Eastlit Editorial: Back to the Cult

Back to the Cult

By Nichole L. Reber

On a lazy day meandering through the architecture of Arizona State University’s campus the shushushushu of approaching feet sounds from down a wide sidewalk path. A small Chinese woman shuffles toward me, barreling really, with an energy that magnetizes. Slightly hunched with age and clad all in black despite the oven-like heat, she has salted hair held back by barrettes. Wrinkles parenthesize her blissful smile and her gaze centers on me. Her placement of a shiny piece of paper into my hand as she passes is barely noticeable but then she speaks, something in Mandarin I don’t understand but which sounds like cherry blossoms blown from a gusted tree.

Xie xie.” I at least remember how to say thank you.

“Ah, ni hui shuo putonghua…” She turns to acknowledge her native tongue, changing her hustling steps to a sort of standing-in-place jig while a huge grin blooms across her face. Then she blinks and continues on her way, growing smaller along the path.

Still watching her, a second or ten minutes pass before I look back at the paper in my hand. It’s a bookmark. With “Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance” written in five languages above a drawing of a Chinese woman floating on watercolor clouds. “Falun Dafa is good,” it reads.

A chill races through me. Memory moves time and space to four years and many thousands of miles back to China, where they teach that Falun Dafa is a cult. I yank my head back toward the old woman, but she’s gone. Quicker than a protest in Beijing.


Television documentaries and news reports about Jim Jones and his People’s Temple or Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate bring these cults into popular culture. They foment images of cult members as hollowed out shells of people who once had normal lives, who fell prey to some charismatic leader, a snake charmer who hypnotized them against thinking for themselves, who persuaded them to relinquish possessions, professions, family, and friends. Cult members followed these leaders to form private communities. They shut out the rest of the world to pursue some quality-of-life spiritual quest.    

It’s not only unusual occurrences like these that cause Americans to bandy around the word cult. We’re prone to applying it to people whose passions differ from ours. That damned cult of California liberals. Apple fanatics, Alcoholics Anonymous, tree huggers, vegetarians, Comic-Con attendees. On any given day, someone somewhere is calling something a cult. It’s as commonplace as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writing in one of his columns that the modern conservative movement is a cult. Still, when we hear that word, we get the innuendo.

Life as a new expat in another culture, however, doesn’t afford that linguistic luxury. Neophyte expatriates take most every word literally. Everything is accepted at face value until experience, and more than a few cultural faux pas, enables expats to decipher the nuances of the culture and its language. Fifteen minutes in Peru, for example, means thirty-some. The word uncle in India doesn’t necessarily signify filial relation. Until you’ve earned veteran status in expat life, however, you don’t know these things. Critical thinking gets tucked away. You’re like a child who believes every word mom and grandpa tell you. You hear, for instance, about a local cult and you believe every word of the story.

That’s what happened in 2009, when I took a job at Bohai College in Xing Cheng, a small city in Northeast China. Shortly after a group of us neophyte expatriates arrived from countries all over the world, we gathered at a bar with our young American supervisor. Neil enlightened us about various cultural practices over a couple of beers. His being married to a Chinese woman and having been in China for a few years translated to a credibility we didn’t question. Among the things he told us about was Falun Gong, a name used interchangeably with Falun Dafa. He immobilized the half dozen of us with his tale. His slow, avuncular tone was like that adults use to scare children with campfire tales of local myths and horror stories. All over his old apartment building, he said, he used to find flyers about the group. The flyers came from the tenants upstairs. Lots of people visited that apartment. Late at night. In small groups. One night, strange sounds from the upstairs apartment woke him. He lay frozen in his bed, staring through the dark at the ceiling, listening.

“There were a lot of people. They were moving around in patterns, like they had set up a shrine in the middle of the room and were circling it. They chanted in low voices like some séance.” He paused, looked into our saucer-sized eyes. His sudden silence made us shudder. “I don’t know what they were doing. Communing with the dead. Sacrificing small animals. Who knows? But I’ll tell you what: The police drive around here in white vans at night. Unmarked vans. They’re hiding, watching. They’re looking for people in Falun Gong and they know where they are. Just wait. You’ll see.”

The fear in Neil’s blue eyes turned our skin turn goose-pimply. “After they’re collected, who knows what happens? Labor camps? Execution? So, I’m just telling you, if someone tries to recruit you into Falun Gong… run.”

