Notes from a Chinese Cave: Qigong’s Quiet Return

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson writes about his experiences on a ten-day qigong retreat in a cave:

In November, I came to Jinhua with about 400 others on a ten-day retreat to study with Wang Liping, probably China’s most famous teacher of qigong, a form of meditation and breathing exercises rooted in traditional Chinese religion. Qigong’s heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s, when it spread rapidly across China as a kind of ersatz religion. Back then, the Communist Party still actively discouraged religious life but qigong escaped regulation because its backers had cleverly registered it as a sport. In fact, it offered a typically Chinese path to salvation: physical cultivation leading to enlightenment. Some qigong “grand masters” claimed supernatural abilities, saying they could conduct electricity or read books without opening them. But many offered moral guidelines—”popular fundamentalism,” some scholars called it—that appealed to people who had seen the Communists’ ideals collapse during the Cultural Revolution.

This was the beginning of China’s religious revival and qigong became ubiquitous in Chinese parks and streets. Chinese spoke of a “qigong fever” that had infected the country. But it came to a crashing close in 1999 when the government brutally cracked down on the militant qigong group Falun Gong after it staged protests in downtown Beijing. Most qigong groups disappeared or went underground, and as a result it is all but impossible today to practice qigong in public parks.

[...] As the only non-ethnic Chinese in the group, I was quickly adopted as the class mascot. People congratulated me on understanding the value of traditional Chinese cultivation practices, though meditating wasn’t quite like I imagined. For one thing it is more painful. The body’s legs are supposed to form a stable platform. The goal is to call up one’s soul, the shenguang. It manifests itself as a light, which is brought into the body and used to purify the five organs—liver, lungs, heart, spleen and kidneys—which correspond to the five elements of Chinese cosmology. But even simply sitting cross-legged, I found my legs going numb after 45 minutes, then aching. Eventually, I was in such pain that I couldn’t concentrate on the meditation and began to fantasize about ways of escaping.

[...] The best days were when we meditated in the Jinhua caves. My favorite wasn’t the Double Dragon Cave, or Shuanglongdong, which is a major tourist site and couldn’t be closed for our visits. But the Chaozhendong, or “Cave for Worshipping the Perfected Man” was more off the beaten track. The Daoist nun who managed it would turn off the lights when we were inside. Soon, all one could hear were the bats flying around and the drip of water seeping in from outside. Some practitioners cried out and one woman started sobbing. Wang said we shouldn’t be surprised. “We Chinese aren’t very introspective,” he told the class before going to the cave. “You think of things, like your father or your mother. It’s okay.”

January 13, 2012 3:04 PM
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