Li Hongzhi (Chinese: 李洪志; pinyin: Lǐ Hóngzhì, born 1952 or 1951) is a Chinese religious leader. He is the founder and spiritual leader of Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, a "system of mind-body cultivation" in the qigong tradition. Li began his public teachings of Falun Gong on 13 May 1992 in Changchun, and subsequently gave lectures and taught Falun Gong exercises across China.
Li in 1997
|Known for||Founder of Falun Gong|
In 1995 Li began teaching Falun Gong abroad, and in 1998 he settled as a permanent resident in the United States. Li's Falun Gong movement gained significant popularity in the 1990s, including in government and qigong circles, but was suppressed by the Chinese government in 1999. According to Freedom House, "Today, Chinese citizens who practice Falun Gong live under constant threat of abduction and torture. The name of the practice, its founder Mr. Li Hongzhi, and a wide assortment of homonyms are among the most censored terms on the Chinese internet. Any mention in state-run media or by Chinese diplomats is inevitably couched in demonizing labels."
Li has been also associated with performance arts group Shen Yun, and the media organizations The Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television, which operate as extensions of Falun Gong. They have promoted Falun Gong's philosophical beliefs and unfounded conspiracy theories.
There are competing accounts of Li's life that surfaced before and after the suppression of Falun Gong began in July 1999, and there is very little authoritative information on his early life. Accounts between Li's supporters and detractors diverge significantly, and as a result, can be understood within the context of the political and spiritual purposes for which different narratives were developed.
An unofficial biography appeared in the first of Li's major publications, Zhongguo Falun Gong, and was authored by journalist Zhu Huiguang. A second, official spiritual biography appeared in early editions of Falun Gong's primary text, Zhuan Falun, and was authored by the Falun Dafa Research Society. These biographies placed emphasis on Li's spiritual development, with minimal details on Li's ordinary work or family life. The style and content of these biographies is consistent with the "centuries-old tradition of religious biography in China". As Benjamin Penny wrote, "as with its precursors [in Chinese history], this biography seeks to establish a genealogy of the figure whose life is recorded and to buttress the orthodoxy of his doctrine." Both biographies were omitted from later printings of Falun Gong books, as Li explained that he did not want people to focus their attention on his own history or circumstances.
These biographies state that Li was born in the town of Gongzhuling, Jilin Province. The first account, by Zhu Huiguang, stated that Li's family lived amidst poverty. In this edition, Li was described as developing a "spirit of bearing hardships and tolerating hard work" as he helped care for his younger siblings. The second, official version of his biography emphasized Li's average social background, stating that he belonged to "ordinary intellectual's family".
Both biographies ascribe to Li innate virtues of compassion and discipline. The official biography focuses mainly on the lineage of Daoist and Buddhist masters who he says provided Li with instruction from an early age. At four, he was trained by Quan Jue, the Tenth Heir to the Great Law of the Buddha School. By age eight, he had acquired "the superb great law with supernatural powers", which was supposed to include invisibility, levitation, etc. Master Quan left him at age twelve, to be replaced by Taoist master Baji Zhenren, who provided instruction in martial arts and physical skills.
A third Master arrived in 1972 from the Great Way School. Zhendaozi (literally, "True Taoist"), came from the Changbai Mountains near the North Korean border. Unlike Li's other spiritual tutors, the True Taoist wore ordinary attire, and taught Li the way of inner cultivation through Qigong, stressing xinxing (i.e. "mind or heart nature, moral character"). Li's training in this period mostly took place under cover of night, possibly due to the political environment of the Cultural Revolution.
A fourth Master — a woman from the Buddha School—began instructing Li in 1974. After training with these four Masters, Li's "energy potency had reached a very high level". His personal development plateaued around this time, with the biography stating that Li was able "to see the truth of the universe, many more beautiful things which have existed there for a long time, as well as the origin, development and future of mankind".
In 1982, Li moved to the city of Changchun for "civilian employment", the implication being that his previous work was with the military. At some point in the 1980s, Li married and had a daughter.
