2012 demonstrationsand a word about sources
As you may recall, the world was supposed to end on 21 December 2012 according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar. The Eastern Lightning cult joined the chorus of voices predicting the end of the world around that time and held public demonstrations in many places across China in December 2012. The authorities arrested more than 1,000 members of the cult during that month.1
What do the 2012 demonstrations have to do with sources you may ask. The answer is that the demonstrations were the catalyst for China's propaganda campaign against Eastern Lightning. In December 2012, a large number of articles on Eastern Lightning came out in the Chinese press and a very interesting video was also published. Before that time, the Chinese media had published very little on Eastern Lightning.
The account I give below of the rise of Eastern Lightning is based primarily on three sources:
- A China Central Television (中央电视台) report posted on People's Daily Online ((人民网) dated 22 December 20122 ( 2012 CCTV report);
- A video produced by the China Anti-Cult Association (中国反邪教协会) in December 20123 (2012 video); and
- A 2006 account of the origins of Eastern Lightning in a short book by a Christian writer widely circulated among Christian churches in China4 (2006 Christian account).
I do use some other sources to a lesser extent, and indicate them when they are used.5
The Chinese media had an ax to grind, so their reports should be read with caution. One may not subscribe wholeheartedly to the media's interpretation of the facts, but I do not think it likely that the basic account of the cult's origin is pure invention. I tend to think that the underlying basic facts reported concerning the origin and evolution of the cult are credible. Particularly because they correspond in large measure to the 2006 Christian account mentioned above. Of course we Christians have our own ax to grind, but I believe that the accounts taken together provide a fairly credible picture of how Eastern Lightning got started.
Zhao Weishan—Founder of Eastern Lightning
(赵维山) (Heilongjiang Province) (born 1951)
Image credit: Cropped screenshot from the video Shipo xiejiao “quannengshen” 识破邪教“全能神” (Seeing through the “Almighty God” cult)
Eastern Lightning was started by a person from Heilongjiang named Zhao Weishan (赵维山).
Between 1986 and 1989 Zhao preached at house meeting points (家庭聚会点) in and around Acheng City (阿城市), a city in Heilongjiang Province near Harbin. Some believers praised him and followed him.
In 1987 Zhao joined the Shouters.8 At the beginning of 1989 Zhao and some others (including He Zhexun, who will play an important role later) went to Henan Province looking for the True Way (真道).
While in Henan, Zhao, He and others converted to the Lord Changshou sect of the Shouters. They were baptized and given new names. Zhao's new name was "Power" (能力).
Back in Acheng City during 1989's Spring Festival, Zhao testified that Witness Lee is the Christ of the End Times and the King of Kings.
In 1989, several Lord Changshou churches were established in Heilongjiang. Zhao was made head of the Lord Changshou sect “常受教” for the province and was named "Lord of Power" "能力主." He Zhexun was made the Leader "带领" of the Hengshan Church (恒山教会), a newly-established Lord Changshou church.
At the end of 1990 because of pressure from the public security authorities and other reasons, the Lord Changshou sect "常受教" was broken up. Zhao saw his opportunity and sent some of his core people to various Lord Changshou sect areas and got those believers to believe in the Lord of Power (that is, himself) instead of Witness Lee. He wrote his own tract, called "Preaching the Word" (讲道). Under this tract's influence, his followers gave up the Bible and Witness Lee's Life-Study of the Bible (生命读经).9
In May of 1991, the Harbin Public Security Bureau closed Zhao's church, the Yongyuan Church (永源教会) in Yongyuan County (永源县) of Acheng City (阿城市).10 Zhao and his close supporters fled back to Henan Province.
Yang Xiangbin—The female Christ
(杨向彬) (born around 1972?11) (Shanxi Province)
Image credit: Cropped screenshot from the video Shipo xiejiao “quannengshen” 识破邪教“全能神” (Seeing through the “Almighty God” cult).
Around 1990 Yang Xiangbin failed her College Entrance Exam (高考落榜) and could not attend university. The blow was great and she experienced psychological problems. According to Zhang Dakai, demon possession was also suspected.14
Zhang Dakai also states that medical treatment didn't help, so some Christians took her to church and prayed for her. She seemed to get better for a while, and enthusiastically studied the Bible. Then she started going to the meetings of the Shouters. She accepted the teachings of Witness Lee and began reading his writings all of the time. Then, according to Zhang Dakai, her symptoms began to reappear. She frequently told the believers that the Holy Spirit had moved her. She saw dreams and visions and was constantly interpreting them.15
After Zhao's 1991 return to Henan, Zhao and Yang became lovers.
1991 to 1993—Transition to Eastern Lightning
Near the end of 1991, Yang wrote a "Word of God" (神话) in which she announced the end of the "Lord of Power" (that is, believing in Zhao Weishan) and that people should believe in "God Himself" (神本体).
