Monday, December 19, 2011
Marching to the beat of the Falun Gong
I don't know if the Chinese really will take over the world. But one day last week, they took over my neighborhood.
I was on my way home from the grocery store, taking the hair pin turn onto my hillside street, only to find the access blocked by an old white station wagon. The driver was letting out an Asian man and woman in their twenties. As soon as their feet hit the ground, they raced to my car and knocked on the window, brandishing brochures for Shen Yun, an entertainment in the grand Chinese tradition. Music, dance, spectacle, culture, acrobats, something for the whole family. I rolled down my window. It was evident from our brief interaction that these folks spoke not a word of English beyond the two or three they'd learned by rote. "No, thank you" wasn't registering, so I smiled and took the pamphlet.
An hour later, I set out for my hill walk. Everywhere I went, I encountered Chinese people with minimal English skills, handing out the same four-color brochures. And they weren't all determined young adults in their twenties. I saw a couple of old ladies huffing and puffing up the high-grade hills, putting handouts in every mailbox. I walked fast but one intrepid woman caught up with me. Though I shook my head no, she kept trying to foist the handout on me, so I defaulted to international sign language. I pointed to my chest for I. Then, I did the walking sign with my fingers. Next, I did the thumb and index around the eyes binocular sign. I ended by pointing to the brochure. I. Go. See. Program. She nodded solemnly, once, and walked away. Thrilled by my own non-verbal communication skills, I did a preemptive strike, in international sign language, on the next two brochure distributors I ran into. Unfortunately, they looked at me as though I were insane. Eventually, I reached higher ground and stopped running into Shen Yun canvasers.
The first thing I did when I got home was get my google on. I thought Shen Yun might be a fun holiday night on the town for the nuclear fam. Since we're all rigorously unsentimental, secular contrarians, A Christmas Carol does not do it for us. (This year, we sprang for a night of satire with John Oliver and a bluesy new year's shindig with the Tedeschi Trucks band). Besides, I was curious. There was money and a sense of mission behind this Shen Yun advertising push and I wondered whether this was some kind of good will PR initiative on the part of the Chinese government. In the days that followed, I would see buses role by with Shen Yun bus sides, billboards along 101 and a plethora of newspaper ads. If it was a Chinese PR effort, they were spending beaucoup bucks.
My assumptions were proven to be horse pucky when I found this internet article from the Chicago Chinese Consulate. The article is enititled Shen Yun, a Political Tool of Falun Gong. According to the writer, a functionary at the Chicago Chinese consulate, the performance depicts the Chinese authorities as persecutors of Falun Gong practitioners. Which of course is the truth. The Chinese have arrested some 30,000 of their Falun Gong practicing compatriots.
Anyway, in uptight, indignant prose, the consulate spokesperson dissects every aspect of the performance and how it besmirches China's reputation. Here's an excerpt:
"In the name of promoting "traditional culture", Shen Yun Performing Arts presents these shows for more than merely cheating the audience into the theater. By publicizing the "persecution" on Falun Gong, it plans to make the show into an important platform for Falun Gong organization to publicize its cultic theories and to propagandize the heretical ideas of Li Hongzhi in the name of promoting "divine culture" so as to appeal to good-natured Chinese and foreign audiences not knowing the truth and to realize their evil purpose of exerting mind control over them."
Got that? It's quite a rant. You can't help but wonder whether the guy is a true believer or just angling to climb up the party hierarchy.
I am familiar with Falun Gongers - I grew up in DC and spent a long stretch of time there as an adult. There were always a handful of Falun Gong protesters on the small grass circle in the middle of the roundabout mid-Connecticut Avenue, in front of the Chinese embassy. I couldn't find a photo of those little gatherings online, but here is a protest at the Mall in DC.
China, like all totalitarian states, doesn't recognize the right to assembly unless it's a government-organized shindig. Churches, clubs, political groups, any entity in which a group of people might band together and exchange ideas, is suspect. Falun Gong is especially threatening because there has been a personality cult around its founder, Li Hongzhi. Li is thought to be living in New York city with his wife and daughter since 1998, but has disappeared from the public eye. Falun Gong, which combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Qigong breathing and meditation, is his creation. And there is no doubt that Li has some strange beliefs, and some reactionary ones.
• The goal of this take on Qi Gong, an ancient Chinese practice based on the idea of energy flowing through the body, is for the practitioner to gain enlightenment and immortality. And that would be physical immortality. Li maintains that if they just practice hard and long enough, old women will start menstruating again and old men will see their ear hair fall out. (OK, so I made up the part about the ear hair).
• True believers don't need science or medicine. Li can heal anyone who really has faith in Falun Gong – unless you have a terminal illness or are mentally ill, in which case, he won't attempt to cure you because you can't focus enough to practice.
• Cultivating Falon Gong means you get a Falun, a colorful wheel representing the universe, installed in your lower abdomen. (Sorry, I searched in vain for information on the actual installation process, or whether you can call SEARS to schedule it.) Although the wheel is represented as a colorful circle containing a backwards swaztika, it is not a physical object. (If it were real, some hipster would have had one implanted in his navel by now).The metaphysical wheel absorbs energy from the universe when it rotates clockwise. When it rotates counter clockwise, it releases waste material, which makes me wonder whether one poops more post falun-implantation.
• Aliens have infiltrated the human population and are responsible for most technological innovation. They control us and are developing cloning so they can eventually replace us.
• Affection, love and friendship are all "sentimentality". The Falun Gong practitioner must relinquish human affection in order to "practice cultivation".
• Homosexuality and interracial marriage are immoral and there are different heavens for people of different races, at least for those slackers who are unable to achieve immortality through their practice. Not sure where the biracial people end up.
• In order to cultivate his or her "supernormal energy", the practitioner must do the Five Exercises, a series of tai chi- like moves.
• This is the final period of the Last Havoc.
Okay, I'll give them that one.
Since 1989, the Chinese government has been persecuting Falun Gong practitioners through the use of propaganda, arrest, re-education, imprisonment and torture. It's hard to understand why. Certainly, Li's flock shares some loopy and reprehensible views regarding science, race and sexuality, but that fails to explain why the Chinese political establishment finds them so threatening. The Falun gang is non-materialistic, non-violent and apolitical. Rather than seek to change the reality of life under Communist rule, they live in their own alternate reality. The Falunites are not dangerous dissidents, oppressed creative geniuses or passionate revolutionaries. They are gentle, harmless goofballs with a right to their wacky beliefs and ritual workout sessions. All they claim to seek is "Truthfulness, forbearance and compassion." And of course, Enlightenment.
Here in the United States, we have formed a government based on a different type of Enlightenment, that of 18th century European humanists like the French Philosopher, Voltaire. A fellow whose most famous quote captures the essence of a free society. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Kind of how I feel about Falun Gong.
Saved by a DVD
No, we're not political.
Oh yes, you are..