Dec 22, 2016

Shen Yun' shows Chinese culture, courts controversy

Visalia Times-Delta
December 21, 2016

“Shen Yun,” the the multimillion-dollar spectacle of “dazzling backdrops” and “glorious melodies” Chinese song-and-dance show bound Dec. 27-28 for the William Saroyan Theatre, is a “journey through 5,000 years of divinely inspired culture.”

And possibly: some propaganda.

The fine print in the brochures points out the show is presented by the Mid-USA Falun Dafa Association, a branch of the spiritual group Falun Gong. Its followers mix meditative exercises (tai chi) with Taoist and Buddhist ideals to promote physical well-being and spiritual wholeness. It all sounds very peaceful.

But the group’s surge in popularity in the 1990s made China’s Communist leaders uneasy, and they ordered a violent crackdown in 1999. The relationship between Beijing and Falun Gong’s worldwide followers has been dicey ever since.

The Chinese consul general in the United States criticized Shen Yun when the touring show visited the United States in 2013. A statement on the consulate’s website called the show a “clumsy, vulgar” form of religious propaganda. The statement built its case with a sampling of criticism from independent blogs and social media.

“Shen Yun,” translated as “the beauty of divine beings dancing,” has been touring since 2007, featuring an all-new production each year. The show highlights ancient and contemporary Chinese history and legends with classical and folk dance, elaborate costumes, digital backdrops and live orchestral accompaniment that blends East-West sounds.

Some critics and news reports say the show’s ads are misleading because they don’t point out that “Shen Yun” has ties to practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline banned in China. The production mixes political messages with the pageantry, they say.

“Shen Yun’s” creators and presenters — many of them Falun Gong practitioners — say Falun Gong doesn’t oppose or support any political system, but does decry crimes against humanity. Portions of the show portray Falun Gong practitioners being abused, they say, because that persecution is part of China’s history.

Review blurbs on the print ads for “Shen Yun” gush about the show, calling it “an extraordinary experience,” “exquisitely beautiful,” “so inspiring,” “sweeping and soulful.”

Matthew J. Palm, an entertainment critic for Florida’s Orlando Sentinel newspaper, reviewed a “Shen Yun” in 2014.

“There’s more than a hint of theme-park style magic in the ever-smiling performers and the Day-Glo color scheme of the elaborate, often sparkly costumes,” he writes in the review, published Wednesday online. “That’s what makes it so jarring when suddenly in one vignette, government thugs — with not-so-subtly stylized red hammer-and-sickle emblems on their jackets — attack two tourists taking photos of Chinese practitioners of Falun Dafa, the spiritual movement also known as Falun Gong. … One moment, you’re watching an entertaining Mongolian dance in which beautiful women gracefully sway, balancing bowls on their heads, while their pretty purple yurts glimmer in the background. The next, you’re watching a prison beating set to music.”

He calls the show “an odd mix,” one that provides a “strangely interesting” glimpse of the “discord in China today.”

Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC U.S.-China Institute in Los Angeles, provided some Falun Gong history. He described Falun Gong as a religious movement that was “the brainchild of a single individual,” Li Hongzhi, who in the 1990s developed a substantial following in China. In 1999, he said, Falun Gong sought to become an authorized organization, but the state refused to register Falun Gong as a legitimate group, and certainly not as a religion.

“In China, there are only five legal faiths,” Dube said. “And the government controls religion because it’s seen as a potential threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.”

After the government’s refusal, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners staged a silent protest, Dube said.

“It scared the party hierarchy to death for two reasons,” he said. “First, because of the large numbers of people, even though they just stood there, very peaceful,” and second, “because China’s police and intelligence agencies didn’t know it was going to happen.”

Three months later, Dube said, the government outlawed membership in Falun Gong, declared the organization an evil cult, and launched a “ruthless and brutal” suppression of those who practiced the discipline.

According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, there were 70 million to 100 million practitioners in China before the ban, 2 million directly after, and 20 million to 40 million in 2011, with 87,000 reports of torture against adherents since 1999.

The ads for “Shen Yun,” Dube said, refer to something that “ ‘was once almost lost.’ That’s a veiled reference to how the Chinese Communist party came to power and was not supportive of Chinese tradition. They (Falun Gong) are saying, ‘We are keepers of that tradition.’ “

People complain of “a heavy-handed message about the repression of Falun Gong” in “Shen Yun,” said Dube, who has not seen the show, but “the reality is, the repression has been heavy-handed and brutal.”
How to attend

“Shen Yun” performs at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 27-28 at the William Saroyan Theatre, 730 M St, Fresno. Tickets are $70-$150. Information:
What is Falun Gong?

Members of the spiritual group Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, combine meditation exercises with Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist concepts to attain physical well-being, emotional tranquility and spiritual wholeness.

During the 1990s, the group’s founder Li Hongzhi, attracted millions of followers worldwide even as the Chinese government outlawed the movement and carried out a heavy-handed campaign to shut it down.

Since 2003, Falun Gong has been pushed deep underground in China while it has thrived in Chinese communities overseas, including the United States, where its members are known for staging demonstrations, distributing fliers and sponsoring cultural events like Shen Yun.

Source: “China and Falun Gong,” a 2006 report from the Congressional Research Service.

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