While my faltering Chinese language skills made its message a challenge to decipher, its air of officialdom, if not its pompous presence, tacked as it was on the tree, signaled something ominous.\n\n\n\nAbsent that morning was what made the rough hewn plot of pines and dirt normally so alive\u2014its people. And of course, all the life that they brought with them\u2014their sounds, their smiles, their friendship.\n\n\n\nThe two or three dozen figures that normally animated the park each morning were alarmingly absent this morning. Not a one could be seen. Nor heard. Though it was in 1999, I still recall how overwhelming the silence was. If birds chirped nearby or bike pedals squeaked, as they must have, I heard them not.\n\n\n\nWhere had everyone gone? What had so dramatically, and suddenly, altered the fabric of the park?\n\n\n\nTo say the silence was abnormal would be understatement. Normally, come morning time the park would be transformed into a cultural gymnasium of sorts. This was a site where practitioners of Falun Gong gathered for \u201cgroup exercises\u201d of meditation and tai-chi like movements.\n\n\n\n70 Million or More Every Day\n\n\n\nIt was July of 1999, and the park was one of several on the campus of Tsinghua University, where I was then living and studying. Students, faculty, and staff gathered for Falun Gong at various parks like this each day, young and old, professors and custodians alike. Their assembly was a most remarkable expression of community.\n\n\n\nI had long known about China\u2019s own version of the physical culture movement, and its ability to gather and motivate otherwise disconnected segments of people. It was the indigenous practice of qigong, of which Falun Gong was one variety, that had excited the masses of China in the 1980s and early 90s. Millions of Chinese citizens\u2014hundreds of millions, by some estimates\u2014were taking to the parks for fresh air and qigong.\n\n\n\nIt was a fascinating phenomenon to me, as a student of Chinese culture and comparative religion.\n\n\n\nIt seemed every adherent of qigong had some story of healing, tapping unseen energies, or things otherwise miraculous.\n\n\n\nMany in America had caught a glimpse of this in 1993 when Bill Moyers\u2019s Healing and the Mind series featured a \u201cmaster\u201d of qigong and his students, visiting their practice site in Beijing\u2019s Purple Bamboo Park. But few could begin to sense the size, scope, or fervor of what was taking place.\n\n\n\nI came to know much about China\u2019s qigong movement from research during my senior year of college and my own apprenticeship, during a medical anthropology course, with one such Philadelphia-based master from China.\n\n\n\nBut little had anyone in the U.S. heard of Falun Gong, despite the fact that by 1999 it had grown to become what was decidedly the largest, and most significant, of all qigong forms. It had swelled to some 70 million-plus devotees in just seven years, and could be seen in most any park throughout China. It was a household name much like Pilates or yoga is here.\n\n\n\nYet as of January 1999, when I made my travel plans, there was nothing written about Falun Gong in the academic literature, and not a single story on it in the Western press. It was a cultural blind spot, as it were.\n\n\n\nThe presence of Falun Gong quickly became unmistakable after arriving in Beijing and settling into my campus. Just in the course of biking to my language classes I would pass anywhere from one to three Falun Gong groups, exercising with their trademark postures and formations.\n\n\n\nScientists and Intellectuals Embracing Falun Gong\n\n\n\nIt had taken root on campus, home to China\u2019s scientific elite, just it had across China. Indeed, over 300 members of the Tsinghua community were making Falun Gong a part of their life by the summer of 1999. Counted among them were some of China\u2019s leading physicists, chemists, and graduate students.\n\n\n\nIt readily became apparent that Falun Gong couldn\u2019t be quickly dismissed as \u201cfolk superstition\u201d or charlatanism\u2014as certain critics of qigong had by that time asserted. Qigong itself was something of a controversy in that it was decidedly, even unabashedly, old and traditional, yet there it was springing up in a contemporary China obsessed with modernization and often uncomfortable with its past.\n\n\n\nIt was somewhere in that liminal space between past and present, mystical and rational. It was bound to galvanize. Where one landed in the debates depended on one\u2019s vision of China\u2019s future.\n\n\n\nWhile much of China\u2019s cultural heritage had been destroyed under Mao and his \u201crevolutionary\u201d campaigns, plenty of remnants survived\u2014even if tattered and bruised. And many, like qigong, were re-emerging.\n\n\n\nFalun Gong was fascinating to me in that it was particularly steeped in China\u2019s cultural heritage, and embracing of it, without the same anxieties that other qigongs seemed to evince. And yet many found it still \u201cscientific\u201d and reconciled with notions of modernity. Hence its popularity at even at Tsinghua, the \u201cMIT of China.