As told in the movie “Welcome to Yoga Village,” the story is funny and even inspiring. However, the CCP strategy behind it may be more subtle.
by Tao Zhaohui
Yes, the film is fun. “Welcome to Yoga Village,” released in China this year, tells the story of Lu Wenzhen, a bureaucrat working in poverty alleviation, who in 2016 came to the destitute village of Yugouliang, in Hebei province. He arrived there in winter, when temperature drops up to 27 (Celsius) degrees below zero, and quickly realized there was not much he could do to alleviate poverty. However, he saw an elderly woman sitting cross-legged in a difficult position.
He knew there was a widespread interest for yoga in China, and decided to make the village the country’s yoga capital. He asked elderly villagers to explain to him their techniques, and make videos to be uploaded on social media.
Lu, now the village Party Secretary, had a hard time persuading the villagers. Some believed he was joking, others were afraid they will be criticized. In fact, when Lu started his campaign, some in the nearby villages accused him of operating a xie jiao.
However, Lu persisted, and when the villagers discovered their videos had tens of thousands of downloads, they understood they could make money from them. To make a long story short, the Party sided with Lu. In 2017, the Social Sports Guidance Center of the General Administration of Sports gave him a medal and proclaimed Yugouliang “the first yoga village in China.”
There are fiction characters and incidents in the film, but the core story is true. Yugouliang and Secretary Lu do exist. Villagers did make some money with the videos, tourists followed (pre-COVID), and the film, although a comedy, would no doubt make Yugouliang even more popular. It was already honored when a team of village women of the average age of 67, the oldest aged 79, was entrusted with a segment of the Olympic torch relay for the 2022 Olympics.
Of course, there is nothing to object and much to commend in the fact that, unlike thousands of other villages, it seems that Yugouliang has “alleviated the poverty” for real thanks to Secretary Lu’s stroke of genius. However, if we take a second look at how Yugouliang’s story is reported by the CCP media, some ulterior motives for the promotion of the village emerge.
In the movie, one elderly woman asks Lu, “But is this really yoga?” On the one hand, the astute Lu is praised for his ability to capitalize on the yoga fashion that has developed in China in the 21st century. On the other hand, we understand that “yoga” is a convenient label for techniques that are really part of a millennia-old Chinese traditional culture rather than derived from India.
Although this theme comes and goes: when relations with India improve, the CCP organizes Sino-Indian conferences on yoga and use them for diplomacy, claiming yoga’s popularity is evidence that the Chinese really love India; when India is perceived as an enemy or competitor, we start reading that “yoga” techniques were know to the Chinese centuries before they even heard their Indian name.
The New York Times once covered Yugouliang, as did other Western media, which asked why exactly the village’s yoga is praised while qigong as practiced by the Falun Gong is prohibited. It is the wrong question. It is precisely because the CCP prohibits Falun Gong and dozens of other movements that teach qigong or yoga within a religious context that Yugouliang is promoted. We are told time and again that there is nothing religious or superstitious in the Party-approved yoga of Yugouliang. It is all gymnastic and health-promoting exercises. They have nothing to do with spirituality.
Yes, yoga, under whatever name, may survive and even thrive in China, until the CCP changes its mind as it did for other “superstitions,” but only if it is divorced from any spiritual reference. In this sense, Yugouliang has become a village-wide showroom of this brand of “CCP yoga”: controlled by the Party, with Chinese roots, and entirely non-spiritual. If some dare to teach otherwise, then their yoga groups are liquidated as xie jiao.