Approximately 100 million people in China were practicing Falun Gong by mid-1999. But even with 1 in 13 Chinese people practicing Falun Gong, it was nearly unknown outside of China—until the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) banned the spiritual discipline in July 1999 and instituted a far-reaching persecution campaign.
A key component of all the CCP’s persecution campaigns is flooding the airwaves, printing presses, and diplomatic channels with false propaganda. The international media, which relied on Chinese state media for information, was a major target of the anti-Falun Gong propaganda. Thus, the first and often only exposure to Falun Gong that many people outside China had was an intentionally distorted picture that was choreographed by the CCP.
Mind and Body
Falun Gong refines, or cultivates, both the mind and the body, which makes it difficult for Western terminology to classify neatly. Is it a spiritual practice, or is it physical exercises? In fact, both are integral to Falun Gong.
There are five exercises in Falun Gong. Four are done standing, and one is a cross-legged meditation. Gentle and slow, they have names like “Falun Heavenly Circulation” and “Penetrating the Two Cosmic Extremes.” People often report feeling refreshed or energized after exercising.
Falun Gong is also known as Falun Dafa; “Dafa” means “great way.” The discipline considers the fundamental principle of the universe to be “Zhen, Shan, Ren.” Zhen translates to truth and truthfulness. Shan is compassion, benevolence, and goodness. Ren is tolerance, forbearance, and endurance. The teachings expound on this point to great depth.
For thousands of years in China, spiritual practices have been handed down quietly from master to student. The teacher, or master, of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, learned the practice privately and then brought it out to teach anyone who wanted to learn, starting in May 1992. Mr. Li crisscrossed China through the end of 1994. He held 54 seminars, each 8 to 10 days long, wherever he was invited. He lectured on the principles, taught the exercises, and fielded questions.
At first, only a few hundred attended each seminar, but by the end of 1994, lecture halls seating several thousand filled up, as word-of-mouth preceded his visits. People told family, friends, and neighbors about how their ailments, from skin conditions to heart problems, were easing or vanishing. They also related how following the teachings led to better relationships with spouses and co-workers and, more generally, to a peaceful and relaxed state of mind.
The practice continued growing by word of mouth, from the tens of thousands who heard Mr. Li’s lectures in person, to tens of millions by mid-1999. Practitioners included the old and the young, university professors and peasants, and military generals and Communist Party members. Practice sites popped up in public parks all across China. Volunteer assistants taught newcomers how to do the movements and brought a tape or CD player to play the music that accompanies the exercises.
After doing the exercises together, while some practitioners would go off to work, some would sit down and read from the main book, “Zhuan Falun,” authored by Mr. Li. Refining the mind and character come through studying this book and other teachings—the texts of which are available for free online—and then applying what is learned in daily life.
Falun Gong practitioners took the practice with them to their universities and companies outside China, with many universities hosting Falun Gong student clubs. Mr. Li gave a full seminar in Sweden in early 1995 and lectured at conferences held by students in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and elsewhere, before the CCP began its persecution campaign in 1999.
The website FalunDafa.org lists regular practice sites in some 70 nations today. It states, “All Falun Dafa activities are free of charge.” The number of people practicing outside China grows even as the ban and persecution inside China continues. The evidence of growth is anecdotal, since exact figures are not kept by anyone, and people are free to practice, or not, as they like.