China's new breed of superhumans

January 23, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

Beijing -- Five years ago, Xu Xiaoxue decided to leave her husband and make a life of her own. So she left the southern town of Wuxi and headed north to Beijing to seek her fame and fortune as a superhuman.

Now, armed with a client list of top Chinese leaders, plus a finely honed business sense, Ms. Xu has entered the burgeoning ranks of Chinese who make their living by claiming supernatural abilities. Her advertised skills: X-ray vision, faith healing, fortune telling.

On good days she can even change the weather.

This new class of Chinese entrepreneurs claims fantastic skills that they're willing to demonstrate or teach for a price. A soldier in the People's Liberation Army claims he can use special energies to throw needles 100 feet at high speeds and pierce 5 millimeters of glass. China's most famous superman, Zhang Baosheng, can move objects through sheer concentration -- in addition, of course, to X-ray vision and miraculous powers to heal.

In most countries, people claiming these powers would be consigned to supermarket tabloids, but in increasingly freewheeling China, they are respected, wealthy figures. Communist Party leaders seek their help, serious newspapers laud these miraculous powers, and the superhumans sell books and videos.

Even China's supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, is said to use a superman, Mr. Zhang, to help stimulate his fading health. Mr. Deng, whose daughter said in a recent interview is in declining health and unable to walk, was rumored to have been resuscitated from a coma by Mr. Zhang during the fall.

Although they treat top leaders, these superhumans have become something of an embarrassment to Chinese authorities, who recently issued a circular calling for government agencies to curb the rise of "feudal superstition." Despite a rebirth of religion and capitalism, this is still a country run by a Communist party convinced that science, not magic powers, is the way to solve problems.

"People are horrified by growing superstitious and ignorant practices as well as anti-scientific and pseudoscientific activities that are turning up," according to the circular, issued by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee. "The origin of superstition is poverty and only scientific knowledge can eliminate poverty."

That analysis tells only part of the story. Superstition is indeed on the rise -- the official Enlightenment Daily newspaper claims that 5 million people earn a living in China as fortune-tellers, a practice that 15 years ago was still banned -- but people seem anything but horrified by it. And as for poverty being superstition's cause, the self-proclaimed supermen have become popular only as the Chinese have become richer.

Dr. Lu Jianhua, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says people have turned to the supermen as lives have become more complicated and social controls more lax. In the past, a Ms. Xu would have been thrown in jail or forced to write a confession for fooling the masses, but now she can set up businesses and treat patients.

"Superstition is on the rise because it helps people cope with a complicated world," Dr. Lu said. "People like the idea of being something special, or having an edge against others. It gives a feeling of security. On the whole, it's relatively harmless and probably will go away when people become better educated."

What's striking about the superhumans is that most of their publicity comes from articles in the official press, with a People's Daily reporter, for example, writing a sycophantic portrait of one "lucky and miraculous superman" who can tell the future.

The superhumans' success can be chalked up to more than their extraordinary powers.

All of them, for example, claim that their powers are supernatural, but usually temper that by adding that science will one day explain their powers.

Top superman Zhang Baosheng dedicates his $20 video, a dramatic re-creation of his youth, to "the people who contribute to the scientific study of the human body."

Pose no threat

Significant, too, is that the superhumans don't challenge one-party rule: Authorities have cracked down hard on dissent and some religious activities, but people who claim supernatural abilities do not band together and do not threaten authority.

Indeed, the most important reason for the government's tolerance of the superheroes may be that many of China's aging leaders have hired these miracle workers to postpone their meeting with Marx.

Driving through Beijing with Ms. Xu, for example, can be a lesson in the Communist Party's hierarchy. Having taken no oath to protect her clients' privacy, she happily names the bigwigs she has treated: former Communist Party General Secretary Hua Guofeng; Marshall Nie Rongzhen, the father of China's A-bomb program; Yang Dezhi, the 84-year-old former vice minister of defense; Peng Chong, the 80-year-old former vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

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