Until this summer, Maria Tai and her husband, Warren, never saw much reason to publicize their devotion to Falun Gong, a once obscure Chinese system of philosophy and physical exercise that believers say improves health and builds spirits.
Like most of the estimated 150 Falun Gong followers in the Chicago area, the Tais of Winnetka were content to practice their "cultivation system" quietly--gathering in parks and other tranquil spots to perform tai chi-like routines to a soundtrack of traditional Chinese music.
"It's always been basically a personal thing," said Maria Tai, 50, an accountant who credits Falun Gong with boosting her energy level and soothing her husband's ulcer.
But in the last month, like hundreds of other Falun Gong followers in the United States, the Tais have found themselves propelled into the unfamiliar position of activists--rallying at the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago and traveling to Washington to meet with lawmakers--as their group has became embroiled in a fierce political storm in China.
Charging that Falun Gong--which claims millions of practitioners worldwide--aims to subvert the government, China's leadership has detained thousands of the group's followers since the middle of July. Beijing also issued an international call for the arrest of the group's leader, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in New York City. In China, the crackdown has met with firm resistance among followers who insist that their group has no political agenda.
And from San Francisco to Washington, practitioners of Falun Gong have emerged to protest China's actions in numbers that have surprised many. In one protest on July 21, scores of practitioners assembled at Chicago's Chinese Consulate General to appeal for the release of Chinese detainees.
"We are not political figures," said Warren Tai, 52, an executive vice president at a bank in Chicago. "But you see what is happening (in China) and you are desperate. You need somebody to listen to you." Public actions like these, featuring broad coalitions that range from college students to retirees, have demonstrated vividly the inroads Falun Gong has achieved since it was introduced to the U.S. as recently as 1996, experts say. The attention also has provided a clearer picture of the group's followers in this country.
Once practiced almost exclusively by middle-age Chinese immigrants, Falun Gong's newest adherents include many people of a very different profile--young, middle class and non-Chinese. Included are growing groups of white, black and Latino practitioners who have emerged in the last year or so, said Gail Rachlin, a Falun Gong spokeswoman in New York.
One group in New Jersey holds its study sessions in Russian.
"Many of the non-Chinese are drawn to it because they are looking for an alternative outside of bio-medicine," said Nancy Chen, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has studied Falun Gong and similar groups. "And this is a sort of healing that provides instant community, instant answers."
What practitioners in this country have in common is an extraordinary devotion to their beliefs and to their teacher, Li--whom they credit generously, from helping them quit smoking to improving their marriages.
Since 1996, Falun Gong--which also goes by the name Falun Dafa--has developed pockets of devotees in at least 38 states, according to the group.
Practitioners vary widely in age and occupation, from computer programming college students to retired nurses.
It is impossible to estimate how many people in this country practice Falun Gong because many follow it privately, and the group claims no centralized organization. The largest concentrations are in California, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Illinois, according to the group and experts who study it.
Still, Chen said, "the exact number is not as important as the devotion."
"For them to go out on the street to defend their beliefs, it is clear that they have been moved beyond just exercise," she said.
A variation on the traditional Chinese meditation system known generally as "qigong," Falun Gong combines a physical routine of five methodical exercises with a system of beliefs based on Li's teachings--articulated in essays with titles like "Enlightenment" and "On the Issue of Healing Illnesses."
It is this philosophical component that differentiates Falun Gong from other qigong systems.
Many practitioners object to the view of Falun Gong as a sect or religion.
Although they find spiritual guidance in the group's teachings, they say, there are no formal religious practices, temples or membership dues.
At one Chicago-area meeting spot, a dozen practitioners gather every Wednesday evening in a quiet parking lot at a Westmont office park. Set to a soothing soundtrack of traditional Chinese music and Li's instructions, the group of scientists, store owners and restaurant workers performs its exercises for 90 minutes, before settling down for a study session of Li's teachings.
"People don't understand this type of practice, and they have to put it into some kind of category," said Andy Cook, a 35-year-old film gaffer and member of the Westmont group who lives in Riverside. "It touches on Buddhist and Taoist traditions, but it is not about worshiping a deity."
At a June meeting in Chicago, 1,300 practitioners crowded into the Chicago Marriott Downtown to see Li and discuss his teachings.
The crackdown in China began shortly after that. And for conference attendees like engineer Sen Yang, 38, of Schaumburg, the Chicago meeting marked one of the last times followers gathered without the mental burdens of media attention or international politics.
"We never wanted to think about these things at all," Yang said. "Now, we are just seeking a solution and trying to let the world know the truth."
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