Falun Gong and Crazy English

Charismatic Movements in the PRC

Avery Morrow

Since the liberalization of 1979, Mainland China has become open to a number of popular movements that serve an non-political social purpose. I separate these social movements from spontaneous rioting and sustained protests, although these have also become common, because these latter two actions are never considered healthy by the Communist Party and always dealt with as a political problem. Under the more general term of "social movements", though, fall a surprising number of activities. Chinese people who are not familiar with each other through kinship lines or common work environments will gather together to perform calisthenics in a park, worship in a church, study English, or learn "business techniques" of unclear utility.1

These social movements, when organized at a national level, are often characterized by charismatic leaders who are not directly connected to Party authorities. Indeed, they often come from humble origins, prompting the question of why they attract so much attention from ordinary Chinese citizens. The sociologist Max Weber defines the unique power of these individuals as "charismatic authority," which he further describes as "resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him."2

The authority of these leaders is neither bestowed upon them by the Party nor approved by them, so it seems likely that all such movements could be outlawed as threatening to their base of power. Some of these movements have been outlawed, yet the Party still allows others to thrive. Why is this? To answer this question I will study two of the most influential self-help movements: Falun Gong and Crazy English.

The main sources I have drawn on for Falun Gong are David Ownby's Falun Gong and the Future of China and Maria Hsia Chang's Falun Gong: The End of Days, both of which examine Falun Gong in terms of its place in the changing makeup of modern Chinese society. On the subject of Crazy English, I have used a New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, a documentary by Zhang Yuan, and a comprehensive critical survey by Amber R. Woodward. Only the last of these sources lays out a socio-political framework, but because of the parallels to Falun Gong the social context can easily be understood.

Falun Gong

Falun Gong is a qigong, or calisthenic, technique of the sort that experienced mass popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike other techniques, though, Falun Gong has in Li Hongzhi a charismatic leadership that brought its practitioners instantly from obscurity to world news in 1999 when they reacted to government criticism of the technique with mass protest. Journalists struggled to explain how this "movement" had instantly appeared throughout China where there was nothing foreshadowing it before. Meanwhile, China outlawed Falun Gong as an "evil cult" and treated practitioners to imprisonment, brutal torture, and frequently, death.3

Unlike new religious movements in the United States, which often attract social and spiritual outcasts who see themselves as outside the mainstream, Falun Gong practitioners are "upright citizens" who understand their moral conduct to be part of the greater order of the universe. In the United States, an overwhelming majority of practitioners have a university-level degree and an upper-middle class income.4 Falun Gong thus cannot be seen as a movement which attracts the mentally unstable or those who have nothing to live for. It was initially no different than any other form of qigong, and well within the mainstream of Chinese medicine. In fact, it enjoyed the support of party leadership, because it was cheaper than Western medicine and supported patriotic, "Chinese science".5 Although the assumption is that the atheist Communist Party takes a hard-line stance against superstition, this was not always the case; in 1980, an influential scientist went on the record in People's Daily and other party organs as supporting qigong. Obviously, placing such a statement in the People's Daily required the approval if not the request of Party leadership.6

When qigong became the focus of criticism in 1995, Li decided to take an international tour ending in the United States, where he published a book, Zhuan Falun, which he instructed his followers back in China to read and treasure as the Law (Fa). David Ownby sees this as the point where Falun Gong began to diverge from other qigong techniques.7 Practitioners had come to Falun Gong as a medical technique, but with the introduction of Zhuan Falun its teachings took on additional metaphysical qualities. The book spoke of the superiority of the Chinese studies of qi and Buddhism to "Western" science and affirmed that moral actions resonate at other levels in the universe and bring supernatural abilities and great wisdom to those who practice them sincerely.8

Maria Hsia Chang classifies Falun Gong as an "apocalyptic" movement that signals high levels of discontent with China similar to the Boxer Rebellion in the 19th century,9 but this was not immediately evident from its pre-1996 writings. David Ownby, dismissing this characterization as contrary to Falun Gong's social role, places it instead within China's long history of "cultivation and redemptive societies", which are especially common in diaspora Chinatowns.10 A good comparison could be drawn between the role of such societies in the diaspora and the churches, temples, and kinship associations which play strong roles in stabilizing village life on the mainland,11 but I was unable to find such a comparison in my literature review.

