David Ownby. Nova Religio. Volume 12, Issue 2. November 2008.
Falun Gong experience in North America offers an interesting opportunity to map one particular experience of charisma in the Chinese religious context, that of Falun Gong in North America. The vast majority of Falun Gong practitioners in North America are recent immigrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) who have settled in major urban centers. Most are well-educated professionals who are well integrated into the North American economy and frequently do not choose to live in the traditional Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco, Toronto, or Vancouver. Most did not know one another before migrating to North America, and do not necessarily associate with one another outside of Falun Gong activities. The Falun Gong movement is itself quite decentralized. Li Hongzhi, the founder and leader, makes occasional speeches at local Falun Gong events, but his presence is largely virtual (i.e., confined to the movement’s many websites) and Falun Gong practitioners rarely speak of a close relationship with him, or exhibit displays of visible emotion in his presence as do the followers of the Tzu Chi founder and leader, Cheng Yen (Zheng Yan). There are no designated local leaders among Falun Gong practitioners, nor are practitioners ranked by levels of achievement, as in Scientology or in some other qigong groups, such as Zhonggong. The organization does not maintain membership lists and no one seems to make constant phone calls to mobilize practitioners.
This brief essay examines the question: What is charisma and how does it work in this attenuated, deracinated community? After introducing Falun Gong and providing an overview of its history and evolution, I explore two types of charisma discovered during my fieldwork: first, an embodied charisma where the individual practitioner’s expectations of the extraordinary are experienced as bodily transformation—a result of his or her imagined relationship with Master Li Hongzhi; and second, a charisma of martyrdom based on a teleology of resistance to the Chinese state’s campaign against Falun Gong. The charisma of martyrdom may be supplanting the earlier, apolitical embodied charisma, a development which may eventually call into question Li Hongzhi’s accountability.
Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong: The Anti-Charismatic Charismatic Master
Li Hongzhi began to propagate his Falun Gong teachings in 1992, as a late-comer to the larger qigong movement analyzed by David Palmer in his contribution to this issue. Li was welcomed into the movement—and into the China Qigong Science Research Society, the state-established organization meant to control the qigong movement—as a new star, and his career followed the same trajectory as that of other qigong masters. Between 1992 and the end of 1994, he gave lectures throughout China to thousands of enthusiastic qigong practitioners; he published books and other paraphernalia; he built a nationwide organization. Falun Gong was fully a product of the larger qigong movement and David Palmer’s discussion of the construction and reproduction of charisma applies just as well to this stage of the development of Falun Gong as to any other qigong group or master.
At the same time, it is important to point out that Li Hongzhi emerged at a moment when the larger qigong movement was under fire from critics who argued that many qigong masters were charlatans and qigong powers no better than parlor tricks. If the qigong movement was happy to welcome Li Hongzhi as evidence that qigong was not on its last legs, Li from the very beginning sought to keep a certain distance from the unsavory qigong phenomena denounced in the Chinese media. For example, Li began his career in 1992 with an explicit denunciation of the more showy forms of charisma displayed by other qigong masters. Instead of miracle cures and magic tricks, Li promised to teach cultivation at a higher level. Through his extensive powers, Li would quietly purge the willing practitioner’s body of all physical obstacles to genuine cultivation, allowing the practitioner to achieve eventual transformation through individual moral behavior and Falun Gong practice, consisting of the physical exercises and the study of Li’s writings. He let it be known that he was fully capable of everything that other qigong masters had done and more, but insisted dismissively that display of such powers was simply not the point. The point was instead to empower the individual practitioner via the direct, if imagined relationship—Li was no closer to his mass of followers than were other qigong masters—established between master and practitioner. Other qigong masters performed dazzling feats by sending their qi hundreds of miles to extinguish forest fires, or delivered qi-enhanced lectures to tens of thousands of paying customers, many of whom experienced miracle cures or fell into trance. Li ultimately put his charisma between the covers of a book, downloadable for free on the Internet.