\u201d\n\n\n\nSunshine Before Darkness\n\n\n\nI was arriving at Tsinghua at both the best of times and worst of times.\n\n\n\nOn the positive side, it was a period of relative ease and openness. It was easy to get to know the local Falun Gong practitioners, and soon I was joining them in the park for exercises. In the evenings they invited me to join them in reading and discussing the practice\u2019s teachings. That was how I got to know one alumnus of the university, Zhao Ming. It was in his small, bare-bones apartment just outside the northern gate that we assembled.\n\n\n\nPeople could share intimately about their experiences with Falun Gong in those days. There was always time to chat after meditation as we sat together in the park, working the pins and needles out of our legs.\n\n\n\nI came to know two persons rather closely\u2014one a grad student, Huang Kui and another a junior faculty member, Jun. There was a generosity of spirit and sincerity that permeated their being, from the smiles they so readily flashed to the gestures of help extended to me, a bumbling foreigner in a new and foreboding city.\n\n\n\nI not only came to appreciate the physical effects of the practice, which were surprisingly tactile, but also the worldview it contained and bespoke of\u2014as foreign as parts of it were to me, at first. Occasionally, I even entered into that world.\n\n\n\n\u2018If it is really yours, you will not lose it\u2019\n\n\n\nThere was the time, for instance, when I locked up my bike\u2014something customary in a city rife with bicycle theft\u2014at the park before practicing. When one of the members of the Falun Gong group noticed, he chuckled a bit and shared with me that I needn\u2019t do that here.\n\n\n\nI laughed, and assured him I wasn\u2019t worried about him or any of the other Falun Gong taking it. It was the others out there I was protecting against, I said. My response was met with warm chuckles from both he and a couple others, who had now become privy to our conversation.\n\n\n\n\u201cNo, I mean you don\u2019t need to worry about anyone taking it,\u201d he said. \u201cIf it is really yours, you will not lose it; if it is not supposed to be yours, you won\u2019t be able to keep it, however you may try.\u201d\n\n\n\nI couldn\u2019t fully make out the logic, but knew that there was a metaphysic at work and presumably it stemmed from the Falun Gong\u2019s writings\u2014which I clearly hadn\u2019t mastered yet, it must have seemed.\n\n\n\nJust a week or so later, however, my friend\u2019s lofty advice took on a new element of believability when a classmate\u2019s well-locked-down bike was stolen while mine, which I had forgotten, somehow, to lock, was passed over despite being adjacent to it.\n\n\n\nIt was as if the workings of some unseen cosmic order had been glimpsed in that moment. I felt humbled before the possibility of how little I perhaps knew about life, causality, and fate. Were my Falun Gong friends on to something? Had they access to some higher order of existence?\n\n\n\nThe more time I spent with this community, the more I could begin to understand the practice\u2019s popularity. Either it had an inexplicable knack for attracting the nicest stock of people, or some means of producing them.\n\n\n\nWith time, I came to conclude it was the latter.\n\n\n\nSudden Silence\n\n\n\nLittle did I realize how fortunate I was, both on a personal level and as a student of cultural history, to have shared in our experiences together. (I was, I would later learn, the only Westerner in China at the time engaged with Falun Gong, be it as participant or observer.)\n\n\n\nNor did I appreciate how bad my timing was.\n\n\n\nI had arrived in Beijing on the eve of what was to become arguably the most systematic persecution of a group of Chinese people in the Party\u2019s 50-year rule.\n\n\n\nThat was what the tacked-up notice in the park signified on that sultry morning.\n\n\n\nI was witness to the beginnings of a state-orchestrated campaign that would have done Mao proud, a program the likes of which China hadn\u2019t seen in the ten years since the Tiananmen Massacre.\n\n\n\n\u201cFalun Gong has been banned by the People\u2019s Republic of China,\u201d the notice declared in official diction.\n\n\n\n\u201cIt is hereby illegal to gather to practice or propagate the teachings of Falun Gong, just as it is to disseminate any literature or materials that do similarly.\u201d I read on, but the words soon failed to register.\n\n\n\nIt was July 22, 1999, and Falun Gong was now officially illegal.\n\n\n\nShock set in as I tried to fathom that the way of life, if not very identity, of my friends and acquaintances had just been outlawed. Literally, overnight.\n\n\n\nI looked in vain for my closest associates at Tsinghua University. Huang Kui and Jun were nowhere to be found. Nor were Zhao Ming or the others.\n\n\n\nI could not find them. Nor could I find out much of anything about what was happening.\n\n\n\nState-Controlled Media Blitz and Book Burnings\n\n\n\nSure, there was news aplenty about Falun Gong\u2019s banning. But it was little more than thinly-veiled diatribes, eerily the same in every state-controlled publication. All pretenses to objectivity were cast to the wind in favor of the official mandate to discredit Falun Gong. The portrayals of adherents as irrational, cultish, and dangerous would later pave the way to officially sanctioned violence.