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Paranormal in China

Wu Xianghong

Skeptical Briefs Volume 5.1, March 1995

Every evening in an open area furnished with several pine trees, I wander from the new library of our university. I see a group of old people, standing swaying, and rocking in time with the rhythm of Chinese classical music, coming out from a shabby loud speaker hanging from one of the branches. They are performing the Qi Gong, an ancient Chinese exercise, revived in the early 1980s, that supposedly advances one’s ability to gather and utilize the “energy” or “force” of the universe.

Now there are hundreds of types of Qi Gong: some only need meditation and others require body motion to music. They are popular among Chinese who wish to improve their health and cure their diseases. It is hard to say if anyone has restored his health by performing Qi Gong; while it is also hard to say if Qi Gong is completely ineffective if accompanied by orthodox treatment. Deep breathing, self-controlled meditation, and little movement, which are usually involved in performing Qi Gong, are not harmful.

The cult of Qi Gong, however, is not based on its effectiveness in health care. The “spirit balance” it gives and the quasi-religious mood involved in performing Qi Gong partly accounts for its popularity. Old people may perform it because they have no better ways to spend their time. Around 1985, Qi Gong began to closely connect with another cult—the cult of “special ability”—and each reinforced the popularity of the other.

The phenomenon of SA was first reported in 1978, when the political group headed by Mao’s widow lost its power, and Deng Xiaoping was reinstated and began to advocate the movement to “love, learn and utilize science” in China. This science movement quickly met the needs that the majority of Chinese, including some scholars had. They had forgotten what the rigorous demarcation line of empirical science was. In articles published in many scientific magazines and journals, the coming 21st century was portrayed as a utopian, entirely automated world. The research of UFOs and ETs was regarded as an advanced area of science. Scientific spirit was understood as “to doubt every idea you believe in and to believe in the raw materials you see with your eyes.” This attitude I’d like to name as the “materialist” view on science. (It is not even a Marxist view because Engels disagreed. He believed that observation should be guided by theory, and that idea was quite popular among the scientists and philosophers.)

It was in such a context that the public media reported finding some children who could identify human character by outward appearance—ear, forehead, and nose—and called it “special ability” (SA). The word “special” (Teyi in Chinese) means something a bit different from “paranormal,” the word my American colleagues prefer to use.

The “materialist” scientists believed that SA was not a transcendent phenomenon, but an empirical phenomenon outside of the existing scientific knowledge that could explain and predict; that it could be and should be studied by “scientific method.” In this way the existing laws and theories of scientific knowledge might be challenged and revised. Perhaps it is better to translate the concept of SA as “exceptional ability.”

Although there were some disagreements, the research into SA was booming. More cases were reported and the field expanded to include perception and PK—the ability to bend iron wire in a sealed test tube, or remove pills from a sealed bottle. At the same time, the research into Qi Gong was also booming. New ways of performing Qi Gong were found, such as projecting the Qi out of the sender’s body, through the air, and finally into the body of receivers. These methods were investigated with “scientific” apparatus, including infrared detectors and radiometers. It has been reported since 1984 that Qi Gong could activate the potential SA in people. In 1985, Zhang Hongbao, a master of Qi Gong, proposed the theory of a “cosmic field”; that the energy accounting for both Qi Gong and SA were generated out of and transferred through the “cosmic field” and therefore Qi Gong and SA were unified. Zhang believed that everyone could get SA by training in Qi Gong and that those who had SA but did not know Qi Gong could be taught it. Henceforth, all those who were engaged in the paranormal named themselves “Master of Qi Gong.” Millions of people began to train in Qi Gong, including the youth. The main goal was usually not to heal diseases and improve health, but to get SA and be a “superman.”

In 1987 and 1988, Yaniments by a group at Tsing Hua University were published in scientific journals that “verified” that Qi could be sent out over 2,000 kilometers to hit the targets—a polariscope and a reagent in a test tube—and change the direction of the polariscope axis and the molecular structure of the reagent. The scientific community was shocked by these results, and even more so when it was discovered that those who engaged in these experiments were only amateurs. The authorities at Tsing Hua University had failed to realize that the group represented the university.