In early 1995, Li announced that his mission in China was finished, and he left for the United States. His departure was prompted by continuing criticism of qigong (including Falun Gong, although Falun Gong was not a particular target at this time) in the media, which suggested to Li that the qigong boom might be coming to an end. As he left China, Li published his master-work, Zhuan Falun (The Revolving Dharma Wheel), in fact a transcription of one of the many nine-day seminars he had given in China. This book took on particular importance as scripture in the context of Li’s departure. Rather than entrusting the Falun Gong organization to continue his work in China, Li counseled his followers throughout the world to read and re-read Zhuan Falun repeatedly so as to maintain their individual relationship with the master, who would continue to care for them from afar. Li’s emphasis on moral behavior and on the importance of his writings—as opposed to the set of exercises which he also taught, exercises which were at the center of many schools of qigong—can be traced to the very beginning of his career as a qigong master, but his decision to leave China and to continue his teachings from abroad clearly reinforced what David Palmer rightly calls the “religious” posture of Falun Gong.
Criticism of qigong continued in China, despite Li Hongzhi’s departure. Beginning in 1996, Falun Gong practitioners in China developed a strategy of nonviolent resistance to increasing media criticism. In response to negative comments in a local newspaper on television, a group of local practitioners would go in person to seek out the editor, and demand either equal time or a retraction of the comments. Practitioners were within their rights in the sense that official state policy continued to defend “good” qigong, despite the rising tide of media criticism, suggesting that China’s leaders were divided on the question, and hence relatively silent on the criteria for distinguishing good from bad qigong, which meant to qigong devotees that qigong might still triumph. At the same time, China’s political culture accords limited space for sit-ins and demonstrations, and it must have taken great courage for Falun Gong practitioners to expose themselves to this level of political risk. This is evidence in itself of the power of charisma within Falun Gong. According to official Chinese government statements, Falun Gong practitioners engaged in some 300 such interventions between 1996 and 1999. They appear to have succeeded more often than not in convincing editors to back down, which surely suggested to practitioners that their cause was just.
Falun Gong first came to world attention on 25 April 1999, when about 10,000 practitioners gathered outside the gates of Chinese Communist Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai, a stone’s throw away from Tiananmen Square, to demand that their rights to practice be respected.8 The events which immediately preceded these incidents were directly linked to the history of Falun Gong reactions to perceived media misrepresentation. Practitioners had taken exception to an article published in an obscure Tianjin journal on 11 April 1999, and organized a demonstration in which some 6,000 practitioners demanded redress. In response, local riot police beat demonstrators and arrested 45. Outraged practitioners were further informed that authority for such actions had come from Beijing, and that if they wanted to continue their protests, they should do so at the capital, located a short train ride away.
Falun Gong decided to call the authorities’ bluff. Li Hongzhi himself stopped over in Beijing on the eve of the massive demonstration, en route from the United States to a Falun Gong event in Australia, and surely gave his personal approval. Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners appeared outside of Zhongnanhai in the early morning of 25 April, waiting quietly and patiently for their demands to be heard. And indeed, according to many accounts, Premier Zhu Rongji did emerge from Party headquarters and asked for representatives of the group to come inside and make known their demands, which they did. The rest of the crowd remained for some hours before dispersing peacefully, believing that a resolution had been reached.
President Jiang Zemin thought otherwise, however, and began immediately to mobilize the state apparatus for a massive campaign against Falun Gong. In late May, police in Beijing were ordered to make a list of those who had participated in the demonstration; on 6 June, hundreds were interrogated. On 7 June, Jiang made a “secret” (i.e., unpublished) speech to high Party and government officials identifying Falun Gong as the most serious political conflict since the 1989 student movement at Tiananmen Square. On 10 June, Jiang authorized the establishment of what came to be called the “610” (i.e., June 10) Office, whose sole mission was the suppression of Falun Gong. On 20 July, police launched a nationwide campaign against Falun Gong, ransacking practitioners’ homes and confiscating Falun Gong-related materials. On 22 July, the People’s Daily published an article entitled “The Truth about Li Hongzhi,” setting the official tone for the campaign which was already underway. On 28 July, PRC authorities asked INTERPOL to cooperate in the arrest of Li Hongzhi and his return to China (INTERPOL refused). On 25 October, Jiang Zemin gave a speech identifying Falun Gong as an “evil cult” that was carried in all national media on 26 October. On 30 October, the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Congress passed legislation bearing the heading, “Banning Evil Cults, as well as Preventing and Punishing the Activities of Evil Cults.” On the same day, all major media outlets in the PRC published the Supreme Court and the Supreme People’s Legislative Court’s document entitled “An Explanation on How to Prosecute Criminal Activities of Evil Cults under Existing Law.” At the same time that the PRC state put together the legal framework for the prosecution of Falun Gong, the state propaganda machine churned out thousands of articles, books, and television reports against Falun Gong.
