Palmer. Published by Columbia University Press, 356 pages.
The book is a history of Qigong, which appropriately frames the subject as a political movement built around a body technology with religious characteristics, and scientific pretensions. It is a book which resists symmetrization. Never the less I’m going down that road.
Qigong Fever tells a really shocking story of mass hysterical enthusiasm. The kind of popular insanity that can only happen in a world where 2+2=5 if the Party says it does! The state in essence banned religious devotion, magic tricks, spontaneous expression, deep emotion, and even self-respect. The Party claimed to be in favor of using science to save the world, but obviously science cannot be practiced in an environment where 2+2 might equal 5. It was from this skewed environment that qigong came to be capable of healing anything and everything. All over China otherwise ordinary people could see with their ears, control guided missiles with their minds, tell the future while balancing on eggsâ€”qigong became the source for the development of everything weird, magical, new age, charismatic, and psychic. That all this could happen in the name of science would already be beyond normal comprehension, but the Communist Party brought what would otherwise have been just weird and wacky to a fever pitch by issuing an order essentially forbidding skepticism.
The title Qigong Fever refers to the explosion of interest and participation in qigong methods, research, charismatic religion, and a whole lot more that reached a peak in the decade from 1985 to 1996, after which the government cracked down on qigong people in general and particularly on the followers of the dangerously unbalanced Li Hongzhi, known collectively as Falungong.
Palmer tasks himself with creating a historic record for a subject that is made up of seemingly limitless false claims and (even more challenging for the historian) partially false claims about its origins and functions. In addition he tackles problems as an anthropologist carefully milking the overlapping realms of scientism, charisma, national consciousness, repression, religious impulse, and shifting political networks into a frothy qi infused tonic.
The political alliance that made the qigong movement possible eventually fell apart creating outlaws and refugees. The last chapter of the book deals specifically with the Falungong and its transformation from a qigong cult into an outlaw and exiled revolutionary utopian movement.
The book has a lot of footnotes. Palmer draws on a wide array of original Chinese sources for historical material and makes good use of the history of ideas. His writing moves easily between telling the story, putting it in context, and bringing in other peoples ideas and research to convey the depth of his analysis.
If you like this blog you’ll like this book.
2008 January 31
Well, Scott is probably more informed, but I don’t think its particularly great qigong so I wouldn’t do it. The leader thinks he is single handedly preventing the Earth from being invaded by aliens and lives in luxury in the USA while his followers are allegedly persecuted. Its a great shame if people are actually being persecuted of course, but I believe its a cult because they recruit aggressively. They have a freebie newspaper, The Epoch Times, that is basically McNews with a very anti-China spin that gets handed out at every subway station in Toronto and other cities with large Chinese populations, so they are trying to manipulate public opinion. Finally, if you want to be Buddhist, be a real Buddhist – there are lots of legit practices out there. My friend Ken Cohen wrote a good debunking of Falun Gong for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle a few years ago…
2008 January 31
Scott P. Phillips
Yes, Daniel has it right. Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty TV are both Falungong operations. I have a couple of friends that are involved in the cult and work for both media groups.
Falungong is the best organized anti-Chinese government group around so some of the people involved are more political actors than qigong kooks.
Falungong practitioners are forbidden to read real Daoism, Buddhism or material from other qigong systems. That should be enough to keep anyone away. If you tell them to their face exactly how and why they are wacko they believe you are purifying them by taking away their black negative energy and giving away your white purifying energy. They can not be reasoned with.
2009 December 29
Scott P. Phillips
Thank you for the comment. I followed your links and it might interest you to know that Falungong in America is going through a sort of reformation. If you read the above book or you actually pick up Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falungong’s books, you will find that I have not misrepresented them at all. They are by Modern American standards totally nuts. But much like the Mormons (The Church of Latter Day Saints) they are cleaning up the weirder stuff and pretending it never happened. (The Mormons in the early days tried to form their own nation state of polygamy and they still all wear sacred underpants.) It is evident from the dialog in the comments of the links you sent that early Falungong writings are extremely nasty to read from the point of view of a Buddhist or a Daoist.
All that being said, I get along with Mormon’s just fine, why not people from Falungong? Weird beliefs or religious practices can often just be ignored and may even inspire behavior I find admirable. (Heck, we don’t have to go to religion to find cult-like irrational behavior, just look at the “Global Warming Craze.”)
But all of this hinges on what Falungong’s intentions are. If the Chinese government were to fall would Falungong step in to take over? They are the most organized “opposition” to PRC rule at the moment, unless you count Taiwan or Tibet or the Uyghur movement. Frankly, there isn’t an obvious way to oppose PRC rule other than supporting Taiwan as an independent country.
Honestly I’m hoping we do not have to choose between a Falungong faction and the current PRC led faction in a civil war. I find both of them troubling. What this book explains, and why you should read the book, and why the PRC hates Falungong, is that they came into existence at a moment in Chinese history (1986-1996) when it was basically illegal to criticize any type of Qigong practice, research, or science–Because of this Li Hongzhi could make absolutely any crazy claim without anyone challenging him!!! The PRC government blames itself for creating a monster!!!
About the author
Scott P. Phillipsbegan training in martial arts and qigong in 1977, he has been teaching for 17 years. While he was in his twenties he trained eight hours a day. His students range in ages from 5 to 75. For the last five years he has been on the faculty of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM). For the last seven years he has been on the faculty of Performing Arts Workshop (PAW). His teachers have included: Bing Gong, a senior student of Kuo Lien-Ying, one of the first Chinese ‘internal’ martial artists to begin teaching in the United States. Scott has also studied extensively with George Xu, Zhang Xue Xin, Ye Xiao Long, Kumar Frantzis, and at the Oomoto School of Traditional Arts in Japan.
Scott is a master teacher of Northern Shaolin as a Performing Art. His knowledge of Chinese culture, religion, and history makes him one of the few practitioners capable of actually explaining difficult to translate concepts and experiences.