Most warm weekends for the last fifty years, Meridian Hill Park in northwest Washington has been home to a raucous drum circle: rastas, jazzmen, plastic tub buskers—anyone who can keep the beat sets the hilltop park thumping with the kind of rhythm that makes it impossible to stand still.
This made the presence of some very still people particularly striking one summer Sunday. As the drummers jammed and the crowd around them swelled to a grooving mob, Jared Pearman sat cross-legged, eyes closed, on a patch of grass just twenty yards away. His wife of a few years, Caylan Ford, sat at a folding table set up beside him. She held a similarly serene expression even as she kept her watchful gaze on stacks of flyers arranged around her: Stop Torture in China! Protect Human Rights!
The table shook with the thrumming of the drum circle, and the flyers flapped in wind threatening a thunderstorm that never came, but Jared and Caylan sat motionless as the trunks of the trees around them.
In front of the table, their friend Pang Jin stood nearly as still, holding out a flyer to anyone who seemed to return her shy smile. When her offer was refused, as it was more often than not, she nodded and took a slight step back, as if embarrassed by her attempt.
Having come from Florida, Canada, and China by way of Missouri, respectively, Jared, Caylan, and Jin moved to the nation’s capital, like a lot of young activists, to make a difference by being outspoken advocates of their cause. Because their cause is a meditation practice that only recently has become a political movement, for them being outspoken often means saying nothing at all.
Just beyond the folding table, the beats quickened in the drum circle and a cheer rang out as four women burst into a synchronized Afro-Cuban dance that brought people jogging over from the far corners of the park for a closer look. Jin held out her flyers silently as men, women, and children hurried past. When finally she found words to attract their attention, she did not sound like a political canvasser posing questions to strangers on the street: Do you care about the environment? Are you a registered voter?
Instead, to anyone within earshot, she made a startlingly personal plea, repeating it like a mantra barely audible under the rumble of the drums.
“Please help my mom,” Jin said. “Please help my mom. Please help my mom…”
Pang Jin and her mother—like Jared, Caylan, and perhaps one hundred thousand others in North America—are practitioners of Falun Gong. A spiritual practice born in China in 1992–twenty years ago this month–Falun Gong at one time claimed as many as 100 million followers worldwide. Today it is banned in its nation of origin, which is why no one has seen Jin’s mother in several years.
Chances are you have noticed followers of Falun Gong practicing their faith even if what they were doing doesn’t look much like prayer. Whether it is an elderly woman keeping vigil in front of the Chinese embassy, or a group of ten or twelve of all ages arranged in neat rows behind the Air and Space Museum, the most distinctive feature of their practice is its apparent lack of motion. Shifting through five meditative stances at a glacial pace, the practitioners sometimes look as if they are holding hula hoops over their heads, other times as if they are making shadow puppets of swans. They hold each of these poses for periods of twenty minutes or more, which makes them, in the words of the movement’s founder, people who “practice stillness.”
Falun Gong practitioners are like members of any other religious group. They go to work, raise their families, and only in moments carved out from the business of the day to day are they able to make time for spiritual pursuits. Since the movement’s founding, there have been no religious professionals among its followers, only millions of amateurs.
A vocal minority is becoming something more than that, however. Politicized by recent events in China, they have become signature collectors, envelope stuffers, protest marchers, media advocates, even would-be influencers of U.S. foreign policy. They have come to Washington to serve as unofficial lobbyists for Falun Gong, telling stories like that of Jin’s mother to anyone who will listen.
Getting their story heard is not so easy, however. The depths of the Chinese Communist Party’s antipathy for Falun Gong are rivaled only by the heights of China’s rising global influence. In recent years, Western news gatherers have occasionally bowed to outside pressure in their coverage of the issue.