\n\n\n\nAt the end of one month, the (un-aptly named) People\u2019s Daily alone had run 347 articles criticizing Falun Gong. The airwaves, for their part, were saturated with starchy news anchors reading barbed scripts parroting the same tune. On the street, everyone was talking about the ban.\n\n\n\nThe one voice that wasn\u2019t present was that of Falun Gong practitioners themselves.\n\n\n\nThat was the idea of course, as planned by the Party-state apparatus. To silence the group was the first step toward crushing it. And only with Falun Gong silent could the Party redefine it.\n\n\n\nCarefully choreographed public book burnings soon ensued.\n\n\n\nFalun Gong Winning Hearts\n\n\n\nTsinghua was dealt an especially heavy blow since it provided such a counter-example to the Party line: here were China\u2019s leading thinkers and scientists, practicing the allegedly \u201cbackwards\u201d Falun Gong. Just how serious the Party took this challenge was evident when the military was dispatched to campus, brandishing machine guns.\n\n\n\nThis wasn\u2019t to be a bloodbath, like Tiananmen, however. Falun Gong was more a moral threat than a political one. It represented a threat, a potential, that the Party could not live with: that people might find something meaningful in their lives that was altogether unmediated by the Party or governed by its scarcity economy. It represented an alternative site of fulfillment, a new, spiritual economy if you will. And as such, it didn\u2019t exactly mesh with the vision of a Party-led modernity that certain officials wanted, or needed.\n\n\n\nUnwittingly, with its metaphysical path to health and happiness, this heterogeneous band of meditators had done what no amount of regimented \u201cpolitical study\u201d and \u201cpatriotic education\u201d could for the Party. It had won the hearts of the people.\n\n\n\nSuch being the case, the ban on Falun Gong was implemented with startling intensity.\n\n\n\nSurveillance, Arrests, Executions\n\n\n\nSome adherents were swiftly arrested and removed from site, particularly those who might be \u201cinfluential\u201d in the public\u2019s eye. Some were pressured to the margins, as was the case for many Tsinghua students; dozens were kicked out of school. Others had to go underground to avoid arrest.\n\n\n\nI myself became subject to surveillance. Regularly I would spot undercover police following me, or even filming me. One individual revealed that my phone was tapped and my emails were being read. One well-placed source said that executions had begun.\n\n\n\nWhat was to be a year-long stay thus ended after two months. I reluctantly forfeited the fellowship I had won and returned home. It was no longer safe to be in Beijing.\n\n\n\nI never did find my closest Falun Gong friends again that summer, before leaving. Only two years later would I learn what had become of them. Two, Kui and Jun, had been arrested, a news story told, and sentenced to five and seven years in prison. Jun had committed the \u201ccrime\u201d of printing an informational leaflet about Falun Gong from the Internet. Kui had tried to form an independent newspaper. That paper was in fact The Epoch Times.\n\n\n\nBoth friends, I later learned, were subjected to torture while in custody. One has not been heard from to this day. The other recently escaped China, and is trying to put his life back together in the U.S.\n\n\n\nZhao Ming, meanwhile, was sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of Beijing, where he was brutally tormented with electric batons for months.\n\n\n\nQuestions About the Future\n\n\n\nWhile I had traveled to Beijing in the summer of \u201999 primarily for language training and out of socio-historical interest in Chinese physical culture, I left with a very different, and rather complicated, view of today\u2019s China.\n\n\n\nMy experiences with Falun Gong, and the remarkable oppression it met, have led me to rethink much about China and its state of being.\n\n\n\nWhat is one to make of a ruling entity that so arbitrarily wields power, even to the point of attempting to legislate the inner, private, spiritual life of its citizens? And on what footing is a nation to enter the future if it is so insecure, or undecided, about its past?\n\n\n\nI also believe we continue to see the fallout of all this, albeit in less obvious ways. Before leaving China, I often asked myself what would become of this nation when its leaders arrest and torture citizens who embrace values like honesty and kindness? What happens when you criminalize being a good person?\n\n\n\nThe litany of contaminated goods fiascoes (such as melamine in baby formula) issuing forth from China has provided a sad answer. I doubt China\u2019s rulers have made the connection. They\u2019re probably too busy silencing their critics.\n\n\n\nThough I haven\u2019t been back to Tsinghua for some time, I\u2019m told the park remains largely unchanged. And silent.\n\n\n\nMatthew Kutolowski is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University studying Chinese religion and culture.