Front Row Seat: Why is Shen Yun controversial?

The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center will host a touring show May 11 promising "5,000 years of exquisite Chinese music and dance, in one night!"

Duluth News Tribune/May 05, 2022

By Jay Gabler

Duluth — If you've been out and about over the past several weeks, it's been impossible to miss the news that Shen Yun is coming to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on May 11. In fact, even if you've simply stayed inside and checked your mail, you've very possibly seen a Shen Yun flyer.

Not many acts bringing only a single performance to the DECC's Amsoil Arena — much less to the significantly smaller Symphony Hall, which will host Shen Yun — can afford that kind of advertising blitz.

It's also unusual for the News Tribune to receive alarmed inquiries about a touring show at a mainstream venue. One reader wrote with concerns about Shen Yun being, in her words, a "money making and indoctrination machine" with "anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-feminism" values.

You certainly wouldn't get that from Shen Yun's gauzy advertisements, which promise "a wondrous tapestry of celestial paradises, ancient legends, and modern heroic tales," according to the show's page on the DECC website. "Featuring one of the world’s oldest art forms — classical Chinese dance — along with dynamic animated backdrops and all-original orchestral works, Shen Yun opens a portal to the five millennia civilization of enchanting beauty and enlightening wisdom."

The only initial clue that politics might be involved comes from a reference to the show's celebration of "China before Communism."

Shen Yun's producers are very much at odds with the Communist government that has led China since 1949. While the specific contents of Shen Yun's dance program vary, characters representing Communists commonly appear as menacing figures, and some performances have featured a giant wave bearing the face of Karl Marx threatening to subsume a city. Shen Yun's website confirms the conflict: "Since Shen Yun's inception, the company has had to overcome interference by the Chinese Communist Party, with the Party changing its sabotage strategies annually."

Therein lies a tale, but it doesn't go back five millennia. It goes back three decades, to the founding of the religious movement known as Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa. Shen Yun's DECC appearance will fall just two days short of the 30th anniversary of the day in 1992 when a Chinese man named Li Hongzhi began publicly teaching about his prescribed path to enlightenment. As a practice, Falun Dafa draws on both Buddhist and Taoist traditions, encouraging meditation and patience.

By the end of the 1990s, Chinese leaders were cracking down on what had become a popular movement. While the powerful government has long sought to suppress Falun Gong, sometimes violently, the New York Times notes that the movement has "long struggled to establish its bona fides against Beijing’s efforts to demonize it as an 'evil cult,' partly because its strident accounts of persecution in China can sometimes be difficult to substantiate or veer into exaggeration."

That Times report, from 2020, focused on the growing reach of the Epoch Times, a news source associated with Falun Gong that criticizes the Chinese government but has also promoted misinformation and conspiracy theories. Shen Yun is associated with Li Hongzhi and Falun Dafa, although legally, Shen Yun is a nonprofit performing arts organization based in an upstate New York compound known as Dragon Springs.

The perennial box office success of Shen Yun, which was founded in 2006 and now touts multiple touring companies visiting dozens of cities around the world, is due in part to the support and advocacy of local adherents. Here, for example, the Chanhassen-based Minnesota Falun Dafa Association celebrated the arrival of this year's Shen Yun tour on its homepage.

Jia Tolentino, reporting for The New Yorker, saw two recent Shen Yun shows and recounted a colorful musical spectacle that veered from soothing imagery into an "anti-evolution ballad" and dramatizations of Falun Dafa practitioners battling persecution. In one case, Tolentino noted that two men among the show's villains were holding hands, which she took to be an allusion to Li Hongzhi's teachings associating homosexuality with moral corruption.

Tolentino also reported that Shen Yun's claims to classical dance authenticity are somewhat specious: "Shen Yun insists that it is a singular source of generative purity — that five thousand years of culture were reborn in upstate New York in 2006."

In short, if you go to see Shen Yun, you may get much more ideology than you bargained for at a show that promises fantastic spectacles like "fairies emerge from a sea of billowing clouds" and "Mongolians ride on horseback across grasslands as vast as the sky."

However, when SFGATE reporter Alix Martichoux went to a Bay Area performance prepared for indoctrination, she found that while Shen Yun's show did include depictions of Falun Dafa persecution and "heavy-handed" messaging against "modern thought and ways" (in the lyrics of one song referencing evolution), it wasn't as political as she feared ... or, perhaps, hoped.

"I was expecting more propaganda, and at least that would’ve been more interesting," Martichoux wrote. "Instead, I was just bored."

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