The politics of dancing

28 Apr

Traditional Chinese cultural show has controversial ties to Falun Gong movement

It’s advertised as a cultural spectacular — a lavishly costumed revival of traditional dance and music from China’s pre-Communist past.

Shen Yun Performing Arts, founded in 2006 and based in New York City, promotes itself as “the world’s premier Chinese dance and music company.”

But when an 89-member Shen Yun troupe gives its first-ever performances in Winnipeg Wednesday and Thursday, audience members may enter the Centennial Concert Hall unaware of the show’s controversial ties to Falun Gong.

Falun Gong is a worldwide spiritual movement founded in 1992 and outlawed in the People’s Republic of China since 1999. Arts critics have varied in their opinions of Shen Yun productions, with some finding them dazzling and visually stunning, and others calling them cheesy and amateurish.

But virtually every critic agrees that there are political and religious messages in the two-hour-plus production. The show includes scenes depicting persecution and murder of Falun Gong practitioners in contemporary China.

“One dance (called Nothing Can Block the Divine Path) tells about a young mother being persecuted and beaten to death. Her spirit goes on,” Yanping Lu, the troupe’s production manager, said from Calgary this week.

Another dance called Astounding Conviction, Lu said, depicts a young man unfurling a Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) banner and being thrown in jail, where Buddhas show him magic power.

Lu said most of the show’s 16 dance numbers and four vocal solos don’t deal with persecution, but many have uplifting moral themes and extol virtues promoted by Falun Gong: truthfulness, compassion and forbearance.

Lu said it would be discriminatory to single out Falun Gong in the troupe’s advertising because Falun Gong is just one of many aspects of the show that reflect traditional Chinese values.

Most Shen Yun dancers and musicians are Falun Gong practitioners who are ethnically Chinese but grew up in the West, Lu said.

Several newspapers have described audience-member walkouts at Shen Yun performances and quoted ticket buyers saying they felt misled by advertising that did not mention the Falun Gong theme. In January, a reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that at times, the show’s political proselytizing “was as subtle as a Taser shot to the noggin.”

In the New York Times in 2008, Maria Hsia Chang, a professor emerita of political science and author of a book about Falun Gong, described the Shen Yun show as “kind of a PR front to try to normalize Falun Gong’s image.”

The troupe’s extensive website,, makes no mention of Falun Gong. Nor does the glossy brochure distributed locally, except for a line in very small, pale type that names the local presenter, the Falun Dafa Association of Winnipeg. Falun Dafa is the formal name for Falun Gong.

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