WASHINGTON—Hundreds of people wearing yellow shirts sat in neat rows at twilight on the National Mall, holding votive candles in cups. At first the mood had a hint of a family reunion, as friends from different cities met, parents held babies, volunteers handed out blue meditation mats, and music played.
Suddenly a black cloud hovered over the crowd, and a few bolts of lightning came down in the distance. Rain began. It looked as if the unbroken 13-year string of July Falun Gong candlelight vigils in Washington might break.
They were commemorating a dark anniversary: July 20, 1999 when the Chinese Communist Party began persecuting Falun Gong, a spiritual practice, which involves doing a set of five meditative exercises and following the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
As the rain increased, Hailian Zhang read over a public address system: “July 20th of 1999, the Chinese Communist dictator launched this unprecedented large-scale persecution against the millions of Falun Gong practitioners. All of a sudden, fabricated lies and vicious charges were all over in the state media. Brainwashing, labor camps, and torture tempered these practitioners’ spirits and bodies.”
Despite that, Falun Gong has spread and become stronger and stronger, according to Zhang. It has gained support from kindhearted people in China and around the world.
Zhang works for Voice of America, and has been in America and practicing Falun Gong for years. He does not miss the annual vigil.
Keith Ware is a fifth generation Washingtonian, a husband and a father. The self-employed product developer volunteers each year to coordinate the vigil, which draws people from around the world.
He was standing on a giant scissor lift he had arranged so that photographers could get good aerial shots of the meditating people and the candles.
Candles had been placed to form the Chinese characters “zheng fa,” which could be translated as healing or renewing the universe. The lines of practitioners stretched out behind the characters.
“My wife and I have gone to China. We have been beaten and detained,” said Ware, speaking of traveling to Tiananmen Square in 2002 to call for an end to the persecution. He identifies with practitioners in China and feels a duty to devote his energy to getting the word out for them.
“In D.C., we have a kind of special responsibility to make sure the Congress, the president, know what Falun Gong is about,” Ware said.
Film producer Keon Wong devotes himself to getting the word out, too, and the candlelight vigils played a central part in his current film, “Free China: the Courage to Believe.”
He said the film came together for him three years ago at the same candlelight vigil. When his protagonists Charles Lee and Jennifer Zheng “give their epic speeches at the end of the film—the main image of the film is of Jennifer holding a candle, the whole heartfelt impression,” comes together in an iconic image of her raising a candle, with one tear on her face.
As he planned the movie with director Michael Perlman, “We knew [the vigil on the Mall] was a very beautiful setting, but we did not realize it would be a center of the film.”
The storm passed and a gibbous moon came out, surrounded by pink and blue gauzy clouds. As darkness deepened and music played, passersby stopped to listen and look. One recorded the music on her phone. Singers sang of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
The participants became quieter and quieter, meditating deeply, some holding large portraits of those who have died in the persecution.