Wang Lin concentrating before one of his famous tricks
Wang Lin concentrating before one of his famous tricks
Song Shinan

BEIJING — Wang Lin is one of China's best-known (and self-proclaimed) qigong masters, drawing in the rich and famous with his spiritual healing methods and such proclaimed feats as chopping off snakes' heads and bringing them back to life. This figure who many believe to be a simple charlatan has attracted senior public officials, movie stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chan and businessmen like Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of the Alibaba group.

Now, Wang been arrested on suspicion of being involved in the kidnapping and murder of one of his disciples.

His is not a unique case: There are many contemporary variations on the figure of the traditional Chinese alchemist. The only difference is that Wang claims to be neither a Buddhist nor Taoist, relying instead on little more than a few weeks of acrobatic troupe training from his youth.

The Ming Dynasty alchemists are Wang Lin's true precursors. Most Ming emperors believed in diabolism and other nonsense coming from crooked monks. As a result, those monks interfered in the ruler's affairs, jeopardized people's livelihoods, and brought endless damage to the empire.

Over the decades, through his skills in fooling people, Wang made acquaintances with a mix of VIPs and wove a powerful personal secret network.

His various outlandish declarations are indispensable gimmicks for attracting clients. Some came to him asking to have a baby. Some wanted to enjoy the company of ten lovers at the same time. Others came with incurable illnesses. Public officials, meanwhile, typically came in search of a promotion or hoping that their wrongdoings would never be found out.

In brief, whether they are entertainment stars, successful businessmen or public officials with great power, these believers aspire to access a mysterious, supernatural force delivered to them directly from Wang.

Not all of his followers, however, are fools. It is very clear in their minds that by visiting the "Wang Palace" — the pompous name the guru gave his five-story home — they'd be ushered into the wealthy club of aristocrats and tycoons. Through Wang's alchemy, the troika of officials, entrepreneurs, and entertainers respectively contribute their power, money, beauty and fame and thus have access to what they desire in return.

Wang is like a spider, crawling across his web, keeping the three categories together. He often held private gatherings in his mansion, with the "big men" of Chinese society rushing to attend.

Solidarity of status

From the point of view of social psychology, such a phenomenon brings physical and material proximity that can create the sense of solidarity within the group, reinforced by the "high status" characteristic shared by the different members.

Wang accepted followers only via recommendation from other high-profile clients. Coupled with his persuasion skills and supposed magical powers, many were thus convinced that Wang was a "superman," and to that being around him would bring blessings and material resources.

To a certain extent, Wang Lin's circle is a pre-modern phenomenon, where no distinction existed between the private and public. As long as one is admitted to this club, official business can be conducted in secret, while private affairs can be solved with public power. Wang Lin had no power himself, but was instead a parasite — using his fame and bogus authority to act like a broker of the power of others.

Alas, Wang's arena can never be exposed to the sunlight. Once a shady circle's words and deeds are before the public eye, it's doomed to collapse. The reason is simple: There is too much entanglement of rights and interests. To protect themselves from public scrutiny, the involved parties would never admit their close relations with the self-proclaimed master, lest they face the uproar of public opinion.

Since Wang's arrest, the authorities remain unclear about his involvement in the murder case. Some suspect a powerful elder in his circle may have tried to eliminate both Wang and his disciple; others wonder if an even more powerful political strongman outside his circle may have wanted to crack down on the power hiding behind Wang. What's certain is that the web of influence that gave Wang Lin his power has unraveled forever.

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