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 Yun’s ads spring up across the world in advance of the company’s 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 Bogotá 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. It’s 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, Jörg 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 embassy’s 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 show’s 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.
It’s 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 piece’s 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 man’s 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 communist’s 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 doesn’t 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 Gong’s 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 government’s 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, Li’s response was intentionally enigmatic: “You can think of me as a human being.”
With this shift in rhetoric, Li also reinforced his position as leader. “He was represented as being in charge of winning the cosmic battle while people were fighting the earthly battle here on the political sphere,” says Junker. Out of this crisis, a new version of Falun Gong emerged. Practitioners who had always been discouraged from concerning themselves with earthly considerations found a way to fold political concerns into their spiritual practice, in a strategy known as “clarifying truth”. This meant, in theory, to try to correct the misinformation that was emerging from the Chinese government.
David Ownby, a professor at the University of Montreal and the author of Falun Gong and the Future of China, says that the Falun Gong practitioners who arrived in North America in the early 2000s had been far from political. “They were perfectly patriotic, nationalistic Chinese people,” Ownby says. “Most of them had immigrated for economic reasons. They weren’t dissidents at all when this started.” The irony of the crackdown is that, by banning the practice, the Chinese government had inadvertently turned thousands of hitherto apolitical actors into outlaws and activists.
In the interests of “clarifying truth,” Falun Gong practitioners began speaking about politics. Falun Gong followers formed media groups such as the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television, which are critical of the Chinese Communist party and have become key partners in pro-democracy movements. “The Chinese government hadn’t really counted on the fact that Falun Gong had a big presence in the diaspora,” says Ownby. “And in Canada and the US, they became very good at buttonholing journalists and members of parliament. The Chinese government kind of freaked out.”
During this time, at the turn of the century, you saw hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners protesting in the streets, sitting outside Chinese consulates and passing out pamphlets. There were sympathetic articles in mainstream newspapers documenting their persecution. But what followed this flurry of media attention was inevitable: compassion fatigue. The facts on the ground – that Falun Gong practitioners have been persecuted, imprisoned and killed – remain as true as ever. But western sympathies have shifted. As China has grown in power, human rights abuses have become increasingly overlooked. And while Tibetan protesters and pro-democracy activists have generally had the west’s sympathy, Falun Gong occupies a more ambivalent space.
Despite Beijing’s insistence, Falun Gong is not a cult; it’s a diffuse group without strong hierarchies, and there is no evidence of the kind of coercive control that the label suggests. But it is strange. Without the ballast of tradition, all new religions can feel absurd, and some of Li’s stranger comments have given the group the aura of an eastern version of Scientology. Falun Gong has moralistic, socially conservative beliefs, preaching against homosexuality and sex out of wedlock. The group is secretive, and has a tendency to exaggerate and distort. For years, the Epoch Times has claimed that hundreds of millions of people have renounced the Chinese Communist party, relying on numbers that are impossible to verify.
All of this has made them feel alien and less than sympathetic to the liberal westerners who would be their natural allies. Falun Gong practitioners were being repressed, sure, but there was something unnerving about the group’s bizarre worldview. At a certain point, persecution doesn’t breed sympathy – it breeds a kind of contempt. The tenth time someone hands you a pamphlet about the Chinese government oppressing Falun Gong, your impulse isn’t to write to your local representative, it’s to cross the street.
It is in this context – with Falun Gong persecuted in China, and treated increasingly warily in the west – that Shen Yun emerged. For Falun Gong followers who had spent years doing the emotionally draining work of protest, sitting outside North American Chinatowns absorbing the indifference of passersby, it’s easy to see why promoting a dance show would be an appealing alternative.
For all the competing narratives around Shen Yun, one place to find a clear version of its founding is in the words of Falun Gong’s leader himself. Since 2000, Li has delivered long speeches to Falun Gong practitioners at international conferences. The speeches are part state-of-the-union, part papal address, a curious mixture of the mundane and the spiritual. They are collected at Minghui.org, the centre of much Falun Gong online activity.
