October 29, 1999

Banned in China, Thriving in New York


About 10 to 12 people stand in a circle near a well-traveled path in Riverside Park at 6 A.M. every day and together they move their hands in smooth and deliberate strokes -- up and down, in an arc and around again. The joggers and dog walkers who pass barely give them a second glance. They, in turn, are oblivious to the city that is awakening around them. Their eyes are shut, their faces expressionless as they listen to the gentle strains of traditional Chinese music and the voice of their master, Li Hongzhi, a man the Chinese Government has declared a criminal. Li's voice guides them through the exercises at the heart of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned in China over the summer.

Officials have arrested thousands of Falun Gong followers across China and announced that they planned to prosecute the movement's top leaders for subversion. This week, thousands of Falun Gong members converged on Beijing to pressure the Government to reverse its ban.

But even as the Chinese Government continues its campaign to eradicate Falun Gong from Chinese society because of fears that it has gained cult status, the movement's popularity in the New York area has continued to grow among immigrants and Westerners alike. There are about two dozen loosely organized practice groups in the city of anywhere between 5 and 60 people each. And nearly 600 followers showed up at an "experience sharing" conference in upper Manhattan earlier this month.

In many ways, the movement is benefiting from a wave of interest in qigong (pronounced chee-goong), a form of Chinese healing and physical strengthening that has thousands of years of history and thousands of different styles of exercise and meditation. Since the early 1990's, a growing number of qigong classes and centers have emerged across the region as an alternative to yoga or tai chi, or as a means for Chinese immigrants to socialize with one another.

Yet practitioners of the two spiritual imports find themselves in an awkward relationship. Followers of Falun Gong describe their practice as a more enlightened version of qigong. Practitioners of qigong, on the other hand, cannot seem to distance themselves from Falun Gong fast enough for fear of being labeled a cult. Still, the tension seems more rooted in nervousness over what is happening back in China -- where members say they are being persecuted for their beliefs -- than what is evolving here.

Local Falun Gong adherents like Hong Wei Wu, a computer programmer on Wall Street and an immigrant from Shanghai, are outraged by the actions of the Chinese Government. "You know the Chinese Government always wants to control everything," she said. "But they don't know we only want to become a better person and to improve our health with Falun Gong."

New Yorkers who practice Falun Gong, which combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and qigong, are an eclectic bunch. About half the followers are Chinese, who learned about Falun Gong from friends and relatives in China, and the rest are a mix of white, black and Hispanic residents, who learned about the practices at health expositions or from friends.

Like qigong, Falun Gong teaches that exercise and meditation can harness the body's energy, an intangible force known in Chinese as qi, to improve one's health. Exercises often mimic the movements of animals, a tiger, a monkey or a crane, and are designed to direct the qi in one's body to help clear "blockages."

But Falun Gong also espouses a philosophy on life that includes a Falun, or "law wheel," that spins in the abdomen, drawing in good forces and expelling bad ones. It also suggests that advanced students can gain supernatural powers like X-ray vision and abnormally long lives. They describe their practices as an elevated, more enlightened version of qigong. "It's way, way above qigong," said Gail Rachlin, a media relations consultant who has tried other forms of qigong but now practices Falun Gong regularly in Riverside Park. "Qigong can help you physically but it doesn't stay with you and Falun Gong goes beyond the physical by helping you upgrade your thinking and mentality."

Followers of qigong perform the "soaring crane" exercise at a midtown center.

But many practitioners of traditional qigong are extremely wary of being confused with Falun Gong. They say Falun Gong's emphasis on morality and the cult of personality surrounding its founder, Li Hongzhi, separates it from traditional qigong, where the emphasis is on self-help and independence. Dr. Effie Poy Yew Chow, president of the American Qigong Association and a consultant on alternative medicine for the National Institutes of Health, said that while Falun Gong followers are urged to stop taking medicine to cultivate themselves, "true qigong is about setting people free to make choices and not dropping everything just to do one thing."

Local followers of Yan Xin qigong, another enormously popular style of qigong in China and here, were so paranoid about being linked to Falun Gong and subsequently being targeted by the Chinese Government that they refused to discuss their practices for publication. Nancy Chen, a medical anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has closely studied qigong, said that some followers are probably fearful because the Chinese Government's campaign to purge Falun Gong is neither its first nor likely its last effort at eradicating a specific brand of qigong.

The Chinese Government created a commission in the early 1990's to try to regulate and contain the thousands of styles of qigong that had proliferated in the 1970's and 1980's. In the process, the Government branded a handful of qigong masters as charlatans, just as it has Li Hongzhi.

Lei Zhong, a doctoral candidate in immunology at a New York University who has been practicing qigong for five years, said he was drawn by scientific curiosity. "Traditional qigong is based on science that we don't fully understand," he said. "I think of it as a scientific challenge. How does it work and how can human energy be so powerful?"

Yi Wu and his wife, Rong-Er Shen, run classes and see dozens of patients each week at their qigong center in midtown Manhattan. At a recent healing session, Wu gathered his qi by going through the deliberate movements of his own style of qigong. Then, from across the room, he projected his qi out of his forehead towards his patient, Carl Peterson, a retired physicist who suffers from abdominal cancer. Wu never laid hands on Peterson, but he said his qi had created "a very strong energy field that allowed the patient to feel restful so that his body could then slowly repair itself." When Wu was done, Peterson said he felt as though the tension had been drained out of him and been replaced by "a sense of well being." He added that he didn't go to Wu "looking for a cure for cancer. I came to build up my energy and the energy is definitely coming back."

While millions in China seem to have turned to qigong starting in the late 1970's as they searched for new meaning and direction in post-Mao China, followers in the United States seem drawn to qigong mainly for what they see as its health benefits. And their ailments can range from insomnia and achy joints to cancer and other life-threatening diseases. The American Qigong Association hopes eventually to create training standards and certification requirements for qigong, much like those now imposed on acupuncture. Those standards would be a move toward legitimizing qigong in the United States which, in an odd way, would parallel the Chinese Government's recent attempts to regulate the myriad of styles in practice there.

Qigong's elusive qualities will make it difficult to create standards. "Qigong is a pure art and you can't evaluate the part of it that is mystical," Dr. Chin said. "But you can make sure that the foundation is there and that there is an understanding of channels and how to do a diagnosis. We may not be able to produce masters, but we can at least produce good ractitioners."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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