Identifying Falun Gong


Many attempts have been made to define and understand qigong by English-speaking and Western people. This art has been studied in different disciplines such as exercise science, religion, political science, and sociology. Regardless of the context in which they are written, these studies often vary and sometimes contradict each other in detail and specifics. The vagueness in and variation between these attempts to understand qigong is caused primarily by the effects of language on abstract concepts and cultural interpretation of those concepts. All people bring biases to their understanding of the world. Most of the time it is unintentional, but our interpretations are shaped by our culture as well as our situational context. We cannot escape them, so often they slip into our writing without our knowledge. But they also distort meanings, particularly of abstract concepts. In trying to understand qigong, our Western notions of religion, culture, politics, and society distort our interpretations, creating a new concept, personal qigong that is different than, though somewhat related to, what qigong truly means. Because of this, in order to better understand everything qigong means, we must shed the trappings of our own contexts and cultures and find a way to wrap it in its own context in such a way that we can begin to gain a better understanding of its more true meaning. We will do this by examining the specific difficulties in defining qigong and then embracing a form of understanding that is derived from qigong itself and respectful to its principles. By doing so, we become aware of our own limitations of understanding and mitigate these limitations by creating a contextual framework that is interdependent with the definition of qigong itself.

Qigong Discussed in many Different Contexts

The qigong-based organization known as Falun Gong attained a lot of press because of its social movement activities, the actions of the Chinese government against it, and the tens of millions of followers it has worldwide. Qigong itself is studied through Western schools of Tai Chi, with some Buddhist and Taoist monasteries ascribing to elements of the qigong concept. Because of this, there exist vast amounts of literature on qigong, even within the English language alone. All of these English reports on qigong begin with their own definitions and explanations. While many of the authors tend to agree that qigong is based on the cultivation of invisible energy that permeates both people and the universe (Lu, 173), variations in history and specific aspects quickly develop. While some authors find a parenthetical definition to be sufficient In an article on how qigong became subject to state regulation, Nancy N. Chen defines qigong simply as, “deep breathing exercises, meditation, and healing practices” (506) others undertake detailed explanations of practice and history. Particularly, the historical context of qigong receives a lot of discussions, even in reports where the history is less significant than the beliefs or practices. These longer explanations tend to focus on the explosion of qigong practice in the 1980s, known as the qigong craze, and gloss over the beginnings and ancient contextual aspects of qigong (e.g. Lu, 174). A summary of much of the literature would lead to the conclusion that qigong died with the rise of the Communist Party in China, and that it was “revived” in the 1980s as the qigong movement or qigong craze, as a reaction to the so-called Cultural Revolution that was coming to an end at that time (Kleinman and Klienman, 1994). While this summary is interesting from a historical standpoint, it is insufficient as a definition. Very little mention is made of the beginnings of qigong before the Communist Party’s banning of the qigong, even though some writings imply an ancient origin.

Attempting to find translations

Many attempts to define qigong begin by attempting to find translations of the component parts of the word qigong. This is a futile exercise since while words that seem somewhat relevant come out of the translation, it suffers from the impossibility of literal translation, discussed in more detail later on. These doomed translations often combine this basic linguistic translation with an excessively broad summary of what qigong practitioners are considered to “do”, which often turn out similar to Kevin McDonald’s definition: “A wide range of practices combining breathing, movement, and meditation, the term combining the concepts of qi, the vital energy constituting the cosmos, and gong, meaning practice,’ law,’ or work'” (McDonald, 140). That McDonald then devotes several sections to more thoroughly pinning down the spiritual aspects of qigong exemplifies the difficulty in understanding and explaining the concept. In addition to the above definition, McDonald’s attempt at thoroughly understanding qigong includes four other definitions, each being one element or aspect of the whole concept of qigong: a “cultural movement developed during the 1980s” (144), traditional arts of body cultivation (147), a path to immortality and the gods (156), and techniques that allow masters to perform miracles (153). He also addresses this problem of definition directly by saying, “It seems to me that this model of somatic or corporeal resistance to the state neglects a key dimension of qigong mysticism and magic.” McDonald’s is alluding to the greater problem that we are dealing with, that qigong is a huge creature with many arms and legs, and that in order to describe this creature we are forced to resort to a description of each arm and leg in turn. This is a monumental task, and McDonald does a good job of identifying each of the arms and legs in turn. His thorough exploration of qigong’s many facets easily encompasses the explanations used by others. That qigong can be broken down into so many component parts shows the difficulty in creating a more concrete definition.

