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The Religion of Falun Gong

The Religion of Falun Gong

by Benjamin Penny

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In July 1999, a mere seven years after the founding of the religious movement known as the Falun Gong, the Chinese government banned it. Falun Gong is still active in other countries, and its suppression has become a primary concern of human rights activists and is regularly discussed in dealings between the Chinese government and its Western counterparts. But


In July 1999, a mere seven years after the founding of the religious movement known as the Falun Gong, the Chinese government banned it. Falun Gong is still active in other countries, and its suppression has become a primary concern of human rights activists and is regularly discussed in dealings between the Chinese government and its Western counterparts. But while much has been written on Falun Gong’s relation to political issues, no one has analyzed in depth what its practitioners actually believe and do.

The Religion of Falun Gong remedies that omission, providing the first serious examination of Falun Gong teachings. Benjamin Penny argues that in order to understand Falun Gong, one must grasp the beliefs, practices, and texts of the movement and its founder, Li Hongzhi. Contextualizing Li’s ideas in terms of the centuries-long Chinese tradition of self-cultivation and the cultural world of 1980s and ’90s China—particularly the upwelling of biospiritual activity and the influx of translated works from the Western New Age movement—Penny shows how both have influenced Li’s writings and his broader view of the cosmos. An illuminating look at this controversial movement, The Religion of Falun Gong opens a revealing window into the nature and future of contemporary China.

Editorial Reviews

T. H. Barrett
“This is a very lucid and readable work of mature scholarship that brings our understanding of Falun Gong to a completely new level. While Benjamin Penny does not downplay the movement’s political significance, he describes for the first time the religious coherence provided by its reliance on textual materials, including internet materials, and carefully explicating the meanings of those texts by reference to both the Chinese tradition and contemporary global culture. Penny thereby makes clear the distinctiveness of Falun Gong as never before, equipping the reader to follow its future history with a far greater appreciation of how it has evolved in the past. However that history unfolds, anyone interested in China or in religion today should read this book.”

David Palmer
The Religion of Falun Gong is a rare book—it is about a new religious movement, but written with the erudition of a specialist in China’s classical language and religious history. It is also attuned to contemporary Chinese realities and draws on Penny’s own experience in China and with Falun Gong practitioners. Polished and accessible, this enjoyable read is one of the best books available on Falun Gong.”

Anthony C. Yu
“Benjamin Penny’s new study presents a highly persuasive case for considering Falun Gong as a religion by examining all its defining features represented in both traditional and contemporary media: history; charismatic personality; doctrinal and informational texts (disseminated in print and electronic format); foundational teachings and continual development; individual and group cultivation; and evolving organizational structures. The systematic treatment, seasoned with judicious comparison with other religions, makes clear the movement’s grounding in certain diction and symbols of historical Buddho-Daoist traditions, selective conceptual idioms and techniques of pneumatic calisthenics (qigong), and the innovative rhetoric of its own. It is a timely and valuable contribution to help us understand China’s new and changing religious landscape.”


“The strength of this volume is its approach. Falun Gong has been seen primarily as a political movement. . . This study emphasizes the history, beliefs, teachings, and practice of this emerging tradition. Further, it takes the crucial step of contextualizing this new tradition in terms of Chinese religions generally. . . . Highly recommended.”
Simon Scott

 “Benjamin Penny . . . makes a good case for defining Falun Gong as a modern Chinese religion. . . . [He] provides an admirable guide to the short history of Falun Gong and the eclectic complexities of its doctrine, which he sets within the framework of indigenous religious belief over the centuries.”

Times Literary Supplement Simon Scott
 “Benjamin Penny . . . makes a good case for defining Falun Gong as a modern Chinese religion. . . . [He] provides an admirable guide to the short history of Falun Gong and the eclectic complexities of its doctrine, which he sets within the framework of indigenous religious belief over the centuries.”
Journal of Asian Studies
“Benjamin Penny’s terrific new book, The Religion of the Falun Gong, explores dimensions of Falun Gong that previously have been obscured, ignored, or insufficiently engaged. The result, building on previous scholarship and a mountain of primary source materials, is a considerably amplified and multidimensional view of a very important phenomenon in recent Chinese history.”
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
 “This book presents us for the first time with a substantial treatment of the Falun Gong as a religious culture, rather than as a persecuted religious group. Benjamin Penny does so in eminently readable prose.” 
Nova Religio
"Provides the most systematic and comprehensive scholarly treatment of Falun Gong’s teachings to date. . . . This study will enhance our understanding of Chinese religions, and also help to illuminate the nature of religions in general."

