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Live organ harvesting in China: Falun Gong and unsettled rumor


The study of rumor is used to examine claims about “live organ harvesting” told by a new religious movement, Falun Gong. The veracity of the rumor is debated and its truth status remains unsettled. I argue that an unsettled rumor told by a marginal community is a problem for the sociology of rumor. This problem is partly resolved by examining how the rumor fits within the culture of its carrier group. An analysis based on ethnographic materials and publications shows how mythic significations evoked by the rumor within Falun Gong influenced how participants communicated to non-Falun Gong audiences. Advocates of the rumor attempted to align its details with deeply held meanings shared within the Falun Gong community. Because non-Falun Gong audiences did not share these mythic associations, such rhetoric made the rumor less plausible to general audiences. How rumor details were represented contributed to public skepticism but has no bearing on the truth status of the underlying rumor. This conclusion has implications not only for evaluating the present rumor but also for the wider study of rumor: evaluating an unsettled rumor told by a marginal group requires a culturally sensitive analysis in order to account for the potentially distorting effects of narration.

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  1. For examples of this two-staged approach, see the following: Drake (1989); Scheper-Hughes (1992); Campion-Vincent (2005); Fine and Campion-Vincent (2005); Fine and Ellis (2010). For an anthropological study of organ trafficking rather than rumor, see Scheper-Hughes (2000).

  2. In late 2013, the Chinese government announced that RTL would be abolished, but it remains unclear what are the consequences of this reform for repression of Falun Gong (Amnesty International, 2013). Noakes and Ford report that Falun Gong adherents “are now being sent in greater numbers to prisons or to specialized re-education centres overseen by the 610 Office” (Noakes and Ford, 2015).

  3. See

  4. Noakes and Ford (2015) discuss the number of Falun Gong practitioners in national RTL system; at times, Falun Gong adherents were the plurality of all detainees.

  5. For example, Drake (1989, p. 277) cites Mary Douglas’ identification of the body as a common symbol of society, and Douglas in turn cites Mauss’ discussion of the body as a “natural symbol.”

  6. I use the term “mythic” here in two ways: first, in the broad sense used among sociologists, such as Philip Smith cited above, which refers to a stock of dramatic narratives and codes unconsciously used by people as dramatic frameworks through which to shape representations; and, second, I also mean “mythic” in the much narrower sense used by folklorists, who reserve the term myth for etiological stories about the creation of society. The falun myth, discussed below, is a story that explains the origins of the Falun Gong community as a causal explanation of the social group.

  7. See (Accessed on December 1, 2006).

  8. This example comes from Intelligent Qigong, which was a mainstream group that espoused a secular philosophy and politically obedient stance relative to the state (Palmer, 2007).

  9. Readers can see the image at (Accessed January, 2016).

  10. Author’s translation.

  11. Following Chan’s typology of Falun Gong membership, core practitioners exclusively believe in the Falun Gong teachings and aim to carry them out in their lives on a daily basis; by contrast, peripheral members “do not care too much about the belief or the philosophy of the FLG but regard it as one of the many qigong practices and are attracted to it because it is simple and free of charge” (Chan, 2004, p. 672).

  12. According to my handwritten notes (March, 2006), which I took as the conversation unfolded. Names are pseudonyms.


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Junker, A. Live organ harvesting in China: Falun Gong and unsettled rumor. Am J Cult Sociol 6, 96–124 (2018).

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  • rumor
  • organ transplant
  • cultural sociology
  • china
  • religious movements
  • narrative