2013 is the 21st year since the practice was introduced to China by Mr. Li Hongzhi; it’s the 14th since it has been persecuted by the Chinese regime. The practitioners gather at the U.S. capital every year to protest the ongoing violence in China and to demand an end to the persecution.
To Laura Market, a 38-year-old Falun Gong practitioner, the anniversary of July 20 has become “a very sad, horrific date in history.”
“Such a wonderful practice was persecuted overnight and millions of lives were displaced,” she said.
She drove with her family from Indiana, a 10 hour journey, to attend the day’s activities in the sun in one of the hottest days of the week in Washington, clocking in at 106 degrees, with high humidty.
Adherents of Falun Gong follow the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, read moral teachings, and perform five exercises, including a meditation. Falun Gong grew popular as Chinese enjoyed its health benefits and moral discipline, and according to official numbers over 70 million Chinese were practicing it by 1998.
Like Market, practitioners from across the country made the trip to Washington to support the cause.
“It’s not much of a sacrifice to be under the sweltering sun. It’s a blessing. In China, you can’t even say Falun Dafa is good because you could lose your life or be captured or have your organs harvested.
So it’s a blessing,” said Li Dan, 36, who drove over seven hours from Boston to arrive early for morning group exercises.
Falun Gong has been persecuted in China, its country of origin, since 1999. On July 20 of that year former leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, launched a persecution against the practice; it had gained a larger number of participants than members of the Communist Party, and despite disagreement among top leaders, Jiang characterized the practice as an ideological threat and used the campaign to bolster loyalty to him.
Li, who has practiced Falun Gong for over ten years, says that in coming to the July activities, she is hoping “people in the world can understand more about the persecution in China.”
For her, practicing Falun Gong has been beneficial to her health, “Ever since I began practicing, I’ve never needed to go to the hospital, or take medicine because I’ve never gotten sick. Even after I had children, I was never tired or uncomfortable.”
“We are lucky to practice Falun Gong. If the world practiced Falun Gong, it would become too good,” Li added.
Ray Zhong, a 28-year-old from Maryland, said he was at the event to help people learn about the persecution of Falun Gong.
Zhong believes it is important to exercise daily but that “the most important thing is to share experiences with fellow practitioners and be a good person.”
He expanded on what he means by “be a good person”: “Start following truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Tell the truth, be an honest person, be a kind person. Having a moral code is most important. That’s what I’ve experienced.”
When Zhong introduces Falun Gong to his friends, he first lets them read Zhuan Falun, the central text that practitioners read, and explains the facts about the persecution. “I let them know what actually happened and let them accept the situation.”
Speaking about how he began practicing, he smiled, “Opportunity knocked. In a word, it’s karma.”
“In group practice, after we do the exercises, we feel great.”
Coming from Boston, Massachusetts, small business owner Michael Feltz agreed about the benefits of Falun Gong exercises. “It’s a very calming experience. When I practice regularly, I have more energy and do my daily tasks with more clarity of mind. At night, I feel more relaxed before I go to sleep.”
“It’s become part of my life,” Feltz said.
Having left Richmond, Virginia for her annual trip to D.C. to protest the persecution, 81-year-old Ai Zhu, who has practiced Falun Gong for sixteen years, spoke about her experiences right after she started practicing.
“Back in Beijing, in the 1990’s, I originally had heart disease. My left ventricle was entirely clogged so it beat slower than my right. Then, after I started to practice, I had a check-up and looking at the heart scan I saw everything was normal.” Zhu chuckled, “from that I discovered Dafa is too profound.”
On the other side of the age spectrum, Emily Kong, an eleven year old Falun Gong practitioner, ventured from Indiana in a big van with her mother and a few other practitioners for a drive lasting over ten hours.
“We need to let everyone know that Falun Dafa is good,” said Kong.
Doing the exercises “makes you feel more refreshed and you can purify your body,” she said.
Back in Indiana, she has a “little group” of practitioners for doing exercises. “With all the adults and we read.”
Sarah Woellhof, a 77-year-old who is retired but volunteers at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City in her spare time, flew from Kansas with her friend to make the activities.
“It’s good, except for the heat and humidity. It’s good to do the exercises and I love to do the parade, providing I can get through it,” she said. “I think the more, the merrier. We need to be here and show our strength.”
Woellhof, who has survived five heart bypasses, a valve inserted, and breast cancer, before picking up the practice in 2003, now teaches the exercises to English-speakers on occasion.
“I wouldn’t be alive today if I wasn’t doing the qigong exercises. That’s the bottom line.”
These days, Woellhof practices at home and attends group practice. “We do it Monday, Wednesday, Friday, in the park. Over a little park.”
Laura Market, from three states over in Indiana, rode with a friend and her two children in a ten hour car ride.
Market managed the distance because she wanted to bridge the disconnect between how Falun Gong is received in China versus around the world. “It’s celebrated all around the world, in my state and all around the different states and different countries. But unfortunately where it comes from, in China, it’s persecuted.”
Since the persecution began in China, hundreds of thousands of practitioners have been imprisoned and tortured in an effort to “transform” them, a communist term meaning to force them to renounce their belief in Falun Gong. Regime authorities have used a variety of tactics, including physical torture such as burning of genitals, use of electric batons, straitjackets, sentencing to labor camps, and psychological torture including brainwashing classes, and being deprived of sleep as well as economic persecution, such as extortion or confiscation of assets, and forcing companies to fire their Falun Gong employees. Family members are often threatened and harassed.
The number of deaths recorded is over 3,000, however the actual number of deaths is likely much higher. Investigations appeared in 2006 saying that practitioners have had their organs plucked out and sold on the black market. House Resolution 281 was introduced to the House of Representatives in late June calling for the U.S. government to condemn organ harvesting.
While Market is now active in calling for attention to the persecution, in an effort to bring international pressure to bear and eventually make it stop, what attracted her to Falun Gong in the first place was health of body and mind—not activism.
As a recreational therapist, Market helps her clients rehabilitate and release stress using fun activities. In her early twenties, however, Market began to wonder about activities she could do to relieve her own pressures.
“I was pretty stressed out in that period of time. I was trying to find something that could help me with my body and my mind. And I started looking into yoga, I actually did that for awhile, and then I found Falun Gong to be free and the exercise is very effective.”
“What I get out of it is, I get all my ducks in a row,” Market laughed. “It helps me organize my thoughts and have a calm surrounding feeling inside and it brings more compassion to my heart. To be able to tolerate conflicts, and be honest about my own personal feelings and what’s really going on and see the big picture, not just my personal feelings.”
In addition to gaining more patience, Market also noted an uptick in her efficiency. “It helps me stay, helps me have energy throughout the day, and I can get everything I want to get done without the side effects of caffeine.”
Now Market volunteers to teach others in Indiana the exercises and introduces it to people in her town. “I progressed from there, from learning it for myself to wanting to share it.”
Her kids, Sarah and Ben, 7 and 6 respectively, often practice with her and she does group practice with others. She’d brought them on the 10 hour drive arriving on Wednesday evening.
“It’s an annual trip for me now to go to D.C. to help raise awareness so that people can enjoy the freedom we have here in the U.S.,” she said. “I wanted to come here to tell people about the persecution of Falun Gong. What is the truth behind the persecution and what Falun Gong is and how beautiful it is an impact in my life.”