In November 2007, for example, complaints from Chinese diplomats caused the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to cancel a documentary about Falun Gong’s persecution on the day of its scheduled broadcast. Other outlets have followed the CCP’s lead in more subtle ways, pretending there are two sides to the story of the detention and torture of a religious minority. A Time magazine headline from 2001 found the purest expression of this approach by asking, “Spiritual Society or Evil Cult?” and then putting the question to a poll.
This story is another example. I met Caylan, Jared, and Jin while reporting a feature article on Falun Gong for the Washington Post throughout 2009 and 2010. Immediately after the Chinese embassy became aware of it, the story was killed.
It is not difficult to understand how and why this happens. For any major news organization, maintaining the ability to cover China from within is obviously more important than airing documentaries or reporting on the efforts of a few stateside activists. Decisions must be made to determine which stories, if any, would be worth risking the continued access of correspondents on the ground.
Yet in the shadow of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, not long after the saga of the activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s escape, and in the month marking Falun Gong’s twentieth tumultuous year, it’s worth remembering that social change in any nation will ultimately be measured by the treatment given to its most maligned and vulnerable. As a group hated beyond all reason by the Chinese government and often dismissed as too strange for sympathy in the West, Falun Gong remains a useful test case for determining both what China might become and which stories about China we will choose to hear.
There is nothing unique in the melding of physical exertion and metaphysical aspiration. Not much would distinguish Falun Gong from Tai Chi or even yoga were it not for the fact that, for a fifth of the world’s population, publicly enacting any of Falun Gong’s seemingly harmless postures could land you in jail.
In the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese officials began making a nationwide sweep of potential troublemakers who might embarrass the emerging superpower as it was preparing to step into the global spotlight. Falun Gong practitioners suffered some of the worst reprisals, with as many as eight thousand detained in a period of months. Estimates cited by the U.S. State Department place the number of Falun Gong adherents currently imprisoned as high as one hundred thousand; more than three thousand have died in detention.
While the Chinese government does not dispute the claim that Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested, it views the reason for these arrests differently.
“In the U.S.,” says Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Embassy of the Peoples’ Republic of China, “there may be churchgoers who are in jail, but that doesn’t mean they are in jail for going to church.”
It is not what Falun Gong believes that is the problem, he insists, it is what they do.
“Falun Gong disguises itself as a spiritual movement, but it is an anti-Chinese political organization,” Wang says. “They call for the end of the Chinese Communist Party, which in itself breaks the law and makes them a destabilizing force in society. It is not only in China’s interest that the government takes action against them. A stable China benefits the world.”
When pressed on whether it is Falun Gong’s political agenda or its beliefs and practices that are banned, however, the issue becomes slightly more complex. If a woman walks into a park and begins the exercises but makes no sign of opposition to the Party, would she be arrested? “That is a technical question,” Wang says initially, but then adds, “the government would not take any chances.”
It took no chances with Pang Jin’s mother. When Cao Junping was arrested as a Falun Gong practitioner in July 2008, Jin’s family feared the worst. A resident of Weifang City in China’s coastal Shandong province, her mother had been jailed before, in January 2000. At that time, she endured eleven days of abuse at the hands of Weifang police until her husband paid a bribe for her release. Jin was sixteen years old.
“I was late for school that day,” she remembers. “While I was rushing to my classes a police officer stopped me and said, ‘If you want to see your mother again, tell your father to come see us with five thousand yuan.’ When we saw my mom after, her body was burned and covered with bruises.”
Jin left home to work towards an MBA at the University of Missouri in 2007, so she was not there when her mother was taken during the pre-Olympic sweep. From her graduate student housing, she learned of her mother’s arrest over the phone. “I was studying for an exam at the time,” she says. “Then the phone rang.”
Jin’s mother called often, but it wasn’t her. It was news from China that both her parents had been arrested. Her father, who is not a practitioner of Falun Gong, was released soon after; her mother’s whereabouts were unknown.
“She used to call every two days,” Jin remembers. “All the time, she said the same things: What did you eat today? What are you wearing? I always thought it was very boring to ask the same questions over and over, but now I miss the words.”