In hindsight, it is clear that since the summer of 1999, the story of Falun Gong—even in the Chinese diaspora—has been largely the story of the PRC’s campaign against Falun Gong, for even those practitioners who long for the good old days when they could practice in peace feel compelled to react in the face of Chinese brutality, which continues to this day. It is important to remark in the context of these brief field notes that Falun Gong seems to have lost its battle both on the ground in China and in most of the Western media as well. Diaspora practitioners succeeded throughout much of 1999 and 2000 in getting their message into the media and convincing Western governments to pressure Chinese authorities to abandon or at least reduce the scale of its campaign against mainland practitioners. In January 2001, however, five alleged Falun Gong practitioners set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. Although Falun Gong practitioners and media outside of China insisted that the event must have been staged because there is no sanction for violence in Li Hongzhi’s teachings, the incident marked a major public relations victory for PRC authorities. Whatever limited sympathy Falun Gong had enjoyed to that point in China quickly melted away, and the attention of Western media moved from Falun Gong to other stories.
Falun Gong’s campaign of resistance has continued to smoulder, despite the PRC’s public relations victory. Protestors continue appear, if rarely, in Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere. Falun Gong websites report that experience-sharing conferences continue to be held, if sporadically and secretly, within China. Practitioners have also continued their efforts to reveal the truth about their movement and its suppression to ordinary Chinese, who have access only to state-controlled media. The PRC has invested millions in firewalls to keep China’s rapidly growing cyberworld free of Falun Gong-related information. On a number of occasions, practitioners have hacked into local cable-TV networks, or even into state-controlled satellites, to broadcast their version of the story. Outside of China, practitioners have continued to appear before international human rights tribunes, and have used the courts to attempt to bring Chinese officials to justice. PRC officials visiting the United States now plan their itineraries carefully to try to avoid being served with legal papers. However noble such efforts are, they have little effect on Chinese authorities within the PRC, who have continued the campaign against Falun Gong, and Falun Gong protests inevitably have come to smack of desperation.
Searching For Charisma among Falun Gong Practitioners
I began my fieldwork in September 1999, traveling with Susan Palmer from Montreal to Toronto, which was and is a major North American center of Falun Gong activities. I recall a vague feeling of trepidation. Trained as an historian, I had little experience with fieldwork, and had certainly never dealt with any group characterized as a dangerous cult. My fears were misplaced. Indeed, throughout my months of fieldwork, I was constantly surprised at the calm, organized, almost sedate, character of Falun Gong gatherings in North America, which exhibit little of the “hot and noisy”10 atmosphere associated with religious activities in China, to say nothing of the paranoid insularity I instinctively associated with “cults.” If there was charisma at work among Falun Gong practitioners or at Falun Gong gatherings, it was of a subdued variety: the leader was rarely present, followers engaged in few if any emotional or ritual displays, and cultivation seemed to be a largely individual discipline. At no point in the many hours I spent at Falun Gong events did I have the impression of being in the presence of anything like the fever David Palmer describes in his contribution to this issue.
And yet Falun Gong practitioners were and are clearly driven by the conviction that they are in possession of an extraordinary gift, bequeathed to them by an extraordinary being via an extraordinary book—Li Hongzhi’s Zhuan Falun—requiring of them extraordinary things. Although they agree on little else, Li Hongzhi and PRC authorities have both found Li’s authority extraordinary in that he has made claims on his followers which, among other things, call into question the rules of politics as practiced in the People’s Republic today. My explanation for this apparent contradiction is that for most practitioners, the expectation of the extraordinary—the common definition of charisma employed by the contributors to this issue—is individually embodied, even if it is the result of the relationship between Li Hongzhi and the individual practitioner. As a transformative corporal technology experienced in the body of the individual practitioner, Falun Gong cultivation, and the charisma which inspires it, can be a powerful motivating experience even while practitioners eschew ecstasy and intense forms of community. The following discussion of Falun Gong practice in North America explores this point.
