A seminar in Walnut, California, celebrates the young Tai Ji Men dizi who continue to fight for justice, peace, and freedom of religion or belief.
by Daniela Bovolenta
On August 8, 2022, at the Tai Ji Men Academy in Walnut, California, CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, and Human Rights Without Frontiers organized a hybrid seminar on “The Stolen Youth of Tai Ji Men,” in sight of the United Nations International Youth Day of August 12. The seminar was preceded by a ceremony where Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who serves as managing director of CESNUR and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, was asked by Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the Shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men, to ring the Bell of World Peace and Love. After he rang the Bell, Introvigne expressed how strong, humbling, and moving the experience was for him, and stated that as a scholar of religion he understands the Bell as a microcosm in correspondence with the larger macrocosm, the universe. When asked for their secrets and their deepest meaning, Introvigne said, both the universe and the Bell reveal that at the center of all is conscience.
The same Introvigne introduced the seminar, by noting that the relationship between Generation Z, which includes young women and men born after 1996, and religion or spirituality is one of the most debated issues among religious scholars today. Some believe that Generation Z is the less religious generation ever, at least in the West. However, Introvigne said, data should be interpreted with caution, and some sociologists have noted that while Generation Z youth interested in spirituality are part of a minority, they are more committed and enthusiastic than previous generations.
Introvigne noted that this is also a feature of young Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples). Although they belong to a minority, they are extraordinarily committed and resilient, as attested by their bravery and perseverance in asking for justice and a solution of the Tai Ji Men case.
Introvigne then introduced the video “Heaven’s Children,” where Tai Ji Men dizi from Taiwan’s ethnic minorities propose a poetic musical meditation on youth and conscience, and three international speakers.
The first, Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist who serves as director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, shared a meditation on youth based on poems by T.S. Eliot and Ada Negri. He also noted how all non-democratic regimes, including Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, try to control the youth and prevent them from thinking independently. They are not always successful, Respinti said, as evidenced by the case of Fascist Italy, where the Catholic Church and the traditional Italian family structure successfully contained the regime’s attempt to control the youth.
Respinti then examined Taiwan and the Tai Ji Men case, which he qualified as alarming, because it shows that even in democratic regimes the youth can be “stolen” from young men and women who try to think independently and resist the pressure of a corrupt bureaucracy.
The second speaker, Willy Fautré, the co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, stated that the International Youth Day encourages us to consider that the relationship between the youth and the adults is bilateral. As his career as a teacher and human rights activist taught him, Fautré said, the youth learn from us but we also learn from the youth.
This lesson, he noted, is also at work among young Tai Ji Men dizi, both in their activities promoting peace, law, and sustainable development and in their fight for legal and tax reform. They learn from their Shifu (Grand Master), Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, and from international scholars and activists who participate in events supporting the Tai Ji Men cause, Fautré said, but we also have a lot to learn from the younger dizi and how they live their fight for justice.
The third speaker, Stephen Enada, president and co-founder of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), a Baptist pastor, and a well-known human rights activist, reminded the audience that intergenerational solidarity, as Fautré had also mentioned, is the theme of the 2022 International Youth Day. The forces that fabricated the Tai ji Men case, Enada said, tried to break the chain of transmission of the Tai Ji Men tradition from generation to generation but failed. Now, Enada said, a citizen to citizen diplomacy should be mobilized internationally to solve the Tai Ji Men case. The different generations of Taiwanese who live in the United States, some of whom are not yet familiar with Tai Ji Men, should also been informed of what the case is all about, Enada suggested.
Holly Folk, a professor of Religious Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, introduced a video on the Dutch tax scandal that erupted in 2018, when it became clear that tax bureaucrats had violated the rights of parents, particularly immigrants, by falsely accusing them of having obtained childcare benefits fraudulently. After the publication of a parliamentary report, the government itself collectively resigned in 2021, including the Prime Minister. The video concluded that the use of taxes as a tool of discrimination invariably leads to serious political consequences.
