Riding the TIGER

mrader_1229025The quest for healing in a country in transition

By Jennifer McNulty

Photo: Mike Fiala / Associated Press

On a cold and gusty morning in late spring 1991, a Beijing stadium is filled with the attentive faces of thousands of people. They have come to experience qigong, a form of meditative breathing that has developed a loyal following among the ailing and infirm. Clad in drab, dark colors, the crowd looks oddly dated, like the clock stopped 40 years ago. But this audience is animated, eager, and expectant. Not since the days of the Cultural Revolution have crowds gathered with such passionate fervor.

The qigong (pronounced chee-GONG) master who takes the stage is renowned for using only his voice to convey qi, the "life force" energy associated in Chinese medicine with healing, longevity, and prosperity. Having paid the equivalent of one week's wages, many in the audience are hoping for relief. Most have heard stories of dramatic healing during these gatherings: stroke victims who recover the ability to speak, wheelchair-bound individuals who rise and walk across the stage. Riveted, they watch as the master embarks upon a six-hour lecture delivered without pause or interruption, even for a sip of water.

At first, the audience is silent, listening with deep concentration. A few individuals begin to move their arms in slow, graceful gestures to "receive" the master's qi energy. Soon, many are swaying, trembling, or shuddering. Several run up and down the aisles, appearing overcome with emotion.

Watching from the sidelines, anthropologist Nancy Chen is reminded of the evangelical faith healers she watched perform while growing up in Louisiana. Chen is in Beijing to conduct fieldwork for her dissertation on mental health and psychiatry in China. "Qigong fever" is sweeping the nation, and scenes like this are playing out across the country.

In her new book Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China, Chen, now an associate professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, bears witness to the story of qigong. Like so many chapters of modern Chinese history, it is a tale of alienation, suffering, and survival as the hopes and needs of the Chinese people collided with the government's desire for control.


Above: An elderly woman joins in a group qigong exercise during a fitness demonstration in a Beijing park in 1997. Below: Police arrest practitioners in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in September
Photo: Mike Fiala / Associated Press

A holistic blend of breathing, mental imagery, and movement, qigong emerged in the 1950s, offering the hope of relief from ailments ranging from arthritis to cancer. The practice surged in popularity, however, during the post-Tiananmen era that began in the early 1990s when many Chinese experienced profound physical and psychic distress as reforms convulsed the socialist nation.

"Qigong offered a sense of belonging and an opportunity to express belief in something outside state ideology," says Chen. "It was promoted by charismatic masters and embraced by tens of thousands of Chinese as an antidote to state-induced chaos."

With the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and six months of martial law as a backdrop, China's move toward a market economy ushered in an era of profound economic change. New government policies transformed China, creating the nouveau riche and establishing a drive for consumer goods that struck at the core of Maoist traditions. Many displaced poor were left to struggle with new, rampant material desires without the support of state-provided services, as the country's widely celebrated health care system was overhauled into a fee-for-service structure. The changes took a grave toll on China's citizens, 79 percent of whom now lack health insurance.

For many suffering from chronic or even acute illness, self-medication became the only option, and Chen expresses little wonder at the widespread appeal of qigong and its charismatic leaders. Compared to government bureaucrats, one of whom was lampooned in a 1990 political cartoon holding the tail of a tiger that was poised to pounce back on him, qigong masters were viewed as the embodiment of ultimate power and able to "ride the tiger."

Practiced in urban parks under the supervision of a master, qigong promised physical relief, a much-needed sense of community, and a respite from the distress of living in a country in transition. Before long, parks became social centers "like cafes in 19th-century France," says Chen.

Beijing bookstalls were packed with qigong-related magazines, novels, movies, and texts. Workers scrimped to attend lectures by well-known masters, the more entrepreneurial of whom produced videotapes, audiotapes, and toured the country to build their followings. Dog-eared copies of hard-to-find qigong texts were passed from friend to friend, and masters jockeyed to be photographed with movie stars who would enhance their cachet. As qigong grew, its dedicated followers became adept at using e-mail and the Internet to expand the appeal of their charismatic leaders beyond China's borders.

The state's initial support of qigong cooled as government leaders recognized the risk of being upstaged by the new national obsession. They branded qigong "black magic" and deemed masters a "latent danger," raiding bookstalls "to reduce the feverish interest in qigong" and introducing regulations to "diminish the involvement of charlatans, protect public health, and prevent mass hysteria."