The Diversity of Qigong

An important addition to the above definition is the diversity of qigong. It is by no means a single organization, and many of the qigong-derived organizations are themselves decentralized. This cultural movement spawned numerous distinct organizations, such as Falun Gong, Chanmi gong, and Jiugong Bagua Gong (Lu, 175). These organizations often moved in different directions, embracing some elements of McDonald’s multifaceted definition while ignoring others. Falun Gong, for example, embraced many of the religious and supernatural concepts (McDonald, 156-57), leading it to be regarded more like a religion or even a cult than is evident in the greater qigong movement on which it is based. Other qigong organizations focused more on the health benefits (Chen, 506-508), or the relationship between the self and Buddhism or Taoism. Because of this diversity of mission, any accurate definition will need to include all of these varying aspects, yet remain flexible enough to explain these different foci. A definition that cleaves a limb off of qigong by describing some qigong-derived organizations as not being a part of qigong would have to be considered insufficient.

What we encounter here is more than just the difficulty of defining an abstract concept. Falun Gong claims its core objective to be the practice of cultivating the three characteristics of truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance (, 2007). But elaborating on this claim is difficult. First, cultivation itself is a metaphor for the actual actions that are undertaken. There are only metaphorical seeds being coaxed into blossoming within a Falun Gong practitioner. Beyond that, the objects being cultivated are not young plants, but abstract concepts that themselves have broad ranges of meaning. Additionally, this explanation of the actions of a Falun Gong practitioner begs philosophical questions that help explain the problem we are trying to address. Is truthfulness always telling the truth? What if we must lie to withhold the precept of benevolence? Is it okay to violate one of these precepts to fulfill another?

Defining truth, benevolence, or forbearance is hard to even within our own language and culture, and certainly, all of these terms have been used differently in different times and places. It would take a philosopher to work out some of the questions posed above, though practitioners of Falun Gong would simply look to their founder, Li Hongzhi, for the answer. But this “ask the gods” response is not a solution, so we push on. While this illustrates the religious element of qigong, it is nowhere near a sufficient definition of Falun Gong, much less qigong itself.

But that is not even the biggest issue. The larger problem in defining qigong is that our perception and understanding of the world is shaped by our language, our culture, and the social context in which we are attempting to understand them. Translating such abstract terms as benevolence into English is a three-step process that hemorrhages meaning at each point. We begin with qigong as an abstract concept that is only understood broadly by native Chinese speakers, so an individual’s attempt at defining it loses meaning to the problem defined above of abstract concepts being difficult to pin down. Then we take that weakened understanding and find an approximately similar concept in English that we can attempt to translate it to, losing more meaning due to the source concept and the concept that we choose to translate it into not being identical in the two different cultures and languages involved in the translation. Once we have done this, we unwittingly add cultural baggage and extraneous meaning to the new, already ailing English term, through our own cultural understanding and experiences within the world.

The effects of culture and context on language, the source of two of the three wounds described above, are well-studied. This question is very important to many different fields of inquiry. From anthropology to psychology, Linguistic Determinism affects how researchers interpret their research and how the general public receives the research and interacts with the world (Boroditsky, 2). The father of linguistic determinism is generally considered to be Benjamin Lee Whorf (Boroditsky, 2), whose thesis claimed that, “the speakers of a language are partners to an agreement to see and think of the world in a certain way, not the only possible way” (Brown & Lenneberg, 454). This line of inquiry has resulted in a large body of evidence supporting linguistic determinism and some work refuting it – such is the nature of science.

