BEIJING--In the early 1990s, China's National Defense Science and Technology Commission conducted a series of experiments to test people with reputed paranormal abilities. Among them was Zhang Baosheng, a Manchurian high school dropout who his disciples said was a 500-year-old extraterrestrial with two functioning brains.
Also tested was Yan Xin, a master of the art of qigong, a millenniums-old type of meditative exercises. Yan claimed that he could change the molecular structure of objects thousands of miles away, or put out huge forest fires just by force of will. Yan's qigong became highly popular, and he now commands an international following from his base in the United States.
With messiahs, cultists and gurus competing to make outrageous claims and attract followers, it's getting harder to make a living in China by putting mind over matter.
China's Falun Gong spiritual group may have drawn the biggest government crackdown and the most international attention in recent years. Its adherents claim it is vastly superior to any other form of spiritual practice. But from another perspective, it is just the latest phenomenon in two decades of a national fascination with qigong.
It is hardly the most radical of movements. "China's government may have mistaken its enemy," says one Western expert on Chinese millennial sects. The country has Muslim sects that are more militant, she notes, and Christian cults that are more apocalyptic--and better organized than Falun Gong, also known as the "Wheel of Law."
In its otherwise exhaustive propaganda campaign against Falun Gong, Beijing has carefully avoided mentioning the similarities between the sect and other schools of qigong.
Other qigong masters, for example, have organized disciples to protest at the offices of media that have portrayed them negatively. Like Falun Gong, other types of qigong can occasionally induce hallucinations and psychotic reactions. Older, Buddhist schools of qigong have used the "wheel of law" metaphor to describe the movement of unseen energies through the body. And plenty of spiritual groups similar to Falun Gong have been targeted in government crackdowns.
Since China revived qigong in the early 1980s after suppressing it during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, many popular styles of qigong have had their day in the sun before adherents moved on to new fads.
In the early 1990s, for example, the "crane stance" style, in which the practitioner stands on one leg and flaps his arms, attracted a large following. The "fragrant" style, which wafted heavenly scents up followers' noses, had its heyday around the same time.
But qigong as a cultural practice lives on. Its roots lie deep within Chinese philosophy, which still competes with modern science in providing Chinese with explanations about the human body and life's meaning.
Even die-hard Marxists are bound to the Chinese way of life, the theoretical foundations for which rest on qi, the ubiquitous bio-energy that is believed to flow through the body's meridians.
Qigong skills in "regulating the flow of blood and qi, taking medicine while observing yin and yang, and calming the mind by relaxing the bones and muscles" were detailed as early as the 5th century BC medical canon, "The Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic."
In fact, even as it cracks down on Falun Gong, the ruling Communist Party is simultaneously waging an ideological education campaign that emphasizes President Jiang Zemin's prescription for "righteous qi" as an antidote to pervasive corruption among party cadres.
These theories are applied today in exercise groups in parks and at qigong clinics in hospitals all over the country. The army, while banned from practicing Falun Gong, uses "hard" qigong training to allow its troops to withstand blows and to chop through bricks. Martial artists and magicians use qigong to perform stunts such as throwing needles through glass, walking on lightbulbs or licking red-hot shovels.
But qigong also has a transcendental aspect. Practitioners say qigong exercises transmute the body's qi first into spiritual energy and then into nothingness, leaving the practitioner in harmony with the universe.
In the competitive market of qigong gurus, some have had to diversify beyond simple healing. Qigong and martial arts magazines are full of ads for qigong schools such as that of master Liu Jineng of Sichuan, who "will personally use his lotus flower and Buddha light to purify your body, and directly plant the true seeds of the elixir . . . was 186 yuan [$22.50], now only 93 yuan [$11.25]."
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