Another creation of Yan Xin was the “Talk Show with Gong.” Hundreds, even thousands of people came to listen to his lecture and were induced by some unexplained forces to sway, quiver, sob, grin, sleep, and express other emotions at the lecture. Such induced emotions were believed to be good for health. The “Talk Show with Gong” was quite popular from that time on, and the recorded tapes of Yan’s lecture were claimed to carry the information of Qi Gong. They sold very well around the country.

Yan Xin attributed SA to Qi Gong. His theory was that the children who had SA were not talents but that there were some masters of Qi Gong sending Qi to them in secret. Yan also expanded the effectiveness of Qi Gong’s psychokinetic powers to include moving away tons of fish, changing the weather, and putting out a forest fire.

After 1988, Qi Gong became more influential. In 1990, a woman master of Qi Gong, Zhang Xiangyu, pushed its influence to a peak with her performance in Beijing. Millions of “pilgrims” gathered from several provinces to see her and caused great traffic jams. When Zhang waved her hand out of a window of the third floor of the hotel, the “pilgrims” in the street cheered. Zhang claimed that she could talk with extraterrestrial beings and was able to cure every disease. She treated her patients with methods similar to those of witchcraft and demanded large amounts of money from them. Many patients became ill under her treatment and some of them died. In August, Zhang was arrested and accused of cheating. The exposition of her swindle weakened the cult of Qi Gong. Zhang was convicted in 1993.

Soon after the arrest of Zhang Xiangyu, a conscientious master of Qi Gong, Sima Tu, told the truth about the various kinds of Qi Gong hoaxes. The prestige of Qi Gong dropped rapidly and became merely a sort of body exercise popular among old people, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. However, Qi Gong staged a comeback in a different form after 1992, as a trend of thought instead of a practical movement. In this way it has much to do with the revival of the paranormal in traditional Chinese culture.

The renaissance of traditional culture began in 1989, when the government found it useful as an ideological weapon to fight against Western-style liberalism. Moreover, it seemed to be a hopeful alternative to orthodox Marxism as an ideology to join people’s viewpoints with feelings. The preference for traditional culture in literature, however, can be dated back to 1984. Then, some novelists announced they were able to “find the root for our literature” when they felt disillusioned by the importation of Western literature and art since 1978, as well as Marxism, which is also a western ideology. The announcement of finding the “root” is not a bad one.

When the government took part in the revival of traditional culture, things turned out to be worse, because the leadership of government was far from being scientific and rational. A manifest example was the “I Ching” craze beginning in 1989. An ancient classic about divination, the “I Ching” relates something of the philosophy, beliefs, customs, and mathematical ability of ancient China. But in the recent craze it was claimed to have the implications of modern physics, mathematics, astronomy, and computer science.

For example, it is said that G.W. Leibniz (1646 - 1716) got inspiration out of the Eight Diagrams to create the binary computer and had sent one of his machines to Emperor Kang Xi of the Ding Dynasty. This claim turns out to be completely false. The binary computer wasn’t created until 1941 (the Z-3 machine). What Leibniz created is the binary system, and he worked it out before he saw the Eight Diagrams.

While the cult of traditional culture led to pseudoscience in intellectual circles, it resulted in the revival of primitive superstition, such as fortune telling, astrology, physiognomy, and “I Ching,” ancestral worship, and magic among the masses with less education. They abounded in the broad rural areas, as did the Qi Gong in the cities. The official newspapers warned that “the superstition of feudal ideology is reviving in our countryside.”