In 1984, Li began synthesizing the teachings he received into what would become Falun Dafa. The practice would not be exactly the same as what had been transmitted to him, as those systems were not suitable to be "popularised on a large scale". Li began observing the teaching methods of other qigong masters, and by 1989 had finalised his qigong system. For the next three years until 1992, Li was said to have begun testing the system with a small group of students.
Falun Gong books published after 1999 no longer contain biographies of Li. These changes reflected a larger trend of Li retreating from the public eye. Since 2000 he has rarely appeared in public, his presence almost entirely being electronic or re-routed through quotations on Falun Gong's websites. Li Hongzhi's biography was removed from Falun Gong websites some time after 2001.
Details published by Chinese governmentEdit
The Chinese government began publishing biographies of Li after the suppression of Falun Gong began in July 1999. As such, details on Li's life published in the PRC can be understood as part of the government's publicity campaign against Falun Gong. Their objective was to "demonstrate that Li Hongzhi was thoroughly ordinary and that his claims to exceptional abilities and experiences were fraudulent".
Li was born in 1951 or 1952. His parents divorced whilst he was a toddler, and Li and his siblings remained with his mother. In 1955 they relocated to Changchun.
Li is said to have attended primary and middle school in Changchun between 1960 and 1970. As with most school-aged children in China, Li's formal education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He did not attend high school, but ultimately completed high school through correspondence courses in the 1980s. Chinese government accounts emphasize repeatedly that Li lacks a higher education, and was an undistinguished student, notable only for playing the trumpet.
After attaining his middle school diploma in 1970, Li was said to have held "a series of unremarkable jobs": between 1970 and 1972, Li worked at an army horse farm; from 1972 to 1978, was a trumpet player in a forest police unit in Jilin Province, and subsequently worked as a clerk in the Grain and Oil Procurement company in Changchun. Unnamed former classmates and co-workers cited in government accounts stress repeatedly that Li was unremarkable, that they never saw him practising qigong, and that they had no knowledge of the Buddhist and Daoist Masters Li claimed to have studied under.
A group of early adopters in Changchun became disenchanted after Li forbade his followers from charging fees for the practice at the end of 1994, amongst other things. The group left the Falun Gong movement, and proceeded to send to government ministries a series of accusations against Li, among them that he had not shown any supernatural powers during his youth. Falun Gong sent detailed rebuttals to the ministries. Following the suppression of Falun Gong in 1999, Chinese authorities republished all these accusations, point by point.
Birth date controversyEdit
Li's date of birth became a controversy after 1999. Falun Gong sources published that Li was born on 13 May 1951. The Chinese government published his birthday as 7 or 27 July 1952, pointing out that his claimed birthday was the same as Gautama Buddha. As evidence of the 1952 birth, authorities quoted Pan Yufang, a midwife who recalled delivering Li in July 1952. Pan's account included the assertion that she used oxytocin to assist in the birth, which was disputed by Falun Gong. Professor David Ownby wrote in 2008 that Li Hongzhi was born Li Lai on 27 July 1952 in Gongzhuling, Jilin province, China. The Chinese government said that Li changed his name from Lai to Hongzhi because Hongzhi, meaning vast will, sounded more revolutionary. In 2017, Professor James R. Lewis analyzed a 2015 report by Kaiwind, an anti-cult non-profit group in China, and agreed with their photographic evidence that Li was born on 7 July 1952. The Kaiwind report documented how Li approached a friend in government service who helped him change his government identification papers in late September 1994, and that the necessary government clerk's signature was forged by a police woman named Sun Lixian, who changed his birthdate and his government identification number, after which he was issued a new identification card in October.
Li does not argue that he changed his identification in 1994, but he said his date of birth had been misprinted as one of the pervasive bureaucratic errors of the Cultural Revolution, and he was merely correcting it. Regarding the accusation that he selected Buddha's birthday as his own, Li characterized it as a "smear", and said "I have never said that I am Sakyamuni [Buddha]. I am just a very ordinary man." In contradiction to being "ordinary", Li has claimed a variety of superhuman powers, such as becoming invisible.
