BEIJING — The hypnotic voice of qigong master Zhang Ruming floated through a hall packed wall-to-wall with 300 working-class Beijing residents.
"The lotus flower endlessly grows," Zhang intoned. "The lotus flower envelops you. Think, 'I am the lotus flower. The lotus flower is me. . . . The lotus flower is all of nature.' "
Everyone seemed lost in quiet meditation on the soothing words, rich in Buddhist imagery. But no one considered this a religious meeting, at least not openly.
Those in the crowd had come in the belief that they could receive healing benefits of the master's qi --the vital energy of life. They believed that he had the gong-- the skill--to control this force and impart it to them. At the start of the meeting, a dozen people had offered testimonials to Zhang's healing power.
The gathering reflected an explosion of interest in qigong (pronounced CHEE-goong), a blend of Chinese medicine, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, magicians' tricks and traditional exercises that is quickly expanding to fill a deep spiritual void in Chinese life.
Authorities here view the phenomenon with a nervous mixture of respect and fear. Qigong is not a political force. But it pulls people together in loose associations that are not government-controlled. Some observers believe that it could ultimately challenge the Communist Party's wide-ranging grip on social life and that this, in turn, could have unpredictable political consequences.
It is generally estimated that there now are at least 60 million practitioners, up from a few hundred thousand a decade ago.
"The strongest organizations in China today, after the Communist Party, are the rapidly growing qigong associations," the respected Hong Kong-based China-watching magazine Contemporary recently declared.
Traditional religion in China was suppressed by the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who instilled in its place a fanatical belief in his own power. Then, Deng Xiaoping replaced the cult of Maoism with economic reforms, promoting a widespread conviction that China was on the road to prosperity.
But Deng's own prestige, and that of the Communist Party over which he presides, was among the casualties last year when the People's Liberation Army fired on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. People were left with nothing to believe in. Especially in the cities, where disillusionment struck deepest, many are turning to qigong.
At its most fundamental level, qigong is based on deep-breathing exercises. These can be used simply to keep fit. They also are used in meditation and for the concentration of energy that medical qigong claims can be achieved.
The exercises themselves, which fit into a well-established pattern of morning calisthenics, enjoy official approval. Performances of qigong tricks, such as breaking bricks with one's head, are routinely offered as public entertainment.
Respected physicians sometimes credit qigong with healing powers. An international symposium on qigong and health will be held in Beijing in November. It is widely believed that senior leader Deng, 86, is himself treated by a qigong master. Some Chinese say this explains why he has lived so long.
But the Chinese media have printed articles warning of qigong's dangers, including risks of hallucination and mental breakdown. As part of a broad effort to bring qigong activities under official supervision, sweeps have recently been made of exercise classes in public parks, with instructors required to register their names.
Qigong gatherings of more than 1,000 were banned after several 1988 rallies in Beijing drew up to 15,000 frenzied participants who writhed, screamed, laughed or cried as masters projected qi upon them. But this ban failed to stop qigong's spread.
The official newspaper, the China Daily, reported in August that there are now 200,000 to 300,000 adherents of qigong in Beijing alone, with 23 institutions conducting teaching or research into the discipline. Only one of these centers had registered with the proper authorities, the article complained. In addition, it said, there are more than 200 "guidance centers" with more than 600 instructors in public places such as parks.
The Beijing Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine has launched a program to license all medical-related qigong activities, and "anyone working in breach of the rules would be severely punished," the article said.
The report also stated that eight medical qigong clinics have already been ordered to close this year, and two individuals "have been detained . . . on charges of swindling."
Fears of political instability have helped prompt such assertions of government control.