More Options

Sima Nan: Fighting Qigong Pseudoscience in China

Donald Mainfort

Skeptical Briefs Volume 9.1, March 1999

In daring to speak the truth about qigong, Sima Nan has been kicked, beaten, detained, tortured, ridiculed and accused of betraying his culture. He has suffered two crushed vertebrae, a crushed trachea and other injuries at the hands of those who were unhappy with Sima Nan’s questioning the validity of qigong and the claims of various qigong masters.

As a young boy, Sima Nan had seen his father and grandfather perform different medical “cures” (using a force called qigong) that seemed to have a strong effect on friends and relatives. They showed him how he could do the same thing. In 1977, while attending college, he studied qigong and after graduation, he was assigned to work for the central government in Beijing. This was at the end of 1981, when qigong and the “special ability” (teyi gongneng) cult had reached their peak in the capital city. Sima Nan had an opportunity to witness several prominent masters giving demonstrations, and he was shocked. The power of the mind could twist and bend spoons! People could break bricks with their head and suffer no injury! He had discovered a new world!

Sima immediately began studying books on the subject of qigong including Human Body Science written by China’s leading physicist, Qian Xueshen, which further prompted his interest. He joined a committee that later became known as the Chinese Human Body Science Association. As a follower and pilgrim, he felt that his gongfu (martial arts and psychic ability) was too shallow and that he needed to study hard and humbly devote himself to catching up with the other members. He got to know many masters through this affiliation.

In 1990, after nearly ten years involvement with the committee, Sima became disillusioned. In the beginning, he thought that because this area of study had the support of many famous scientists, it must have been a serious investigation into genuine human ability. But the activities and behavior of the organization had nothing to do with any serious research. It eventually became clear to him that they were interested in only two things. The first was finding famous and influential people to inscribe plaques and awards of endorsement for the organizers to enhance their credibility. The second was money. Every one of the masters he once admired and respected was using deception and trickery in order to manipulate people. Sima Nan decided that, if what they are doing is false, he must then locate the genuine qigong researchers. He believed that there must be some reality to the many stories and unanswered mysteries from the long history of Chinese culture. This haunted him for a long time. He continued to observe qigong masters plying their low-quality magic tricks, but he refused to reject qigong in its entirety. He had been following these masters for quite some time now, waiting on them like a servant. He ran errands such as buying their electrical appliances in department stores, arranging for the transfer of houses and property into their names and other subservient tasks. He had kept a very low profile in the organization and was accepted by them.

Before becoming involved with the qigong movement, Sima Nan admits to having held to the naive notion that scientific research couldn’t possibly allow for gross misrepresentation and deception. When he saw respected and trusted people achieve positions of wealth and power by using methods of deception, he finally had to change his mind. He once witnessed a performance presented for the benefit of high ranking government officials. Deception was clearly employed. Later he asked his masters, “Why must we resort to these measures?” He was told “Today it is very difficult for us to proceed with our work; we need more funding. Now is a good time to convince them to give us a lot of money; it’s necessary and of benefit to our organization.” This is how influence and endorsements from powerful people enabled masters to fill huge stadiums. The credulity of these officials and their willingness to support these activities resulted in unquestioning support from the media, which they control. This fueled the public support and fervor.

From the education he received as a youth and from what he had since learned, Sima Nan could no longer accept the masters’ rationalizations. Deception is wrong. At a 1990 symposium held at the Chinese Technology Convention Center he first acted on his convictions. Posing as a student of a popular qigong master, he told the scientific experts in attendance, “Although I have been learning from the master for only a short time, I nonetheless take issue with many of the criticisms that you scientists level against the science of qigong. In order to prove my point, I will give a performance for the benefit of your expert evaluation. If my demonstration fails, you must agree never to offer this as proof that ‘special ability’ qigong does not exist. But if my demonstration withstands your scrutiny, I demand that you publicly accept the reality of ‘special ability’ qigong.” All of the experts who witnessed his charade agreed to the terms and he began his performance. Sima had his accomplice place seven bricks on his head. Using a big sledgehammer, his friend shattered the bricks, but Sima emerged unharmed. They then placed a huge cement slab on Sima’s stomach and his muscular friend cracked it in two with a mighty blow from the hammer. Sima then showed them how he could “see” characters written on pieces of paper by using his “specially developed” sense of hearing. Next he explained how he could use "external” qi to change the taste of tap water. After tasting the water that had been exposed to Sima Nan’s treatment, all agreed that the water had changed its flavor. They all conceded that he had successfully proven the existence of qigong and special ability. This had been Sima Nan’s first experiment to test how scientific experts could easily be deceived by tricks that are as old as the hills.