The repertoire of Falun Gong activities in North America is not extensive. Many practitioners meet daily, in groups of five to fifteen, often in a park or open space, to do Falun Gong exercises. Some of the sites are chosen with an eye toward visibility—keeping Falun Gong in the public eye and perhaps making new recruits—and some are quite clearly political statements: the group that meets daily in front of the Chinese consulate in Toronto presumably chose that spot for a reason.
In addition to exercise sessions, local Falun Gong groups offer fa study—study of the “law” or, more broadly, of Falun Dafa doctrine. Fa study generally requires longer periods of time than performing the exercises, and fa study meetings are held less frequently than exercise sessions—often in rented or borrowed spaces since Falun Gong has no churches or temples of its own. Inevitably this means that schedules and venues change frequently. The fa study sessions that I have attended often involve large amounts of group reading of Li Hongzhi’s texts, although there appears to be no set format, and practices may vary from place to place or may have evolved over time. In any event, even veteran practitioners are not allowed to preach or to explicate Li Hongzhi’s doctrine, which means that such discussion as does occur tends to be very tentative: practitioners invariably preface any comment with the disclaimer “this is only my personal opinion.” It is not surprising that reading scripture together often takes the place of genuine exchange. A more intensive form of fa study, often for beginning practitioners, is the nine-day lecture series where new practitioners view nine 90-minute long videos of Li Hongzhi’s lectures—the same lectures that make up the core of his book Zhuan Falun—together with veteran practitioners.
Practitioners also engage in activities to “make known the Way” (hongfa). Hongfa could be translated “proselytizing” as well, but most Falun Dafa practitioners believe that people are “destined” (you yuanfen) to find Dafa (or not), and thus usually do not actively attempt to convert non-practitioners, although they are always happy to welcome a newcomer into the fold. Performing the exercises in a public place is one means of making known the Way, and illustrates that there is no firm distinction between cultivation and publicization. Other such activities include handing out flyers in the metro or in a mall, depositing Falun Gong literature in stores, libraries, laundries, and other places, and participating in the many activities organized by Falun Gong, such as protests, marches, parades, and celebrations of Chinese culture. Although handing out flyers in a mall may not at first glance appear to be a deeply spiritual activity, it nonetheless requires a type of courage which, for example, elderly Chinese women may lack, particularly as they are often incapable of expressing themselves well in English. I have heard more than one practitioner talk about how difficult they found such activities, how hard it was to overcome the “attachment” of worrying about what others might think of them.
Experience-sharing conferences are the places in the Falun Gong repertoire where one might most expect to encounter charismatic displays. These conferences are held every few months in the major cities of a particular region. If a conference is held, for example, in Toronto in January, there may be a second such conference in Ottawa in April, a third in Montreal in July, a fourth in Boston in September, perhaps another in New York late in the year. Practitioners attempt to attend as many as possible, and organizers arrange bus travel and home stays for those traveling between Toronto and Montreal, for instance. The events provide an occasion to rekindle friendships, to hear others’ experiences, to participate in marches and other demonstrations—which in the past often drew media attention—and, occasionally, to hear Li Hongzhi speak, as he shows up on certain of such occasions, although his appearances are unannounced since the beginning of the campaign of suppression.
Most experience-sharing conferences last a day and a half to two days, and consist of a variety of activities: some form of fa study, group discussions of practical subjects such as how to obtain police permission for local public events, a march or other demonstration, perhaps a musical or cultural performance, a number of meals taken together (often box lunches or dinners eaten outdoors or in a large common area), and a series of witness statements. The marches are generally low-key affairs: practitioners chat rather than chant, interrupted by the persistent ring of cell phones, and most of the organizational acumen seems to go into insuring that the group not unduly impede the flow of traffic, or, conversely, get too dispersed by having to wait too long at traffic lights so as to reduce the demonstration’s impact. Fa study at an experience-sharing conference looks much like it does back home. Practical discussions are interesting exchanges of information but are often far removed from the religious aspects of Falun Gong life.
