On an April day in 1999, some 10,000 practitioners of the quasi-religious Chinese exercise society Falun Gong gathered outside Zhongnanhai, the tightly guarded compound in Beijing where China's leaders live and work. The demonstrators staged a silent protest against negative media coverage anddispersed without a fuss. But it was the largest and most disciplined civil action in the Chinese capital since the student-led democracy movement a decade earlier.
Seemingly overnight, the group and its enigmatic founder, a onetime trumpet player and grain purchase agent named Li Hongzhi, had emerged from obscurity to challenge the ruling Communist Party.The rise and fall of Falun Gong, and its subsequent transformation in exile into a well-financed and ubiquitous nemesis of the Communist Party, is probably the most mysterious chapter in the history of China over the last 30 years, its age of reform. Diplomats, journalists and China specialists have had difficulty explaining the mass appeal of Li, who even before the 1999 protest was more invisible than charismatic. Falun Gong shrouds its inner workings in secrecy and communicates through propaganda.
Since the emergence of the White Lotus Society in the 13th century, ordinary Chinese, particularly women and the poor, have found solace in sectarian movements whose features have remained consistent, Ownby argues. He calls the sects "redemptive societies." They are organized around charismatic leaders who preach that salvation can be attained through cultivation of body and mind. Believers are said to acquire paranormal powers, like the ability to levitate and to cure diseases.
Chinese political leaders, who have rarely tolerated independent religious activity, repressed the sects. White Lotus societies were associated with rebellions in the 13th and 18th centuries and became an all-purpose designation for subversive groups, so much so that Ownby argues that the term long persisted because of "the paranoid imagination of the late imperial state."
The republican and Communist governments of the 20th century inherited this antireligious bias. Both permitted five religions -- Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism -- provided that they submitted to strict state supervision. When spiritual entrepreneurs tried enticing followers on their own, they were banned.
"China is largely blind to its own religious history, having adopted an overly restrictive definition of religion in the early 20th century and having attempted ever since to make reality fit the mold," Ownby writes. Communist officials made a partial exception in the 1980s. They allowed populist exercise groups to emerge under the umbrella of qigong, a mystical mix of meditation, breathing and visualization that was thought to offer an inexpensive way to treat diseases like hepatitis, asthma and diabetes.
Li founded Falun Gong under the qigong banner in 1992. It proved a hit. His first nine-day lecture series earned him a small fortune. His "Zhuan Falun," the group's bible, offered not only exercise routines, but also a moral code and metaphysical speculations. He claimed that people who followed his cultivation formula acquired a "third eye" that allowed them to peer into other dimensions and escape the molecular world.
Falun Gong grew quickly, claiming millions of followers. But by 1995, Chinese authorities had become wary of big qigong groups. Li moved to the United States, where he continued to direct a remarkably resilient Falun Gong empire even as he largely disappeared from public view.
When Chinese state-run media began warning about the evils of sects like Falun Gong, the group staged demonstrations that culminated in the April 1999 protest. Ownby examines in exhaustive detail the subsequent crackdown and the voluminous charges and countercharges between Li's media operation and the Communist Party-controlled press. Nonetheless, his narrative does not offer many new insights into the fears and aspirations of either side. He writes of personal sightings of Li, but apparently never spoke to him. He had even less access to Communist Party officials or internal records that might have shed light on the leadership's motivations.
His contention that Falun Gong belongs to a tradition dating to White Lotus is credible. The group's emergence and its suppression do suggest that modern Chinese history is as much about continuity as revolutionary change. But the book also subordinates a gripping tale to a somewhat less scintillating narrative. The full history of the clash of Falun Gong and the Chinese state remains to be written.
Joseph Kahn is a deputy foreign editor of The Times.
Original text from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/24/books/review/Kahn-t.html