The traditional Chinese dance troupe China doesnt want you to see
The long read: Shen Yun seems like a kitsch dance troupe. But Beijing sees it as the propaganda wing of the Falun Gong movement, and a threat to their rule and hounds the dancers from city to city, trying to sabotage their shows
If you live in a major city in the western hemisphere, you have probably seen the image: a Chinese woman floating through the air, dress billowing out behind her, with the caption Shen Yun Art That Connects Heaven and Earth. The adverts are for a company based in upstate New York that presents spectacles of Chinese traditional dance, in which a large cast performs intricate, synchronised routines to the pop-eastern sounds of a live orchestra. Each year, Shen Yuns ads spring up across the world in advance of the companys touring season from banners hanging from streetlamps in Brussels to billboards looming over Los Angeles freeways.
The company has five separate touring troupes that carry out a dizzying schedule, a kind of Cirque du Soleil of the east backed by a seemingly bottomless publicity budget. They have played the Lincoln Centre in New York and the London Coliseum. In a single week last spring, they hit Philadelphia, Honolulu, Charlotte, Kansas City and Huntsville, Alabama. Then Barcelona, Salzburg, Bremen, Baden-Baden and Paris.
As a troupe whose influence stretches all the way from Bogot in Colombia, to towns in Kentucky that have surely never before seen 40 Asian people in the same week, let alone 40 Asian people in the same theatre, Shen Yun is astonishingly far-reaching. Its difficult to imagine a group that has done more to bring Chinese art to unlikely corners of the world.
According to the Chinese government, however, Shen Yun is the singing, dancing face of Falun Gong which the government describes as a malevolent anti-society cult that leads its followers to self-mutilation, suicide and murder. In a 2012 statement, the Chinese embassy in Washington issued a warning to Americans who might have been swayed by the posters appearing around town. They have been staging the so-called Shenyun Performances in the US in recent years in the name of promoting Chinese culture and showcasing the oriental charm, the statement reads. But in fact, in addition to their tacky taste and low artistic standards, the performances were filled with cult messages and implied attacks against the Chinese Government.
Wherever Shen Yun goes, the Chinese government follows. In Ecuador and Ireland, Berlin and Stockholm, theatres and local governments have reported receiving letters or visits from Chinese embassies attempting to shut down the dance show. In February 2014, Jrg Seefeld, the event manager of the Stage Theatre on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a Shen Yun performance was scheduled, received a visit from the Chinese embassys cultural attache, who tried to influence things. Seefeld refused, and the show continued. I am from East Germany, he told the Berliner Zeitung. With the Chinese it is like it used to be with our rulers. They are simply scared.
Shen Yun reports a catalogue of more insidious attempts to silence the group. Prior to their shows at the Tennessee Performing Arts Centre in Nashville last year, the group says the car tyres of the shows presenters were slashed. In 2015 in Chicago, someone allegedly tampered with a truck covered in Shen Yun ads, pouring corrosive chemicals over the brake and accelerator pedals. The troupe says that Chinese spies photograph their movements and listen in on their phone calls. They report suspicious break-ins, in which the only items missing are passports and laptops.
Its easy to dismiss Shen Yun as a campy curiosity, but Falun Gong practitioners have become some of the most outspoken opponents of the Beijing government. And so a kitschy dance show has become a preoccupation for the Chinese government one of the battlegrounds on which the fight for the hearts and minds of westerners and overseas Chinese will be won, one ribbon dance at a time.
On a chilly January night in Toronto a couple of years ago, I brought my mother and girlfriend to a Shen Yun performance at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, a 3,000-seat theatre that generally hosts travelling orchestras and Josh Groban concerts. I had invited my mother along because I thought she might be interested in this particular take on Chinese culture. Her mother, Gar Yin Hune, was a Chinese opera singer who came to Canada in the 1930s as part of a travelling show designed to bring eastern art to the people of North America, particularly to the immigrants working in Chinatowns across the continent.
The show began with the sound of a gong, as the curtain rose on a wall of dry ice that slowly dispersed to reveal dozens of dancers in brightly coloured, flowing costumes. What followed over the next two hours was a parade of unconnected Chinese dances that jumped from region to region and story to story. There were vignettes from the classic folk tale The Monkey King and dances from Mongolia and Tibet, all performed with impressive athleticism and precision, in front of a projected backdrop that whirled through animated images that looked like scenes from a video game.