When another master performed her “big natural center” qigong, the people of Beijing became instantly enamored of her great skills. This psychic activity became enormously popular and Sima Nan pretended to be one of the masters. He infiltrated the group and imitated their mystic “language.” These people said that they were making contact with the timeless wisdom of the universe. Some of the more experienced speakers flattered the newcomer, insisting that his spoken ability was even better than theirs. Some leaders of the central government even became involved, organizing a convention for these "gifted” people to share and exchange their experiences. Even after Sima Nan revealed this farce to the government leaders in attendance, many still chose to believe that this psychic activity was genuine.

All of this caused Sima Nan to think, “I've been a journalist for many years now. It’s my responsibility to my profession as well as to my conscience to investigate and expose the truth about qigong and the special ability cult.” His pursuit of that goal led to the highest levels of the qigong organization, where he was finally satisfied that he had discovered the whole truth about the qigong industry’s big hoax. At first, he went public very conservatively, only revealing a few of the more common tricks employed by the profession. He was harshly denounced as a traitor and received criticism for his lack of “virtue” (gong de). He was immediately booted out of the Chinese Human Body Science Association, who charged that he was simply a jealous, untalented malcontent, incapable of achieving their high levels of ability. This charge was absurd because not only could he demonstrate the simple tricks of the trade as well or better than they could, but he was also able to show others how to instantly do the same thing.

During the ten years of the “Creating Gods in China” movement, qigong had emerged omniscient, deceiving people of all socioeconomic levels. Governmental departments set up qigong research and development units and invested large sums of money for that purpose. The qigong network even sought to influence the highest level of the country’s leadership. They used every means possible to divert money and gain promotions for their “meritorious support” of the new “science.” Huge amounts of money and resources were squandered, and many promotions were granted-even in the scientific community, where experts of the “Human Body Science” specialty, not yet officially recognized as academically sound, received great attention and support. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), however, never allowed themselves to be associated with qigong in any way. All qigong research was conducted outside of this agency and did not receive its support or approval. This is the reason that the China University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui province, does not sponsor or support qigong. USTC is the only university in China that operates under the direct authority of the CAS. They maintain the highest requirements of any science university in the country, and American universities eagerly recruit their highly qualified graduates. All other schools answer only to the Chinese Higher Education Commission, which lends its cooperation to some university leaders who benefit by using the schools as platforms for qigong propaganda.

As of this writing, there is a big criminal case currently under investigation involving the Chinese National Athletic Bureau in Beijing. Twenty million Chinese yuan donated by Hong Kong philanthropists for the purpose of establishing health insurance policies for China’s top athletes was diverted to certain special ability qigong masters.

None of the alleged scientific proof of qigong's existence has ever been verified by independent, transparent duplication of the claimed results. Sima Nan believes that an honest scientific evaluation of qigong would be a useful way to settle the debate. How can China allow these qigong masters and people practicing witchcraft to dominate the fields of science and technology? Even street vagabond con artists now claim scientific validation for their craft.

The trouble is that the qigong industry has everything to lose and nothing to gain from real scientific scrutiny. Such was the case with the so-called “special ability” children hoax several years ago. Many believers of this hoax could not fathom how young children would ever be capable of fooling grown adults, claiming that they lacked the means and motives for such deception. The China Psychological Institute, affiliated with the CAS, tested these children and found that none of them could perform under testing conditions set up to prevent cheating. The institute concluded that the explanation for this “phenomenon” is something that most grade school teachers should be familiar with. Some children like to attract attention by pulling pranks. In most cases, the “special ability” children had been encouraged by adults.

Some popular writers claim that because some masters volunteer to treat patients for free, this proves that they are genuine and sincere. Sima Nan said that he would also gladly volunteer to take control of the nation’s gold reserves and money supply, but he would certainly be prevented from doing so. Some might wish to volunteer to protect the nation’s top leaders, or perform surgery. But without proper qualifications, should they be allowed to accept such responsibility? The fact that someone volunteers to do something does not mean that they are qualified for such tasks. In Sima Nan’s view all of the qigong masters that he has observed are exactly alike in one respect-they are all mainly interested in money. Initially they were just a group of ordinary individuals, but later they became an industry. The greater their promotional skills, the more money they generated. One master was discovered to be holding several hundred million yuan in property, obtained from his millions of adoring students. Other “non-profit” masters don’t accept money outright, but their students are required to purchase their books, videotapes, pictures, “tea containing qi,” calendars-every possible gimmick to separate the students from their cash.