"God Himself" was divided into different parts: All-Authority (全权), All-Complete (全成), All-Prepared (全备), All Glory (全荣), All-Victorious (全胜), All-Knowing (全智), All-Reverence (全尊) and All-Worthy (全贵). Zhao was, unsurprisingly, All-Authority. Yang was All-Complete.16
At some point, Yang declared that she had been possessed by the Holy Spirit ("被神的灵附身"). She also wrote a "Word" (话语) concerning herself being God. Many of the co-workers and followers started believing that she was God.17
At a meeting in Ruyang (汝阳) in Henan Province in the summer of 1993, Zhao, relying on a "Word of God" (神话), proclaimed that Yang was The Only True God (独一真神), The Almighty God (全能神) and the Female Christ (女基督). This, apparently, was the formal beginning of Eastern Lightning.
1995 Ministry of Public Security document
A 1995 Ministry of Public Security document labeled the Shouters as a cult. It also labeled some of its offshoots as cults including the "Lord Changshou Sect" (常受教) (the folks who worshipped Witness Lee); the "Lord of Power" (能力主) (perhaps referring to the folks who worshipped Zhao Weishan before the cult evolved into Eastern Lightning) and the "Real/Concrete God" (实际神) (this is another name used for Eastern Lightning).18
2000—Flight to America
Facing increased police pressure, Zhao, Yang and others fled to the US on September 6, 2000. Zhao continued to direct the cult organization in China from the US.19
(The hierarchy given in this chart is Priest at the top (Zhao Weishan), the Supervision Group (a picture of He Zhexun is shown as Head of the Supervision Group and an unidentified person as Deputy-Head), Pastoral Area, District, Small District, Church and lastly Small Team.20 Screenshot from the video Shipo xiejiao “quannengshen” 识破邪教“全能神” (Seeing through the “Almighty God” cult)
Nominally, the head of the cult was the female Christ, Yang Xiangbin. But according to the 2012 CCTV report, Yang was merely a puppet who was good at writing "sophistical" (歪理) essays.
The real head of the organization was Zhao Weishan. He was called "the one used by the Holy Spirit" (圣灵使用的人) or the Chief Priest (大祭司).
Underneath the Chief Priest, there was a seven-member Supervision Group (监察组), of which Zhao was a member but not the head.
For a period of time He Zhexun (何哲迅) was the head of the Supervision Group (监察组组长).
In 2007, Zhao no longer trusted He Zhexun and forced him to step down from his position as Supervision Group Head.21
He Zhexun talks
Image credit: Screenshot from the video Shipo xiejiao “quannengshen” 识破邪教“全能神” (Seeing through the “Almighty God” cult)
He Zhexun was with Zhao from the very beginning in Heilongjiang. In 1989 he went with Zhao to Henan and joined the Lord Changshou sect of the Shouters together with him. They both went back to Heilongjiang together and spread the word about Witness Lee, the "Christ of the End Times" (末世基督).
At some point after Zhao fired him in 2007, he was arrested.
The following account of He Zhexun's interrogation is from a report published on the China Central Television website CCTV.com.22
At first He Zhexun refused to talk.
Eventually, the police investigator got photographs of He's home, his wife and child and showed them to He. The photos showed that his home was in serious disrepair and his wife and child were looking ill and emaciated (憔悴). His family had no economic support because he had abandoned them to spread the word about the female Christ. When he saw the photographs, he held his head in his hands and cried bitterly.
But he still wouldn't talk.
Later, the police investigator said to He Zhexun, "You've been so faithful to Zhao Weishan. Why were you removed as Supervision Group Head?"
This apparently hit a nerve. He Zhexun was quiet for a long time. Then finally he began to talk.
He Zhexun is presumably the source of some of our new information regarding the Eastern Lightning cult. Remember, Eastern Lightning has been a very secretive cult. And before December 2012 we knew much less about it than we know now. I do not believe that any photographs of Yang Xiangbin could be obtained before that time.
1 Wang Zaihua 王在华, "Quannengshenjiao mudi shi tuifan zhengfu jian 'shen de guodu'" 全能神教目的是推翻政府建“神的國度” [The goal of the Church of the Almighty God is to overthrow the government and establish "The Kingdom of God"], China Central Television 中国中央电视台, posted on People's Daily Online 人民网, December 22, 2012, accessed May 21, 2013, http://hb.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2012/1222/c194083-17903485-1.html.
