Qian Xuesen is remembered as the undisputed mastermind of China’s space programme (see WiC38 for our profile of the scientist). However, his legacy in advocating qigong, a meditation technique that combines breathing and gymnastics, has been more controversial.
During Qian’s later years he petitioned for more scientific research into qigong and what he believed to be its ability to unlock supernatural human powers. As a result the semi-official China Qigong Science Association was set up in 1986. A high-level working group made up of the health and national security ministries, as well as the Party’s propaganda department, was created to promote the practice and related somatic studies.
These state-sponsored efforts assisted a qigong fever that was already rippling across the country. Previously unknown qigong masters such as Yan Xin picked up national followings. Yan claimed that he could alter molecular structures 2,000 kilometres away or put out forest fires through force of will. Thousands of qigong organisations mushroomed in the 1980s. At its height, the movement attracted over 100 million practitioners.
According to David Palmer, the author of Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China, the qigong frenzy was the product of an ambiguous marriage between the state and popular sectarianism. Benefitting from “influential networks of political supporters”, it filled a spiritual void after the Cultural Revolution.
Perhaps this also explains why qigong attracted so many Chinese intellectuals and scientists, as well as a few political leaders.
The craze began to wither in the mid-1990s, as Beijing tightened its ideological grip over qigong and published polemics against superstitions.
But events finally came to an abrupt halt in 1999 when 10,000 members of a qigong sect gathered unannounced and surrounded the Zhongnanhai leadership compound. The demonstration rattled the government, leading to a state crackdown and the dismantling of most of the large qigong groups.
Since then many qigong gurus have been revealed as frauds. But their celebrity fans appear to be more loyal than most. The devotion of prominent Chinese to a select group of qigong masters first came to light last year with photos of movie star Jet Li and Alibaba’s charismatic chairman Jack Ma apwith their spiritual advisor Wang Lin (see WiC204).
Many onlookers were surprised that someone of Ma’s standing would want to associate with a self-proclaimed grandmaster whose special skills included resurrecting beheaded snakes. “The reaction online was one of shock that such a successful entrepreneur could fall prey to a charlatan like Wang,” the Global Times scoffed at the time. The Beijing News also reminded its readers that Wang had once given the disgraced railway minster Liu Zhijun a “patron stone” that would ensure “an infallible political career”. (Liu got a suspended death sentence last year.)
So it wasn’t too surprising when another qigong master was exposed for his business dealings last month after revelations that a holding firm called Niandai has been the recipient of most of the oil sales revenue generated by state oil major CNPC’s third largest plant. That’s in spite of the fact that Niandai has invested very little in the project. Century Weekly explains that Niandai was controlled by qigong master Cao Yongzheng until 2012 (when the company’s ownership was then transferred to his brother).
The 55 year-old Cao is one of the gurus who rose to stardom in the early 1990s for his supernatural abilities (although one of his most famous feats was predicting that Sydney – instead of Beijing – would win the race to host the 2000 Olympics). At the time Cao garnered a circle of followers that included celebrities and senior officials. But things have now gone awry and Century Weekly says the qigong master is the latest to be detained as part of the ongoing anti-graft investigation into CNPC.
(To understand how he has become embroiled, the media has cited Cao’s connection with Zhou Yongkang, the erstwhile state security chief. Zhou apparently said that Cao was the person he trusted most. For more on Zhou and the CNPC purges, see WiC211.)
According to Time Weekly, Chinese celebrities and senior officials are often attracted to qigong masters because China lacks “a mature cultural system that could fulfill their spiritual needs”.
The magazine notes that most of the “grandmasters” also happen to be expert in psychological counselling and have exceptional organisational skills. “They are always smiling and they can effortlessly pull prominent people together, to relax and to spend time on a retreat for a few days.”
Xiong Tuoni, a writer at Tencent Dajia, a blogging platform for Chinese intellectuals, says it doesn’t really matter if these qigong masters possess supernatural abilities, as their A-list followers view the retreats as a means to network with people of similar standing.
“We all need friends but it is very difficult for big bosses to make friends,” Xiong wrote. “The circle of a qigong master could offer just that: a circle of ‘high-end customers’ who have already built up their own powerful networks.”
Even if grandmasters aren’t serving as a conduit for Chinese tycoons, they can still bring together people with a shared passion for qigong. China Enterprise magazine says that tai chi (a Chinese martial art that incorporates elements of qigong) has also become a popular pastime in business circles. In 2011 the private banking unit of Bank of China hosted a Beijing conference titled “Our Living Style” that saw more than 40 leading tycoons perform tai chi together on stage (presumably with their bankers hovering around the margins of the meeting). During the conference Jack Ma announced that he and Jet Li would be opening a tai chi academy in Hangzhou.
The devotion of the tycoons has helped to revive qigong more broadly as a leisure activity. Many public parks are buzzing with practitioners from early morning. And some of the curbs on qigong groups imposed by the central government since late 1990s have been relaxed. “It is a core part of the traditional Chinese culture that the authorities may now want to promote,” Southern Weekend said.
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