Li Hongzhi introduced Falun Dafa, or the Great Law of the Wheel of Dharma, on 13 May 1992 (Li's 41st birthday as claimed) at the fifth Middle School in Changchun, Jilin. From 1992 to 1994 he traveled throughout China, giving lectures and teaching Falun Gong exercises; His following grew rapidly. Li's success was largely linked to the huge popularity enjoyed by qigong in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Deng Xiaoping's social liberalization. He differentiated Falun Gong by prioritising "accessibility to the public" and moral content, away from esoteric notions often found in other Qigong systems.
Falun Gong's teachings are compiled from Li's lectures, and he holds definitional power in the Falun Gong belief system. Li was also critical of alternative systems within the Qigong movement, stating it was "rife with false teachings and greedy and fraudulent 'masters'" and set out to rectify it. Li said that Falun Gong was a part of a "centuries-old tradition of cultivation", and in his texts would often attack those who taught "incorrect, deviant, or heterodox ways". Li differentiated Falun Gong from other movements in Qigong by emphasizing moral values aimed to "purify one's heart and attain spiritual salvation" rather than what he saw as undue emphasis on physical health and the development of supernatural powers.
Ian Johnson pointed out that during the greatest period of Falun Gong book sales in China, Li Hongzhi never received any royalties because all publications were bootleg. Li's success also had a large part to do with people seeking effective alternative medicine treatments at a time when China's health care system was struggling desperately to meet demand. As the Master of the Falun Gong cultivation system, Li claimed to "purify the students' bodies" and "unblock their main and collateral channels" and in doing so "remove the root of their disease", if they were ill. He also reputedly planted a Falun or "law wheel" in the abdomen of each student, and other "energy mechanisms" in other parts of their bodies. Li also described how his "Law bodies" will protect each practitioner and how he "clear[s] up the students' house and places of practice and then put[s] a covering of safety'". In Li's Falun Gong teachings, he emphasizes that practitioners should abide by the moral principles of truth, compassion and forbearance, in their daily lives. According to New Zealand scholar Heather Kavan, these principles have been repeated by Falun Gong members to outsiders as a tactic for evading deeper inquiry. Li has instructed his followers to lie to outsiders about Falun Gong.
According to Falun Gong groups, Li's early success was recognized at the 1992 and 1993 Beijing Oriental Health Expos. At the first of these events, the fair's organizer remarked that Falun Gong and Li "received the most praise [of any qigong school] at the fair, and achieved very good therapeutic results". The event helped cement Li's popularity in the qigong world, and journalistic reports of Falun Gong's healing powers spread. The following year, Li was made a member of the organizing committee of the Beijing Health Expo, and won several awards and commendations at the event.
In this era, Li developed a positive rapport with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). In 1993, he provided treatment for 100 police officers who had been injured on the job, earning praise from an organization under the MPS. Li gave lectures at the Public Security University in Beijing in 1994, and contributed proceeds from the seminars to a foundation for injured police officers. The publishing ceremony for Li's book, Zhuan Falun, was held in the auditorium of the Ministry of Public Security in January 1995.
In 2001 Li Hongzhi stated that he believes aliens walk the Earth and he has reportedly said he can walk through walls and make himself invisible. Li says that he is a being from a higher level who has come to help humankind from the destruction it could face as the result of rampant evil. Regarding these concepts, he said, "You must not talk with ordinary people about the high-level things I have taught you. Instead, only talk about being persecuted... about our human rights being violated." Lewis says that Li's "emphatic" claims to his followers that he holds "exalted status", and his instructions to his followers to deflect outsiders from this fact, are contradictory to his teachings about "Truthfulness", a cornerstone of Falun Gong belief.
In 1995, Li declared that he had finished teaching Falun Gong in China, and began spreading the practice abroad. His first stop in March 1995 was to the Chinese embassy in Paris, where he had been invited to teach the practice. This was followed by seminars in Sweden. Between 1995 and 1999, Li gave lectures in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States. Falun Gong associations and clubs began appearing in Europe, North America and Australia, with activities centered mainly on university campuses.
On 25 April 1999, about 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered near the central appeals office in Beijing to demand an end to the escalating harassment against the movement, and request the release of the Tianjin practitioners. According to Benjamin Penny, practitioners sought redress from the leadership of the country by going to them and, "albeit very quietly and politely, making it clear that they would not be treated so shabbily."