Crazy English

Like Falun Gong, Crazy English is first and foremost a technique with devoted adherents and charismatic leadership. In this case, the leader is Li Yang, a former C student from Xinjiang whose entire career has revolved around his special English learning method. Li encourages his students to yell English words at the top of their lungs while making complicated hand gestures. Unlike Li Hongzhi, though, Li Yang has enjoyed continued popularity with the Chinese government, and was employed in the preparation for the Beijing Olympics.12 The documentary Crazy English by Zhang Yuan shows a scene where Li teaches his technique to several thousand People's Liberation Army soldiers lined up in uniform along the Great Wall; he has them punch the air while yelling phrases such as "Never let your country down!" in English.

It might seem unsuitable to compare a "religious" technique like Falun Gong with a "secular" technique like Crazy English. In fact, these techniques are fairly similar. Besides their charismatic power structure, both techniques seem to involve more mental satisfaction than physical benefit. As a qigong technique, Falun Gong claims to be a form of medicine that works through the power of Li and a supernatural "Wheel of Law", but this is a metaphysical claim that cannot be evaluated; its beneficial effect on the emotional life of practitioners is much more apparent.13 On the Crazy English side, Zhang Yuan's documentary opens with a montage of practitioners attempting to introduce themselves to the camera in English. Few are able to keep up a coherent monologue, reflecting poorly on Crazy English as a learning technique,14 but all of them nonetheless express love for the technique in some form or another: "As a girl, I like smiling, I like singing, I like all the good things in the world, and I like this Crazy English best." Later on, Li states that "my Crazy English consists of many philosophies of life and success."15 According to Evan Osnos, "Li Yang’s cosmology ties the ability to speak English to personal strength, and personal strength to national power."16

In 2007, Li was shaken by accusations of "cult behavior", an implicit comparison to Falun Gong. A photo he had posted on his blog showed 3,000 schoolchildren in Inner Mongolia apparently bowing to him; he was almost immediately accused of cultlike behavior. Li responded that he was cultivating respect for one's teachers; a flood of Crazy English practitioners posted to his blog in support. While he had undoubtedly lost some of his influence among the blog-reading students which which he was most popular, for the moment, the situation seemed to have been resolved.17

In Party circles, though, a danger was recognized, and a long period of official endorsement of Crazy English18 came to an end. He was criticized by articles in China Daily, which compared his lectures to "cult meetings" or "being received by a feudal emperor",19 and the South China Morning Post, which called Crazy English "one of those cults where the leaders insist on being treated like deities." Rather than fleeing China, though, Li decided to stay off the lecture circuit for some time and wait for the ruckus to die down. His contract with the Beijing Olympic authorities was not canceled, which probably speaks to good networking with party cadres.20

The literature on Crazy English in the English language is sparse. It is usually singled out as a curiosity, a sort of epiphenomena (much akin to the way religious cults were treated in Victorian-era scholarship). The main author of peer-reviewed papers on Crazy English, Amber R. Woodward, is overtly critical of the movement, warning that Li Yang could be a "crook" or "the future leader of a world-shaking revolution".21 Less sociological papers, such as one by Yunbao Yang, consider the "Li Yang phenomenon" reflective of the government's "high investment but low efficiency" English policy.22

Government Response

Most of the Chinese government's attacks on Falun Gong are specious and clearly incidental to the real reasons they aim to suppress the movement. If it caused people to "lose their reason, dignity, ability to distinguish right from wrong," and so forth, they would have banned it long before it gained millions of practitioners. Other attacks do not withstand comparison to other charismatic movements: for example, Li Hongzhi is accused of taking practitioners' money and owning large houses,23 but he wealth Li Yang has accumulated from his own books and lectures has not been seized by the CCP;24 this attack seems to be based more on outside perception of what "religion" ought to look like than any problem within Falun Gong itself. Maria Hsia Chang goes so far as to identify these claims as psychological projection, writing that "even if Beijing's allegations against Falun Gong were true, the Chinese Communist Party is equally, if not more, guilty of" being a cult of personality that disrespects the rule of law and incites violence and hatred.25

In my opinion, the controlling aspect of the PRC attacks on Falun Gong is in the organization's relationship with the Chinese political system and its economic policies. An editorial in China Daily claimed that Falun Gong and its anti-nationalist supporters "don't want to see a strong China or a China with a stable environment for economic development."26 The People's Daily accused Falun Gong of a conspiracy "to overturn the People's Republic of China and to subvert the socialist system" by criticizing Chinese society and instilling "distrust" of PRC authorities.27 Falun Gong has presented a counternarrative to the state, and thereby threatened it.

