192: Conversation With an Expert on China’s Old/New Religious Movements

hat do we know about religion in China, which at 1.3 billion people is still the world’s most populous nation?
    We know that religion is suppressed.
    We know that religion is thriving.
    And, really, both statements are wrong — and both statements are right.
    Today, we’ve got a rare opportunity to hear from Dr. David Ownby, one of the world’s leading authorities on religious movements in China, who just returned from China this week to his office as the Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Universite de Montreal in Canada.
    He’s also the author of a new book we’re recommending — great for small groups who are interested in exploring global cultures and, in particular, spiritual movements in China. It’s “Falun Gong and the Future of China.” (You can click on the title or the book cover, jump to our review — and buy a copy from Amazon right now, if you wish.)

    Our theme all week is: How can we see the world more clearly? Monday and Tuesday, we looked at the complex and often confusing issue of slavery. Today, we’re jumping around the world to China — because one of the most pressing questions bubbling to the surface in American coverage of Asia involves the mysterious nature of religious movements in that vast continent.

    After decades of reporting on religion for Knight-Ridder and Gannett newspapers, I’m aware that most of us in the U.S. are interested in China — but we only hear sketchy reports about religion there. Perhaps we see headlines about objections over the appointment of a Catholic bishop in China — or headlines about government repression of a movement like Falun Gong.
    But what’s the bigger picture? And what’s likely to surface on the horizon, shaping China’s future — and the world’s future as China emerges as our next superpower?
    These are crucial issues. A news story at the top of the New York Times front page yesterday reported on how — after years of American officials lecturing Chinese on how to run their country, the tables are turning. “The fingers have been wagging in the other direction,” the Times reported. “Senior Chinese officials are publicly and loudly rebuking Americans on their handling of the economy and defending their own more assertive style of regulation.”
    The Chinese seem to be seizing the initiative on fueling economic growth — but are Chinese leaders right about religion?

Here are highlights of our Conversation with Dr. David Ownby.

    CRUMM: It’s amazing that, in this era when we know so much about the world, we know so little about religion in China. As you explain this in your book, that’s because religious movements in China have different shapes and histories than the Christian denominations that are most common in the U.S. It’s also because the spiritual lives of Chinese men and women are kept quiet and private, right?
    OWNBY: Yes. There’s a different vocabulary of spirituality in China. And, today, the government has swept away most of the qigong movements like Falun Gong that were so popular for decades in the public parks. Now, if you go into a public place with 15 or 20 people and start doing qigong practices — a policeman eventually will stop by and ask you what you’re doing. Religion remains a very sensitive thing in China.
    But the interest in spirituality is still there — just beneath the surface. It’s all over the place in people’s lives and behind their doors in their homes. Whenever the Chinese government backs up a little bit, all this spirituality just comes right back out again.
    So, today in China, many government leaders are coming to understand that religion in some form is here to stay. Some leaders can make peace with that idea. One of the lines you’ll hear people repeat over and over again is that “proper religion is a good thing and contributes to social stability.” They want that kind of religion, they say.
    But the story of religion in China will be two steps forward and three steps back, which isn’t bad in a Chinese context.
    At the same time, the Chinese state remains one of the world’s biggest control freaks. They have a hard time with any movement or group of people who might do something they’re not supposed to do. Even as they formally accept “good religion” — they have thousands of bureaucrats writing thousands of pages about what they think “good religion” should look like — and how proper churches should function, things like that.

