In disaster studies, “disaster communities” are those who went through a natural or human-made disaster that did not destroy them but reinforced their resilience.

by Stefania Cerruti*

*A paper presented at the European Academy of Religion 2024 conference, Palermo, Italy, May 20, 2024.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on May 25th, 2024.

A Sicilian disaster: after the Messina earthquake of 1908. Credits.
A Sicilian disaster: after the Messina earthquake of 1908. Credits.

Disaster studies still have trouble being generally accepted as an academic discipline, and went through different, tentative models to interpret disasters. It is agreed that their field includes both natural disasters, such as an earthquake, and human-made disasters, such as wars or religious or political persecution of a certain group. As such, it can be said that the Tai Ji Men case is a legitimate part of disaster studies. The Tai Ji Men community experienced since 1996 a human-made disaster. Its academies were raided, its leaders were detained, and they were also victimized by a massive media slander campaign, with more than four hundred articles against them published in Taiwanese media during the four-month investigation.


The first paradigm of modern disaster studies was vulnerability. Although criticized today, this model, which dominated the late 20th century, represented a progress with respect to previous explanations of disasters and, in a way, legitimized disaster studies as an academic field. In British legal jargon, disasters are called “acts of God.” This expression is still used today in contracts, where the parties agree that if they are unable to perform their obligations because of an “act of God,” they are not responsible. These words still maintain in a secularized society the idea that earthquakes, floods, fires are something human beings cannot control. They come from God, and not much was changed when “acts of God” started being called “acts of nature.”

The vulnerability model asserted itself by claiming that pure “acts of nature” do not exist. There are no disasters where human-made elements are not at work. An earthquake is often unpredictable. However, we can predict that certain parts of the population, being more vulnerable, will suffer more, because their homes were built with poorer materials, and they did not have access to adequate resources to immediately cope with the disaster. Vulnerability is largely a social construction. We categorize certain people as vulnerable based on templates that consider history, economy, power, and so on.

Of course, vulnerability is even more visible and crucial in human-made disasters. Literature and movies have explored time and again the idea that the poor are the main victims of wars, while the rich or most of them somewhat manage to survive. Additionally, there are human-made disasters whose perpetrators specifically target communities they know are vulnerable. The Jews in Nazi Germany were depicted as rich and powerful, but in fact their alleged power was minimal with respect to the machinery of the German state and the Nazi party.

The model of vulnerability, although incomplete, starts offering some elements to analyze the Tai Ji Men case from the point of view of disaster studies. In 1996, Taiwan was in a post-authoritarian phase and celebrated the first free presidential elections. The president standing for the ruling party, the Kuomintang, sought to be re-elected democratically, but did not expect serious opposition. Instead, competition was strong, and he won, but with 54% of the votes only, less than he expected. One of his opponents was a disciple of the abbot of Fo Guang Shan, the largest Buddhist movement in Taiwan. After the elections, the ruling party decided to crack down on the opponents and raided several religious and spiritual movements accused of not having supported its candidate, including Tai Ji Men.

Confronted with the power of the state, Tai Ji Men’s Shifu (Grand Master) and dizi (disciples) were in a situation of vulnerability. The man mostly responsible for creating the Tai Ji Men case, Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, was able to manipulate the media, and vulnerable Tai Ji Men dizi had very little possibilities to react. As it has been said, an authoritarian regime would hit vulnerable minorities by using two main tools, false criminal prosecution and false tax bills, and this is precisely what happened to Tai Ji Men.

Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, the man who created the Tai Ji Men case. From X.
Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, the man who created the Tai Ji Men case. From X.

On the other hand, there are problems by using vulnerability as the main or only category when interpreting human-made disasters. One of the reasons vulnerability is regarded with suspicion today is that it can be used to blame the victims. A spectacular example was the Urumqi fire of November 24, 2022. A fire erupted in an eighteen-storey building inhabited by Uyghur families in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. Since the building’s doors had been locked from outside as part of the draconian “Zero COVID” measures, those living there could not get out and many died.

The disaster became historically important as it was the catalyst for national protests in China that eventually led to the end of the “Zero COVID” policy. One of the details that outraged the protesters was a press conference in Urumqi broadcasted by national television, where a Chinese military representative blamed the victims for their “lack of preparedness in self-defense and self-rescue.” He gave the impression that not only a vulnerable minority, the Uyghurs, had been victimized by the anti-COVID measures but that, if the victims had died in the fire, it was somewhat their fault.

In more technical words, not only in China, the model of vulnerability runs the risk of disempowering the very victims it wants to protect. In the Tai Ji Men case, it is wrong to see the dizi, much less the Shifu of the movement, as mere “victims.” They were not simply passive victims overwhelmed by more powerful social actors. Their reaction determined what happened next.


At the beginning of the 21st century, the model of vulnerability in disaster studies was largely replaced by the model of resilience. It seemed that switching from vulnerability to resilience would re-empower the victims of disasters and restore their agency. The model tried to assess and measure how those caught up in disasters manage to resist them. It was the degree of resistance to the disasters that ultimately determined individual and social outcomes. Or so it was believed.

