What’s the mystery behind Shen Yun?

Every year, just as spring is beginning, it returns.

It’s not the start of Daylight Saving Time, the annual migration of college students to Fort Lauderdale, or the Easter Bunny.

It’s the Shen Yun poster.

Shen Yun

If you live near a city of any size, you’ve seen it. The poster always features a variation on the same image: a smiling lady in colorful, flowing robes captured in mid-leap against an aggressively bright background. For years, I assumed it was a local phenomenon; a production of Seattle’s vibrant Southeast Asian community. But Shen Yun is much bigger, and much more controversial, than I ever imagined.

Shen Yun is a dance show. The company, which has six touring groups that swing by destinations ranging from Albuquerque to Anchorage to Auckland, describes itself as “the world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music company [that] features the world’s foremost classically trained dancers, a unique orchestra blending East and West, and dazzling animated backdrops — together creating one spectacular performance.”

But according to journalist Nicholas Hune-Brown, there’s a lot more to Shen Yun than a showcase of traditional Chinese song and dance. In “Selling China by the Sleeve Dance,” Hune-Brown takes a deep-dive into the performing arts company’s ties to Falun Gong, a group described by the Chinese government as an “anti-society cult.” In addition to a grab-bag of regional Chinese dance numbers, Hune-Brown was surprised to discover that the Shen Yun show includes this little number:

The curtain rose on a group of young students sitting in peace, meditating and reading oversized yellow Falun Gong books. … They performed elaborately pantomimed good deeds — helping an old woman with a cane, chasing down a woman who had dropped her purse. A girl walked by, ostentatiously chugging from a bottle of alcohol, and the young Falun Gong practitioners brought her into the fold and took away her liquor. One of the young do-gooders unveiled a Falun Gong banner. Suddenly, a trio of men wearing black tunics emblazoned with a red hammer and sickle entered, looking like the villains in a Bruce Lee movie. The communist thugs began beating people up, clubbing and kicking innocent Falun Gong followers.

Is the Shen Yun show merely propaganda for Falun Gong, “a group with no history of violence or terrorist activities,” as Public Radio International describes it, packaged in a veneer of oriental exoticism designed to appeal to Western consumers? The non-profit performing arts group hails not from China but from New York, where they’ve been headquartered since 2006, and is notorious for its efficient public relations apparatus. “In each city that Shen Yun visits, shows are ‘presented’ by the local Falun Dafa association. This means that local Falun Gong followers must raise the needed funds, provide the publicity, and lay the groundwork to make the show successful,” Hune-Brown writes.

Or is it an attempt to keep the traditional arts of China alive, as Shen Yun claims? “The name Shen Yun means the beauty of divine beings dancing, and that is what the audience experiences … for 5,000 years, divine culture flourished in the land of China. Through breathtaking music and dance, Shen Yun is bringing back this glorious culture.”

It’s hard to know for sure. According to Hune-Brown, “Since its inception, Shen Yun has gone out of its way to minimize its connection to Falun Gong. The dance company would rather not present itself as a religious entity, let alone a political group. In the posters designed to attract the culture-lovers of Berlin or Los Angeles, they are simply performers sharing an ancient artform.”

It all comes back to that ubiquitous springtime poster. Maybe the only way to crack the mystery of Shen Yun is to go see it for yourself.

the delve