Omens of a Revolution: Making Paranormal Knowledge and Bodies in Post-Mao China


Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Program in China Studies Predissertation-Summer Travel Grants


East Asian Languages and Cultures


In 1979, newspapers in many different parts of China began to report individuals whose powerful “external qi” enabled them to perform telekinesis and extrasensory perception. Though initially dismissed as fraudulent, these stories quickly gave rise to a thriving field of mass research, as people ranging from factory workers to prominent scientists organized experiments (shiyan) to corroborate or contest these alleged abilities. Many paranormal aficionados, who developed deep conviction that paranormal abilities derived from the yet unknown qualities of qi, began to cultivate these abilities with their own bodies through the practice of qigong. Qian Xuesen, a leading scientist, expressed the excitement of millions when he celebrated the findings of paranormal science and qigong as “omens of an imminent scientific revolution.” At the center of this “revolution” were radical changes in knowledge production and bodily practices. Through this project, I seek to show that paranormal science and qigong, far from some bizarre digressions, played critical roles in the remaking of knowledge and bodies in the post-Mao period. Aside from challenging our understandings of early post-Mao China, this project also contributes to the history of science and the history of the body by demonstrating how science and the body, despite their trans-historical claims, are often the products of locally specific struggles.