Sima Nan is frequently asked to explain why it is that qigong treatment seems to work, at least some of the time. Sima agrees that qigong is very effective as an adjunct method of clinical treatment in certain cases. For example, he said that he has seen very good results when qigong is used to treat patients suffering from hypochondria. Some such patients are unable to stand on their own, and the psychological effect of the master’s presence can enable them to do so. Where before, the patient believed that they couldn’t do it, the master gave them the faith to do otherwise. There is no mystery here. Sima Nan said that faith healing has been carefully studied in the West and that the absolute power and authority of the master, along with unconditional acceptance on the part of the patient, has a powerful psychological effect. Statistics have shown that approximately 5 percent of the population is particularly susceptible to this suggestibility and that age and educational level have no bearing on its effect. Sometimes a patient has already healed naturally and qigong receives credit for this, too.

After the Great Cultural Revolution in China, people were liberated from the old superstition of character worship (Mao). But many Chinese felt empty because they lacked orientation. Mao Zedong had called on the country to eliminate superstitions, cults, etc., but many old ideas still stuck in people’s minds. It was not enough to simply tell people to abandon these outdated notions without also explaining why it was of benefit to do so. There was no education to accompany the doctrine. Those who are used to being tightly controlled, and have become comfortable with it, tend to treat their qigong masters not as people, but as gods.

Sima Nan saw many people sink deeper and deeper into the qigong miasma. Because he never abandoned his principles and trusted his own mind to evaluate and critically examine qigong, he managed to free himself from the clutches of blind acceptance. “All of this has been exhausting at times, but I feel that I've become a better person as a result,” Sima says. The Abstract History of Chinese Atheism, by Wang Sanyou of Nanjing University, showed him that throughout China’s history, there have always been those who refused to bow to superstitious pressure, even in times of great fervor and zeal. A sense of responsibility to society had triggered his decision to stand up to qigong. The freethinker, iconoclast and revolutionary writer Lu Xun once said that Chinese culture should be renamed "Wizardry.” “All over the world ancient superstitions were abandoned in favor of modern science and medicine. Why does China still adhere to outdated concepts that continue to limit our thinking?” Sima asks.

Since 1990, Sima Nan has collaborated with the China Association of Science and Technology (CAST) and is now an investigator and founding member of the Committee of Scientific Thinking, a new branch of CAST. Sima Nan says that these organizations have benefitted from their association with CSICOP in the U.S. and that plans are now underway to establish a branch of CSICOP in Hong Kong. Sima said that although most people in China have never heard of CSICOP, there is one exception: the qigong masters have become acutely aware of the organization ever since their 1988 delegation visit to investigate traditional Chinese medicine and qigong in China. After the CSICOP team exposed all of the tricks presented by the highly respected masters, the qigong underworld now has its own term for CSICOP investigators: ”yang qian dui,” or “foreign gun squad.” This term stems from the time of the Opium War where deep resentment of British and American invaders led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Boxers prided themselves on their martial arts ability and believed themselves invincible to the bullets of the foreign guns. In adopting the emotionally charged ”yang qian dui” expression, qigong masters generate hatred of foreigners who seek to verify their claims. They want their countrymen to view such investigation as simply another example of the atrocities suffered by the Chinese at the hands of foreigners. In this way, they exploit racism and nationalism so as to shift scrutiny away from themselves.

Today, Sima Nan continues to support the fight against pseudoscience and has set up an agency that will test claims of the paranormal. His office has a standing offer of one million Chinese yuan to anyone who can perform one act of "special ability” without cheating. Anyone wishing to apply for this prize is encouraged to contact his office in Beijing: 010-269-61001, E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). He also welcomes any legal attacks from qigong masters, or writers who have been damaged by his exposés. He feels that bringing these disputes before the public eye is a highly instructive process. All should feel free to contact him immediately.

For many Chinese people life is difficult-they suffer at work and are now being laid off in a large numbers. In this depressing condition, they are even more vulnerable to the multitudes of diseases that result from crowded conditions, pollution, chain smoking, and lack of modern heating and sanitation. Finding a qualified doctor is extremely difficult. There are many other misfortunes suffered daily by the Chinese people and they need genuine help, rather than being fooled, cheated out of their money and stripped of their dignity by some charlatan who has become their “master.”

An economist and journalist, Sima Nan is the former vice director of the China Central Government Department of Journalism and was former director of the Central Government Editing House, where he evaluated and made assessments on economic issues. He has published in excess of one million words and has received numerous national and professional awards for his works, many of which were published in authoritative economic journals and reports. Recently, his interests have broadened to include philosophy, comparative religions and the qigong phenomenon.

Donald Mainfort

Donald Mainfort, who has lectured, taught English, and traveled extensively in China, now writes from Minneapolis.