Arts and Entertainment

Behind Shen Yun: Concert or Cult

A look beyond the glamor and into Shen Yun’s social and political ties and message.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Cadence Li

Plastered on highway billboards, the side of buses, the top of taxis, and the trains of the MTA, Shen Yun’s advertisements are everywhere. Shen Yun season has arrived. Its omnipresent nature has resulted in online memes and implications that Shen Yun must be a renowned performance. This year’s poster, for instance, features a female dancer clad in a sleeveless emerald dress with a decorated pink silk ribbon belt; she is caught mid-air in a perfect split, flourishing a white cape behind her.

According to the Shen Yun official website, the traveling dance and orchestral troupe seeks to “revive the lost world of traditional Chinese culture and share it with everyone.” Established in New York in 2006, Shen Yun is an annual showing incorporating new choreographies, handmade costumes, live music, and brilliant scenes. Shen Yun’s main appeal is in both its dancers and culturally-appreciative message the show conveys to the audience. In fact, the Chinese characters for Shen Yun translate to “divine rhyme,” which the group loosely puts as “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” On stage, the troupe whirls in unison, narrating folklores, myths, and history and celebrating a plethora of ancient Asian ethnicities like the Han, Manchurian, Yi, Miao, Mongolian, Tibetan, and even Korean. Painted backdrops range from imperial palaces to heavenly skies, and the audience is engulfed in an otherworldly ambience.

Though it’s clear Shen Yun has expanded in numbers, production, and promotion since its founding in 2009 and has reaped significant profits, touring from New York’s Lincoln Center to Taiwan’s Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, the origins and organization behind the ensemble are not as clear. A plethora of praise does flood in, but Shen Yun has sparked remarks of another caliber, such as those of author and dancer Susan Silvestri: “I see God.” Eyes widened, “I see the spirit of love and peace and the way that you would want the universe to be,” Silvestri said. On the other side of the spectrum, some have doubted the show’s seemingly awe-striking performance, as a New Yorker article described Shen Yun as “uncanny” and “unsettling.”

When the music swells and the dancers leap into the air in unison, with their long loose sleeves flowing behind them, it is a truly satisfying and beautiful performance. But it is nothing more than that: satisfying. While each scene is aesthetically pleasing and dynamic, none of them are memorable. The few scenes with political references stood out in the long performance.

In the two-hour show, only a small portion of scenes convey historical messages and blatant “propaganda.” While the details are minute, Shen Yun includes anti-Chinese government and anti-Communist sentiments. Shen Yun asserted, “Since the [Chinese Communist Party] is officially an atheist regime, it is afraid of the freedom of expression this arts company enjoys in the West.” Two scenes in particular portray the vividly intense scenes and distinct agenda. In one scene, the backdrop consisted of dark colors—a stark contrast to the usual heavenly elegance of Shen Yun—with the faces of Chairman Mao Zedong and Karl Marx. In another scene, students are meditating and studying from oversized sized books (on it, the Chinese characters translate to “Falun Gong”). Individual dancers perform acts of kindness, such as helping an elderly woman with a cane. But men in black tunics with the Communist symbol appear on stage and interrupt them, pretending to beat up the dancers. It’s instigated by a woman raising a banner with three Chinese characters: truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.

The three words on the banner exhibit the model behavior for followers of Falun Gong, Shen Yun’s parent organization. Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a self-cultivation practice promoted to improve one’s mental and physical health through exercises and character development. In a 2017 Guardian article, writer Nicholas Hune-Brown said that “local Falun Gong followers raise the needed funds, provide the publicity, and lay the groundwork that make the show successful.” The leader of Falun Gong Li Hongzhi explained Shen Yun’s origins in the New York Fa Conference: “There was a group of Dafa disciples involved in the arts who wished to use their professional skills to expose the persecution and save sentient beings.”

Li’s teachings were introduced to the public in 1992. In 1994, Li published Falun Gong’s foundational document “Zhuan Falun.” During the ‘90s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pushed back on protests and social organizations because of the outcome of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Despite this, Falun Gong’s popularity soared, and according to the U.S. Department of State, the group had two million followers in 1999, which made it the largest non-governmental organization in post-1949 China. Because the CCP didn’t want rival organizations, violence erupted. The height of this violence occurred in April 1999, when 10,000 Falun Gong followers flooded the streets of Beijing in protest, leading the CCP to outlaw Falun Gong.

While the CCP has a history of putting down potential rival powers, Falun Gong is also guilty of spreading propaganda. As Jia Tolentino put it in The New Yorker, “The fact that both Falun Gong and the Communist Party communicate via propaganda makes it almost impossible to understand what’s really happening.” The Chinese government uses the Xinhua News and China Daily newspapers to create its image while Falun Gong uses The Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty TV. Both groups make serious claims about each other. In a 2002 CNN article, Falun Gong claims to have 70 million members as opposed to the two million the U.S. Department of State found three years ago. In a 1999 New York Times article, the Chinese government reported the same statistic. Falun Gong could use the high number to prove their popularity, while the CCP could use the high number to show the group threatens national stability.

Li, for instance, has made questionable claims about Falun Gong. In “Zhuan Falun,” Li claimed that mankind has been destroyed 81 times and that he has delayed the explosion of the Earth by 30 years. And in a 1999 Time interview, Li revealed that some of his followers could levitate. “The better you practice, the higher you rise off the ground. A lot of our practitioners can levitate. But most people refrain from doing it. If they did, it would disrupt ordinary people’s lives,” he said. Other absurd comments include claims like “aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture” and “the aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and airplanes.” These ludicrous claims question the suspicious intentions of Shen Yun underneath its pretty appearance.

The Chinese embassy website claims that Falun Gong was banned in China because they endanger lives and encourage mutilation, disobey laws, destroy families, and root out disagreement. The CCP have described the group as an anti-science, anti-humanity, and anti-society cult and as a cancer in the body of a modern and civilized society.

On the other hand, Shen Yun has had its own share of accusatory claims against the CCP. It has claimed that the Chinese have infiltrated Chinese student associations in the West to push anti-Shen Yun and anti-Falun Gong agendas. The Shen Yun website states that in 2006, “when the newborn Shen Yun was in its very first year, the CCP dispatched some 60 performance companies to compete with Shen Yun around the world.” And in 2009, “Shen Yun not only dispatched many troupes but also ordered its embassies and consulates around the world to pressure theaters […] urging them not to sign contracts with Shen Yun or to nullify existing agreements. […] [By] Shen Yun’s fifth year, having seen its previous tactics fail, the CCP stooped lower. Shen Yun’s tour vehicles were tampered with; in one case, a cut was made in the front tire of a bus.”

Instead of verity, we are given a mixture of half-truthful, distorted claims about Shen Yun. The CCP has a tainted record of human rights abuse, and the Falun Gong is one of many organizations that may have suffered as a result. Shen Yun’s cause is admirable and noteworthy, but it is tied to the Falun Gong Association, which hasn’t addressed the eclectic claims of its leader Li nor retracted its media propaganda. The ubiquity of Shen Yun advertisements are impressive, but because the company makes the decision to insert propaganda scenes, the show falls short of high expectations.