The speeches veer from moments of folksy, pragmatic advice to warnings about apocalyptic forces. In a single Q&A session, Li might respond to questions about video games (they are contributing to humankind’s destruction), investing (“it’s your own money, so whether you leave it at home or put it in the bank is your own business”) and what will happen to Chinese citizens who haven’t quit the Communist party when the “Fa-rectification” is complete and the material world as we know it ends (they will, unfortunately, be doomed).
Li also speaks again and again about his desire to change the world, and his homeland in particular, through the power of Shen Yun. In an appearance at the 2014 New York Fa Conference, Li offered his account of the group’s origins. “How did Shen Yun first get started?” he asked. “There was a group of Dafa disciples involved in the arts who wished to use their professional skills to expose the persecution and save sentient beings.” According to Li, these early performances weren’t very good. It distressed him to see his spiritual practice represented by such mediocre art. So the Master stepped in. If a dance show was going to save people, it would need to be a top-notch dance show. “Afterwards I thought: ‘I’ll lead them in doing this.’ And that was how Shen Yun was first established.”
Since then, Shen Yun has expanded considerably, from a single troupe to five companies of 40-odd dancers. The performers are trained in a school, the Fei Tian Academy in Deerpark, New York, part of a 427-acre retreat that was built as a refuge for Falun Gong followers fleeing persecution, and includes a Tang-dynasty style temple. The company is a mixture of professionals and full-time students who perform unpaid. One former dancer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that dancing for Shen Yun was exhausting. During their four-month tours, he worked long hours, studying in the morning before performing at night, then packing up and moving on to the next city. Though he isn’t a member of Falun Gong, he says sharing their message felt like an important act of political activism. “I felt like it was for a good cause,” he told me. “Sometimes you volunteer and they’ll make you pay for everything. Here they were nice enough to cover expenses.”
In each city Shen Yun visits, shows are “presented” by the local Falun Dafa association. This means that local Falun Gong followers must raise the needed funds, provide the publicity and lay the groundwork to make the show successful. Over the years, in speech after speech, Li has talked extensively about Shen Yun marketing and production. In one speech, Li admonishes his followers for not working hard enough to bring out the crowds. He also encourages followers not to emphasise the Falun Gong connection. “You needn’t insist on telling people that Shen Yun has ties to Falun Gong and make a big fanfare out of it,” he tells them.
What emerges from a decade’s worth of Li’s speeches is a strange story: a massive dance company led by a messianic figure who both communicates with celestial beings on a higher plane and takes care of local marketing. It is as if the Dalai Lama spent his spare time producing Gilbert and Sullivan revivals. Shen Yun is not a mere dance performance, but a chance to save the world’s “sentient creatures” and “dissolve evil”. For followers, then, the success of Shen Yun is freighted with significance: the fall of the corrupt communists, the salvation of family members left behind in China, and the spiritual fate of the world, all tied together and dependent on the dance performance of groups of lithe twentysomethings on stages across the world.
One day last year, I spoke to Leeshai Lemish, one of Shen Yun’s Masters of Ceremony, from his hotel room in Korea. Lemish was supposed to be performing with Shen Yun in Seoul that evening, but their performances had been cancelled at the last minute under suspicious circumstances. Now he was frantically trying to figure out what had happened.
Lemish is an Ohio-born Israeli-American who came to Falun Gong as an adult after studying Chinese at Pomona College in California. Today he lives at Falun Gong’s upstate New York retreat. And since 2004, he has worked full time for Shen Yun, acting as an MC during performances and working on the show’s website and publicity in non-touring months.
“We’ve had a few crazy days,” Lemish told me. After days of making calls, he thought he had figured out what had happened. The cancellation followed a familiar pattern: four Shen Yun performances in Seoul were nixed at the last minute after the theatre received a letter from the Chinese embassy. In a thinly veiled threat, the letter asked the venue, which is controlled by Korea’s state-run television station, to “consider the overall picture of the Chinese-Korean relationship” and cancel the performances. Now Lemish and the troupe of nearly 80 dancers, musicians and crew were stranded in Seoul. For Lemish, the cancellation was just the latest proof of the global reach of the Chinese government. “You don’t realise how evil this stuff can be,” he told me.