A prominent series of studies by Lera Boroditsky and colleagues operationalizes the question of how our perception of time (an abstract concept) is influenced by physical factors (Boroditsky & Ramscar, 2002) and differs between cultures (Boroditsky, 2001). The hypothesis is that if we prime’ a participant’s way of thinking about an abstract concept by using imagery emphasizing one specific means of understanding the abstract concept we are studying, they will then be influenced to use that method of interpreting the world instead of some other. In the former research, Boroditsy and Ramscar primed participants’ thinking about time as either moving away from them or towards them, through the use of a metaphor of an office chair on a track. Some participants were told that they were sitting on the chair and instructed to imagine themselves moving in the chair towards the other end of the track (ego-moving prime). This imagery was designed to prime participants to think of themselves being at the current point in time and moving forward towards an end-time. Other participants were told that the chair was at the other end of the track attached to a rope, and was instructed to picture themselves using the rope to pull the chair towards them. This imagery was designed to prime participants to think of the temporal end-point as backward to them. Once they were primed in one of these two ways, participants were then asked to answer a temporally ambiguous question. In the first study, for example, participants were asked, “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days. What day is the meeting now that it has been rescheduled?” (185). The group that was primed to think of themselves moving forward through time was statistically more likely to correctly answer Friday’, while the group that was primed to think of time moving towards them was more likely to think the meeting had been moved to Monday. While this study specifically focuses on time, this is an operational convenience necessary because time is one of the few abstract concepts that is closely connected to the physical world in most modern cultures (through its relationship to space). It is safe to generalize from this that the way we understand abstract concepts is altered by the context (incidental priming) in which we think about them. A rhetorically similar but less testable example of this is the question of whether you think about love differently when you are in a long and happy relationship than when you are going through a bitter break-up.

Boroditsky’s earlier work looks at how perception varies between cultures (2001). Again the abstract concept of time is used, again for its ease in operationalization. It focuses on the differences between how native English speakers and how native Mandarin speakers think about time. Native English speakers almost always think about time horizontally, using terms like “forward” and “back then” to describe the relationship between the current time and the time to which they wish to refer. Mandarin speakers use this horizontal relationship as well, but they are equally likely to use a vertical relationship to time, referring to something as being “down in the future”, for example. Using an experimental structure similar to the research discussed above, Boroditsky finds that native Mandarin speakers rely on a way of thinking about the time that is based on Mandarin descriptions of time even when speaking in English. The article also finds the reverse to be true: Native English speakers rely on a way of thinking about the time that is based on English descriptions of time even when speaking in Mandarin (18). This is clearly an example of language influencing peoples’ understanding of abstract concepts.

In addition to the above problems of abstract information being easily influenced and varying based on culture and language, we also have to deal with the loss or alteration of meaning in the process of translation. While some qigong source writing has been translated into English and many other languages (, 2007) in a way that its writers consider equally valid, most qigong information has primary sources only in the original Chinese. Certainly, there are native speakers of other languages who have studied with Chinese qigong masters, but all that is happening when these students attempt to remit the things the masters taught them is a slightly different form of translation that is subject to the same problems.

The main issue here is that an exact translation is impossible to make. Languages, particularly languages from such diverse backgrounds as English and Mandarin, do not precisely line up word-for-word in a way that causes translation to be completely accurate. In his notes on the problem of translation, Port identifies three main reasons why exact translation is impossible: (1) Single words in some languages often require several words in other languages, (2) grammatical particles do not exist or are very different in different languages, and (3) idioms that make perfect sense in one language make no sense in others (Port, 2002). This impossibility further contorts and confuses the interpretation of abstract concepts that are already made difficult by the psychological issues discussed earlier.

So what does this all mean for our ability to define and explain qigong? Put simply, it means that we cannot rely on specific words or concepts (even abstract ones) to explain the qigong movement. Just as we may say that a core concept of Christianity is compassion and still be able to point to historical evidence that Christians have often been anything but compassionate, it is equally meaningful to say, for example, that the core concepts of Falun Gong are truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance. In both cases, once we realize that these abstract concepts were translated and have been interpreted and understood by different peoples’ cultural and linguistic contexts, we must admit that they no longer tell us very much about Christianity or Qigong at all. At the very least, simply interpreting the words in ways that have meaning to us leaves us with no connection to the original context, and much is lost. Port cites an example of this from Christianity, where a Hebrew phrase literally translates as the ox that was in the stall’, where-as the King James Bible uses the fattened calf’ instead (Port, 2002). These two translations mean very different things to us, so clearly relying on the translation tells us very little.

Dealing with this problem will require a different approach to understanding Eastern concepts in general and qigong in specific. We cannot simply use our words to describe every facet of a concept, though doing so is a noble attempt. Instead of simply repeating words and claiming they have meaning, we must find the form behind the meaning, through the actions of masters and practitioners, primarily those which they will claim to be directly in line with the concept. By looking at the actions of primary qigong practitioners, we can then form our own understanding of qigong, in our own words, through the path of the grammars of action of those who are living and breathing it.