    CRUMM: Your book tells the story of the rise and fall of one particular spiritual movement in  China: the Falun Gong movement — or Falun Dafa as its practitioners like to call it. The movement isn’t gone, but it has shrunk significantly because of very harsh Chinese government repression.
    This particular movement was founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992 and by 1999, I remember the news stories around the world about Falun Gong followers really shocking Chinese authorities in the heart of Beijing itself, staging a peaceful protest of thousands of practitioners. They were showing their strength in numbers and asking for an end to repression. But it really backfired on the movement.
    Trying to describe this movement to our readers in very general terms — it’s a movement they probably remember reading about in American newspapers and magazines in the 1990s involving Chinese-Americans doing very slow and graceful exercises in parks across the U.S. I wrote some of those stories that ran on the news wires in those years.
    In very general terms, what these Falun Gong practitioners were doing was a series of daily exercises, which they believed to have what we would describe in the West as direct spiritual benefits in healing the body and shaping the mind in a positive, helpful, moral way.
    To help Americans understand this a little better we should explain that the larger spiritual movement is called qigong — and the specific group you write about in your book is Falun Gong, a particular set of ritual-like practices developed by the founder. In a general way, it’s kind of like saying that in the larger movement of Christianity, some people are Lutheran and their religious practices and rituals are shaped by their founder, Martin Luther.

    OWNBY: Yes, Falun Gong grew out of the larger qigong movement. It is like, if qigong is Christianity, then Baptists and Methodists and all sorts of individual sects grew up within the movement. Falun Gong grew out of this larger qigong spiritual movement that’s very old in China. Now, though, this other term Falun Dafa is preferred by a lot of the followers.
    Qigong, which is pronounced chii-gong, is a discipline that is both spiritual and physical. The basic notion is that “qi-” (or chi) is a word for the basic matter of the universe and “-gong” is discipline. The Chinese have believed in qigong forever and ever — and they still believe in this kind of resonance between the cosmic whole and our individual lives as we live them today. They talk about ways of getting this resonance to function to help improve our lives.
    Americans are more familiar with approaches like Tai Chi — trying to synchronize your movements with the movements of the planet or the sun to bring your body in line with cosmic forces. That’s a qigong practice. And in these practices you do things and make movements so that, for example, if you have a pain in your shoulder or your knee, you can direct the “chi” (or qi-) to that part of your body and carry out healing.
    Falun Gong is a qigong cultivation system founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. The Falun Gong name refers to this discipline as being a “discipline of the revolving dharma wheel.” As the Falun Gong movement arose out of the larger qigong movement, though, the master gave it this new term Falun Dafa, which means the “great way of the revolving wheel.” The name change was a way of saying that this isn’t just one of many systems of qigong, but it’s the system to follow. The new name was a way of trying to distinguish Falun Dafa as an independent movement.

    CRUMM: And the movement really underwent harsh repression in China after 1999. You say in your book that, while exact data is hard to confirm, you tend to accept Falun Gong estimates of more than 3,000 “practitioners have been confirmed dead as a result of the campaign, more than 100,000 have been sent to labor camps, more than 6,000 to prison, and several hundred thousand have been arrested and detained.”
    That’s lethal repression.
    How many followers are left, do you think? As a journalist, I know that this is a perennial problem — trying to get good data on this kind of question.
    OWNBY: I have no idea how many practitioners there are left in China. I have to believe that millions practice at home or have some sleeping allegiance to it, but the suppression of the Chinese state has been very effective.
    In the diaspora, outside China, I think there are probably 100,000 in North America and another 50,000 to 100,000 elsewhere in the world. Ninety percent of those are recent immigrants.

    CRUMM: I’m amazed even in the summer of 2008 how strongly Chinese authorities continue to campaign against Falun Gong. I ran across a mid-May story sent out across the Xinhua News Agency, the official Chinese news agency, that just bent over backward to attack Falun Gong yet again. It was filed from Beijing from some conference that was held in which a “Russian expert in sect studies” is quoted in the top paragraph of the story declaring from his research that Falun Gong is “an international cult” and “all healthy and righteous forces in the world should unite to combat cults.”
    A little bit of overkill?
    OWNBY: Yes, the Chinese state basically won the cult question with Falun Dafa. Even if they didn’t convince everyone that it was a cult, they managed to leave enough doubt that most Americans don’t feel obligated to express much sympathy for the Falun Dafa for a whole variety of complex reasons.
    CRUMM: It’s as though the Chinese government sufficiently muddied the waters that Falun Dafa seems questionable to American news media. And, from my own experience in reporting on the movement here in the U.S., that’s tragic because these basically are good people following a spiritual system of breathing and movement and meditation and moral reflection.
    There are some occasionally poor choices, I would say, though, right? For example, there have recently been some news stories about Falun Gong groups clashing with other Chinese-Americans. I recall one story from New York just recently about a Falun Gong parade disrupted by Chinese-American protesters along the route who opposed the Falun Gong.
    OWNBY: I think the Falun Gong side sometimes has overplayed its hand. During the recent earthquake in May, instead of joining hands with Chinese all around the world in sympathy, some Falun Gong kept trying to point out every failing by Chinese authorities in response to the earthquake.