My knees shook for weeks after that, every time a white van passed. The memory of Neil’s story grew distant a few months later upon moving to Shenzhen, the South China city Deng Xiaoping developed as an experiment in capitalism. In many cities like this and others along China’s eastern coast, worship of Mao’s little red books has been exchanged for worship of little red envelopes of Chinese currency, the renminbi. Mysticism has faded with the rise of nationalism. There was, despite the change of government, no return to the pre-Mao days in which denizens honored and perpetuated the country’s ancient culture of mysticism. In 21st-century China, Buddhist temples do not line major metropolitan streets along the rich coast. Monks do not throng buses or bullet trains. Young people do not join the elderly in practicing tai chi in public parks. Religious icons seem ersatz. For instance, a Buddhist icon known formally as the endless knot hangs from nearly every taxi’s rear-view mirror. This triangular, red silk icon is one of hundreds of auspicious symbols the Chinese revere. Yet question these taxi drivers about the knot’s significance and you’ll get shrugs or vacant stares.

It’s a practice in futility to ask about religion or spirituality in China. One local finance professional whispers about feng shui, which was banished during the days of Mao to prevent it from becoming more popular than him. Ask him why he’s whispering and he says, “China has many hidden police. They can arrest you any time.” In another example, despite the fact church bells are ringing in the background, a young Chinese chanteuse looks around furtively before claiming pride in being Christian. No one, whether Chinese or expat, talks about Falun Gong. After the relief of forgetting about instances like Neil’s bogeyman story, it doesn’t occur to wonder why there’s such silence on the matter. Is it fear or ignorance?

Even after leaving China, the memory of the Chinese bogeyman story never made a blip on my mental landscape. Then came the little old Chinese lady at ASU. And for months afterward, my inability to connect her gleeful, contagious energy with my American preconceptions of hollowed-out cult members. 


In his book Oracle Bones Peter Hessler mentions Falun Gong. Actually, it’s more like a whisper. He explains that Li Hongzhi founded it in China in 1992. It was derived as an offshoot of qigong (chee-gong), a breathing and meditation exercise kin to Taoism and Buddhism. A means to deep spiritual connection, it espouses no particular deity. It has no leaders or initiation practices, no sacrifices or rituals, no buildings for worship, or even ceremonies.

The Zhuan Falun, the group’s official book, is freely available online. It reads: “Our cultivation method has strict character criteria that allow you to temper your character and improve while in human society, under the most complicated circumstances– like a lotus flower emerging out of the mud.” These cultivation methods include chakras (a row of energy sources in the body) and the Third Eye, both of which are also prevalent in Hinduism. Falun Gong practitioners espouse non-attachment and mindfulness (both of which are components of Buddhism), and practicing goodwill, like any religion.

Despite these sentiments, Falun Gong does not have good standing in its country of origin. Beijing initially supported the group and its beliefs. Party officials, in fact, encouraged lectures from Hongzhi’s books and extolled the practice’s abilities to improve physical and temperamental health. Countless soldiers practiced qigong beside civilians. But by 1999, Falun Gong swelled too big for Politburo comfort. Beijing denounced it a cult, state-run media shifted sway, and practitioners were shunned. Still, in public squares practitioners dare to continue gathering. They quietly unfurl banners bearing the words truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance then sit in the lotus position to demonstrate their breathing and meditation exercises. Mainland Chinese followers, however, know they won’t get far. Surrounding them, omnipresent plainclothes cops lurk before springing to action. Beating, arresting, and imprisoning the practitioners. Driving them away in white vans.

I never saw any of this in my two years of living in China. Never even heard of it. So after the black-clad lady I took to the Internet. A former expat told me in an IM conversation, “I see Falun Gong demonstrators in Chicago. They have this huge Chinese music and dance performance every spring. It’s heavily advertised and is put on at the Auditorium Theater, so seems legit to the average Chicagoan. But if you read the fine print of the flyers, it says it’s produced by Falun DaFa. So I’ve never gone to see it. Everyone I know from Hong Kong and China think [sic] they’re quacks.”

I later realized she was talking about Shen Yun, a springtime dance and music event that’s heavily advertised across the country.

“Well, where are we getting the idea that it’s a cult, that they’re quacks? From the Chinese government?”

“Perhaps, but also my Hong Kong friends, who are no fans of the PRC (People’s Republic of China), think that Falun Gong is a cult. But they’re also skeptical about Christian missionaries.”