From the standpoint of the official media, superstition refers to something more than we have mentioned above. It includes the spontaneous, disorganized minor religions in the rural areas. For instance, hundreds of pamphlets on Zen have been issued since 1990. Zen, as a specific religion originating in China and spreading over the Far East, was generated out of the mixture of Indian Buddhism and Chinese traditional thought. It had benefited from Taoism, Confucianism and other traditional Chinese teachings. Therefore Zen, as well as Taoism and other religious traditions, became popular with the revival of traditional culture. These traditions should be highly appreciated in themselves but the popular interpretation of them came to include the paranormal.

A typical case is the book The Decoding of Liuman’s Mysteries (Renlei Shenmi Xianxiang Poyi, 1992) by Ke Yuniu. In it, he announced that he had encoded all the mysteries in human history: Qi Gong, Yoga, SA, psychic phenomena, parapsychology, magic, soul, I Ching, Chinese medicine, Laozi and Dao De Jing, Zen, Sakyamulli and Buddhism, the Bible, Jesus and God!

Carefully read, one can uncover that Ke’s thoughts never transcend the ideas of the early sages, such as Laozi, Sakyamuni and Jesus. He borrows from Zen epistemology, makes use of Laozi in the ontology, believes Qi Gong as an alternative to physics, and he also contributes his own illogical methods of thinking.

In November 1994, Ke issued his new three volume book: Research Into Life. In this book he proposed few new ideas but described hundreds of “successful” experiments to verify the presence of SA. In general, Ke’s books are not worth being treated seriously; but their great influence on the social ideology is dangerous, and we need to deal with them.

The movement to “love, learn and utilize science” from the end of the 1970s unexpectedly helped the growth of pseudoscience. The above-mentioned “materialist” view of science was an important cause, another was that public education in science was led astray in this period. The masses were given “scientific knowledge” without the necessary explanation of how it was achieved. That no method was available for the masses to decide whether a claim was scientific made them turn to some “authoritative” source, for example, the public media, an administrative organ, or the “mystery authority” relating to the intelligence agencies and the military.

“Hongcheng Magic Liquid” is a case of “mystery authority.” Being an ordinary man in Northeast China without higher education, Wang Hongcheng, in the early 1980s, pretended to have created a sort of “liquid” of which two to three drops could change the structure of one liter of water to make it as combustible as petrol. Were his claim true the words “energy crisis” could be canceled from the dictionary eternally. The Chinese security and military departments paid much attention to the declared creation and funded Wang for further research. When it was shown to be obviously a fraud, Wang was thrown into prison. However, he became a legendary figure. Some people believed that Wang was persecuted because he refused to turn over his “secret” formula to the government, and that this was covered up.

When Wang was finally freed, many news reporters, worshippers, investors, and crooks gathered around him to hear about the “secret” formula. In 1992-1993, Wang was rather popular on the public media, and he set up a company to develop the “Hongcheng Magic Liquid.” Nothing happened in the end, of course.

Another case has more to do with the authority of administrative organs. It is the “W-Shape Ship Patent” belonging to Zhou Jinyu from South China. He was a young technician and announced his innovation in 1985. This was to put the propeller in the middle of a ship instead of at the stern and to give the whole ship a W-shape. Zhou claimed that he had discovered a new fluid theory, by which the W-shape innovation could improve the speed of ships by 200 to 300 percent, but he had never published a paper about his “theory.” Experiments performed by some experts indicated that a ship when applied with this innovation would lose 20 to 30 percent of its speed and risk turning over. However, Zhou managed to get a formal appraisal from the local administrative committee of science and technology. He succeeded in bypassing the patent bureaus, the local government, public media, and entrepreneurs, simply by waving the appraisal. A large amount of money was wasted in making W-shaped ships, because they couldn’t move at all. Zhou was awarded and honored by governments at different levels until he was exposed by thirty scientists in 1992.

In the 1990s, as China accepts the market system step by step, the public media plays more and more important roles in the spread of pseudoscience, and cases of pseudoscience increase in the area of business. The Chinese people haven't developed the necessary skeptical view of advertising, and the lack of related laws provide cunning businessmen with an open field. Until November 1994 China didn’t have a law for truth in advertising. The public media abounded with fraudulent advertisements. One example was the “electronic adding-growth shoe pad.” This shoe pad was said to help short young men grow taller by stimulating specific parts of the sole of the foot.