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The Religion of Falun Gong


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-65501-7

Chapter One

What Is Falun Gong?

Falun Gong first came to the attention of the world's media, and indeed some of the most senior figures in the Chinese government, on the morning of April 25, 1999. On that Sunday more than ten thousand of its practitioners congregated outside Zhongnanhai, the compound in the center of Beijing that houses the highest officials of the Chinese state and the Communist Party. The first protesters arrived late on the evening of the twenty-fourth, and by the early morning hours groups started gathering at the compound's northern gate on Wenjin Street and at its western gate on Fuyou Street. By eight o'clock the protesters had formed a line stretching more than two kilometers around the north and west walls of Zhongnanhai, in some places eight deep. Some had also gathered at the southern entrance on Chang'an Boulevard, one of Beijing's major east–west thoroughfares. The entrances to Zhongnanhai were guarded by groups of policemen, and police vehicles patrolled constantly. The protesters were corralled onto the western footpath on the other side of the road from the compound entrances and were guarded by police—"one policeman for every meter," according to a Hong Kong journalist, who also reported that "pedestrians were barred from approaching or joining the protest."

This demonstration was easily the largest that the Chinese capital had seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests—and it took place just weeks short of the tenth anniversary of their violent suppression. Unlike in 1989, however, the demonstrators at Zhongnanhai were neither young nor overtly political. Journalists reported that they were largely middle-aged or elderly, and they did not shout slogans, hold banners, or hand out leaflets. Instead, they stood or sat quietly, many in the lotus position; most of them, apparently, were reluctant to discuss the purpose of their demonstration with curious members of the press. While most of these Falun Gong adherents were from Beijing, many others had come from the city of Tianjin just over one hundred kilometers away or from the province of Hebei that surrounds both cities, with a small representation from more distant provinces to the north and south. By nine o'clock that night, the locals had quietly made their way home, and those from outside Beijing had been taken by bus to the railway station and given tickets to their hometowns. By all accounts the police were polite and low-key, even if they were represented in force. Moreover, the protesters apparently collected their litter before they left.

The first member of the leadership to hear the news of the protest was Luo Gan, a protégé of Li Peng, the premier widely held responsible for the Beijing massacre of 1989. In 1999, Luo was a member of the Politburo and secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee's Politics and Law Commission. In the latter post he was effectively in charge of China's security services. On the morning of the demonstration, Luo allegedly rang Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Party and president of the People's Republic, who had just finished breakfast. When told of "the unexpected tidings that Falun Gong believers were besieging Zhongnanhai," Jiang reportedly replied, "What is Falun Gong?" Luo, given permission to deal with the protest, called in officials from the Ministries of Public Security and State Security, the People's Armed Police, the Beijing Municipality, and senior members of the bureaucracy. This group, in turn, invited five Falun Gong representatives into Zhongnanhai for discussions. These five were, no doubt to the surprise of the leadership, attached to organizations at the very heart of Chinese society: the Ministry of Public Security; the Second Department of the General Staff Headquarters, the unit of the People's Liberation Army that collects military intelligence; the Ministry of Supervision, which is charged with maintaining efficiency, discipline, and honesty in the Chinese bureaucracy; the Ministry of Railways; and Peking University, China's top-ranked tertiary education institution.

The Falun Gong representatives demanded that the authorities recognize the movement as a legitimate organization; that forty-five practitioners arrested the previous week in Tianjin be released; that the Zhongnanhai demonstration itself not be declared an antigovernment activity; and that no one be prosecuted for taking part in it. They also asked to meet with the premier, Zhu Rongji. At about nine in the morning, Zhu, still jetlagged from a trip to the United States, saw them after having conferred with Jiang Zemin. While none of the Falun Gong demands were met, the representatives were clearly happy enough with the leadership's responses to suggest that the protesters disperse.

Less than three months later, the Chinese government banned Falun Gong, and since then the movement has been subjected to a harsh suppression. Millions of those who had publicly professed Falun Gong no longer belong to the movement. Thousands of practitioners have been sent to "Re-education through Labor" camps under the administrative detention regulations. Some hundreds have been convicted of criminal offenses and have spent time in jail—the longest sentence was eighteen years. And, according to Falun Gong itself, as of September 2009, 3,369 practitioners have been killed in the suppression.

