Judging by its ubiquitous advertising materials, Shen Yun is a stunningly gorgeous dance explosion driven by classical Chinese movement. Highly skilled athletic dancers perform before a giant screen that transports you to Imperial Chinese palaces, heavenly heights, and glorious color fields. On the ticketing page, event organizers describe the show as dissident political art designed to reignite passion for traditional Chinese culture: "The traditional Chinese culture Shen Yun presents cannot be seen anywhere else in the world—not even in China. There, the ruling communist regime has viewed China’s rich spiritual and artistic heritage as a threat to its ideology and for decades tried to erase it."
But the show is also the product of the Falun Gong movement, a religious group led by a man, Li Hongzhi, who believes that aliens came to Earth at the beginning of the 20th century in order to eradicate humans through cloning. When a reporter asked if Li was from Earth, he said, "I don't wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn't understand it."
Nicholas Hune-Brown over at The Guardian wrote a long, thoughtful piece about the origins of Falun Gong and the beginning of Shen Yun. I encourage you to read it. In addition to the great reporting, Hune-Brown grapples with the complex tensions at play between an oppressive government and a large movement that has its own, uh, problems.
Local organizers with Shen Yun and Falun Gong, aka Falun Dafa, did not return requests for comment by press time. Nor did a professor from the Jackson School of International Studies. I'll update this post if anyone gets back to me. But here's the deal as far as I can tell:
• Li Hongzhi founded Falun Gong in the early 1990s. The religion focuses on meditation and movement similar to tai chi. "Followers believe by doing five particular exercises, an intelligent, golden entity called the falun is grown in one’s gut but lives in another dimension. It spins constantly, absorbing energy from parallel universes, which makes the practitioner invincible to disease," according to The Herald, which interviewed a few local members who'd recently fled persecution in China. Sounds kinda cool, but Falun Gong's values also include creationism, homophobia, sobriety, and no spreadin' til the weddin', which is not cool.
• As the movement became popular, the Chinese government started seeing it as a threat. In 1999, 10,000 members of Falun Gong gathered in Beijing to protest "government harassment." In response, according to The Guardian, the government "outlawed Falun Gong, arrested tens of thousands of people, and initiated a propaganda campaign that saw daily newspaper articles warning people about the dangerous 'cult.'"
• Shen Yun began as an effort to combat the Chinese government's narrative through dance, but Li Hongzhi thought the early performances sucked. So he took control and significantly expanded the troupe. Now, five companies stocked with 40 dancers tour all around the world. Dancers are trained at Fei Tian Academy in Deerpark, New York "a 427-acre retreat that was built as a refuge for Falun Gong followers fleeing persecution."
• Dancers are not paid, according to The Guardian.
• Clayton Dube, who runs the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, told Southern California Public Radio that Shen Yun's goal isn't to recruit new members but rather to "become sympathetic to the fact that this group is suppressed and frequently oppressed in China."
• That said, Yelp reviewers quoted in SF Gate expressed some surprise at the "religious sermon" and "anti-evolution statements" they saw during the show.
• On their website, the Embassy of the People's Republic of China still calls Falun Gong an "anti-society cult" and refers to Shen Yun "as a tool of the cult and anti-China propaganda." But this is coming from the embassy of a country that is detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslims in forced labor camps, and that sent Falun Gong members to similar labor camps. Despite their anti-gay, anti-evolutionary views, Hune-Brown claims Falun Gong is "a diffuse group without strong hierarchies, and there is no evidence of the kind of coercive control that the label suggests." They just want to hang out, meditate, and put on spectacular dance shows that stick it to the current Chinese government.
If you're interested in going, prices range from $80 to $200. A cursory glance at seat availability shows the event selling well over 2/3 of the seats for every performance. Except for the embedded religious messages, the show looks incredibly impressive. Just don't be surprised if you get handed a few pamphlets testifying to the glories of Falun Gong.