This kind of conversation would have been dangerous in China– in person or via computer. Type Falun Dafa into Baidu, the country’s most popular search engine, and you’re greeted with a 404 error message, just as happens with Tibetan politics and the Tiananmen Square revolt. Type that in on this side of the Chinese border and you’re directed to FalunDafa.org, which boasts a membership of 100 million people across 80 countries.

You can also find a 2006 report by Canadian MP David Kilgour and Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas. They investigated claims that the 6-10 Office, part of China’s Leading Bureau for the Prevention and Procession of Evil Cults and said to have been established because of Falun Gong, is behind those white vans. Bureau officers routinely capture Falun Dafa members, “re-educate” them by various means (which I’ll talk about later), and commit atrocities that should make Western medical tourists change their minds about having their much needed procedures done in China.

Even some within the US compare Falun Gong to Nazism. Such was the rather comic case of the self-published booklet “Falun Gong: The Force Is with Us,” filled with research of level somewhere between The National Enquirer and urban legend. What does its writer, a self-professed “student of the occult,” member of the British Society for Psychical Research, and fabulist of astrology and “magick” have to say about Falun Gong? He says that Falun Dafa doctrine is a “leavening of UFO-ology.” Its practitioners blame “inhabitants of flying saucers (of) carrying out a systematic breeding program with abducted humans.” Members use The Force to command weaker minds to obey and practice “quigong (Not to be confused with Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-wan’s mentor)” to gain preternatural powers such as levitation and psychokinesis.

The writer didn’t stop there.

The swastika is an icon most of the world recognizes as it was used by the Nazis. However, for Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus it has been an auspicious symbol for tens of thousands of years. The word comes from the Sanskrit word svastik. The symbol has very close cousins in cultures including the Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, Tibetan, Greek, Jewish, Celtic, Aztec, and Hopi. The Zhuan Falun explains this seemingly reversed swastika, which Falun Gong calls the Law Wheel, stands for good fortune and well-being. In other words, it holds about the same meanings as a yin/yang, a big-bellied man meditating beneath a bodhi tree, or a horseshoe over a barn door. To this writer, however, the Falun Gong svastik symbolizes a goal of creating a Stalinist police state. The group, he asserts, will probably become the next and worse form of Al Quaida [sic]. 

Absurdity has a way of squelching all but lingering doubts. It brought me out from behind the computer screen, finally, to do something active. As it turns out, finding a public Falun Gong event was easy as taking a tour of the Rajneeshees’ rural Oregon commune in the early 1980s. From a shady picnic area in Scottsdale’s Chapparal Park, a wide open public space, absurdity kept worries at bay, wouldn’t even let me remember that the Rajneeshee’s cult members had tried to take over local elections with the largest bioterrorism attack in American, poisoning 751 locals with salmonella. I sat some one hundred feet away from the group. About a dozen practitioners proceeded with their routine. Passersby showed little to no interest. They ignored the group’s English-language newsletters and poster boards showing policemen beating protestors. They didn’t stop to see or ask about the pictures of gory Xs stitched across the chests of Chinese corpses. No one cared about the group of middle-aged Chinese gathered, eyes closed, oblivious to the encroaching heat, faces soft with relaxation, demonstrating poses as graceful as the tai chi practiced in their native country. No one but I looked around fruitlessly for an old, black-clad Chinese woman to show up. And so only I felt a confluence of excitement and sympathy after being told where to find the bogeyman. The bogeyman who had escaped China’s persecution. 


We’re on ASU’s campus, yards away from where the little Mandarin woman first appeared. Ling* and her mother, Jiao, are sitting with me in a study room on the second floor of a library, overlooking a vestibule. Ling is translating for her mother. She tells me that Jiao started to practice Falun Gong in late 1998, months before the government began its persecution of the group. The practice helped her to be a better woman, to gain tolerance, compassion, and truthfulness. It tempered her migraines, stomach problems, and a painful breast duct that modern medicine had failed to cure. Then overnight, she watched the headlines change: 

“Falun Dafa is an illegal organization and the decision is to outlaw it.”

“They spread superstition and hearsay, deceive the public, provoke trouble, and are ruining social stability.”

The People’s Daily reports that the Falun Gong is an evil cult.”

