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Shen Yun Celebrates Chinese Dance. But It Also Has a Political Edge

"The Mystical Phoenix," a dance piece by Shen Yun in 2009EXPAND
"The Mystical Phoenix," a dance piece by Shen Yun in 2009
Shen Yun Performing Arts Company

You've probably seen the billboards. Perhaps you've been handed flyers by volunteers on Hollywood Boulevard. Or you're a small business owner in San Gabriel Valley who has been asked to display a poster.

These images showing beautiful, leaping women in classical Chinese dress are advertising this year's rendition of Shen Yun, featuring 19 new performance numbers helmed by artistic director D.F. Li. The show's mission is "Reviving 5,000 Years of Civilization," and it's doing so through Chinese traditional dance -  though it also has some political undertones that may be hard for regular American viewers to interpret.

Shen Yun Performing Arts, founded in 2006 by Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) expats in New York, has grown immensely in the last seven years. What started as one troupe has expanded into four that travel across five continents. Shen Yun anticipates it might sell out its three upcoming shows March 22-23 at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live, which seats 7,100 people. (It's also in Thousand Oaks today through March 20, and Santa Barbara March 29-30.)

"This is without question the largest and most sustained tour focusing on Chinese culture that's ever happened in the United States," says Clayton Dube, the executive director of the University of Southern California's U.S.-China Institute. "And when the Los Angeles Times Sunday edition is wrapped in Shen Yun advertising and they have billboards adjacent to the 405, alongside Sony and Apple, targeting the most trafficked highway in America, you know they're looking to fill seats with a mass audience."

Shen Yun Celebrates Chinese Dance. But It Also Has a Political Edge
Shen Yun Performing Arts Company

Shen Yun's Southern California spokeswoman, Simone Gao, confirms that the show attracts a diverse audience, referring to a study the group conducted in New York that showed 70 percent of the audience members were non-Chinese. This contrasts with most Chinese culture shows that come through Southern California - for example, folk singer Song Zuying's concert in 2013 or annual Chinese festival performances held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium or San Gabriel Mission Playhouse - which are marketed toward Chinese immigrant communities and also state-supported, whether by mainland China or Taiwan.

Shen Yun, on the other hand, is led by practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious group that has been banned in China since 1999, when the Communist Party saw it as a potential threat to power.

The show mostly re-creates light-hearted fables about a Song Dynasty monk with magical powers, or a demigod, Ne Zha, born as a giant meatball. But it also features "The Steadfast Lotus" and "Buddha's Compassion Shines Forth," jarring dances showing evil men in black, sporting the red Communist symbol, who violently capture innocent Falun Gong members for practicing their meditations.

Shen Yun Celebrates Chinese Dance. But It Also Has a Political EdgeEXPAND
Shen Yun Performing Arts Company

Some may read "Buddha's Compassion Shines Forth" - the show's concluding scene - as uplifting, as Lord Buddha destroys the corrupt city where the scene takes place to save the believers, while others may find it bewildering, wondering why this destruction is conveyed through a computer-generated backdrop that's reminiscent of Hollywood apocalypse films.

While the performances change each year, there are always these staple Falun Gong persecution scenes - though Gao emphasizes that the stories are really about the core values that Falun Gong members are able to hold onto despite their difficulties.

"In claiming a moral crisis in China, the Falun Gong members are not unique. Many people in China, including some in power, feel the same way," says USC's Dube. "The difference is that people in China would point the finger in multiple directions - economic growth, emphasis on material acquisition over human kindness - whereas presumably the members of Falun Gong point to the unwillingness of the party to tolerate their one true faith."

It is against Shen Yun's policy to talk to media about politics, but the show's emcees still share with audiences the grossly exaggerated claims that you can be arrested and killed in China today just for meditating, and that Shen Yun is the only place you can see 100 percent authentic Chinese traditional dance anymore - even in China.

Shen Yun Celebrates Chinese Dance. But It Also Has a Political EdgeEXPAND
Shen Yun Performing Arts Company

When asked to elaborate on how Shen Yun dance is more authentic than other Chinese dance today, Gao talks about how movements of Shen Yun are circular as compared to linear, and that the direction of women's gazes express traditional righteousness as opposed to being coy or seductive.

But Emily Wilcox, an assistant professor of modern Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, says these also are characteristics of Chinese dance generally, and disputes Shen Yun's claims to uniqueness. Wilcox also says the 5,000-year-old Chinese classical dance style Shen Yun that claims to be saving was, ironically, an "invented tradition" developed in China in the 1940s and '50s, and that the Communist government has supported that same tradition (with the exception of the Cultural Revolution crackdown from 1966 to 1976).

"Shen Yun's claim that they are the only source of authentic Chinese dance is completely ridiculous and clearly part of their mission to exploit Chinese cultural experiences for their own political purposes, without regard to historical accuracy," Wilcox says.

Shen Yun Celebrates Chinese Dance. But It Also Has a Political EdgeEXPAND
Shen Yun Performing Arts Company

During the show, it feels odd that Shen Yun's fearmongering and pleas for sympathy are taught by enthusiastic emcees as "fun facts" to a largely non-Chinese audience, which probably is looking for more of a basic introduction to Chinese culture.

How much of the political message is actually getting through to audiences that are there mainly to experience the colorful costumes, stunning backdrops and impressive acrobatics - especially when serious allegations of Falun Gong persecution are given as much stage time as whimsical fantasy fiction featuring characters like a monkey king?

Dube's guess is that most walk away with this: "Chinese traditional culture is valuable, and anybody who's crushing it and the spirit of these good people can't be good themselves."


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