The witness statements are the performative and spiritual core of an experience-sharing conference. Generally an entire day, sometimes more, is given over to such statements, in which local practitioners—not visiting stars, which the movement seems to lack in any case—stand before several hundred fellow practitioners to provide their own personal testimonials. Individual stories vary, of course, but a common narrative is that of the discovery of Falun Gong, often in the context of a health-related concern, followed by the turmoil many practitioners experience when faced with multiple and conflicting obligations, not the least of which is Li Hongzhi’s injunction that they remain squarely within the world, and not withdraw to cultivate in isolation. Practitioners note the difficulty in finding a proper balance, and recount episodes of hardship, failure and even despair before redoubling their initial commitment to the Way as taught by Master Li. The themes sounded again and again are those of the discovery of the extraordinary gift the Master’s teachings represent, and of persistence and faith, even in the face of the knowledge that ultimate salvation (or “consummation”) is not at hand, but will require years of continuing effort.
Witness statements could be charismatic moments, and sometimes are. Although the speakers are not leaders in any formal sense, they are the focus of group attention, and articulate a narrative which dramatically recounts what they see as their own extraordinary transformations, with promise of more such transformations to come, under the constant guidance of a shared extraordinary master. And some moments are indeed electrifying, when a gifted speaker with a fascinating story—of a return to China, an arrest, a triumphant release—delivers his testimony at an opportune moment.
More often than not, however, these testimonials promise more than they deliver, generally for organizational reasons. The testimonials are inevitably written out beforehand, in part because the speaker wants to get it right, in part because the testimonials will be translated from Chinese into English or from English into Chinese, so that the speaker can deliver his message in his native language, while practitioners who do not speak that language listen to a translation through the headphones provided at most North American experience-sharing conferences. Professional preachers learn early in their careers not to read directly from their sermon notes, as this puts the audience to sleep. Few Falun Gong practitioners have learned this lesson, and the effect is predictable, many testimonials being punctuated by the sounds of snoring, or by the restless coming and going of bored members of the audience. The translations are often poorly done, and read aloud into a microphone off-stage by non-native speakers incapable of speaking English as quickly as the witness is speaking Chinese (or vice-versa), so that there is often a gap of several minutes between testimonials to allow the translator to finish reading his text. Often, there seem to be almost as many testimonials in English as in Chinese, although some 90% of North American practitioners are Chinese. This means that many Chinese practitioners have to wrestle with their headphones as often as the few non-Chinese in attendance. In addition, organizers seem unconcerned with creating any sort of effect on the audience through the thematic or linguistic grouping of testimonials, and their commitment to inclusiveness seems to preclude the most basic efforts of quality control. I recall the young Canadian practitioner who thanked Master Li profusely for having helped her to “overcome her fear of small rodents” because I had to suppress a giggle. Many testimonials were thoroughly forgettable, except to the witness delivering it. Consequently, the audience was rarely enthralled—quite the opposite. They chatted among themselves, checked their watches, and were visibly relieved when the session was over.
I eventually realized that since the testimonials were written out, I could ask for the computer versions of the documents instead of trying to take detailed notes. Reading them unencumbered by the performative aspects of the experience-sharing conference was considerably more moving, but as far as I know I was the only one to experience the effects of such charisma.
I was present at two experience-sharing conferences when Li Hongzhi arrived unexpectedly. His presence clearly changed the atmosphere, as everyone rushed to listen to him quietly and respectfully while he held forth for twenty to thirty minutes. Yet the master’s impromptu visit was hardly transformative, at least not to the outside observer. Practitioners remained disciplined, restrained. No one sought to ask Li questions or to follow him when he left the stage at the end of his speech, and the regular routines of the conference resumed immediately after his departure. Some practitioners seemed to have a private twinkle in their eye which I had not noticed prior to Li’s visit, but I felt no particular collective buzz, and if everyone was talking excitedly about the master, it was not while I was listening to them.
My tongue-in-cheek description of searching for charisma among Falun Gong practitioners notwithstanding, I do not think that the movement, or the discipline, has become routinized, if by routinized we mean that the electrifying power of the master’s original charisma has been diminished. Quite the contrary, the practitioners I met during my fieldwork remained utterly convinced of the extraordinary nature of their practice, their master, their cause. Most practitioners exuded a quiet confidence which allowed them to appreciate the potential charisma of an experience-sharing conference, or any other aspect of Falun Gong practice, in spite of its seemingly mundane aspect.