Folk then introduced the testimonies of five Tai Ji Men dizi. Judy Lee, the owner of a small business who lives in Los Angeles, noted that August 8 in Taiwan is Father’s Day. She took the opportunity to honor her own father, who introduced her to Tai Ji Men, and Dr. Hong who, as Shifu of Tai Ji Men, is also both a father and a teacher to the dizi. Lee reported how she traveled with Dr. Hong to various international events to spread a culture of peace, love, and conscience, while at the same time watching with sadness and concern the persecution in Taiwan. She concluded that she was taught by Dr. Hong that, as Dale Carnegie once said, great results may be achieved if you keep fighting even when it seems that there is no hope of success.
Perry Chen, a nurse from Taiwan, reported how she moved to the United States one year ago, and the teachings and practice of Tai Ji Men helped her adapting to the new environment. She also participated in a trip to Hawaii to present the Tai Ji Men case, and visited there the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where more than 50,000 American soldiers who died in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are buried. The moving visit reminded her of the dire consequences of a world where conscience and peace do not prevail, she said. The Tai Ji Men case, Chen concluded, although less bloody than the wars, is another example of how entire generations suffer when those in power refuse to follow the voice of conscience.
Sarah Ng, a pharmacist, also discussed the mental and physical benefits she derived from joining Tai Ji Men and practicing qigong. She also mentioned Tai Ji Men’s efforts to offer sensible advice during the COVID-19 epidemic. This is part, she explained, of a broader benevolent activity of Tai Ji Men, as she experienced when four years ago she attended in New York the World Summit of Love and Peace at the United Nations. She added that she has observed the Tai Ji Men case from the United States, and finds very strange that so many violations of law can be perpetrated by corrupt bureaucrats and prosecutors in a democratic country, a comment shared by several international scholars and activists who have studied the case.
Alan Shih, who works as an operation manager, reflected on the four words found all over campus in his college years: “Propriety, Righteousness, Integrity, and Shame [awareness of our mistakes].” Through his practice of Tai Ji Men self-cultivation, Shih reported, he understood the deeper meaning of these words, which is connected with conscience. He also understood that the virtues signified by the four words were not at work among the bureaucrats who persecuted Tai Ji Men, due to a lack of conscience. He concluded by sharing his experiences in attending the International Religious Freedom Summit 2022 and visiting several authorities in Washington D.C. in an endeavor to make the Tai Ji Men case more well-known and to solicit their help.
Brian Kung, a laboratory assistant at San Antonio Regional Hospital in Upland, California, shared how by working in a hospital he understood how deeply the experience of practicing qigong, since he joined Tai Ji Men in 2010, has been crucial to improve his physical and mental health. He found similar benefits among many fellow dizi. Kung then mentioned the paradoxical situation in Taiwan where, while the benefits of the Tai Ji Men practice and activities are generally acknowledged, including by the highest authorities, a senseless persecution and harassment through taxes nonetheless continues, and the government appears incapable of rectifying the wrongdoings of a few corrupt bureaucrats.
Holly Folk offered the conclusions of the seminar. As a mother and a teacher, she spoke not only as a scholar but as somebody who has direct experience of daily interaction with the youth. She is aware, she stated, that many young people are suspicious of institutional religion, but they are also hungry for spiritual responses to their questions—and a society without religion is society more vulnerable to totalitarianism, as the experience of non-democratic regimes confirms, Folk said. A healthy spirituality also gives empowerment to young women and men, Folk added, which is demonstrated by the testimonies of the young dizi, their stories of spiritual growth, and their fight for justice for Tai Ji Men.
The event concluded with a video on “Justice, Human Rights, and Freedom of Belief.” The video showed how Tai Ji Men Shifu and dizi have been highly praised for their cultural and peace education activities by the highest authorities in Taiwan, including cabinet ministers, military commanders, mayors, members of the Parliament, Vice Presidents, and four Presidents of the Republic of China. Then, the video presented a summary of the Tai Ji Men case, and comments by Taiwanese politicians and scholars, and American legal scholar Kenneth Jacobsen, about the numerous violations of law perpetrated by those who persecuted the movement. It concluded with an appeal to Taiwan’s government to rectify the past injustices and solve the case once and for all.