Over the past decade, the continuing suppression of Falun Gong has become an important issue in discussions of human rights in China, alongside older concerns such as the situation in Tibet. Inside the country the suppression has become part of the political and security landscape. However, it is clear that while Falun Gong may have been forced underground, and in all likelihood the numbers of people actively engaged in it have decreased dramatically, it has not been wiped out. The movement has been analyzed from various perspectives, including those of political science, sociology, and law; but questions raised by Jiang Zemin's demand, "What is Falun Gong?" continue to resonate. This book responds by examining what it is that practitioners of Falun Gong believe and do; how Falun Gong teachings might relate to earlier Chinese religious ideas as well as to contemporary society and culture; and where its adherents understand that practicing Falun Gong will lead.

The Nature of Falun Gong

Falun Gong is a contemporary spiritual movement founded and led by Li Hongzhi, who comes from Changchun, a city of over seven million people that is a center of China's automobile industry and the capital of Jilin Province in the northeastern part of the country. Li's followers refer to him as Master Li or simply Master.

Adherents usually characterize Falun Gong as a cultivation or self-cultivation system, meaning that it is a practice involving physical movements, mental disciplines, and moral tenets that together can effect a positive change in the nature of ordinary human bodies. It emerged from a boom in gymnastic, breathing, and meditational activities in the 1980s and early 1990s, known by the general term qigong, which were thought to benefit a person's health and fitness. Specifically, qigong refers to "biospiritual" practices in which the manipulation of qi (or sometimes ITLχITL or ch'i, or in Japanese ki) is primary. Etymologically, the word qi is related to aspiration and vaporization and is thought of in material terms. The common English translation of it as "energy" does not, therefore, quite capture the meaning of the Chinese term.

The gong in Falun Gong and qigong is the same word, and in standard Chinese usage carries the connotations of "achievement," "merit," "efficacy," "skill," "power," or "work." In this context, gong is perhaps best understood to refer to "exercises" or "practice"; thus qigong might be literally translated as "practices involving qi." Falun is originally a Buddhist term and means the wheel of the Buddhist Law, or dharma. Falun Gong therefore means "the Practice of the Wheel of the Law." However, practitioners of Falun Gong generally refer to it by another name, Falun Dafa, which means "the Great Method of the Wheel of the Law." The distinction between the two names draws attention to the followers' view that what they do extends far beyond the physical exercises that they perform each day as Falun Gong devotees. Their practice, they would maintain, is a supreme method that elevates them above the condition of ordinary humanity. In this book, however, the more common term Falun Gong is used.

The falun in the name Falun Gong has a different meaning from that in Buddhism. Originally it was a symbol of the Buddha's teaching, the dharmacakra in Sanskrit, where its circular shape represented the completeness of the doctrine. To "turn the Wheel of the Law" is to preach the Buddha's word as he himself did first in the Deer Park at Sarnath in northern India. In Falun Gong, however, the falun is an object that Li Hongzhi inserts into the abdomens of practitioners. Li insists that this falun is real, but he explains that its physical existence is in a parallel body in another dimension. It is fundamental in the cultivation process of practitioners—first spinning one way, collecting energy from the universe, then the other, sending it out to different parts of the body.

The word falun, then, is of Buddhist origin but has a distinct meaning in Falun Gong. Several other originally Buddhist terms also appear in Li's writings. Core terms in Falun Gong teachings such as karma, gong, and Law Body are, like falun, given new meanings. In fact, Li explicitly states that Falun Gong is not Buddhism and often criticizes that religion in his books and speeches—indeed, Li is explicit in his denial that Falun Gong is a religion at all. Rather, he says that it is a discipline associated with "Buddha Law" or the "Buddha School." He writes, "Our Falun Dafa is ... one of the 8,000 teachings [famen], but it's never been related to Buddhism, from the original Buddhism right on up to the one in the Age of the Law's End. And it doesn't have anything to do with today's religions."

