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China's Repression of Folk Religions
The Battle Against Falun Gong in Historical Context
Hubert Seiwert, Neue Zurcher Zeitung (Switzerland), July 14, 2001
The repression of folk religions has a centuries-old history in China. Peking has always had a great fear of religious organizations. Suppression of Falung Gong is only the best-known example at the present time. - The author of this article is a professor of religion at the University of Leipzig and a long-time specialist in Chinese folk religions.
Events such as the 1813 uprising of the Eight Trigrams constitute the backdrop against which the historical dimension of folk-religious cults and sects in China becomes visible. Against that background, too, the Chinese government's perception of a movement such as Falun Gong becomes comprehensible. A mass religious movement of this kind is unparalleled in the 50-year history of the People's Republic. But the perspective of China's leaders embraces a history stretching back over millennia, and popular religious movements have a definite place in that history.
In the second century A.D., an uprising by the Taoist Yellow Turbans marked the beginning of the end of the Han dynasty. Since that time, religious mass movements have been regarded as a breeding ground for social unrest and political rebellion. Historical works are full of references to ostensible messiahs and reincarnated Buddhas who gathered followers around them and "rebelled." In most cases these were limited, local groups whose uprisings are not worth even an historical footnote. But at times, cults and folk religions have made history. In the 14th century, a rebellion by the so-called White Lotus sect swept the Mongol Yuan dynasty from the political stage. The first emperor of the subsequent Ming dynasty, who had himself been one of the leaders of the uprising, issued a decree immediately after his coronation making any creation of a folk-religious cult a crime. The interdiction remained in force under the later Qing dynasty right up to the beginning of the twentieth century.
That such bans and threats of punishment were not enough to eliminate the danger of rebellions by popular religious groups is illustrated by the 1813 uprising mentioned earlier. That was neither the first nor the last in the nearly 300-year-long history of the Qing dynasty. Perhaps the most spectacular outbreak of violence with religious undertones was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which was directed not against the Chinese government but against the presence of foreign troops and Christian missionaries. The name "White Lotus," under which various folk-religious cults of the Qing era were subsumed, became a symbol of subversion and religiously motivated rebellion. Sects and cults in China were - and are - spoken of in one breath with secret societies and organized gangs.
In the Imperial Tradition
The end of the imperial era in China in the year 1911 brought no fundamental change. The tradition of folk religions and related movements was unbroken. Most of them were only of local or regional significance, but there were also nationwide organizations with hundreds of thousands of followers. The largest and best known among them was Yiguan Dao, a cult which was a direct successor to the White Lotus movements of the imperial era. During the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and early 1940s, its network spread through large parts of northern China and enjoyed excellent contacts with political rulers.
In the first years after the creation of the People's Republic in 1949, the destruction of cults and secret societies was made a top priority of the Communist leadership.
By the mid-1950s it seemed as though China's Communist rulers had succeeded where the emperors had failed: in the complete eradication of cults and secret societies. Although the Falung Gong is not a direct continuation of any of the older cults or folk religions, however, it must be seen in that context. Given the historical background, there is no other category that fits. Certainly from the vantage point of the political leadership, which cannot be concerned with details of religious history, the parallels with some sects of the Ming and Qing eras are too striking to be ignored. For one thing, there is the figure of a charismatic leader who is revered as "the Master" by his followers and to whom supernatural powers are ascribed. For another, the Falun Gong apparently has a well-organized, nationwide network of local groups capable of coordinated action. At least until the start of the massive persecution in the fall of 1999, the leaders of the movement were in a position to get thousands of followers out into the street. And although the members of Falun Gong have shown no inclination to violence in their demonstrations so far, their great mobilization potential must be a source of serious concern to the Chinese leaders. For the experience of history has shown that religious mass movements can develop their own, highly unpredictable dynamism.
Distorting Historical Reality
The impression that the folk religions of the past have primarily been breeding grounds of political opposition and the sparkplugs of uprisings is, however, a distortion of historical reality. Most cults of the late imperial era had their roots in religious movements which arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With the aid of a wide range of writings, it is possible to reconstruct the religious doctrines of those movements. Even back then, the background was the belief that the contemporary world was characterized by moral decay and sin, resulting in suffering and disaster. The way to overcome the suffering was pointed out by inspired masters through whom divine truth was revealed. As a rule that way, or path, involved not only obedience to moral precepts but also the practice of meditation, exercises which serve to bring the individual to a recognition of his own inner nature and into harmony with the cosmic order.
The details of these doctrines varied considerably from one sect to another. But common to them all was that they pursued primarily religious rather than political goals. However, there were elements which could develop a political dynamism under certain circumstances. This was especially true of the idea that the present era, which is characterized by sin and decay, would be followed by a new age. The arrival of the new age was generally linked to the expectation of the descent of a new Buddha, the Maitreya.
It is not difficult to understand why Qing governments regarded this mixture of religious and political ideas as extremely dangerous. So, starting in the mid-18th century, repression of folk religions was intensified. The policy was not applied only to those sects which actually had demonstrable political goals. The government could not afford to indulge in careful distinctions, especially since the doctrines and practices of most sects had much in common. Consequently, the policy concentrated on smashing those groups which exceeded a certain size and had established supra-regional networks. The campaign was carried out with the utmost brutality. Cult leaders were regularly executed, even if they were not involved in political activities. But the campaign of extermination was only partially successful. The government succeeded in smashing those organized sects that were operating all over the country. But the result was simply a splintering into numerous smaller groups, which often reorganized under a different name. Liquidation of the leaders brought only temporary peace, because not all the sect members could be eliminated and new leaders soon arose.
The often undifferentiated policy of persecuting religious sects also promoted their radicalization. Since groups which had exclusively religious aims were also suffering persecution, the existing political system could readily be painted as repressive and unjust. Although only a tiny minority of the countless folk-religious groups were drawn into active resistance, much less rebellion, the Qing dynasty lost political legitimacy and support in those circles. Over the long haul, the tradition of folk-religious movements proved more durable than the rule of the Manchu emperors. After the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the sects disappeared from the political stage, but remained active as religious movements.
It would seem that the present Chinese government has decided to repeat the policy of the Qing emperors. The Falun Gong demonstration before the gates of the Chinese leadership's new Forbidden City in April 1999 ended a strategy of relative restraint. Peking apparently felt there was too great a danger that religious movements like Falun Gong could develop a political dynamism which would no longer be controllable. Seen against the background of historical experience, that fear is not entirely imaginary. But experience also shows that repression cannot solve the problem; at most it can only temporarily limit it.
Crushing the Falun Gong will probably not put an end to folk religions of this kind. Accordingly, the present wave of persecution is directed not against Falun Gong alone but against all officially unrecognized religious groups. This includes not only traditional folk-religious sects, but also Qi-gong organizations and newer, Christian-inspired sects. Heavy pressure is also being put on Protestant "house churches" and the underground Catholic church loyal to Rome. In the battle against religious movements, all traces of the rule-of-law are being unscrupulously thrown overboard. The incapacity for internal reform which this shows, however, may turn out to be a greater danger to China's political stability than the activities of any of the country's numerous sects.
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