Since the late 1990s, Chinese leaders have tried to stop the spread of Falun Gong1, which is described by its adherents as 'an ancient practice of self-cultivation'. This article takes a look at an event in China's past and suggests an explanation for its current leaders' actions.
Chinese tradition states that when a dynasty has lost 'the mandate of heaven', its end is heralded by natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and famine. But it is also heralded by portents such as comets and by the rise of 'heretical beliefs'.
The savagery with which Falun Gong continues to be suppressed in China has a non-rational ferocity about it - a brutality and determination seemingly out of all proportion to the apparent threat posed by a group of people who proclaim their belief in 'Zhen, Shan, Ren', the Buddhist virtues of Truth, Forbearance and Compassion. China has an acute sense of history, and the rise of Falun Gong, commanding an estimated 70 million followers in China (where the Chinese Communist Party claims 60 million members) and 30 million abroad, must cause a chill amongst the Beijing oligarchs who will be familiar with the devastation following the Taiping Rising of 1850 - 1865. The bloodiest civil war ever, and one of the world's most lethal wars, it claimed 20 to 40 million lives2.
The sheer numbers slaughtered in the course of the Taiping Rising seem scarcely credible, until it is remembered that the Chinese way in dealing with renegades was to slaughter every member of the culprit's family, to the ninth degree of consanguinity, including all women, children and babies. On occasion, this could even include reprisals against one's ancestors. Thus Chiang Kai-Shek had Mao's parents disinterred and their remains scattered. Nationalist reprisals against the Red Army's supporters on the Hunan-Hebei border left a mere 10,000 people alive out of a population of one million.
The Taiping Rising
The Taiping Rising was directed against the Manchu Qing (Ching) dynasty, led by a Hakka3 Christian convert, Hong Xiuquan, from South China's Guangdong province. He awoke from a dream in 1837 to declare that God had proclaimed him 'His younger son, the brother of Christ'.
Hong preached against the corruption of the Manchu Qing court and its minions, and against decadent Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. He opposed foreign encroachment as much as domestic weakness under the Qing, and sought to lead China back to a pre-Confucian monotheism, with the biblical God as the common ancestor, in an earthly Kingdom of Heaven with peace and equality for all. Hong proclaimed a moral revival with a strong line on biblical sin (with heaven and hell waiting in the afterlife), baptism, and divine worship on the sacrosanct Sabbath.
He condemned idolatry and witchcraft, murder, banditry and ethnic feuding (such as between his own Hakka tribesmen and the dominant Punti), not to mention promiscuity, materialism, gambling (mah jong) and addictions to tobacco, alcohol and opium. He advocated the abolition of private property and land-owning, with everyone sharing a communal 'Sacred Treasury'. He proclaimed equal rights for women, the abolition of foot-binding, arranged marriage, prostitution and concubinage, wife-purchasing and widow suicide. He democratised education and literacy by introducing the Hakka simplified dialect. His espousal of women's rights included equal opportunities in education, government and the military.
The Imperial Qing authorities first attacked Hong's followers in 1850. In 1851 Hong announced the 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace' and invited all China to join him, to rise with his 'Chosen People' to drive out the 'devil Manchu' and enter the 'Promised Land'. In some ways his new Exodus foreshadowed Mao's Long March. Hong's Hakka guerrilla army also included men and women, Hakka women being particularly renowned fighters.
With an army of one million zealous followers and the Ten Commandments as his battle hymn, he captured the old Ming capital, Nanjing, in 1853 and proclaimed it the 'New Jerusalem'. He revealed himself as the reincarnated Melchizedek, the Old Testament prophet who heralded the reign of King David. Under God's rule, land ownership and rents would be abolished and taxes reduced.
He called for global equality (taiping), not just of Hakka and Han Chinese, but also with the 'brothers and sisters of all nations under God'. His religious beliefs were a mixture of Fundamentalist Baptist Protestantism and Hakka shamanism. One of his chief cohorts was an illiterate Hakka charcoal-burner, Yang Yiuqing, a shaman who had daily visions of God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost which kept the followers inspired.
Eventually, in 1856, a falling-out between the different theological visionaries, Hong ('God's Son') and Yang ('God's Mouthpiece'), weakened Taiping morale just when the Qing rulers’ resources were weakest and their troops seriously overextended. Then in 1859, Taiping aspirations to link with western Christianity failed as Taiping was denounced as heretical by 'fellow missionaries'.
Eventually, well-trained Chinese troops backed by Western forces and materiel flattened the 'New Jerusalem'. Western governments, particularly the British, were very concerned that the opium trade might be lost under Taiping influence. Nanjing fell in 1864, and the mopping-up operation continued for another two years after that.
However, Hong's egalitarianism directly inspired Sun Yat-Sen's first Republic of China. Deng Xiaoping, Mao's hit-man for years before becoming 'emperor', was also Hakka, and Hakka cadres formed an inner circle of the early soviets.
Given Chinese beliefs about the end of a dynasty, it's no wonder Jiang Zemin and now Hu Jintao have suppressed Falun Gong with such savagery. On the one hand the Chinese Communist Party dynasty of Mao, Deng, Jiang has lost 'the mandate of heaven,' while Master Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, is just the sort of eclectic cult-maker that Chinese dynasts fear. Falun Dafa, the Way of the Law Wheel, is a heady mix of New Age beliefs, Qi Gong and Buddhism. Li claims to be an enlightened 'master', on a par with Buddha and Christ4, and to be able to see extraterrestrial aliens who have invaded earth, one of the weirder aspects of Falun Gong, and one his followers don't publicise as much as their admirable adherence to 'Zhen, Shan, Ren,' truth, forbearance and compassion.
But with deaths in custody running into the thousands over three years, the Falun Gong are a genuine 'army of martyrs' who are happy to protest their non-violent faith in public, knowing the fate that awaits them in prisons and labour camps across China. That faith alone is enough to cause a chill in a 'communist' party which has long since abandoned all socialist idealism, whose leader's utopian vision left 100 million dead, and which has subsequently sold out to a chauvinistic version of global consumerism.
You can learn more about Chinese history and the role religion plays in public and private life by visiting the links below.
- A Brief Timeline of Chinese History
- The Future of the People's Republic of China - A Perspective
- Kashgar, China
- Guizhou, China
- The Shang Dynasty
- Religion as a Tool for Social Control