A short presentation of what is Tai Ji Men, what is the Tai Ji Men case, what is the meaning of the Tai Ji Men protests.
by Massimo Introvigne*
A paper presented at the Association for the Sociology of Religion Annual Conference, August 8, 2021.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on August 17th, 2021.
In the last two years, scholars of new religious movements have often heard the name Tai Ji Men. Being treated unfairly, the movement has not only organized protests in Taiwan with tens of thousands taking to the streets, drawing the attention of scholars from all over the world, but also cooperated with scholars in organizing a dozen of webinars discussing all the aspects of its case.
I will examine here three different questions: what is Tai Ji Men, what is the Tai Ji Men case, what is the meaning of the Tai Ji Men protests.
What is Tai Ji Men? Tai Ji Men is a menpai (school) of qigong, martial arts, and self-cultivation. Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the Grand Master (Zhang-men-ren) of Tai Ji Men, has inherited the wisdom of esoteric Daoism and studied qigong, martial arts, medicine, yin-yang philosophy, life wisdom, and “heart kungfu” since a very young age. After martial law was lifted in Taiwan, he started to widely accept dizi (disciples), hoping that everyone could enjoy good health and happiness.
Hong earned a doctorate in 1991. He remained, however, mindful of his mission of passing on the Tai Ji Men culture. He worked as a businessman by day and established Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy in 1966 as an academy of esoteric Qi Gong, martial arts, and self-cultivation.
In 1982, Dr. Hong, aware that modern people suffer from “diseases of civilization,” followed his master’s teaching and retired from his business at the height of his career to devote himself to the transmission of traditional qigong and martial arts culture. In 1995, there were already 12 Tai Ji Men academies. They are now 15, including two in California. Dr. Hong also promoted high profile initiatives for world peace, and brought traditional Tai Ji Men culture abroad through over three thousand cultural events and martial arts performances.
Dr. Hong has now visited more than 100 countries and has become a familiar figure in international peace gatherings and initiatives held at the United Nations.
In 2014, Tai Ji Men was part of a coalition that launched the Movement of An Era of Conscience. The initiative was praised by offices of the United Nations and the heads of state of several countries, with the participation of people in 200 nations, and eventually led the U.N. to proclaim April 5 as the International Day of Conscience.
Tai Ji Men includes dizi belonging to several different religions. Although its origins are clearly rooted in esoteric Daoism, it does not try to convert believers of other faiths to Daoism.
The heart of Tai Ji Men’s spiritual worldview is the harmony between yin and yang, heaven and earth, heart (body) and qi (energy). This harmony was part of the original purity of human beings. It was since lost, but it can be restored through exercises aimed at nurturing three aspects of health: physical, mental, and spiritual; purifying the hearts; and cultivating moral character.
Through a number of Qi Gong and kung fu techniques, some of them esoteric, the dizi are taught to mobilize the positive energies of the universe, both nurturing them and applying them to their own health and self-cultivation. They believe that appropriate physical exercises always also have effects on the mental and spiritual dimensions.
A number of dizi, particularly young men and women, who have already received a solid martial arts foundation, train for public performances, offered around the world on occasion of international events. For example, the Love of the World Cultural Goodwill Group features several thousand members. It performed inter alia at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and at the opening ceremony of the Taipei Universiade on August 19, 2017.
Training for such performances is not only functional to the production of spectacular martial arts presentations, but serves a spiritual purpose. By training for performing at events where love and peace are promoted, the dizi cultivate themselves. In turn, audiences, by enjoying the performances and the good energy radiated, gradually discover and understand Tai Ji Men culture.
In traditional Chinese culture, a bell was rung to signal the beginning and the end of a working day. The bell’s sound has also a spiritual significance in many Eastern and Western religions. Dr. Hong designed and supervised the construction of the Bell of World Peace and Love, which was first rung in Singapore in the year 2000. Today, two Bells exist and tour the world (or did it before COVID-19), where Tai Ji Men invites world political, cultural, and religious leaders to ring them.