Crazy English, on the other hand, presents a message of explicit nationalism. In Zhang's documentary, Li Yang presents images of World War II-era Japanese brutality in China to elementary school students, later explaining to a reporter for Time magazine that he did this "so that they won't forget" and that "[kids today] think Japanese products are great ... if you bring up history, they think it's very strange... [bringing up history is] the best way to show you hate Japan."28 He reminds his audience that "what China lacks is good businessmen" and expounds a message of unabashed capitalism at every lecture ("two words: make money"; "make money from foreigners"). One professor says about Li that "by saying you learn English in order to learn the enemy’s language and compete with them, and learning English is a way to enhance your nationalism and national identity, I think the government is very happy with that."29  While the cities of Guangdong and Chengdu have at different times banned Li from teaching because of his tendency to distract students from their institutional English studies,30 one could not honestly claim that he is doing anything other than enforcing the Party line of nationalism and economic development.

Power Plays in the Regulation of Charismatic Authority

As explained above, both Li Yang and Li Hongzhi have been accused of cult behavior. Both run movements that attracted millions of followers, both hold mass lectures and both were initially accepted by the government only to be criticized later. Woodward claims that

if we are to believe the theories of Falun Gong practitioners that the movement 'simply grew too large', then we must consider seriously the possibility of a similar outcome for Crazy English, which has thus far enjoyed government support, but has already exceeded the norms for massive gatherings. True, Li Yang’s patriotic themes give him an advantage with the Chinese government, but what if one high official fears that Li Yang will use his nationalism to gain political support or power? 31

However, the scolding in Chinese newspapers seems to have put Li Yang in his place. When he returned to the lecture circuit to promote English for the Beijing Olympics, he took orders from party leadership on how to act as a citizen, and toned down the "craziness" that characterizes his speeches.32 Li Yuan acknowledged the relative unimportance of his personal goals compared to the needs of the Chinese state as represented by the government and the Party. This puts him at odds with Li Hongzhi, who responded to criticism by either implicitly or explicitly encouraging mass protest in Beijing.33 Note that this does not reflect different attitudes on the part of practitioners, but only the political stances of these respective authority figures. Li Yang was from the beginning promoting English as a patriotic duty (as well as an economic and filial duty), whereas for Li Hongzhi the natural law of Falun Gong trumped questions of patriotism.

We can see from this case that creating an atmosphere of subservience among charismatic leaders is important to the Party. Li Hongzhi's teachings were pro-Chinese and never explicitly anti-Communist, which makes the suppression of Falun Gong superficially puzzling. David Ownby believes that Falun Gong's non-political message was precisely its downfall, because the Party did not want to be ignored.34 But in light of the Party response to Crazy English, we see that what was most dangerous in the eyes of the Party was that Li Hongzhi, unlike Li Yang, believed he had the power to make the Party stop criticizing him through protest actions.

When masses of villagers and workers want the Party to change their stance on an issue, their protests are accepted at the central level, and the workers are not punished by the central government for airing their grievances. Their belief in the ability of the Party to resolve their problems or in Mao as a past good leader indicates acceptance of political authority.35 When an individual incites the masses to protest, though, political authority is being rejected in favor of charismatic authority. In a liberal democratic state, such rejection of the basis of political power is acceptable as long as one does not actually break any laws. In the Chinese state, though, any specific laws that might be broken by rejecting the Party line are far less important than the threat to the state's legitimacy.

When the Communist Party was faced with the first large-scale Falun Gong protests in 1999, the immediate reaction was telling in its subversion of the government's supposed democratic process. The executive branch of the government compared the protest to the June 4 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and quickly banned Falun Gong as an "evil cult";36 the law which actually enabled the executive to ban "evil cults" was passed ex post facto several months later. When President Jiang Zemin held a large closed-door meeting in 2001, this was also done outside the democratic process. Brian Edelman and James Richardson see the formation of Falun Gong policy as a step away from rule of law and towards "Maoist rule by man" for the CCP government.37 But it is rare for the post-Mao Party to actually take such steps. The comparison to June 4 especially demonstrates the seriousness with which the government took up Falun Gong as a threat to their authority.

