Photo by the author
Chinatown: New York’s Seward Park is a riot of incredibly fit senior citizens by 6 AM every day. Near the north end of the park, a tai chi group of about 40 members practices to a stereo blasting pentatonic music. Some of them are especially limber, and their exaggerated lunges bring their crotches near the ground. At the jungle gym in the park’s center, old Chinese women hang from the monkey bars. Old Chinese men walk backward in circles. Another group self-flagellates—Chinese people believe that smacking yourself increases circulation. Two guys do high kicks. You have to wonder if any of these grandmas and grandpas ever just lie down in the middle of the park and expire from exertion.
Then you have the Falun Gong people. The Chinese government persecutes them as a brainwashing cult, but FG members say that they’re just following a program of meditation, exercise, and spiritual enlightenment. Their leader, Li Hongzhi, claims to be divine. He also doesn’t like gays. Oh, and he knows how to teleport himself.
One of the Chinatown Falun Gong regulars is an old granny who contradicts herself by answering yes to every question, whether it’s posed in English, Cantonese, or Mandarin. Either she speaks an obscure dialect or she’s deaf. Seeing as it seems she’s unable to pull her blue nylon stockings over her swollen ankles when dressing (they’re bunched down on top of her Keds) you’d think she might be frail. Yet this woman, only slightly taller than Yoda, holds her hands over her head for the specified total of 14 minutes, while newcomers drop their arms after four, experiencing a unique mixture of numbness and searing pain. Trust me, I know. I’ve been doing the exercises with them this week to see what it’s like.
By the third or fourth day, however, the routine feels less painful. Most members talk about the immediate “benefits” of practice. Fatimah says her back pain has disappeared. Wen-Shu no longer gets headaches. She also speaks of “special abilities” she’s acquired since practicing, though at first, she’s reluctant to elaborate: “That’s not our purpose,” she says. “I don’t want people to feel like showing off and going to join Falun Gong.”
Fatimah echoes her sentiments. “You know, we try to be just like ordinary people.”
A few days later, I attend a Falun Gong march across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, in support of millions of Chinese practitioners who recently withdrew from the Chinese Communist Party. Like other Falun Gong events around the world, this march was organized by “word of mouth.” They don’t have a website calendar or a mass mailing list. Beyond the spiritual figurehead of Li Hongzhi, they have no central leadership. This brand of stealthy organizing, many allege, is what alarmed the Chinese government into banning the practice in 1999. That April, with absolutely no warning, about 10,000 Falun Gong members materialized in front of the central government’s buildings to protest, then dispersed. Several months later, Jiang Zemin outlawed Falun Gong.
“Zemin,” says Wen-Shu, “he’s just too afraid he will lose his power because so many people want to be Falun Gong—even more people than in the Communist Party. One day people and the Chinese government will realize that Falun Gong is really good. It’s good for the mind and the physical body.”
And what about her special abilities?
“I don’t tell people. For one reason, they don’t believe.”
After some begging on my part, she finally discloses her new talents.
“I’m more sensitive,” she says. “If I’m thinking about someone, then they often say, ‘Hey, I was just going to call you.’ Or immediately she will call me.” According to Wen-Shu, this has happened many times since she began Falun Gong.
“But that’s not Falun Gong’s purpose,” she says. “We develop the xinxing, the mind.” Then, while I massage my aching shoulder muscles, Wen-Shu says, “There are three words we have to practice. Truth. Compassion. Tolerance. Then our mind and body will go back to the more pure state.”