One reason for this is that if we define charisma as the expectation of the extraordinary, then for the Falun Gong practitioner the extraordinary is consistently embodied in his or her own corporal experience. The single most common narrative articulated by Falun Gong practitioners during experience-sharing conferences or in personal interviews is a narrative of wellness: a return to health after a serious and protracted illness, a triumph over a chronic, incurable condition, a reversal of the aging process, a simple achievement of a state of mental and physical well-being. The process is not immediate or unidirectional.
When practitioners fall ill and work their way through their illness without recourse to medication, they are burning off karma and increasing their store of virtue. Nor has the master promised them everlasting health; his promise was to clear away the immediate obstacles so that the practitioner could himself or herself start to cultivate. In other words, the master passes the test of accountability, in Feuchtwang and Wang’s formulation, if the practitioner has, at some point, felt an improvement in health or well-being since beginning the practice.
At the same time, the emic logic of the embodiment of charisma in Falun Gong leads away from egocentric focus on individual aches and pains and toward engagement with the world. In addition to reading and re-reading of Zhuan Falun, Falun Gong requires moral behavior of its practitioners both as a self-evident good and as a means of reducing individual karma, on the principle that righteous conduct often results in suffering, and enduring this suffering will again reduce one’s karmic debt and raise one’s quotient of virtue. Falun Gong also advocates eliminating all attachments, even human attachments. Practitioners are meant to be good not only to friends and family, but to be indiscriminately good to both friend and foe. If the practitioner’s kindness earns him the appreciation of others, he may be pleased but should also struggle against any attachment to such positive sentimental feedback. If the goodness—such as honesty, or defense of principle—earns him opprobrium, so much the better. Positive feedback feels good but is not an end in itself, while negative feedback offers the promise of ever greater rewards. Life for the practitioner is a happy obstacle course in the sense that obstacles are necessary to advancement.
Wellness is experienced individually. Falun Gong exercises are often performed collectively, but the effects are individual. Falun practitioners enjoy the company of fellow practitioners whose own personal experience of wellness reinforces their own, but the communal experience is by no means necessary to the individual expectation of the extraordinary. Practitioners sometimes read Zhuan Falun collectively, but again, the effects are individual. I have often been struck by the number of practitioners sitting quietly in a corner at an experience-sharing conference, reading Zhuan Falun all by themselves while hundreds of other practitioners carry on with their sometimes noisy business. In short, the charisma of Falun Gong is the charisma of a transformative corporal technology, the transformation being gradual and individual. The master is necessary, as it is his gongfa, his qigong technology, which makes the transformation possible, but the hard work of cultivation is done by the practitioner. The Falun Gong community is welcome, but is neither necessary nor sufficient for individual transformation to occur. At experience-sharing conferences, North American practitioners often speak emotionally about the growing worldwide family of practitioners. Chinese practitioners, however, rarely evoke familial or collective metaphors. From this perspective, Falun Gong is an individualized practice which refuses to exalt individual achievement, and indeed renounces individual attachment to anything—sometimes even to the master, except as a source of teachings. One might see this as “slow burning” charisma: the master, via his writings, makes achievement of the extraordinary possible, as long as the practitioner is willing to work hard over a long period to achieve such goals. I might note that this finding tends to confirm the notion that charisma refers to a relationship between leader and followers rather than to the awe-inspiring character of the leader, for the core of the charismatic experience of the Falun Gong practitioner is an (imagined) relationship with master Li Hongzhi, a relationship mediated by books, websites, and perhaps the occasional glimpse of the master at an experience-sharing conference.
The Charisma of Martyrdom
The PRC’s campaign against Falun Gong has increasingly allowed Li Hongzhi to develop what might be called the charisma of martyrdom or the charisma of victimization: the notion that the suffering experienced by practitioners is part of a millenarian teleology which will eventuate in the triumph of Falun Gong and the fall of the Chinese Communist Party. Although the campaign against Falun Gong was already under way when I began my fieldwork, most North American practitioners remained relatively optimistic in the early years. Convinced that their media campaigns would bring the pressure of world opinion to bear on the PRC leadership, practitioners spoke frequently of the suffering of their brethren in China, but rarely linked this suffering to broader themes of martyrdom or to Endtime discourses. The embodied charisma discussed above describes, I believe, practices and beliefs among North American practitioners before the PRC achieved its public relations victory in its battle against Falun Gong. Indeed, the collective Falun Gong activities I observed may have been more a response to the PRC anti-Falun Gong campaign than the result of internally generated charisma, for it is clear that Falun Gong activities in North America increased greatly in response to the Chinese state’s campaign against Falun Gong in China. This does not contradict my interpretation of embodied charisma, which emphasized the individual practitioner rather than the collective movement.