2 Wang Zaihua王在华, "Quannengshenjiao mudi shi tuifan zhengfu jian 'shen de guodu'"全能神教目的是推翻政府建“神的國度” [The goal of the Church of the Almighty God is to overthrow the government and establish "The Kingdom of God"], China Central Television 中国中央电视台, posted on People's Daily Online 人民网, December 22, 2012, accessed May 21, 2013, http://hb.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2012/1222/c194083-17903485-1.html. The reporter, Mr. Wang, states that he obtained the information in this article by interviewing a police officer who has worked for a long time in cult investigations and is very familiar with Eastern Lightning. The police officer is from the national security section of Henan Province's Public Security authorities. (Henan is an Eastern Lightning stronghold and the place where the cult started). Mr. Wang is a reporter for CCTV.com (央视网) stationed in Henan Province. Mr. Wang's photograph can be seen here.
3 China Anti-Cult Association 中国反邪教协会, Shipo xiejiao "quannengshen "识破邪教“全能神” [Seeing through the "Almighty God" cult], video, 29:17, December 2012, posted on Kaiwind 凯风网 (website) on December 26, 2012, accessed on June 27, 2013, http://zt.kaiwind.com/a/qns/shipin/2013/0124/284.html. The video can also be accessed here. The China Anti-Cult Association is a registered nonprofit entity with its registered address at the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing. This is a fascinating video. It clearly had a high level of government support. This can be seen from the fact that the video contains several interviews with Eastern Lightning followers who are already in prison, including a brief excerpt of an interview with Eastern Lightning's one-time No. 2 man, He Zhexun. This video also seems to be the source of what I believe to be the two most genuine photographs of Zhao Weishan and Yang Xiangbin available (reproduced in this article from screenshots of the video). Most photographs of these two persons circulated on the Internet are of very doubtful authenticity, and some are patently not authentic.
4 Zhang Dakai 张大开, Pouxi xiejiao zuzhi "Dongfang shandian" 剖析邪教组织“东方闪电” [Analyzing the cult "Eastern Lightning"] (China?: 2006), 6. No publisher is identified. This is an orange booklet that was widely distributed among churches in China.
5 One intriguing source I haven't used is a two-part video on Zhao Weishan's life in Heilongjiang produced by the Chinese anti-cult website "Kaiwind" (www.kaiwind.com). The video purports to interview, among others, Zhao Weishan's first wife and his younger brother. Kaiwind 凯风网 (website), Weishen de qianbansheng (shang)"putong ren" Zhao Weishan " " [The first half of the life of a false god (Part 1)Zhao Weishan, "an ordinary person"], video, 14:50, accessed February 8, 2014, http://www.kaiwind.com/online/zwss/201309/24/t20130924_1112579.shtml; and Kaiwind (website), Weishen de qianbansheng (xia)"putong ren" Zhao Weishan 伪神的前半生（上）——“普通人 ”赵维山 [The first half of the life of a false god (Part 2)Zhao Weishan, "an ordinary person"], video 19:48, , accessed February 8, 2014, http://www.kaiwind.com/online/zwsx/201310/25/t20131025_1168354.shtml. I would have more confidence in this source if it were produced by a more authoritative institution.
6 Wang Zaihua, "Quannengshenjiao mudi shi tuifan zhengfu jian 'shen de guodu'" 全能神教目的是推翻政府建“神的國度” [The goal of the Church of the Almighty God is to overthrow the government and establish "The Kingdom of God"], http://hb.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2012/1222/c194083-17903485-1.html.
7 China Anti-Cult Association, Shipo xiejiao "quannengshen" 识破邪教“全能神” [Seeing through the "Almighty God" cult], video, 29:17, http://zt.kaiwind.com/a/qns/shipin/2013/0124/284.html.
8 Ibid. This date was not mentioned in the 2012 CCTV report but was mentioned in the 2012 video.
9According to Wikipedia, Witness Lee's Life-Study of the Bible contains over 25,000 pages of commentary on every book of the Bible. See "Witness Lee," Wikipedia, accessed on June 25, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witness_Lee#Works. For an online version of this work, see Witness Lee, The Life-Study of the Bible (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, n.d.), accessed on June 25, 2013, http://www.ministrybooks.org/life-studies.cfm.
10 The name of the church is different in the 2006 account given by the Christian writer Zhang Dakai. In Zhang's account Zhao's church is called the Eternal Foundation Church (永存的根基教会). Zhang says that in 1991, Zhao had several thousand followers. The local public security authorities declared the Eternal Foundation Church an illegal organization, closed down their underground printing press and sought to arrest Zhao and others. Zhao and core supporters fled to the Shouters in Qingfeng County (清丰县) of Henan Province. Zhang Dakai, Pouxi xiejiao zuzhi "Dongfang shandian" "" [Analyzing the cult "Eastern Lightning"], 7.
11 This guess about Ms. Yang's age is based on the assumption that she was 18 when she took the College Entrance Exam in 1990. The China Anti-Cult Association video says Yang Xiangbin was more than 20 years younger than Zhao Weishan.