    CRUMM: What’s so fascinating about this story is this isn’t a case in which the Chinese government from the beginning was opposed to qigong movements. In fact, your book points out that Chinese officials actually welcomed these movements for many years, right?
    You explain that there were periods when Chinese Communist officials actively promoted the idea of qigong’s healthy benefits.
    OWNBY: After 1949, the Communists took over and had this huge, poor country to modernize. Some of them would have — if they’d had the resources — let Western biomedicine come in and wipe out all these other traditions. But they didn’t have the resources, so Chinese authorities allowed some of the traditional Chinese medicine to continue. There was nothing else they could offer in some areas.
    Then, there was this huge growth in qigong after the Cultural Revolution. This was at the end of Mao’s life and it was an incredibly bleak period in Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution had begun in great hope among young Chinese and among the political elite — hope that China finally was going to get its revolution right. The notion was to rid China of everything that wasn’t revolutionary — get rid of everything old and feudal and Western. As noble as that rhetoric might have sounded, it was a complete disaster and ended up in a whole series of nasty things happening.
    In the end everyone hated everyone else, was afraid of everyone else. It was a disaster. And toward the end of that time, even before Mao’s death in 1976, the first charismatic qigong masters were working to relaunch qigong as a movement. Even in the early 1970s in public parks in Beijing some of these qigong masters were preaching their knowledge. These were true believers who had cured themselves of various ills through breathing practices and other practices they called qigong.
    In this incredibly bleak time, people ran into these true believers in parks and, when Mao died in 1976 and the Cultural Revolution died with him — and, within a couple of years China was launched on a completely new course that led to this economic juggernaut — what happened is that this qigong movement was catapulted into national prominence. And rather than repressing it, Chinese scientists took some of these masters into their laboratories and claimed to be proving that the chi (or qi-) — this cosmic breath or this stuff of universal existence — really existed and they could measure it. This seemed to turn chi into something scientific and changed the whole nature of the basic context in which the movement was spreading.
    More and more masters went public and this was one of the few times in Chinese history in which the Chinese state wound up on the same side as a popular mass movement with religious overtones. But the authorities hadn’t realized how much religious stuff was in there. The party and the government were all saying these were scientific systems — so they put the pedal to the metal and went roaring ahead. They didn’t realize where they were heading with all of this.

