E-commerce leader Ma Yun and actress Zhao Wei are seen with Wang Lin.
Self-proclaimed qigong master Wang Lin is seen being with a man believed to be former railway minister Liu Zhijun.
A qigong enthusiast in Tongxiang, Zhejiang Province practices on May 26, 2012. Photo: CFP
Qigong, the ancient Chinese healing practice, has seen a revival in popularity of late, becoming one of the latest fads for celebrities. Although a number of pseudo-qigong masters have been revealed as frauds, losing much of their appeal with the public, their celebrity fan base appears to be more loyal than most.
The devotion of prominent personalities to their masters came to light recently when photos surfaced of Ma Yun (Jack Ma), the billionaire founder and ex-CEO of the Alibaba Group, visiting Wang Lin, a self-proclaimed qigong master from Pingxiang in Jiangxi Province. The reaction online was one of shock that such a successful entrepreneur could fall prey to a charlatan like Wang.
There was further consternation when other celebrities such as actor Jet Li and actress Zhao Wei also became guests of Wang Lin.
Quickly delving into the life of Wang, more alarming pictures were found in which Wang seemed to be hobnobbing with top officials including Liu Zhijun, the disgraced minister of railways, and former ministers. In one picture, former health minister Chen Minzhang was shown receiving treatment by Wang.
These seem particularly damaging given the Chinese government's long battle against superstition within its own ranks.
But the allure of celebrity clientele has helped some self-proclaimed masters survive and even thrive. Wang is now the richest man in Pingxiang, and a large part of his fortune has been built on the cult of mystery and success he has built around himself, a cult that personalities like Ma only help to solidify. He initially found popularity among locals by performing shows in which he did a number of tricks involving snakes, including seemingly killing them and bringing them back to life.
Wealth of support
Wang lives in a five-story villa that flashes huge Chinese characters "Wang's Mansion" with three Hummers and a Rolls-Royce in the yard. The Hummer cars have been seen ferrying Ma Yun and other valued guests to and from the compound, the Beijing News reported on Monday.
Wang's villa is situated right next to the Luxi county government building, the local center of power, and two floors of one wall are given over to pictures of Wang with officials and celebrities.
He has also published a book named The Chinese, a tome of pictures about his encounters with celebrities. Although the book's original retail price was 1,800 yuan ($293), its limited run has made it a prized find and one copy recently fetched 160,000 yuan online, he told the Beijing News.
This book charts Wang's rise to fame, showing him with high-ranking officials from China and Southeast Asia, ranging from the 1990s to the present day. Two pictures depict famed actress Li Bingbing, kneeling in front of Wang, with a caption reading that Li had come to recognize Wang as her godfather. When asked about the pictures, Li's agent, Li Xue, told the media that the star had turned to Wang for help in curing her mother.
After doubts began being cast by a skeptical public, one of Wang's followers took matters into his own hands. Tan Shuyao, a local entrepreneur, came to Wang's villa to express his anger at the master's doubters.
Tan told reporters that he had watched Wang's show over 200 times and was utterly convinced. He asked Wang to shut the press up by performing on the spot. Wang begged off, providing the excuse that his powers were not magic, defining them instead as traditional folklore knowledge.
However, not every follower remained as zealous as Tan. Zou Yong, a representative of Jiangxi Provincial People's Congress uncovered Wang's tricks to the media after being duped himself.
Back in 2008, Zou had become obsessed with Wang's seeming powers of reptilian resuscitation. Zou also wanted to get close to Wang to enjoy his connections to local officials. Wang acknowledged Zou's request to learn from him but the price proved steep. Wang first asked for 5 million yuan from Zou to take him on as an apprentice, before asking for expensive gifts such as luxury cars. In return, Zou was handed an old volume, containing some alleged ancient symbols and formulas, which Wang claimed were where he drew his power.
Wang provided very little hands-on guidance to Zou, instead telling him to practice alone. After trying his best to learn from the book, Zou realized that he had been fooled.
Western readers might not be surprised at celebrities being particularly interested in the supernatural. In the US, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley are only some of the rich and famous who adhere to Scientology. The same may be true for some Chinese stars.
