Cults Boom As New Millennium Looms


Associated Press, July 24, 1999
By Charles Hutzler

WHITE CLOUD MOUNTAIN, China (AP) - The farmer wearing a crisp blue Mao suit and a lifetime of cares on his creased face throws himself at the black-swaddled legs of a gray-bearded Taoist priest. Nearby, childless couples seek prayers and potions for fertility.

By the thousands every day for eight days, they come. Poor laborers, businessmen with mobile phones, even a reputed local crime lord wearing a gold bracelet - the unfortunate and the fortune-seeking - climb the 700 stone steps up arid White Cloud Mountain for solace.

A religious resurgence is sweeping China, filling the spiritual void as capitalist reforms discredit communist ideology. With it, at millennium's end, have come apocalyptic overtones. Books foretelling doom sell rapidly. Rumors circulate of weird rituals involving the dead.

For China's leaders, the millennium has heightened their worries about popular rejection amid rising unemployment, falling incomes and a year of politically sensitive milestones. Never comfortable with religion, the officially atheistic party is clamping down on superstitious ways and fringe groups, most notably with Thursday's outright ban on the popular meditation-exercise sect Falun Gong.

The arrival of 1999 already had made security forces anxious over Tibetan separatism on the 40th anniversary of an anti-Chinese uprising and renewed dissident activity for the 10th anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Next comes the 50th anniversary of communist rule on Oct. 1.

"On top of that, we've got the end of the millennium to deal with,'' said one Communist Party official involved in security work, who agreed to discuss the issue if not quoted by name.

Those anxieties crystallized in late April, when as many as 30,000 members of Falun Gong surrounded party headquarters in a daylong silent protest - the largest challenge to the leadership in a decade. Protesters even scolded the premier that their New Age blend of beliefs, and not communism, could solve China's spiritual crisis.

After a three-month campaign to infiltrate Falun Gong, discredit its teachings and arrest its leading members drew angry protests in 30 cities, the government banned the group last week, accusing it of "spreading superstitious, evil thinking to blind the people, to stir up trouble.''

The condemnation was the boldest in an intensifying cycle of statements meant to discredit superstition and glorify the "scientific'' socialist policies that have raised living standards for hundreds of millions. "In recent years, ignorant and superstitious activities have gained ground,'' the People's Daily, the authoritative party newspaper, warned in June. "These activities have negatively affected our work and undertakings by varying degrees.''

"Party members are worshipping Buddhas, practicing astrology, divination, geomancy and physiognomy,'' the newspaper complained.

Those practices, and more, were in evidence at White Cloud Mountain for what locals call northwestern China's biggest Taoist festival, an eight-day celebration of the great protector spirit, Zhen Wu.

The spare precincts of the 400-year-old temple above the Yellow River, in the barren, over-farmed terraced hills of Shaanxi province, drew worshippers from as far as central China's rice basket 550 miles to the south.

Beggars of all stripes - a legless dwarf, farmers ruined by drought - jammed the hillside with hawkers of dubious tonics and shiny amulets, some bearing the likeness of revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung. Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police kept watch, a few of whom occasionally stopped to pray. Itinerant Taoist priests, for a price, told fortunes by examining bumps on heads or lines on hands or feet. Temple priests cast divination sticks. One scratched plaster from the statue of a fertility spirit and mixed the shavings with ashes from burned incense, a powder then given to those seeking children, especially boys.

"People just want equilibrium. They want a life without misfortune and sickness,'' said the Rev. Liu, one of White Cloud Mountain's 20-odd resident Taoist priests.

Despite 2,000 years of empire, China has never experienced a millennium in the Western sense. It didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until this century. But the emperors ruthlessly suppressed end-of-the-world cults and rebellious secret societies as dangers to their rule.

Mao continued the tradition after the communists won power - and extended it to all religion. In the reform era of the past two decades, the government has eased up, but limits religious practice to Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism and Taoism, often described as China's only indigenous religion.

Taoism, however, has always occupied tenuous territory, serving as a grab-bag for rich, local folk religions. Its deities have often been adopted by cults, whose appeal remains strong in the poor countryside.

Over the past half year or so, Chinese authorities have shut down several cults, arresting their leaders. One group, the Master God Sect, had by official count 10,000 members spread over 22 provinces. Its leader was sentenced to death in June.

Lurid crimes of superstition have cropped up in the state media. An aluminum factory worker reportedly dug up more than 100 graves after being told in a dream that handling bones would cure his chronic heart palpitations. Farmers in one poor county purportedly took to buying fresh female corpses to fulfill an old remedy for warding off evil spirits.

Further signs of millennial fascination come from the book shelves. Highbrow stores carry a 10-volume series on calamities, from mine collapses to disaster economics. Executives and ordinary workers alike are reading translations of Nostradamus, the 16th century French astrologer whose writings many think foretell doom in 1999.

"Every one's reading it. I've read it myself,'' said Zhang Wei, operator of a book stall in Beijing's university district. "I don't dare believe it and I don't dare not.''


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