12 Wang Zaihua, "Quannengshenjiao mudi shi tuifan zhengfu jian 'shen de guodu'"全能神教目的是推翻政府建“神的國度 ” [The goal of the Church of the Almighty God is to overthrow the government and establish "The Kingdom of God"], http://hb.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2012/1222/c194083-17903485-1.html.
13 Zhang Dakai, Pouxi xiejiao zuzhi "Dongfang shandian" 剖析邪教组织“东方闪电” [Analyzing the cult "Eastern Lightning"]. The accounts are basically consistent, with minor discrepancies. Zhang writes from a Christian perspective and has more insight into the religious background of the groups involved. The CCTV account is generally, but not always, more detailed. The biggest discrepancy is the surname of the female Christ. All of the December 2012 China news reports identify her as Yang Xiangbin. Most accounts prior to 2012, including Mr. Zhang's 2006 account, identified her as a Ms. Deng (邓). I tend to believe the CCTV accounts because they are based on police investigations and the police had more resources to investigate than the Christian writers writing earlier. I don't see any reason why the police would want to falsify this type of information. The cult has been so secretive it would not be surprising if the false name Deng got circulated purposefully. In any case, the cult has tried hard to keep her identity secret. It's not surprising that there would be some confusion.
14 Zhang Dakai, Pouxi xiejiao zuzhi "Dongfang shandian" 剖析邪教组织“东方闪电” [Analyzing the cult "Eastern Lightning"], 8.
16 In Zhang Dakai's 2006 account, there were only seven—not eight—parts. Mr. Zhang was, as in the 2012 CCTV account, All-Authority, but the female Christ was not All-Complete (全成)—she was All Powerful (or Almighty) (全能) (ibid., 7).
17 Ibid., 8.
18 "Gonganbu guanyu chajin qudi 'huhanpai' deng xiejiao zuzhi de qingkuang ji gongzuo yijian" 公安部关于查禁取缔“呼喊派”等邪教组织的情况及工作意见 [Opinion of the Ministry of Public Security on the circumstances and work related to investigating and stamping out cults such as the "Shouters"]. This document was transmitted jointly by the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the General Office of the State Council with document Ting Zi  No. 50 (厅字50号) in November of 1995. I have been unable to find a copy of this document, but it is referred to in the 2000 document "Gonganbu guanyu rending he qudi xiejiao zuzhi ruogan wenti de tongzhi" 公安部关于认定和取缔邪教组织若干问题的通知 [Notice of the Ministry of Public Security on several issues related to recognizing and stamping out cults], document Gong Tong Zi  No. 39 (公通字39号), a copy of which has been posted by the Committee for the Investigation of Persecution of Religion in China 中国宗教迫害真相调查委员会 on its website at http://www.china21.org/docs/CONFI-MPS-CHINESE.htm. An English translation produced by the Center for Religious Freedom, Hudson Institute is available on its website at http://crf.hudson.org/files/publications/religiouslibertyFeb2002.pdf.
19 Wang Zaihua, "Quannengshenjiao mudi shi tuifan zhengfu jian 'shen de guodu'" "全能神教目的是推翻政府建“神的國度" [The goal of the Church of the Almighty God is to overthrow the government and establish "The Kingdom of God"], http://hb.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2012/1222/c194083-17903485-1.html.
20 China Anti-Cult Association, Shipo xiejiao "quannengshen" 识破邪教“全能神” [Seeing through the "Almighty God" cult], video, 29:17, http://zt.kaiwind.com/a/qns/shipin/2013/0124/284.html.
21 Wang Zaihua, "Quannengshenjiao mudi shi tuifan zhengfu jian 'shen de guodu'" 全能神教目的是推翻政府建“神的國度 ” [The goal of the Church of the Almighty God is to overthrow the government and establish "The Kingdom of God"], http://hb.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2012/1222/c194083-17903485-1.html.
22 Wang Zaihua 王在华, "Neibu zhengquan duoli: "quannengshen" xiejiao jinzita jiegou hongran daota" : 内部争权夺利: “全能神 ”邪教金字塔结构轰然倒塌 [Internal power struggles: The pyramid structure of "The Almighty God" cult collapses with a crash], CCTV.com 央视网 (the China Central Television website), December 21, 2012, http://news.cntv.cn/2012/12/21/ARTI1356090628978831.shtml. This account is also from Wang Zaihua, the same reporter who wrote the 2012 CCTV report referred to earlier. In this report Wang Zaihua states that he interviewed persons from (i) the national security section of Henan Province's Public Security authorities, (ii) personnel from district and county government religious affairs departments as well as (iii) believers from normal religious groups who had been recruitment targets of Eastern Lightning (“被‘全能神教’拉拢的正常教派的教徒”).
Image credit: Screenshot from the video Shipo xiejiao “quannengshen” 识破邪教“全能神” (Seeing through the “Almighty God” cult).