In Global Movements, Kevin McDonald makes use of the term grammars of action’ to refer to the repertoire of activities in which a social movement may engage. (2006, vi). In Western studies of the social movement, where the emphasis is usually entirely on the relationship between the movement and government, this grammar includes actions such as writing letters to elected officials or editors, picketing and protesting. Other actions within this Western Movement Grammar include songwriting and performing, and events not obviously targeted at the establishment. The former can be understood as primary actions, since they directly address the main target of Western action, the government. The latter might be considered secondary actions, designed to meet other movement goals such as recruiting or public relations.

Eastern social movements often undertake actions similar to those of their Western counterparts, but reinterpret them into their own contexts. When Falun Gong practitioners protest, they stand in silent meditation and do not in any way raise arms to fight back if the Chinese attack them (Falun Gong Human Rights Working Group, 2003). Beyond this, practitioners of qigong, and certainly Falun Gong have been known to protest, unfurl banners, and contact government officials (Chinese Law and Government, 1999). But they also undertake their own unique actions that are unique to their contexts and separate from grammars of action used in the West. The differences are not mere tactics, but instead represent a fundamental difference in the way the relationship between the self, the group, and the government is understood.

One of the fundamental concepts of qigong (keeping our previous discussion on the problems of interpretation in mind) is the idea of reuniting all of the parts of the self, which in everyday life we allow to separate and act independently, back into the unified whole, at which time we act in unison with ourselves as a complete whole. In the West, we often act with only the parts of the self necessary to complete a particular task. We lift weights with our arms, and when doing a boring, repetitive task our minds wander the mind becomes disconnected from the self. But qigong emphasizes the importance of acting with the entire self, not as numerous disjointed body (and soul) parts, but with our entire being. This translates to social movement activity in what McDonald calls embodied grammars, “access to the world, to the other, to the self, and to memory achieved through the body” (160). By body, McDonald is referring to the unified body, the connected body.

If we describe qigong as an embodied grammar of action, a unified repertoire of all of the separate aspects of qigong, we begin to get a sense of a definition of qigong that is consistent with its teaching and practice, and encompassing of all the different pieces of which it consists. Qigong becomes a united self encompassing a grand range of elements. History, politics, religion, spirituality, healing, and art are just some of the pieces. Importantly, these pieces must not be understood in a vacuum, but only serve to define qigong as a whole, they are symbiotic and interdependent. Taking only pieces of this in a vacuum is what leads to misunderstandings such that qigong becomes misunderstood as a cult by looking at the pieces related to cult organization and behavior (Chen, 2003), a martial art, or a healing practice.

The ultimate lesson here is that ethnocentrism can be mitigated. We have explored research showing that bias can be unintentional and can shape the understanding we have of abstract concepts. Through this exploration, we have been made aware of our own limitations in interpreting the world. Once we gained this awareness, it became possible to understand abstract concepts such as qigong in a way that encompasses all of their numerous parts. This means of understanding places qigong more firmly in its own context, from which we can draw a line between the modes of understanding that define qigong and the modes of understanding that are external to qigong and forced upon it by our own, often very different, modes of understanding the world.


Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology 43: 1-22.

Boroditsky, L., & Ramscar, M. (2002). The roles of body and mind in abstract thought. Psychological Science 13(2): 185-189.

Brown, R. & Lenneberg, E. (1954). A study in language and cognition. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49(3): 454-462.

Chen, N. (2003). Healing Sects and Anti-Cult Campaigns. The China Quarterly 174: 505-520.

Chinese Law and Government (1999). Brief biography of Li Hongzhi: founder of Falun Gong and president of the Falun Gong Research Society. 32(6). Retrieved December 10, 2007, from (2007). What is Falun Dafa (sect. 1). Retrieved December 5, 2007, from

Falun Gong Human Rights Working Group (2003). Falun Gong, a traditional practice that has benefited 100 million people in over 60 countries. Retrieved December 5, 2007, from;=view&id;=390&Itemid;=78

Ji, L., Zhang, Z., & Nisbett, R. (2004). Is it culture or is it language? Examination of language effects in cross-cultural research on categorization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87(1): 57-65.

Kleinman, A., and Kleinman, J. (1994). How bodies remember: social memory and bodily experience of criticism, resistance and delegitimation following China’s Cultural Revolution. New Literary History 25(3): 707-23.

Lu, Y. (2005). Entrepreneurial Logics and the Evolution of Falun Gong. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44(2): 173-185.

McDonald, K (2006). Global movements: Action and culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Port, R. (2002). The problem of translation. Retrieved December 10, 2007 from


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