Hearing the news, Jin felt powerless. “I was just an international student, my English was not good. In class, I would know an answer, but not know how to say it. Even with friends, I could not start conversations because I was not sure if I should say ‘hello’ first or ‘how are you?’ How could I explain anything about what was happening to my mother?”
Jin decided the best chance her mother would have in Weifang City would be to take action on the other side of the world. She began collecting signatures–thousands on a petition, and hundreds on a banner she rolled up carefully and displayed whenever she took her message to the streets. Then, like a Mr. Smith for a global age, she went to Washington.
“My mother was awaiting sentencing,” Jin says. “I thought international pressure would be her only hope.”
Jin soon began working at a Maryland real estate office–not exactly a high-profile platform from which to influence foreign policy, but she saw parts of it as necessary to the job ahead. “There are a lot of foreclosures lately, which is very bad,” she said. “But it is helpful for my English because it keeps me all day on the phone. Good practice!”
She knows that being in Washington is no guarantee of making herself heard. But she is not one to back down from a challenge. After all, when the call about her mother came, she did not try to postpone her exam.
“I got a B,” Jin recalls with a relieved grin. A flash in her eyes says she thinks she should’ve done better.
“When I came to D.C., I started asking other practitioners, alright, who’s working on the State Department, who’s working on the NSC, who’s working on Congress?” Caylan says. “I wanted to know, ‘How can I help?’ And everyone said, well, you should just go do whatever you think you need to do.”
Caylan enrolled in a Masters program in international relations at George Washington University, worked part-time at a foreign policy think tank, and spent her free time figuring out how to make her adopted cause known.
“There is no hierarchy in Falun Gong,” Caylan explains. “No one can tell anyone what to do, which is noble for a religion, but very difficult for a human rights organization.”
Caylan is now a virtual one-woman political action committee. While at GW, she was likely the only graduate student in town who maintained contacts in government with no apparent interest in transforming her list of contacts into a job.
Caylan and Jared had came to Falun Gong, and then to Washington, with much less at stake than Jin.
“I had been doing yoga for a number of years, in gyms,” says Jared, who works as a web producer for National Geographic. “But I always wanted to focus on the spiritual side as much as the physical. Then I saw an ad that said ‘meditation exercises, free classes.’” He joined his first practice session at an Orlando park because—unlike yoga or martial arts—Falun Gong came with no monthly membership fee.
Soon he learned about the persecution practitioners have faced in China since 1999.
“When I read in the papers what was happening to a meditation group, I became angry, and intrigued,” Jared says. “If the Chinese government was doing these awful things to people who seemed so innocuous, I knew there must be something there worth learning more about.”
Politics and spirituality are the chicken and egg of reasons motivating most new followers of Falun Gong; one may come first but the other is never far behind.
“I was searching,” Caylan says of her teenage years. “Then a friend of mine came to me and said, ‘I found the answer; you really should go on the Internet and see it.’ You don’t expect to find something meaningful in a collection of readings you can just find online, but I did.”
What she found was Zhuan Falun, “The Turning of the Law Wheel,” the primary scripture of the movement whose lessons are fundamentally concerned with karma, or the stripping away of past ills through the practice of “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.” Caylan was so moved by what she read that she began attending Experience Sharing Conferences, mass meetings of Falun Gong followers at which they tell stories of how the exercises have eased their arthritis, cured their alcoholism, helped their marriages, or simply made them more comfortable in their own skins.
It was after one such meeting “in the basement of dirty hotel in Pasadena, California,” Caylan recalls, that she heard a man a few years older than her talking about his experiences in China.
Not long after his first encounter with Falun Gong, Jared made a trip to Beijing with other American practitioners to put a Western face on the banned movement. They had a quiet week in the city, meditating in their hotel room, preparing themselves for an enactment of the freedom of speech in a country where such a freedom doesn’t exist.
“Then,” he says, “we set off toward Tiananmen Square with banners stuffed into our pants.”