"I didn't really believe in qigong or know much about it. My mother [in her eighties] had heard about a famous master coming to Beijing and mentioned interest in going to the event. I didn't plan to go, but somehow our relatives managed to get some complimentary tickets through their work unit and gave them to us. I'm the eldest son, so she lives with us now, and if she needs to go out, I have to carry her to my bike cart and pedal her myself. So we went to hear Master Zhang. The stadium was packed with people who had paid twenty yuan each. When he began to lecture, some people started to rock back and forth. Eventually, my mother, who has severe arthritis but is mentally clear, stood up and began to wave her arms. It's painful for her to stand on her bound feet for long, but that night she stood for four hours, the entire time of the lecture. Now I don't have to carry her around anymore. She likes to walk around the neighborhood and go out every day with a cane. It's like watching a young kid."

—Mr. Wang, a factory worker in his 50s, from Breathing Spaces by Nancy Chen

Bolstering the government's claims were reports of negative reactions among a growing number of qigong practitioners, including disturbing visions and auditory hallucinations, vertigo, hyperventilation, insomnia, extreme heat, and what was described as "uncontrollable qi energy." Although qigong masters and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) viewed these symptoms as preventable, manageable, and responsive to treatment, the state seized on what it called "qigong deviation," or qi-induced psychosis, as evidence of the risks of qigong practice. The establishment of a new psychiatric category to classify sufferers of qigong deviation was the final step in the government's "pathologization" of qigong, says Chen.

"The state sought to differentiate between forms of qigong to discredit the charismatic masters," says Chen. A new state bureau was created to license and regulate masters of state-sanctioned "medical" qigong, which was promoted in clinics. Practitioners vanished from public parks after the government banned spontaneous practice and conducted raids to round up violators.

The state's response reflected its concern about the emergence of so many informal social networks and the likelihood that individuals would develop an allegiance to their qigong master rather than the state or party. Unlike previous social movements that began in the countryside, qigong was an urban phenomenon that attracted intellectuals, men and women in equal numbers, and was led by well-traveled masters, many of whom had spent time outside China.

Chen.bookcoverThe government's efforts to squelch qigong coincided with the state's drive to become a major global economic power. By 1995, qigong had largely faded from view, and the people of China entered the world of material consumption. Private restaurants, markets, toy stores, and beauty salons were popping up everywhere, signaling the dramatic cultural changes that paralleled the country's new economic livelihood. New wealth deepened existing inequalities among the Chinese even as qigong began to take hold in Europe, the United States, Latin America, and elsewhere in Asia.



UCSC anthropology professor Nancy Chen, author of Breathing Spaces, a breakthrough book about qigong
Photo: r. r. jones

"In China, the government-sanctioned form of qigong took on a scientific flavor, but elsewhere it has more spiritual overtones," observes Chen. "It's marketed in a less charismatic way. For the most part, it's only available to those with the time and money to learn it in private settings or clinics." One-on-one and small-group instruction may also account for the absence of adverse reactions, or qigong deviation, outside of China, she believes.

In 1999, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen uprising again focused attention on Beijing, where the international press corps gathered to assess the political climate. Overseas interest in qigong had taken off even as interest within China shifted to falungong (FAH-loon-gong), a practice similar to qigong. So it followed that journalists turned their attention--and their cameras--to the crowd of 10,000 falungong supporters who gathered April 26 in front of the government leaders' official state residence to protest the state's depiction of falungong as an "evil cult."

Unlike the student protests a decade earlier, this demonstration was by older Chinese, many of whom were the contemporaries of state leaders.

Demonstrators were rounded up, and warnings against further protests were issued. But it wasn't until the end of July, as China was preparing its bid to join the World Trade Organization, that the government's anti-falungong campaign intensified. All falungong practice was banned, violators were arrested, and books, CDs, and audiotapes were destroyed.

An ensuing series of demonstrations became almost predictable, says Chen, until a concerted government sweep in 2001 netted 35,000 detainees. The government seized falungong web sites, shut down computer servers, and suspended regular television programming for four days to repeatedly broadcast a government-produced documentary on falungong.

Although 1999 marked the apex of conflict, falungong remains a "thorn in the side of the body politic," says Chen. Hundreds of falungong followers remain in detention camps, and the state continues to press its campaign. Media reports portray falungong as a public health threat, and claims of healing are immediately countered with stories of unthinkable violence caused by mental instability.

"Like qigong, the falungong movement gave meaning to those who were being displaced in the new economic order," says Chen. "The people who've been drawn to these practices are the very people--now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s--who sacrificed their lives to build the nation. They wanted relief and were drawn to the messages of inclusion."

Today, a decade after the state's initial crackdown on qigong, China's pursuit of wealth and economic power surges ahead while qigong endures behind the scenes, according to Chen. "Chinese practitioners have nurtured these forms of healing for centuries," says Chen. "Their persistence in the face of government control demonstrates a perseverance of human will and spirit."


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