"This is typical of some celebrities' personal preferences," Sima Nan, a well-known commentator who used to practice qigong but stopped after it became used by some to promote supernatural powers, told the Global Times, referring to Ma Yun, Jet Li and Zhao Wei.
Many celebrities, like Ma, have shown a strong interest in these so-called supernatural powers for many years. Ma once visited Taoist master Li Yi in Chongqing and studied Taoism for a long time, according to Sima.
Li Yi was dubbed a "regimen master" in 2010, and said he possessed supernatural powers, such as breathing through his heels. His tricks were later exposed and he fell into disrepute.
"Wang Lin and Li Yi have something in common. They both studied qigong and illusionism when they were young, but their skills are not that professional," said Sima.
Ma, Jet Li or Zhao share the same characteristics. They became successful, scaled the echelons of fame, are fabulously wealthy and believe themselves to be luckier than ordinary people, says Fang Zhouzi, a famous debunker of superstition and pseudoscience. He believes this mentality has pushed them to seek the advice of so-called masters as to why they deserved this fate.
Sima says that Wang Lin, 61, has very little conventional education but possesses an exceptional ability to connect with people and make them feel good about themselves. He believes this also explains Wang's elaborate network of contacts (guanxi) in his hometown. Wang has even traveled to Beijing in the past to shore up connections with high-ranking officials in the capital, claims Sima.
In the 1980s and 1990s, qigong masters suffered wave after wave of exposure as teachers, scientists and officials teamed up to debunk their claims and reveal their tricks. However, although most of these masters changed jobs and went to ground, a few survived and popped up again in recent years, once the furor had calmed down.
Sima Nan was among those who helped to topple these charlatans 20 years ago. He pointed out that ordinary people still believed in such preposterous claims back then since superstition had long been part of traditional Chinese folklore. As for corrupt officials or naïve celebrities, it may be that belief in such powers helps them sleep better at night, according to Sima.
"Corrupt officials need blessings from masters, and masters need the protection of those officials to practice their chicanery. This has become a special phenomenon in China where corruption and ignorance are combined," sighed Sima.
No requests for interview to the celebrities on Wang Lin's client list had been accepted by press time. Only Ma Yun issued a statement on his Sina Weibo on July 11 explaining his stance.
"My friends often criticize me for showing interest in 'non-scientific' knowledge. Exploration, appreciation and curiosity in the unknown, even superpowers, have always been interests of mine. To find out such secrets is really exciting," wrote Ma.
"Science is not truth. Science is just used to prove truth. Being infatuated or lacking belief are both superstitious views. Today, we seem to lean toward the latter. But my curiosity never dies out," he continued.
But as far as Fang Zhouzi concerned, what Ma writes and does are completely different things.
"Ma commented about superpowers, but he believes in magic tricks, which are really easy to expose. Even I can tell the whole thing's fake, after analyzing the videos," said Fang to the Global Times.
So-called masters challenged
Sima said he had sent invitations to Wang Lin a week ago, asking him to come to Beijing to undergo a rigid scientific evaluation. "I will give 10 million yuan to those who can prove they have supernatural powers. So long as their powers can be proved by science, they can get the money," he said.
"Accompanied by the media, I would like to go to Jiangxi and stand outside Wang Lin's villa. I want to see what Wang can do to me, whether he can force me to move with his so-called superpowers," Sima jeered.
Attempts to reach Wang Lin by the Global Times went unanswered. However, Wang did lose his calm with a reporter from the Beijing News.
"You are young but you won't die a natural death," Wang Lin told a Beijing News reporter during a phone call on July 22, according to the newspaper's Weibo account.
Wang accused the reporter of being paid to write a biased story. When the reporter explained she was doing her job and writing an objective story, Wang threatened her again by saying "I warn you. You and your family won't die naturally."
Response from the county
On Tuesday, Long Jun, publicity director for Luxi county in Pingxiang, told the Beijing News that the head of Luxi county, Yao Hu, had virtually no contact with Ma. However, he admitted that photos showing Yao and Wang together were taken during Ma's visit. Long explained the county authorities did not want to pass up the chance of meeting Ma and discussing the possibility of investment.
It is unknown what the exact relationship is between Luxi authorities and Wang Lin. However, given the lack of action by authorities to debunk Wang and speculations that he may have lent money to the county officials, it is easy to imagine they will leave their famous cash cow alone.