Ling lived with her father in Shanghai while her mother lived in Hefei. She became concerned when texts and calls to her mom went unanswered. Calling around to her mother’s neighbors, one informed her of her mother’s arrest– on account of a Shen Yun CD. She had given a neighbor a CD of the classical Chinese music that Falun Gong practitioners use as a means of getting back in touch with their history and culture before Mao tried to obliterate it. The neighbor tricked Ling’s mother, calling the police and detaining her until their arrival. The police then searched Jiao’s house. They gathered a notebook, flyers, books about Falun Dafa, and other materials as if they were drugs and drug paraphernalia. They took her to a detention center, where she lived among thirteen women arrested on charges such as thievery and anything trumped up after failure to pay bribes. These criminals shared a large, frigid room and a toilet within full view. They slept on hard boards. They washed their hair by sticking their heads in freezing cold water. They covered each other with filthy, flea-filled blanket scraps.

Jiao’s tale mirrors the story Jennifer Zeng told in Free China, a Michael Perlman documentary. Arrested one night in 2000, Zeng, a formerly high-tiered Communist Party member, found herself placed for a year in a government re-education program, or labor camp, where police officers tortured her and other practitioners with electric shock before forcing them into manual labor. Nestlé was one of the beneficiaries of that labor. “On one hand they tortured us to death, and on the other they spent so much effort, so much money to check out our physical status,” Zeng said on the documentary. “It wasn’t an examination to show their health; it was an examination to see whether their organs were good for sale to foreigners (many of whom are American) or wealthy Chinese,” retired Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour (of the Kilgour-Matas report) explained. The often excellent physical status of Falun Gong practitioners made them a great commodity. Transplant patients want their organs because they don’t smoke or drink. On Free China, a recorded phone call backed that up. The voice of a doctor, reassuring a patient that the organs are indeed from a Falun Dafa member. He personally selects all organs for transplant, he said. 

Like Zeng, Jiao was not one of those selected for organ transplants. Else, she wouldn’t likely be here, words tumbling out of her mouth as she looks at her daughter, jerks her head forward as if to say, “Tell her, tell her.” Her fingers grip the table in a moment of emotion she had otherwise contained until then. Meanwhile Ling takes a minute to absorb her mother’s excitement and translate it into English.

“What the police are fighting is freedom and culture,” Ling stammers between Chinese and English as the flood continues from her mother. “The Communist Party fights against any god, any belief. When they begin to say something is bad, that thing is actually good. They drag Falun Dafa into politics. We have nothing to do with politics. So they make some fake movies and fake news in the social media to cause everyone to think we were involved in politics. Everyone says, ‘Oh, you deserve it. You got involved in politics.’ So the Chinese people are living in a lie built by the Communist Party.”

That lie caused Jiao’s husband to divorce her. It caused Ling to hide her own practice from her father. It left employers unwilling to hire anyone suspected of practicing. Eventually, it also helped Jiao to screw up her courage and board her first flight. To leave China for the first time. To surreptitiously abandon her friends, her home, everything she’d known.   

“She is happy to see other practitioners here. Other practitioners here taught me how to do the visa for my mom because we had to do it in secret,” Ling says. “My mother is on a black list. That means a police man follows her, spies on her in China. I felt very scared before she came here– maybe some police man will arrest her at the airport. My mom knows one practitioner who was arrested at the airport and was sent back to a labor camp. But now everything is good. We can sit here at ASU and tell you all about this.” A smile bursts across her face as she explains that the university has asked her and other students in the university’s official Falun Gong activity group to demonstrate during its international culture day. She clasps Jiao’s hand as they talk about how her mother’s life has changed. How different life is now that she can practice openly with other people from their country.

Yet they admit a long, unknowable road lies ahead. There are rumors within the grapevine of Chinese people she’s met. They say that the Chinese government still reads their emails and even their text messages. That fear hasn’t stopped simply because they’ve crossed the border. They are cautious in building hope in their pursuit of political asylum, remain on the lookout for governmental acts of espionage like those that interfere with political asylum cases around the world. Until then, they will enjoy their liberty. 

I hope they are successful in their mission to stay here, I tell them. I hope they become citizens. I smile in my own hopes about a day in the future. When from their own car an endless knot will dangle from the rear view mirror. That they will pull up beside a white van at a red light and they think nothing of it.   


(*Ling and Jiao are pseudonyms used for the women’s privacy.)

Back to the Cult was originally published in Flights, a US literary magazine.

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