“Resilience” is certainly an appropriate world to categorize the attitude of Tai Ji Men. At the beginning of the Tai Ji Men case, the Shifu, his late wife, called in the movement Shimu, and two dizi were detained. Academies were raided, the activities of Tai Ji Men were disrupted, and media slander led dizi to be bullied in schools, ridiculed in the workplaces, put at odds with their families, and even insulted in the streets.

Yet, all this did not break the passion and determination of the dizi. In a recent series of commemorative events in the United States, we learned about the strength and determination of Shimu, Madam Yu Mei-Jung, in the face of detention, persecution, and injustice. But this was true of all dizi. Resilience, indeed.

Madam Yu Mei-Jung, first from the right, seated next to Dr. Hong at a United Nations event.
Madam Yu Mei-Jung, first from the right, seated next to Dr. Hong at a United Nations event.

However, what is resilience exactly? The world became widely used and even abused during the COVID pandemic but was already ambiguous before. A term originally applied to construction materials in engineering, it was difficult to define as a social phenomenon, much more to measure. It is true that the model of vulnerability did not focus enough on the capability of the victims to react. But the model of resilience did not consider enough the structural or systemic problems. It might have implied that what is crucial in disasters is only how the victims cope with them. This is surely important but should not obscure the responsibility of the state and other powers. Disasters are public events, not only personal experiences.

In the case of Tai Ji Men, we can rejoice that the movement was not destroyed and in fact managed to flourish and affirm its international mission for peace, love, and conscience even when confronted with persecution.

However, celebrating the resilience of the dizi should never be separated from assessing both the systemic problems of the tax and legal system of Taiwan and the responsibility of those who violated the law to fabricate the case, including Prosecutor Hou and the rogue bureaucrats of the National Taxation Bureau. Where there are victims, there are perpetrators. The latter are those creating human-made disasters.

It is because of its tendency to divert the attention from political responsibilities that in the last decade even the model of resilience was gradually abandoned in disaster studies.


What seems to be the most advanced contemporary model in disaster studies focuses on the notion of “communitas,” which is the Latin term for “community.” It has been defined as the sum of “improvisational social bonds and spontaneous mutual support that arises within communities when disaster strikes.”

It is not a new concept. Disaster studies recognize as their founder, or at least progenitor, Canadian sociologist Samuel Henry Prince, who in 1920 wrote an influential book called “Catastrophe and Social Change” (New York: Columbia University Press). Prince studied the Halifax Explosion of 1917, which at that time was the largest explosion outside of wars in history. It killed 1,782 citizens of Halifax, in Canada, and injured another 9,000. A French cargo ship called Mont-Blanc collided accidentally with a Norwegian vessel in Halifax’s harbor. The problem was that the Mont-Blanc was carrying high potential explosives. They exploded because of the collision, and the explosion destroyed a large area of the city of Halifax.

The atomic-like blast cloud of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Credits.
The atomic-like blast cloud of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Credits.

What interested Prince was how the citizens of Halifax reacted. He studied “the role of catastrophe in stimulating community service, in presenting models of altruistic conduct, in translating energy into action, in defending law and order, and in bringing into play the great social virtues of generosity, sympathy and mutual aid.”

Many other studies have confirmed Prince’s findings. When disasters strike, observers generally conclude that the generosity and cooperation of those in the area normally exceed expectations. There are always criminals who try to profit from disasters, but they are a minority. In fact, disaster studies scholars regard the “corrosive communities” where catastrophic events lead to social disruption rather than social cooperation as exceptional, so that their causes should be studied. Sometimes, disasters are so overwhelming that no community emerges. In other cases, conspiracy theories may poison the well of community feelings.

Another question disaster studies scholars ask is why genuinely supportive communities emerge more often than not. Different answers have been offered to this important question. One is that there is a widespread mistrust in the capacity of the states to solve disaster problems, so that citizens bond together to take matters in their own hands. Another reason offered is that disasters reinforce the feeling that there are problems we cannot solve alone and need a collective and cooperative effort.

While these are valid answers, I personally believe that a deeper reason why disaster communities are formed can precisely be found by studying the ideas of Tai Ji Men and Dr. Hong on conscience. Disasters are shocking events, and they may be conducive to making us more attentive to the still small voice of the conscience, which tells us that it is right to be generous, altruistic, and work with others.

If this is the case, we at once understand why Tai Ji Men’s reaction to the human-made disaster that hit them was the reinforcement of their feelings of community and the organization of a powerful network of well-structured resistance and protest. If the main reason why disaster communities emerge is conscience, it is not surprising that a movement whose main teaching is about the primacy of conscience reacted to misfortune by building or reinforcing a conscience-based community.

Incorporating elements from the older models of vulnerability and resilience, thus, the more advanced model of disaster community offers an effective tool for a disaster studies approach to the Tai Ji Men case. Tai Ji Men dizi were the resilient victims of a human-made disaster. When this happened, and for the long time when its consequences continued to affect them, they built an exemplary disaster community. Since the driving force of disaster communities is conscience, the fact that teachings on conscience were central and typical for Tai Ji Men made them uniquely suited to react to a disaster by reinforcing or building a powerful community.