Another case was the “electronic stutter-curing instrument,” which was only a micro-amplifier, to enable you to hear your own voice through an earphone attached.

Fraudulent advertisements have been reduced since the Law of Advertisements went into effect, but pseudoscientific businesses, especially in the field of medicine, haven't been contained. First, an essential system to test the quality of new medicines has not been established. New medicines always have to “pass” a clinical test, but the necessary control group is usually neglected, or the it is not under rigorous control. For example, all the patients of the control group haven't been given the same dose. Second, the effectiveness of Chinese medicines cannot be tested by orthodox procecare articles” insteading disease instead of caring for health.

The Chinese medicine and “health care articles” market has been full of various sorts of oral liquids. They all claimed to be able to reduce your white hair, or improve your memory, or strengthen your sexual ability. One of them is called “China Soft- Shelled Turtle Extract.” It is well known that female Chinese long-distance runners have continually been winning the championships in different races and often also win and as the runner-ups. It is also well known that all these female athletes are guided by the same coach, Ma Junren. Ma’s method in training is peculiar, but public opinion holds that he has a certain “secret formula.” In the West, reporters guess about the stimulant used. In China, people noted that Ma had his athletes drink the blood and fat of soft-shelled turtles everyday. A financial group in Chang Zhou announced that they had bought the “secret formula” from Ma and began to produce the extract. However, a group of reporters recently discovered that no turtles could be found on the production line.

Besides, Ma had sold his “secret formula” to another company for two million Juan (about $250,000). Turtle, of course, is not among the ingredients. This company is now selling a liquid named “Life Atomic Energy,” which is said to be produced according to Ma’s direction.

In my view, the most influential commodity and the first object that ought to be inquired about in the present China market is the so-called “Life-Spectrum Healing Instrument.” According to its creator, Zhou Lin, it can emit rays whose spectrum is similar to the emission spectrum of the human body. Thus it “adjusts the balance of the human body system.” This explanation for its mechanism is not clear. If its spectrum is really in accordance with the human’s emission spectrum, we can understand that the energy of the rays is subject to absorption by the body, that it will heat the tissue inside of body.

Perhaps it is a better physical healing method than the traditional hot compress, but this wouldn’t help us to understand how it could adjust the balance of the body system.

In fact, Zhou’s instrument hasn't been strictly investigated. It is widely accepted primarily because it won the first prize in an international fair. The general underdevelopment of Chinese science and technology induces people to be convinced by the “authority” from any international organization.

On December 5, 1994, the State Council and the Committee of the CPC issued a proclamation to strengthen public education in science. In this proclamation it was recognized that “public education in science has been withering in recent years, at the same time activities of superstition and ignorance have been growing and antiscience and pseudoscience cases have frequently been happening. Therefore effective measures must be applied as soon as possible to strengthen public education of science. The level of public education in science and technology is an important sign of the national scientific accomplishment, and is a matter of overall importance relating to the promotion of the economy, the advancement of science, and the development of the society. We must pay attention and carry out the public education with consideration of a strategy to modernize our socialist country and to make our nation powerful and prosperous. Ignorance is never socialist nor is poverty.” It is planned to advocate education with the three aspects of science: scientific knowledge, scientific method, and scientific ideas. This proclamation greatly encourages the rationalists, and has formed a helpful context for attacking the paranormal. However, it is possible that such a government- guided movement would turn out to be politically oriented. If the paranormal was only suppressed by the political power, and if people were not to be persuaded reasonably to discard their irrational beliefs, the matter would be worse. In my view, political intervention is the most dangerous element of skepticism, and it could result in many more cases of paranormal claims.

Wu Xianghong

Wu Xianghong is a doctoral candidate in philosophy and science at Renmin University of China, Beijing.