    CRUMM: Well, the headlines about the brutal crackdown on Falun Gong continued for quite a while, even if the story seems to have faded at the moment. I have to wonder what may emerge with the Olympics on the horizon — a global stage on which all kinds of activists must be hoping to appear for even a fleeting moment.
    I was in Bangkok in January for an Asian media conference and, talking about the Olympics, the journalists working in China — even then — were talking about Chinese paranoia over what religious groups might try to do during the Olympics.
    And, before we close our conversation, I’m sure our many Christian readers will want to know what you’ve observed of the Christian presence in China. How many Christians do you think there are in China?
    OWNBY: The low estimates are 40 to 50 million and the high estimates are 110 to 150 million for Protestants, but it’s very hard to get a sense of what these numbers even mean. The data is hard to get at. Who are these millions of people? For example, there is, in China, an authorized, state-permitted church. For Protestants, it’s not denominational, but there is a leadership structure and there is a government bureau that tells them how many churches they can have, how many clergy they can ordain, how much literature they can distribute and so on.
    But then there is also a home-church movement in China that’s technically illegal but it’s really in a gray zone and there are millions of people in this movement.
    In the 1990s, I did research in Hunan Province in the middle of China and I looked into this home-church movement while I was there and it was spreading quite rapidly in Hunan. It was filling a vacuum that was created by the Communist party, when the party largely left the rural areas to their own devices. Chinese Christianity moved in to fill some of that void. Smart officials quickly realized that it was much easier to deal with a Christian village, which had a recognized structure to it, rather than a village with no real structure left to it.
    In urban areas things are a little different. I haven’t looked extensively into urban Christianity but I was in the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang, a coastal province, and there are churches all over the place there. It’s very tempting even to see a Protestant work ethic in some of the economic growth in China. The impact of Christianity in China is quite considerable and I think the Chinese state is quite worried about it and doesn’t quite know what to do about it.

    Officials are hoping they can convince the underground people to stop being underground and join the state-sanctioned church, but I don’t think they’re going to get there. The state-sanctioned church is just too controlled and too slow and it’s just more satisfying for these underground churches to keep functioning on their own. I don’t even think that getting arrested is a real deterrent to these home churches, because they see martyrdom in a Christian context as strengthening the faith.

    CRUMM: So, what do you see on the horizon? Another harsh crackdown on religion? A diverse future in China? What’s going to happen in the next few years?
    OWNBY: It’s very hard to find independent, objective data on these questions.
    One thing that could happen is that Taiwan, the “other” China, had a similar history of trying to control religion and in the late 1980s, they lifted their strictures on religion — and it’s been a complete success story there. There have been no uprisings, no mass movements and, even though they’ve had a free-for-all approach to religion, nothing terrible has happened. The Chinese on the mainland have to be aware of this and may take notice of it at some point.
    I would be delighted if they gave this idea a shot. They could say: Let’s define what is unacceptable behavior. You do some of that in the United States — say what’s completely unacceptable. But, then, allow freedom for religion.
    Of course, I tend to talk to people who want to see more freedom for religion in China. But, it’s clear that religion in China is an immensely rich field. And, without any doubt there’s religion in China’s future. That’s the point of the title of my book — there’s going to be spirituality in “the Future of China.” And I hope that Chinese leaders understand this and deal with it in ways that are less cataclysmic than in the past.

SO ENDS our Conversation With Dr. David Ownby.

    There are many online resources about China. One useful source for up-to-date data is the “CIA World Factbook,” a source that may sound a little strange at first — but it’s a very useful set of current data. The China page has lots of intriguing facts to share with discussion groups, although it says almost nothing about China’s religious life. By the way, in case you’re wondering, the India page points out that India’s population is 1.1 billion, making it the second largest nation.
    If you’re interested in a more heavy-duty look at emerging concerns about security in Asia, there’s a brand-new, detailed report on “Asia Pacific Security” now available for free download at the East-West Center. If you’re thinking of discussing these issues in a small group — this report could be interesting as a snapshot of current anxieties — serious global concerns — sweeping across that region.

    Recently, we published reviews of several fascinating films about China that you might want to consider to learn more about this emerging giant. In fact, a couple of the images (above) are covers of DVDs we recommended. Click on the link here or on those covers to jump to our story.

    We also published a 7-part series, including videos, of a reporting trip I made as a senior journalism fellow at the East-West Center into Taiwan, Bangkok and Singapore earlier this year. Our small group of fellows did not travel in mainland China, as Dr. Ownby did, but this series of articles is another rare look at religious movements in this region of Asia.

    We’re always eager to hear what you think about our stories. Or, share ideas, reflections, suggestions. You can click on the “Comment” link at the end of each story — or Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.
    COME BACK TOMORROW to meet an inspiring writer, Dr. Gail Hayes, who helps us explore racial diversity from an unusual perspective — a child’s eye view.

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