Between each dance, two Masters of Ceremony emerged from stage right to perform some stilted patter a strong-jawed Caucasian man in a tuxedo traded scripted jibes in impressive Mandarin with a pretty Chinese woman in a pink silk dress. At the end of the first act, the MCs took to the stage to announce yet another routine. China has a long history of spirituality, the man explained. But in China today you can be arrested or even killed just for meditating. With his fixed smile and familiar gesture he introduced the next piece: The Power of Compassion, a scene from contemporary China.
The curtain rose on a group of young students sitting in peace, meditating and reading oversized yellow Falun Gong books. The dancers performed elaborately pantomimed good deeds helping an old woman with a cane, chasing down a woman who had dropped her purse. But when one unveiled a Falun Gong banner, suddenly a trio of men wearing black tunics emblazoned with a red hammer-and-sickle entered. The communist thugs began beating people up, clubbing and kicking innocent Falun Gong followers.
In the melee, one of the attackers twisted his ankle and fell to the ground. A Falun Gong practitioner tried to help his injured foe, lifting him up and carrying him on his back while the villain continued raining punches on him. In the pieces climax, the communist lifted his fist for the final blow. He let it hover in the air, trembling, and then in a moment of tension that reminded me, more than anything, of the moment when Keanu Reeves cannot bring himself to kill Patrick Swayze in the third act of Point Break slowly dropped it, too moved by the young mans compassion to continue.
The young Falun Gong practitioners gave him their book. The reformed thug pirouetted around the stage. Everyone sat and meditated together, and suddenly the backdrop exploded into a kaleidoscope of colourful animations monks descending from heaven, women in dresses swirling around, enacting a kind of orgy of celestial joy, presumably meant to mirror the inner ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment. Suddenly, the former communists leg was healed. He ran, he leapt, and then the cast pointed to the screen, and to the final image of a man, meditating and beatific, at peace with the universe.
The lights came up for intermission and we wandered out into the lobby, blinking and dazed. Outside, a young woman with an audio recorder was cornering patrons and asking for their reactions. The next day, the headlines spoke for themselves: Toronto Showgoers Smitten by Shen Yun; Shen Yun Extraordinary on a Whole Different Level, Says Toronto Entrepreneur. The dozen articles were all published in the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper.
Since its inception, Shen Yun has gone out of its way to minimise its connection to Falun Gong.In the posters designed to attract the culture lovers of Berlin or London, the performers simply share an ancient artform. Shen Yun was established in New York in 2006 by elite Chinese artists, the origin story on their website reads. They came together with a shared vision and passion to revive the lost world of traditional Chinese culture and share it with everyone. The company doesnt make a habit of expanding on this story in the media. Despite the constant touring and the need to promote the show, the group rarely grants interviews.
The real story of Shen Yun, however, begins as a story of religious repression. Falun Gong (sometimes called Falun Dafa) is a spiritual movement that emerged out of the qigong boom in China in the early 90s an explosion of tai chi-like practices that claimed to promote health through specific movements and breathing. Falun Gong stood out from the many other forms of qigong for a couple of reasons. First, Falun Gongs mysterious leader, Li Hongzhi, had not just created a set of specific exercises, but had mapped out an entire spiritual worldview that looked suspiciously like a religion. Second, by the late 90s it was becoming remarkably popular, with an estimated 70 million practitioners, including high-level members of the Communist party. To the Chinese government, the fact that a quasi-religious organisation stubbornly outside party control could inspire huge numbers of people to action was reason for concern. The seemingly harmless sight of middle-aged people exercising in the park began to look like a threat.
Li fled China, and in 1998 became a permanent resident of the US, where he has been based ever since. In China, the government began to crack down. On 25 April 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners quietly gathered in Beijing to demand an end to government harassment. It was the largest protest since those in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the Chinese government responded with a harsh crackdown. They 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. Along with democracy, Tibet and Taiwan, Falun Gong became one of the governments most forbidden subjects.
During this crisis, Li disappeared from the public eye for nearly a year, leaving followers struggling to figure out how to respond to their new position as political pariahs. When Li reemerged, says Andrew Junker, a sociologist at Valparaiso University who has written extensively about Falun Gong, it was with a new message. There was a transition to a religious and millenarian interpretation, says Junker, a sign that the end of days are here.
In a much-circulated interview with Time magazine in 1999, Li talked about Falun Gong followers having the power to levitate, and spoke at length about an extraterrestrial invasion. Since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture, Li said. When the interviewer asked him if he was a human being, Lis response was intentionally enigmatic: You can think of me as a human being.