When they arrived at the spot planned for their protest, there were armored cars waiting. “Police were everywhere,” he says. “They had heard something might happen that day.”
Realizing he might not have much time, Jared reached for his banner—The World Knows Falun Gong is Good—but didn’t get a chance to see it unfurl. Police tackled him from behind; a uniformed arm tightened around his windpipe.
Brought to a makeshift detention center at an airport hotel, he was held twenty hours before police led him to a van to be taken to another location. He had a guard on each side, and there were four other guards in the surrounding seats.
“While I was sitting there, it dawned on me: this is a very bad situation,” he says. “In my head I thought, ‘If I get a window, I’ll take it.’”
When he was finally let out of the van, he saw that he was back near the center of the city. For the first time that day, the guards didn’t have their hands on him. He bolted.
“I never ran like that in my life,” Jared says. Behind him he could hear angry shouts. “I looked back and it seemed I had lost them. They were chain-smoking, middle-aged guys and I was twenty years old.”
Turning down an alley, he thought he was home free—until two men stepped into the path ten yards ahead of him. First he saw the long green overcoats of the Chinese military police, and then he saw their rifles drawn.
“I just stood there and watched the first fist come at me,” Jared says. “Next thing I knew, I was on the ground, getting my head kicked in. They took off my shoes and stomped my feet so I couldn’t run anymore. They were shouting to people who walked by, ‘This is what happens to Falun Gong!’”
The following day he and other American protestors were put on the first flight out of the country. “If I were Chinese I would still be locked up,” he said. Jared was more sure than ever that he had found a cause worth fighting for, and that he had to go to a place where he could make a difference—not back to China’s capital city, but to his own.
“That’s the story that made me fall in love with him,” Caylan says.
According to practitioners, Falun Gong was not invented; it was revealed.
After the end of Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution, during which all forms of religious practice were banned as counter-revolutionary, the spiritual vacuum that had been created quickly began to be filled by all manner of beliefs and practices.
Foremost among them was qigong, a collection of exercises meant to harness the life force—qi—for the betterment of physical, mental, even financial health. For a time, qigong enjoyed a singular popularity unimaginable outside of a nation of more than a billion. Thousands of self-professed qigong masters began to attract hundreds of millions of devotees.
None was so successful as Li Hongzhi, a former government grain clerk who claimed to be the recipient of a forgotten mixture of Buddhist and Taoist teachings that he was now reintroducing to the world.
Even in China’s crowded spiritual marketplace, he became a star. After giving his first public lectures in Beijng in June of 1992, the size and growth of his following was difficult to determine. Estimates reached 70 million within just a few years. For a time he even had support at the highest levels of the government, which saw the health benefits of Falun Gong as a boon for the country.
All that changed in 1999. When a critical article about Falun Gong was published in a university newspaper, scores of practitioners turned out to protest. Many were arrested and later claimed mistreatment while in custody. In response to the arrests, on April 25, 1999, ten thousand followers of Falun Gong lined the streets leading to the headquarters of the CCP in Beijing. They seemed to materialize out of thin air—an unmoving army of men and women shifting postures in unison as if by remote control.
David Ownby, director of the University of Montreal’s Center of East Asian Studies and author of Falun Gong and the Future of China, suggests that the government’s response may have been influenced by fear of both numbers and history.
“Between late April and June 1999, when the Party was trying to figure out what Falun Gong was, the number of members they claimed was undoubtedly frightening,” Ownby says, “as were the apocalyptic themes readily identifiable in Li Hongzhi’s writings.”