Soon after the Chinese authorities suppressed Falun Gong in July 1999, they characterized it as an "evil cult." "Evil cult" translates the Chinese term xiejiao that has been used for centuries by Chinese governments to categorize religious movements which they want to eradicate. A more literal translation of it would be "heterodox teaching." In imperial China, another term, zhengjiao, or "orthodox teaching," was used to refer to government-authorized religions. There were many reasons why the state may not have authorized a set of teachings and the activities associated with it. However, it was not necessarily because these religions were deemed "false" in the sense that they were nonsense, or their activities ineffective in gaining results. Often, indeed, they were designated in this way because they effectively threatened the fate or legitimacy of the state itself. Thus, in Chinese the term xiejiao specifically preserves the connotation of a teaching disapproved of by the authorities. The official government rendering of "evil cult," on the other hand, brings to mind recent violent and sometimes apocalyptic religious groups in the West and Japan, such as Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven's Gate, the Solar Temple, David Koresh's Branch Davidians, and Jim Jones's People's Temple. Historically and into the present day, groups defined as xiejiao are illegal and have been systematically suppressed and their leadership punished.

The title of this book asserts that Falun Gong can indeed be considered a religion. As will be shown throughout, it has many of the features associated with religions in the present and in the past, and across the world. It has a charismatic founder who is believed by his followers to be more than human, whose message will save humanity from the disastrous position in which it finds itself. He has a scripture, which is considered true for all times, places, and cultures, and which he instructs should be read repeatedly, and even memorized. He has enunciated a moral code that he demands Falun Gong adherents follow, or else their cultivation will not work. He states that the end point of his cultivation method will lead to what he calls "Consummation," which he equates with the point of ultimate attainment in other religions, specifically mentioning the Buddhist nirvana as an example. The universe he describes has a past and a future on a cosmic time scale, and a geography that includes multiple dimensions populated by divine beings. Finally, he teaches that his followers should regularly perform a series of spiritual exercises, and that they should meet together to read his scripture and share their experiences in the faith.

However, a particular feature of Falun Gong that distinguishes it from many other religions is that it has no formal ritual of initiation into its community of believers. There is no point at which someone "officially" becomes a follower of Li Hongzhi. Anyone can become a "practitioner" of Falun Gong simply by practicing—no one needs to contract to any organization, no one receives a membership card, and no one has a bureaucratic designation. I have therefore avoided using the term members in this book and instead use followers, devotees, adherents, or, in other contexts, practitioners or cultivators.

The absence of formal membership requirements has several consequences, notably the difficulty of estimating the number of former and current Falun Gong followers. Various estimates were given after the suppression. Chinese government sources, as noted by James Tong, began at a low point of 2 million, with a general consensus of around 2.1 million to 2.3 million. One newspaper, however, suggested there were 40 million adherents in March 1999. Falun Gong estimates, on the other hand, have been higher, claiming 70–80 million adherents in China, with another 20 million or so overseas. One well-informed news report from November 1998 says that Falun Gong itself claimed 20 million devotees at that time.

The large discrepancies in these figures may be partly explained by the fact that they are necessarily approximations, and partly by what is being counted. During the 1990s, when Falun Gong practice sites were scattered across most of urban China and when other qigong groups also met and did their exercises nearby, it is easy to imagine that interested members of the public might have drifted from one group to another, trying out what was offered. Some people may have chosen to take part in Falun Gong group routines regularly. Of these, a proportion may also have become interested enough to buy a copy of Li Hongzhi's scripture. A still smaller group may have taken his words to heart and chosen to live their lives according to his teachings. In other words, much like any activity in human society, there were those more enthusiastic and committed to Falun Gong, and there were others whose connection to it was weak. It may have been the case that there were indeed between two million and three million highly committed adherents in the late 1990s, as the government claims, as well as several tens of millions more who attended the practice sites on a more or less regular basis, as Falun Gong maintains, but we have no way of knowing exact figures. We can, however, be reasonably certain that after the suppression the government would have tended to underestimate numbers of adherents, and Falun Gong would have overestimated them. It was certainly in Falun Gong's interests for its figure to be greater than sixty-three million, as that was the generally accepted membership of the Communist Party at the time of the suppression. David Palmer has looked critically at Falun Gong's claims about the numbers of practitioners and concludes that "a midrange estimate of 10 million would appear ... more reasonable."


Excerpted from The Religion of Falun Gong by BENJAMIN PENNY Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Benjamin Penny is deputy director of the Australian Centre on China in the World in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

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