Dr. Hong devotes a large part of his time to teach students and interview each of them before they are accepted as dizi. There is a traditional Tai Ji Men’s ceremony after the acceptance. Dizi show their gratitude to Dr. Hong by giving gifts in the form of the so-called “red envelopes” to shifu (Grand Master) as is traditional in Chinese Qi Gong schools, and such gifts are also given during important Chinese festivals, or irregularly. Everybody understands this is part of a personal relation dizi have with their shifu.
Additionally, Tai Ji Men spreads its ideas, not only to promote its culture but also to improve global citizens’ physical, mental, and spiritual health through the public welfare TV series “Energy Family,” of which more than 1,000 episodes have been produced to date. They are available on Tai Ji Men’s own Web site and have been licensed to several TV networks throughout the world.
Second, the Tai Ji Men case. This is something that is difficult to understand for non-Taiwanese, and requires some comments about the uneasy relationships Chinese dynasties and governments, including Taiwan governments, always maintained with religious and spiritual movements that developed independently from the political power. Those who study the repression of new religious movements in Chinese history are familiar with the expression xie jiao, used to designate banned religious movements such as The Church of Almighty God. It is usually translated as “evil cults,” but this translation of a term literally meaning “heterodox teachings” is somewhat anachronistic.
Xie jiao was first used by Taoist Tang courtier Fu Ji (554−639) to designate Buddhism, which he denounced as an evil heresy to be eradicated. Although xie jiao became a fully developed legal concept only in the late Ming era, based on both theological and political presuppositions, “heterodox teachings” were identified since the 7th century CE as religious movements that threatened the stability of the state. What teachings were “heterodox” was ultimately determined by the Emperor, and lists of xie jiao might change based on political grounds.
The category of xie jiao was used in Republican China (established since 1911) to designate groups regarded as not supportive of the governmental reforms, particularly in the health and education fields. It continued to be used in Taiwan during the Martial Law period. Martial law ended in 1987, and religious liberty was officially proclaimed. However, as it happened in post-fascist Italy and post-Communist Eastern Europe, what legal scholars call “transitional justice,” i.e., an acknowledgement and correction of human rights violations in a pre-democratic past, proved to be a bumpy road.
The latest great repression of movements labeled as xie jiao, which were in fact persecuted for not supporting the political party that won the first direct election of a Taiwanese president, happened in 1996. In the Chinese tradition, it was not at all unusual to single out as xie jiao spiritual movements accused, rightly or wrongly, of not being supportive enough of the power that be. The 1996 repression targeted some of the largest religious movements in Taiwan, including the Buddhist organization Fo Guang Shan and Yiguandao, a salvationist new religion many members of which had taken refuge in Taiwan fleeing Mainland China. Notwithstanding its caution in not taking political sides, Tai Ji Men was also involved in the crackdown, and Dr Hong was arrested together with his wife and two dizi.
The accusations against the spiritual movements targeted in the 1996 raids were typical of the century-old tradition of the repression of xie jiao: fraud and the use of black magic to control unsuspecting followers. Dr. Hong was falsely accused by a prosecutor, who violated the law and abused his authority, of “raising goblins,” a practice totally foreign to Tai Ji Men. To this, the more modern accusation of tax evasion was added, with fabricated arguments.
In a way, the 1996 campaign was the beginning of the end for the policy of repressing xie jiao in Taiwan. While the media and some politicians continued to claim for several years that massive cases of religious frauds had been uncovered, with the exception of Zen Master Miao Tian, who was finally convicted of fraudulent acquisition of property and tax evasion, the criminal cases prosecutors had filed failed. Even the conviction of Master Sung Chi-Li, whose Sung Chi-Li Miracle Association had been presented in the media as the epitome of the evil xie jiao, was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.
The case against Dr. Hong and his co-defendants also failed spectacularly. On July 13, 2007, the criminal division of the Supreme Court of Taiwan pronounced the final acquittal of Tai Ji Men defendants, declaring them innocent of all charges (the Court also declared there was tax evasion). National compensation for the wrongful detention was given to Dr. Hong and his co-defendants who had been detained.