The goal is not, it should be added, apocalypse in the Western sense, but rather a cyclical unmaking and remaking of the world borrowed from Buddhism. In Falun Gong, this process starts with the body. During Li’s public talks, it is said that many in his audience become sick, pass out, or will simply find themselves at the end of an hours-long talk with no recollection of what they have heard. “This is natural,” Li has written, for he claims his words serve the function of reordering disordered bodies, both on the individual and social level. His own accounts of the hardships endured by his audiences make one wonder how he continues to attract crowds:
“Starting today, some people will have chills, as if they’ve got a bad cold, and their bones might even ache… Some people will have localized reactions in their bodies, maybe one part hurts, or maybe it’s some other part, and all kinds of unpleasant sensations will come up. Purifying a body all at once, there just have to be reactions… Some people could even have diarrhea or throw up. Students in a lot of regions have written to me and shared their experiences with that. ‘Teacher, I kept having to look for bathrooms all the way home from the class.’ That’s because even your internal organs have to be purified. Your whole body has to be purified.”
For Falun Gong practitioners, purification doesn’t end with the individual. It begins there, and then ripples out through “energy channels” that course through all dimensions of existence, from the “microcosmic” to the personal to the political.
To China’s history-conscious leaders, Falun Gong’s linkage of personal salvation to social change echoed the views of the eighteenth-century White Lotus Rebellion and the nineteenth-century Taiping Heavenly Kingdom—two cases in which protests sparked by spiritual societies led to civil war. Against this backdrop, Ownby says, the government panicked, creating a stand-off from which it could not back down.
On July 22, 1999, the CCP banned the exercises of Falun Gong, and began jailing its practitioners. Thousands went to prison, many more to labor camps. Unlike the persecution of other suppressed groups in China, such as Tibetans and Uighurs, the crackdown was not based on ethnic or regional affiliations. It was based entirely on practice—the equivalent of police sweeping through Dupont Circle, rounding up every woman with a yoga mat under her arm.
The crowd at Meridian Hill Park had seemed largely indifferent to their cause, but Jared and Caylan were not disheartened. Their information table that day had only been a practice run for the main event: a weekend of peaceful yet highly visible protest, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the beginning of China’s crackdown against Falun Gong.
What was needed, they decided, was a grand statement conveying not just the content of their message, but their method. And so, three days of activities including a candlelight vigil, a march to the Chinese embassy, and speakers on the lawn of the Capitol, would culminate not with a bang but a whimper. The capstone would be an event on the National Mall, a mass sit-in they came to call the “Million Minutes of Meditation.”
Jared would build the website and handle logistics, Caylan would try to interest international media in the event, and Jin would tell her story. Together they hoped to harness a huge supply of good intentions to pave the way to a new beginning, not just for their friends like Jin and her mother, but for all of China.
Falun Gong practitioners from across the country came by the dozens to help prepare for the Million Minutes rally. It had the spirit of a family reunion—hugs and back slaps all around, a soccer ball kicked back and forth while volunteers awaited instructions. They were mostly men and women like Caylan and Jared: twentysomething professionals, Westerners with no ethnic or cultural connection to China. The majority of Falun Gong practitioners in the U.S. are Chinese immigrants, many of whom were studying overseas at the time of the crackdown, and have since been granted asylum, unable to go home. Yet more and more newcomers every year are changing the face of the movement.
“This is over-generalizing,” Jared says, “but the priority among Chinese practitioners is what is happening back home; the priority for Western practitioners is making sure the rest of the world knows about it.”
Amir Talaizadeh, a friend Jared had not seen since a previous Experience Sharing Conference, pats Jared’s belly, a bit larger now than it had been when he was sprinting away from police in Beijing.
“Married life, huh?” Amir says.
Jared blushes, takes a step back, puts up his dukes as if he’d just heard fighting words. Then they both smile and join in emptying a U-Haul truck filled with canvas and stakes, ropes and tools, and a generator that chugs to power a floodlight when the sun falls behind the monuments to the west.
They work through the night, assembling tents, information tables, a photo exhibit of practitioners tortured in captivity, and a large stage using the Capitol as a dramatic backdrop.