Lemish acknowledged that Shen Yun has been reticent when it has come to publicising its ties to Falun Gong. “We’re trying to figure out what’s the best balance here,” said Lemish. “As we’re getting more established, we’re getting more transparent.” The very fact that he was talking to me represented a major shift in the group’s approach, he said. Slowly, the group was revealing their Falun Gong connection.
When I asked Lemish about whether Shen Yun was actually controlled by Li Hongzhi, he became evasive. “I may not want to say a lot about it, just because of security issues,” he said. “You have a spiritual leader kind of figure, so there’s a lot of security issues involved for us. Things like slashing our tires. Things like spies.”
Lemish keeps a running tally online of all the attacks he claims his travelling group has experienced. “We have people in our company who were persecuted in China,” said Lemish. “There’s a dancer who lost her father, who was tortured to death. You have people who have spent time in jail, a lot of people lost family members. You have people who regularly get visitors from the public security bureau at their parents’ home in Beijing. You don’t want to forget that we’re out here celebrating Chinese culture and all these great stories, but there’s something very dark happening.”
To try to sort out the truth about Shen Yun is to stand between two forces, both buffeting you with propaganda, and figure out which way to lean. The propaganda charge against Shen Yun sticks because it feels true. The show’s message is clumsy, and presented with all the subtlety of Maoist revolutionary theatre. Many of the things Shen Yun depicts – that Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed for simply meditating, that the Chinese government violates its citizens’ human rights in countless ways – are true. But the vision of China they present, and their zealous insistence that this is the one true vision, is distasteful to patriotic Chinese people who understandably do not like to be told that their homeland is evil. Like Cuban exiles in Miami, the people behind Shen Yun see their homeland in a specific context, which grows increasingly distant the longer they are away.
After the Shen Yun performance in Toronto, I made my way into the lobby and tracked down the show’s presenter, who introduced himself as Joel Randall. A fortysomething Caucasian with sharp features and a quiet intensity, he smiled broadly as he explained that he was a devoted Falun Gong practitioner who had been inspired by the beauty of Shen Yun and was determined to show it to the world. Later I learned his real name is Joel Chipkar, a real estate agent who has appeared in the media as vice-president of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto.
It is wrong to think of the show as Falun Gong propaganda, Chipkar told me. The aim was to counter government propaganda. “They’re the ones that have been responsible for the destruction of traditional Chinese culture for the past 60 years,” he said. During our conversation, my mother wandered over. Chipkar shook her hand. “As you know, the Chinese culture was steeped in spirituality,” he told her. “Everyone respected the belief in gods. And then in come the communists and destroy it all.”
My mother interrupted. “I don’t know if they were religious that way,” she said. “Some of it was just plain superstition.” Chipkar’s vision of China as a god-fearing nation didn’t match her own conception of the country, which had been shaped by her childhood as the daughter of Confucian-ish pragmatists who didn’t seem to give much thought to the gods. Chipkar insisted that “it was all about the spirit, it was all about gods”, and the two of them argued, politely, as the rest of the audience filed out of the lobby and into the cold Toronto night.
And this, of course, is what Shen Yen is fighting: a battle for the very essence of what it means to be Chinese. The show tries to reframe the years of communist rule as a blip in the grand historical narrative of a country. It’s the same argument that underpins so many dissident political movements: the idea that those seeking to topple the government represent the authentic soul of a nation.
At that moment, a screen in the lobby was playing an ad for an upcoming show by the National Chinese Acrobats. Chipkar looked at the screen and frowned. The practice of Chinese acrobatics was only formalised and promoted under the communists. During the cold war, Beijing used the National Acrobats as a diplomatic tool – sending those strong, skilled bodies across the world as the living embodiment of the country’s triumphant revolution.
“Chinese culture is not acrobatics,” Chipkar said firmly. “It’s not juggling and jumping through hoops and standing on each other’s heads. That’s not Chinese culture,” he said, gesturing at the ad. Next week, Shen Yun would be gone, and this other vision of China would take its place, telling a new story to its audience. On screen, men in colourful uniforms hurled themselves through the air. Girls with arched backs balanced atop slightly larger girls with arched backs. A dozen women in red skirts and calf-high red boots smiled radiantly, arms outstretched, circling the stage while balanced on a single gleaming bicycle.
A longer version of this article first appeared in Hazlitt, the online literary magazine