Interestingly, at the local level the situation is reversed; local governments will go to any length to prevent villagers from reaching the Party with their complaint, including imprisonment and torture,38 but when they were asked to suppress Falun Gong, they actually complained to the central Party through a public letter to the People's Daily that the effort was not working and was causing demonstrations and unrest.39 Village cadres do not like being disciplined by the Party officials above them when a political protest is raised, but they prefer the peace brought by Falun Gong to having to squash the movement with violence.


Woodard calls Crazy English "unorthodox",40 but within China the official message on what is orthodox comes from the Communist Party, which has criticized Falun Gong as "heterodox" while allowing Crazy English to continue its operations owing to its political orthodoxy. The Party's regulation of these movements shares nothing in common with the liberal attitudes of democratic states, which tend to step back and allow even "cults" such as Scientology to operate as religions providing they abide by the rule of law. Rather, China is playing the role of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe, determining which charismatic leaders are legitimate and which are heretical. Those accused of heresy face the same medieval punishments: imprisonment for one's beliefs, torture, and forced conversion. While such a system seems secure for now, a future Protestant Reformation in China is not inconceivable. Crazy English affirms the power of "socialism with Chinese characteristics";41 Falun Gong rejects its complexity, irrelevance and corruption in favor of a simple and pure morality.42 Both charismatic movements have a role to play in the future of a rapidly changing China.

1Leslie T. Chang. Factory Girls. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008.

2Max Weber. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1956. trans. A.M. Henderson. New York: Free Press, 1964. p.328.

3Bryan Edelman and James T. Richardson. "Falun Gong and the law: Development of legal social control in China". Nova Religio 6.2 (2003). p. 313.

4David Ownby. Falun Gong and the Future of China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. pp. 135-7.

5Ibid., p. 12.

6Ibid., p. 63.

7Ibid., p. 14.

8Ibid., pp. 93-4.

9Maria Hsia Chang. Falun Gong: The End of Days. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. p. 154.

10Ownby 2008, p. 127.

11Lily L. Tsai. "Solidary Groups, Informal Accountability, and Local Public Goods Provision in Rural China". American Political Science Review 101:2 (2007).

12Evan Osnos. "Crazy English." New Yorker. April 28, 2008. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/28/080428fa_fact_osnos?currentPage=all> Retrieved November 20, 2009.

13Ownby 2008, p. 143.

14Woodward 2008, p. 49.

15Kingsley Bolton. "Chinese Englishes: from Canton jargon to global English." World Englishes 21.2 (2003). p.195.

16Osnos 2008.

17Amber R. Woodward, “A Survey of Li Yang Crazy English.” Sino-Platonic Papers 180 (April, 2008). p. 43.

18Ibid., p. 54.

19 Raymond Zhou. "A learning fad that's truly crazy". China Daily. September 22, 2007. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2007-09/22/content_6126553.htm> Retrieved November 20, 2009.

20Osnos 2008.

21 Woodward 2008, p. 4.

22 Yunbao Yang et al. "What ‘Crazy English’ can tell us? Inspiration and Motivation from Li Yang." International Education Studies 1.2 (2008). p.19.

23Chang 2004, p. 107.

24It has been criticized in Party organs—see Zhou 2007—but this was intended as a warning, not a call to arms.

25Chang 2004, p. 130.

26Ibid., p. 110.

27 Ibid., p. 11.

28Woodward 2008, p. 37.

29Woodward 2008, pp. 52-53.

30Anthony Spaeth. "Method or Madness?" Time Asia. January 18, 1999. <http://www.time.com/time/asia/asia/magazine/1999/990118/crazy_english2.html> Retrieved November 20, 2009.

31Woodward 2008, p. 42.

32Osnos 2008.

33 Ownby 2008, p. 173.

34Ibid., p. 174.

35Ching Kwan Lee. Against the Law. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.

36Ownby 2008, p. 175.

37Edelman and Richardson 2003, pp. 312, 320, 326.

38Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. Will the Boat Sink the Water? New York: Public Affairs, 2006.

39Edelman and Richardson 2003, p. 321.

40Woodard 2008, p. 3.

41Bolton 2003, p. 196.

42Ownby 2008, p. 94.