This should have been the end of the Tai Ji Men case. However, some National Taxation Bureau (NTB) bureaucrats decided to ignore the court decision and go on with their unjustified tax evasion action. They also knew that they could pocket significant bonuses by issuing tax bills against a large movement such as Tai Ji Men.
Accordingly, even after the Supreme Court had concluded that Dr. Hong had committed no crimes, and there was no tax evasion, they tried to maintain their tax bills for the years 1991 to 1996, claiming that the money Dr. Hong had received in these years in the “red envelopes” should not be considered as non-taxable gifts but as tuition fees for a so-called “cram school,” i.e., a school where pupils receive crash courses, normally in preparation for exams.
Different authorities intervened in the controversy, including the Ministry of Education (which has authority on cram schools) and courts of law. All declared that in the Tai Ji Men case there was no cram school and no tax evasion. For the second time, the Tai Ji Men case should have ended there, but this was not to be.
In 2019, the NTB, in accordance with the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court and the Taipei High Administrative Court, agreed that tax bills for the years 1991 and 1993 to 1996 should be corrected to zero, but maintained the tax bill for 1992, including penalties. Logically, this did not make sense, as the content of the red envelopes in 1992 was not different from the other years. The NTB relied on a technicality, i.e., that for the year 1992, and only for that year, a decision by the Supreme Administrative Court rendered in 2006 had become final. It is a general principle of law that even final decisions can and should be revised or not enforced when a new fact intervenes, in this case the verdict of the criminal section of the Supreme Court of 2007 that found Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men not guilty of tax evasion. Nonetheless, the NTB refused to cancel the tax bill for 1992.
Now the third question, why the massive Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan? On May 5 and July 23, 2020, the Taipei High Administrative Court wrote twice to the NTB for the Central Area, asking them to treat 1992 as the other years were treated. This, also, was to no avail. In August 2020, land belonging to Dr. Hong that had been seized was auctioned by the National Enforcement Agency, then confiscated after two auctions were not successful. This property was important for Tai Ji Men, which planned to build a center for self-cultivation there. Hence the protests, which also targeted what Tai Ji Men and others perceived as the unfairness of the Taiwanese tax system in general and the immoral system of bonuses.
Two questions remain. First, why did the Tai Ji Men case last longer with respect to other groups that had been involved in the 1996 crackdown on spiritual movements, and in fact is still not solved after 25 years? One answer is that, unlike other groups, Tai Ji Men refused all offers of settlement from the NTB, insisting they were not guilty of tax evasion and should not pay even a single dollar for this. It may seem that this is a battle about money, but it isn’t for Tai Ji Men. They spent in legal fees only, in all these years of struggles, more than they would have paid had they settled with the NTB. They did not settle for a reason of principle. By settling, they would have admitted that they had been guilty of tax evasion, something that is both against their principles and factual truth, and in their eyes would even be a connivance with the criminal actions of some rogue officials. How can they tour the world and lecture about conscience and being good citizens, and at the same time admit they evaded taxes?
The second question is why a group of bureaucrats stubbornly maintained the 1992 tax bill against Tai Ji Men, even after their actions resulted in massive protests and the intervention of international human rights organization. A problem of international image was created for Taiwan, precisely at a moment when, because of the assertiveness of Xi Jinping’s China, Taiwan needs all foreign friends it can mobilize. One answer we often heard from Tai Ji Men dizi is that greedy bureaucrats simply wanted to pocket the bonuses. This is certainly possible, but I believe that equally important is mianzi, an important concept in Chinese psychology, studied in particular in the West in the books of Michael Harris Bond. Protecting mianzi, “saving face,” is not less important than monetary considerations. Mianzi is also important for keeping another form of social capital that is traditionally crucial in Chinese culture, guanxi, or personal connections with people who regard you as believable and respectable. One prosecutor and some National Taxation Bureau (NTB) bureaucrats had invested much of their mianzi and guanxi in claiming that by investigating and prosecuting Tai Ji Men they had uncovered an important case of tax evasion, and mobilizing their relations to make sure Tai Ji Men will be punished. They ultimately failed, but maintaining at least a part of the tax bills was their last resort in a desperate attempt to save their face and protect their social credibility.