I stopped doing systematic fieldwork among Falun Gong practitioners in late 2002, in large measure because of the increasing pressure placed on me by practitioners to play a role in their struggle against the Chinese state. As Falun Gong multiplied its websites and media outlets—New Tang Dynasty Television and The Epoch Times newspaper being the most important—it was to be expected that they seek out the opinions of academic authorities to try to make their case. At the same time, despite my sympathy for the plight of Falun Gong practitioners, it became impossible to deliver any sort of nuanced message through Falun Gong media, or even to have meaningful conversations with many Falun Gong practitioners whose worldview had become increasingly dualistic. Many practitioners also became insistent and almost paranoid, adopting an “us against them” mentality which makes interaction with them unpleasant and unproductive, and which, unfortunately, confirms the suspicions of those who all along saw them as a cult. This was rarely the case when I was doing fieldwork between 1999 and 2002. Unwilling to become the Falun Gong pet expert, or to joust with practitioners as adversaries, as do most journalists, I simply decided to distance myself from them.
The evolution of practitioners’ attitudes is explained of course by the PRCs campaign against Falun Gong, and by Li Hongzhi’s discursive response to the campaign. Li has insisted, in speeches that I find largely incoherent, that the campaign is part of a cosmic “fa rectification” which will result in the evisceration of the forces of evil (i.e., the Chinese Communist Party) and the triumph of the Falun Gong elect. Practitioners are enjoined to see the campaign as a test which they must endure like any other, although Li on occasion promises immediate consummation (enlightenment, salvation—the end result of successful cultivation) for those who make the ultimate sacrifice. Li scorns those practitioners—even in China, where stakes of resistance are high—who lack the courage of their convictions, a scorn which comes close to denying practitioners the exit possibility Stephan Feuchtwang demands of “good charisma” in his contribution to this issue. To some extent, Li’s rhetoric is consistent with his earlier teachings. As noted above, Falun Gong practitioners are enjoined to see the world as a “happy obstacle course” (i.e., a kind of test), and Li’s promise to grant consummation to those who die for the cause may be seen as an acceleration of normal cultivation activities. In other words, Li Hongzhi has always demanded that his followers engage with the wider world, even if this wider world was originally portrayed as an unfeeling society rather than an evil regime.
At the same time, I cannot but wonder if Li’s insistence on a collective response to the forces of evil has not complicated the focus of Falun Gong cultivation. The quiet confidence which I observed during my fieldwork, a confidence based on individual transformation through personal effort, seems to be giving way to a frenzied effort to demonstrate—to a largely indifferent public as well as to fellow practitioners—the righteousness of the Falun Gong cause. Further fieldwork would be necessary to determine if this collective frenzy has indeed supplanted individual cultivation or if the two dimensions co-exist. Falun Gong practitioners clearly continue to expect the extraordinary, notably, the fall of the Chinese Communist Party and the reversal of the fortunes of Falun Gong in China. And whatever one may think about the contents of The Epoch Times, the programming of New Tang Dynasty Television, or the Chinese New Year’s song-and-dance extravaganzas mounted and marketed by Falun Gong as displays of traditional Chinese culture, the charisma of martyrdom has proven to be a powerful motivating force. Still, to echo the terms employed by Ji Zhe in his contribution to this issue, Li Hongzhi’s call to martyrdom may signal an abandonment of the affection and responsibility a charismatic leader owes to his followers. From a non-practitioner’s perspective, Li seems to ask that his followers make sacrifices that he himself has not made, and he would certainly not be the first charismatic leader to do so. Li’s charisma may ultimately be cheapened as it is transformed into routinized political protests whose expectations of the extraordinary sound increasingly desperate and hollow.