A Glimpse of Chinese Culture That Some Find Hard to Watch

The New York Times/February 5, 2008

Each of the first few numbers was more elaborate than the last, teeming with acrobatic dancers, awash in jewel-toned silks, swelling to the anthemic strains of the orchestra. It was the opening night of Chinese New Year Splendor, a music and dance production that began at Radio City Music Hall last week.

Then the lyrics to some of the songs, sung in Chinese but translated into English in the program, began referring to "persecution" and "oppression." Each time, almost at the moment a vocalist hit these words, a few audience members collected their belongings and trudged up an aisle toward the exit.

Before long came a ballet piece in which three women were imprisoned by a group of officers, and one was killed. At the end of the number, more members of the audience, in twos and fours and larger groups, began to walk out. At intermission, dozens of people, perhaps a few hundred, were leaving.

They had realized that the show was not simply a celebration of the Chinese New Year, but an outreach of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice of calisthenics and meditation that is banned in China. More than three years after flooding city corners and subway stations to spread the word about the Chinese government's repression, Falun Gong practitioners are again trying to publicize their cause. Only this time, it involves costumed dancers and paying audiences in that most storied of New York concert halls, Radio City.

While the street theater, which often included live simulations of torture and videos and photographs of beaten victims, took a direct approach, the Chinese New Year Splendor show involves a slow reveal. It is not until the performance is under way that any reference is made to Falun Gong.

"I don't feel comfortable here," said Elizabeth Levy, an author of children's books who was among the first to leave. "I had no idea when I came that this was about Falun Gong."

"The Power of Awareness," a piece that occurred late in the event, marked one of the first overt mentions of the movement in the program. In that number, Communist police officers walking through a park rough up a mother and daughter whose banner carries the Falun Gong message of "truthfulness, compassion and tolerance."

The abusive officers are pushed back and chased away by a large group. The mother and daughter duo then "poetically leads the multitudes in learning the exercise of Falun Gong."

Advertisements for the show, which have appeared on Metro-North trains and in The New York Times, among other places, make no mention of Falun Gong. Nor do the show's Web site or the brochures being handed out on Manhattan sidewalks. The brochures include what appears to be an endorsement quotation from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg: "Brings to life the rich traditions of ancient China right here in the Big Apple."

However, a spokesman for the mayor, John Gallagher, said that Mr. Bloomberg had neither seen the show nor praised it, and that the quotation may have been taken from a greeting card Mr. Bloomberg sent to Chinese-American organizations in which he saluted Chinese New Year celebrations in general.

The show, which runs through Saturday, is a production of New Tang Dynasty Television, a nonprofit satellite broadcaster started by Falun Gong followers and based in New York.

With roughly 200 performances planned for 2008 - the company employs two troupes - it estimates that about 600,000 people will see the shows (in 2007, the company said, the number was about 200,000).

The television network, which often broadcasts news critical of the Chinese government, has been sparring continuously with Beijing over the shows. Before last year's show at Radio City (the first was in 2006), the network complained that China was pressuring sponsors to withdraw their support, a claim echoed in other cities where the show has run.

In a statement, the Chinese Embassy criticized the network for trying to "inveigle the public into watching the show," and said, "The truth is that the so-called 'galas' were nothing but a sheer political tool used by 'Falun Gong' organization to spread cult and anti-China propaganda."

Falun Gong is a form of qigong, an ancient practice of breathing exercises, but also incorporates a spiritual element and some unique beliefs, including one that followers have a spinning wheel in their bellies that pushes out evil and attracts good. In 1999, its founder, Li Hongzhi, told a Time magazine reporter that aliens from other planets were responsible for corrupting mankind by teaching modern science.

From its creation in the early 1990s, the movement, and Mr. Li, grew in popularity through the decade. The Chinese government branded it an "evil cult" in 1999, banning the practice and persecuting its members.

Human rights groups have supported claims that the Chinese government has tortured, imprisoned or killed thousands of Falun Gong followers. Mr. Li immigrated to the United States, and at one point was said to be living in Queens.

The Radio City event "is kind of a P.R. front to try to normalize Falun Gong's image, so that people don't think of it as some kind of a wacko cult," said Maria Hsia Chang, a professor of political science, emerita, at the University of Nevada, Reno, who wrote a book about Falun Gong.

But, she added, "I can only speculate as to why they'd put in these elements without declaring as much ahead of time, because it doesn't help their image much."

A New Tang network spokeswoman, and several members of the production troupe who agreed to be interviewed, said that they did not think publicizing Falun Gong's connection to the show was necessary. "If we advertise Falun Gong, then why don't we also say the show has Tibetan dancing and Mongolian dancing and Korean dancing?" said Vina Lee, a choreographer and a principal dancer. "Chinese culture is more than dragons and firecrackers."

MSG Entertainment, which owns Radio City as well as Madison Square Garden, said in a statement: "When booking a rental, MSG Entertainment does not discriminate on the basis of political, religious, cultural, or ethnic viewpoints or beliefs."

Aside from the references to Falun Gong's plight, the two-hour performance was an elaborately stitched homage to Chinese traditions. Complementing the dance routines were solos from two sopranos, two tenors, a contralto and a woman playing the erhu, sometimes known as a Chinese fiddle. A giant video screen put forth majestic background images of Chinese landscapes.

But audience members who filed out of Radio City before and during intermission said they were troubled by the material. "I had no idea it was Falun Gong until now that it's too late, and it really bums me out," said Steven, a Chinese immigrant living in New Jersey who, along with his family, was among the first to leave and asked that his last name not be published.

"It's a little too political, too religious, especially the dance showing some girls getting tortured in the prisons. That's too much for Chinese New Year, especially with our children."

Tickets cost $58 to $150, though one woman, a Chinese immigrant visiting from Dallas, said that as she was walking by Rockefeller Center just before showtime, a man offered her a free ticket. She also left the show early. "I didn't like the torture stuff so much," said the woman, who refused to give her name.

Cary Chiang, a father from New Jersey, said that his wife had objected to the Falun Gong material, but that as for their three children in tow, "It went right over their heads."

Ms. Levy, the children's book author, said, "I don't particularly like being accosted on the street by Falun Gong, and I don't like it happening to me here."

Charles Wyne, a computer systems manager who sat happily through the entire performance, said he enjoyed the program. "I don't know much about Falun Gong, but I don't like the way the Communists treated the people," he said, adding that freedom of speech was among his reasons for leaving China.

John Campi, vice president for promotion and community affairs at The Daily News, one of the listed sponsors, said the newspaper's sponsorship involved trading a one-page ad in the paper for a Daily News ad on the back cover of the program. "I had heard that they were connected with a political group, and I said if this show is political, I'm not getting into it," he said. "And they said it wasn't."

Joe Wei, national editor of the World Journal, a Chinese-American newspaper that is based in Queens and that takes no position on the practice and its teachings, said he saw one of the group's shows about one year ago and detected no Falun Gong imagery. "This would be a major change," he said. "I don't know why they want to do this."

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