After the event, Li received more measures of recognition from North American municipalities. In May 1999, Li was welcomed to Toronto with greetings from the Mayor of Toronto and the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and in the two months that followed also received recognition from the cities of Chicago and San Jose.
On 29 July 1999, after Falun Gong was banned, the Ministry of Public Security of China levelled a series of charges against Li, including the charge of "disturbing public order" and issued a circular indicating his status as being wanted and pressing for his arrest. At that time, Li Hongzhi was living in the United States. The Chinese government's request to Interpol for his arrest was rejected on the grounds that the request was a matter "of a political or religious character" and lacked information on any "ordinary law crime he would have committed" The Chinese government also revoked his passport, preventing him from travelling internationally.
By April 2001, Li Hongzhi had received over 340 awards and proclamations from Australia, Canada, China (before crackdown), Japan, Russia, and the U.S. in recognition of the contributions to people's spiritual and physical health, and to freedom of belief in the world. These include certificates of recognition from several governmental bodies in the United States – including Honorary Citizenship awarded by The State of Georgia and city of Atlanta. On 14 March 2001, The Freedom House bestowed Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong with an International Religious Freedom Award for the advancement of religious and spiritual freedom at a ceremony in the United States Senate. He was nominated for the 2001 Sakharov Prize by over 25 members of European Parliament, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 and 2001, and in 2013 was ranked by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the 500 most powerful people in the world.
Shen Yun, The Epoch Times, and political involvementEdit
Performance arts group Shen Yun, the media organization The Epoch Times, and a variety of other organizations such as New Tang Dynasty Television operate as extensions of Falun Gong. These extensions promote Falun Gong and Hongzhi's teachings, and, in the case of The Epoch Times, promote conspiracy theories and far-right politics in both the United States and Europe. According to a 2020 report by Los Angeles Magazine:
- In 2000, Li founded Epoch Times to disseminate Falun Gong talking points to American readers. Six years later he launched Shen Yun as another vehicle to promote his teachings to mainstream Western audiences. Over the years Shen Yun and Epoch Times, while nominally separate organizations, have operated in tandem in Falun Gong’s ongoing PR campaign against the Chinese government, taking directions from Li.
- Despite its conservative agenda, Epoch Times took pains until recently to avoid wading into partisan U.S. politics. That all changed in June 2015 after Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator to announce his presidential candidacy, proclaiming that he “beat China all the time.” In Trump, Falun Gong saw more than just an ally—it saw a savior. As a former Epoch Times editor told NBC News, the group’s leaders “believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the communist party.”
The exact financial and structural connections between Falun Gong, Shen Yun, and The Epoch Times remains unclear. According to NBC News:
- The Epoch Media Group, along with Shen Yun, a dance troupe known for its ubiquitous advertising and unsettling performances, make up the outreach effort of Falun Gong, a relatively new spiritual practice that combines ancient Chinese meditative exercises, mysticism and often ultraconservative cultural worldviews. Falun Gong’s founder has referred to Epoch Media Group as “our media,” and the group’s practice heavily informs The Epoch Times’ coverage, according to former employees who spoke with NBC News.
- The Epoch Times, digital production company NTD and the heavily advertised dance troupe Shen Yun make up the nonprofit network that Li calls “our media.” Financial documents paint a complicated picture of more than a dozen technically separate organizations that appear to share missions, money and executives. Though the source of their revenue is unclear, the most recent financial records from each organization paint a picture of an overall business thriving in the Trump era.
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Li Hongzhi|
- William Dowell (10 May 1999). "Interview with Li Hongzhi". TIME.
- "Interview with Li Hongzhi in Sydney, Australia". 2 May 1999.
- Anthony Spaeth (2 August 1999). "Interview: Li Hongzhi "I am just a very ordinary man"". TIMEasia.com.
- Jonathan S. Landreth and J.S. Greenberg (8 August 1999). "Eye of the Storm". New York Times Magazine.
- "NTDTV Press Release: Summary of the Exclusive Interview with Mr. Li Hongzhi, Founder of Falun Gong". clearharmony.net. 25 January 2004.