The next day, the meditating masses arrive before the dew on the grass has dried. They arrange themselves first in four rows of five, reorganizing as more join the ranks. By midmorning they have ten rows of twelve. Jared counts periodically and does the math to determine how close to a million minutes they might be. They began collecting minutes in the weeks before the event, asking people to log on to a website and record the time they had devoted to thinking about Falun Gong. The sun bakes the meditators, but no one moves except on stage, where a steady stream of speakers and musical acts entice tourists to stay a while.
It is late afternoon when a father-daughter singer-songwriter duo takes the stage and launches into a song inspired by Pang Jin and others who have lost contact with their mothers because of the persecution of Falun Gong. Jin joins them with her erhu, the violin-like stringed instrument she has played since her childhood in Weifang City. The song itself is basic American pop-folk finger-picked guitar, a lilting voice singing of China as if it were “Carolina on My Mind”; Jin’s erhu imbues it with a feeling of dislocation and longing. When the music stops, the neatly aligned rows facing the stage break their stillness to offer applause—a sitting ovation.
Then Jin steps to the microphone and speaks of her mother. “It is difficult talking about it again and again,” she says later, “but telling her story is the only thing I can do.”
Telling her story, however, might not have been the best thing for her. After fourteen months in custody, Jin’s mother had finally received a sentence: ten years in prison for the crime of practicing Falun Gong. The news is devastating to Jin, and only slightly less so for Caylan and Jared.
“It is unusually harsh, maybe twice the time practitioners might expect to serve,” Caylan says. “I think Jin feels responsible. And I do, too.”
Was it possible bringing that attention to her case was exactly the wrong thing to do—that silence and stillness might have led to a more lenient sentence? Jin tries not to think so. Even after learning the extent of her mother’s punishment, she knows how far she has come. In little more than a year, she has transformed herself from a student who couldn’t speak in class to an activist addressing a crowd in the shadow of the Capitol.
Far from the very public efforts of Western devotees of Falun Gong, a handful of practitioners recently gathered at the Annandale restaurant, A&J, the hub of expatriate Chinese culture. Over bubble tea and plates of the Northern Chinese comfort food, shāobǐng yóutiáo—fried dough sandwiches—Jin explained that her father had been denied a passport because of her mother’s case. The noose, it seemed, was tightening around her family. Home, for Jin, is a place to which she can never return.
And so it is all the more necessary, she says, to find a time when she does not think of home at all. She finds such moments in the Falun Gong exercises themselves, which she practices alone or in small groups like the one that meets each weekend at the Willston Multicultural Center in Falls Church, a former elementary school now filled with signage in Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese.
One Saturday morning, a dozen immigrant practitioners convene in a room more often used for karate classes. Jin arrives a bit late but settles in with the others, arranged haphazardly between a blackboard and a bank of windows spotted with bits of masking tape. They sit for an hour in full lotus, then rise to begin the standing exercises, moving their arms and hands in a careful choreography.
To see the practice performed is to realize there is nothing necessarily political about Falun Gong; there is nothing obviously critical of the Chinese Communist Party in the control of breath and slow movement of limbs. And yet in watching these bodies at rest and in motion, it also becomes clear that the work practitioners are doing doesn’t begin or end with their breath or their bodies. They believe if they can change their own lives, they can change the world—including that portion of it that sees this idea not as spiritual fantasy but genuine threat.
Jin raises her arms up over her head and holds them there like Atlas, as if supporting the weight of all things. Try it yourself: Lift your arms so that each points to the sky—now keep them there and try to count to six hundred. After you break a sweat, after your arms begin to shake, after you give up and wonder what your gym membership is for, Jin will still have her arms in the air.
“It is the only time when I do not think of my family’s trouble,” she says. “I think only of the movements.”
While there is little chance Falun Gong will ever become as significant in American culture as it was in China not so long ago, it does seem that one benefit gained by the practice already translates well to the ways of Washington and the work of making a quiet cause known in a nation crowded with louder stories: endurance.
Peter Manseau is the author most recently of the travelogue Rag and Bone and the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter. He is a scholar in residence at Washington College’s CV Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.