Ancient Chinese techniques of avoiding grains and fasting for several days became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CCP suspects they are “religious.”
by Meng Yaoting
Some campaigns catch Chinese by surprise. In this month of April, we have seen CCP media, including the official Central Committee organ People’s Daily, publishing all of a sudden strong-worded attacks on bigu fasting. Some of these media have described bigu as “as dangerous as Falun Gong,” and this language normally announces police action.
Most Chinese would regard bigu as generally inoffensive, and it has even been studied by CCP academics as part of traditional Chinese medicine. What is bigu? And why is it attacked now?
The name “bigu” (辟谷) normally refers to two different techniques taught by Taoist masters and widely practiced through Chinese history. The first, which corresponds to the literal meaning of the word “bigu,” consists in avoiding the “five grains” or cereals that are traditionally very important in Chinese diet. It is believed that grain-eating spirits may possess human bodies and the only way of exorcising these entities is by not feeding them, i.e., by adopting a grain-free diet. Which grains exactly should be avoided, and what other foods, if any, should be also excluded from a bigu diet is a matter of endless discussions among practitioners.
The second meaning of “bigu” is fasting, meaning avoiding any food. In this sense, “bigu” refers both to Taoist myths about immortal sages able to live without eating at all and to a practice consisting of fasting for several days, which is supposed to grant both physical and spiritual benefits.
There have always been stories of bigu practitioners who starved themselves to death, but these cases are extremely rare. Most of those trying bigu would either adopt a grain-free diet (not to be confused with gluten-free diets, because bigu also teaches to avoid grains that do not contain gluten such as rice) or fast for some days only.
What happened that persuaded the CCP that bigu may represent a threat? Basically, two developments. The first was that during COVID-19 bigu became a fad of sort, as many believed it would strengthen the immune system and protect from the virus, which turned some bigu teachers into national celebrities. The second was that bigu masters started gaining a large following on social media, precisely at a time when Xi Jinping continues to preach that the Internet is becoming “chaotic,” spiraling out of control, and proposing content not approved by the CCP.
It is for these reasons that the CCP media have started attacking bigu masters as frauds, focusing in particular on one teacher from Beijing and social media celebrity called Zhen Ru. They claim that they promise to cure cancer and other diseases through bigu, become very rich at the expenses of their gullible followers, and illegally preach religion by using the disguise of traditional medicine. In fact, the CCP media argue, bigu’s supposed effectiveness is based on religious ideas that are “against science,” such as the existence of cosmic energies and spirits entering our bodies.
In all fields there may well be unethical teachers. However, bigu masters so far were largely left alone. They are now attacked as part of a larger crackdown on techniques with some relations to spirituality for improving health that became more popular than before during, and because of, the COVID-19 pandemic.