Falun Gong: Oppressed Movement or Just Plain Wacky?

As the Summer Olympic Games draw near, much attention remains focused on China's human rights offenses. Often, in the same sentence, one can read about abuses in Tibet and against Falun Gong, a spiritual and health movement banned in China.

Although Falun Gong gets positive press in the West — with reporters playing out a David-versus-Goliath theme and Falun Gong's guiding principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance contrasted with big, bad China — no one seems to mention how truly bizarre this movement is.

Now, I don't endorse censorship and torture. You can condemn China for any number of wrongdoings. And you might champion the right of people to follow any bizarre spiritual movement they please.

But before becoming enamored by Falun Gong because it is mystical and resembles tai chi or merely because China's government is against it, you should understand what the movement and exercises are about.

As ancient as 1992

Unlike Tibet's centuries-old struggle against China, Falun Gong's dates back only about 15 years. It was invented by a Chinese man named Hongzhi Li, now reportedly living in exile somewhere in Queens. That is, as a spiritual movement and exercise regimen, Falun Gong is younger than Scientology and step aerobics.

Falun Gong practitioners number in the millions, mostly in China, although tens of thousands of people practice this in the United States. A group gathers each weekend on the Washington Mall, performing a watered-down version of tai chi.

Practitioners say these exercises, in conjunction with the aforementioned principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance, have cured diseases no doctor could cure and have brought back long-lost vitality etc.

The master's words

Here's how Falun Gong allegedly works, an explanation documented in Li's books but strangely absent from academic and journalistic discourse on Falun Gong:

Through a set of light stretching exercises a practitioner cultivates an intelligent golden-colored entity called the falun, which resides in one's gut in a different dimension and spins continuously, absorbing energy from remote regions of parallel universes to make the body invincible to disease. "There are people today who are hundreds of years old walking on the streets, only you can't tell who they are," explains Li in his book "Falun Gong" (Longseller, 2005).

Li also maintains in this book that David Copperfield is no mere magician but instead possesses some serious falun that enables him to walk through walls.

How does one get the falun? "I personally install it for practitioners in class," Li says in his book "Zhuan Falun" (Libris, 2004). "The majority of people can feel it ... Elderly women will regain their menstrual period."

Eeek, how can I get rid of it? "Falun is a miniature of the universe that possesses all of the universe's capabilities ... It will forever rotate in your lower abdominal area. Once it is installed in your body, year-in and year-out it will not stop."

The movement's movements

Falun Gong is purposefully different from qigong, the 5,000-year-old healing art that includes tai chi and acupuncture (which the Chinese government sanctions). Li explains in his writings how qigong masters have lost their way and how he set out to develop an advanced method of the traditional system, which, he claims, helped many a Chinese monk live hundreds of years.

Expectedly, most tai chi instructors see Falun Gong as useless and a bit daft.

With qigong, all movement is precise. Tai chi is deliberately slow and methodic to maximize the flow of qi, or chi, loosely defined as vital energy, the core concept of qigong. Whether you buy that or not, studies demonstrate how tai chi can help senior citizens gained more strength and balance.

Falun Gong practitioners don't worry about precision. The stretching is not meant to be strenuous to cultivate qi; rather, it cultivates universal energy, spinning the falun in the clockwise position. (Counter-clockwise is bad, very bad.)

On a positive note, Falun Gong doesn't seem to be a cult and requires no money. People just gather, do the exercises, socialize a bit and leave. This is certainly healthier than watching TV. Those on the Washington Mall strolling or playing Frisbee, though, were getting a healthier workout.

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Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it's really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.