The latest leader of a spiritual movement to come under the government’s radar is Wang Lin, famous in China for his purported ability to heal the sick using qigong (which is designed to balance one’s qi). He is also known to have conjured up snakes out of thin air, though he claimed that was just a parlour trick to amuse friends, including internet moguls, film stars and senior officials.
It’s only natural that Beijing is wary of people such as Wang and spiritual movements with mass appeal, such as the Falun Gong, as, historically, they often resulted in armed rebellion and luan (“chaos”). Whether or not the same could happen today is debatable but the authorities are not taking any chances.
The first religious uprising in China was the Yellow Turban Rebellion, in AD184, led by Taoist Zhang Jiao and his brothers, whose magical and healing powers attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. Although their armed rebellion was put down within a year, it hastened the demise of the already feeble Eastern Han dynasty.
During the latter half of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, led by Hong Xiuquan, the self-styled brother of Jesus Christ, practically emptied the imperial coffers. The Qing court’s miscalculated attempts to use the Righteous Harmony Society, whose members claimed magical powers that protected them against bullets, to fight foreigners resulted in the Boxer Rebellion and its humiliating aftermath.