Health Sects in China Thrive, if Authorities See No Threat


New York Times, December 28, 1999
By Erik Eckholm

BEIJING, Dec. 27, 1999 -- Most mornings in a large park in western Beijing, near the stone marker labeled Oasis of Life, hundreds of cancer patients practice ritual exercises as they try to harness the invisible forces of qigong to fight their disease.

"HAAA! HAAA!" shout those with lung cancer, trying to expel "bad" elements from their lungs as they take a stylized walk. Other patients simply stride in a deliberate way for four hours at a time, their arms shifting in a prescribed fashion.

A dozen newcomers circle around Yu Dayuan, a disciple of the Guo Lin school of anti-cancer qigong, named for the late master who developed it in the 1970's.

Many of the novices have already endured surgery or chemotherapy and been told that their cases are hopeless. They have come to learn how to mobilize the forces of qi that are said to reside in the body and the environment. They learn the trademark meditative walk, and they hear Mr. Yu's uplifting speech.

"Don't worry," he says. "Even if you didn't have cancer you'd die some day. There are benefits to being a cancer patient: your family will take good care of you and give you nutritious food." "But the negative side," he adds, "is that you have to go through surgery, and you may die."

This thriving anti-cancer movement, replete with the testimonials of cured patients, is one of hundreds of variants of qigong (pronounced chee-goong) that continue operating in China, even as the authorities pursue their harsh crackdown on one prominent offshoot, Falun Gong, and step up their scrutiny of the others.

The official acceptance of some qigong sects while others are crushed is part of a two-decade, often tortuous effort by the government to distinguish supposedly scientific, beneficial qigong from practices that are labeled superstitious and then curbed. Officially branded as a superstitious "evil cult," Falun Gong was banned in July. On Sunday, four leaders were given stiff prison sentences for, among other charges, allegedly telling ill followers that they could dispense with conventional medicine. Since the campaign to eradicate Falun Gong began, attendance in the anti-cancer group here in Yuyuantan Park has dropped off sharply, Mr. Yu, himself a long-term cancer survivor, made a point of saying, because people fear attracting the attention of the police.

But the group has patrons high in scientific circles, avoids making broad spiritual claims and has not held anything like the illegal demonstrations that got Falun Gong into trouble, and Mr. Yu continues to proselytize without being bothered.

While the concept of qi forces, or vital energy, is ancient and pervasive in China, the term for the exercises, qigong, was first widely used in the 1950's, and the movement blossomed only as political controls relaxed in the 1980's and 90's.

From the beginning it presented the Communist authorities with a conundrum. "Officials wanted to promote what they considered to be a truly Chinese science," said Nancy Chen, a medical anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has studied qigong groups. "They wanted to retain the best qualities of qigong, and they believe that it really does have healing properties. What they wanted to control was the simultaneous possibility of widespread social movements."

Whether the situation is parallel or not, tense officials are well aware that mystical cults in the past have erupted into huge, disruptive political forces, like the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century and the Boxers at the turn of the 20th century.

The official campaign against Falun Gong, which began only after members staged a huge illegal demonstration in Beijing in April, is the latest and most publicized of several crackdowns on sects of qigong, Ms. Chen said. The banned groups all had messianic leaders who, like the founder of Falun Gong, were accused of fostering cults and gained large followings, she said. The distinctions between supposedly valid and bogus forms of qigong are blurry, because every sect has masters claiming what by Western standards are supernatural powers. But ongoing groups like the anti-cancer club in the park are especially careful now to limit their claims.

"Ours is a scientific path, not a superstitious one," Mr. Yu said in a conversation in the park, rattling off figures for the thousands of his students who he said had survived their cancers. He made a point of saying that patients were urged to combine Western and traditional Chinese treatments with their qigong.

While many doctors here who are trained in Western medicine scoff at the medical claims, qigong has had influential supporters, and some senior political leaders over the years have consulted qigong masters. The country's most famous scientist, Qian Xuesen, who returned from the United States in the early 1950's to help develop China's missiles and nuclear weapons, has long been a proponent of qigong, writing in the 1980's, for example, "Truly top-class qigong masters really do have some physical paranormal powers."

Recently President Jiang Zemin made a public visit to Mr. Qian, now 88 and bedridden, to elicit his endorsement of the crackdown on Falun Gong as a fake.

A key patron of the Guo Lin anti-cancer sect is Feng Lida, a politically well connected, Soviet-trained medical doctor who is deputy director of the General Navy Hospital in Beijing. In an interview Dr. Feng, 74, explained that at first she had been skeptical, but that in the late 1970's, when she saw what she felt were amazing recoveries of patients with cancer and infectious diseases, she became intrigued by qigong.

Dr. Feng invited some prominent qigong masters to conduct experiments in which they used their hands to direct qi forces at test tubes of bacteria. They were able to raise and lower the bacterial levels at will, she said, pulling out chart-laden publications as evidence.

Then the masters tried to alter the growth of cancer cells, she said, and although the effects were weaker and took more time, they, too, were detectable. "These experiments told us that it is really science," Dr. Feng said in her Beijing office, next to photographs of her shaking hands with President Jiang, the legislative leader Li Peng and the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. "Qigong is a Chinese treasure."

Dr. Feng now hopes to spread qigong, along with good nutrition and attention to crucial details like sleeping with one's head pointed to the north, in alignment with magnetic fields, as a low-cost way to meet the country's health care needs.

Around the Oasis of Life marker in Yuyuantan Park, the mood is surprisingly cheerful as cancer patients who have completed their long walks chat and exchange tips. It is clear that if nothing else, the qigong club acts as a kind of support group for the seriously ill.

"We try to create a joyous atmosphere," Mr. Yu said. "We call this building group resistance. If a patient becomes desperate, no medicine can cure him."

Mr. Yu went on to explain elaborate theories about how the walking exercises and meditation free the flows of qi energy and blood through the body, strengthening defenses against disease. He described the 10 different shouts that are prescribed for various forms of cancer, which function, he said, "as a kind of exchange with the outside world." Among the regulars are several longtime survivors and total believers in the power of qi.

He Kaifeng, a spry 65-year-old who worked as an engineer, said cancer in her lungs and abdomen was diagnosed 18 years ago. She had chemotherapy, she said, but then developed an intestinal problem and had to be fed intravenously for four months.

"The doctors gave up on me," she said. So she started practicing Guo Lin qigong, learning from the founding master in Purple Bamboo Park nearby. "At first, I was so weak that I often had to lie down on the bench as I exercised," Ms. He said, recalling the four hours of walking each morning. "I never dreamed that I would survive very long." Now she helps teach qigong to others as she continues modified exercise herself.

Zhou Hangyu, 31, was only in his second week of practice the other morning. A building designer with a construction company, he was told earlier this year that he had lung cancer. He had surgery in July, he said, and chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer has spread ominously into his liver.

Mr. Zhou said he had heard about the group in Yuyuantan Park from a fellow patient in his hospital ward and decided to give it a try. "I'm still just learning how to do it, and I haven't felt any beneficial effect yet," he said. "But the group spirit provides good support. They are all really determined to resist cancer."


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