Stepping Into the Uncanny, Unsettling World of Shen Yun

Shen yun, according to Shen Yun, means “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” (It can also be translated as “the rhythm of a divine spirit,” or, more simply, “God’s melody.”) The Shen Yun Performing Arts organization was founded in 2006, in New York’s Hudson Valley, and put on its first touring show in 2007. By 2009, there were three touring Shen Yun companies. Today, there are six companies, each consisting of forty or so dancers, all of them trained at the Fei Tian Academy, which is situated on a four-hundred-and-twenty-seven-acre campus established for Falun Dafa practitioners in upstate New York. The dancers are accompanied by an orchestra that incorporates Chinese instruments; each troupe includes about eighty people. In addition to the ninety-six American cities it is touring this year, Shen Yun will visit Vancouver, Berlin, Auckland, Taipei, Daegu, Aix-en-Provence, and dozens of other places.

Shen Yun is a nonprofit. In 2016, it reported more than seventy-five million dollars in assets and more than twenty-two million dollars in revenue. Given the amount of money the organization seems to spend on advertising, it is hard to believe that it could be in the black, but the Guardian has reported that each city’s Shen Yun advertising campaign is sponsored by the local Falun Dafa association. The ad blitzes are carefully coördinated—“Shen Yun Ads” is basically a season on the calendar now. In January, I decided to double-check my woozy memories and buy a ticket to see Shen Yun again, at Lincoln Center. After the purchase went through, I received a survey that asked me which of the thirty-six different versions of the Shen Yun ad that ran in New York—Newsday spots, Metro North posters, brochures in the mail—had convinced me to buy tickets. Shen Yun saturation has reached such a ludicrous intensity that it has, in recent months, become a meme.

Part of the seeming strangeness of Shen Yun could be attributed to a latent Orientalism on the part of Western viewers—including those of us who are of Asian descent. But the real root of Shen Yun’s meme-friendly eeriness is that the ads brightly and aggressively broadcast nothing at all; this is why it’s so easy to imagine them popping up in Ebbing, Missouri, or in the extended Blade Runner universe, or on Mars. The ads have to be both ubiquitous and devoid of content so that they can convince more than a million people to pay good money to watch what is, essentially, religious-political propaganda—or, more generously, an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa’s spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime.

The Chinese Embassy, for its part, warns the American public to “stay away from the so-called ‘Shenyun’ performance of the ‘Falun Gong’ organization so as to avoid being deceived and used by the cult.” Whether Falun Dafa—the name is used interchangeably with Falun Gong—is a cult, in either a strict or loose sense, is debatable. Its practitioners have no record of violence, and the organization does not appear to be coercive. Its stated central values are “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.” The organization’s Web site notes that the “Falun,” meaning an “intelligent, rotating entity composed of high-energy matter,” is planted “in a practitioner’s lower abdomen from other dimensions” and then “rotates constantly, twenty-four hours a day.” Most of the group’s practices fall roughly within the traditions of Tai Chi and Qigong, and the group itself can be situated within China’s long history of apocalyptic sects promising redemptive transformation, such as the White Lotus Society, which dates to the Ming dynasty.

Falun Gong was founded by a man named Li Hongzhi, who registered the group with the Chinese government in 1992. (In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square Protests, the Chinese Communist Party established a registry of social organizations, in order to head off political upheaval.) He soon attracted “tens of millions of adherents,” the political-science professor Maria Hsia Chang writes in “Falun Gong: The End of Days.” Falun Gong started holding enormous gatherings; by the mid-nineties, there were more than two thousand Falun Gong practice stations in Beijing alone. Troubled by the possibility that a large part of the population was becoming more loyal to Li than to the Communist Party, the government began cracking down on Qigong groups and banning sales of Falun Gong publications. By 1999, the government was estimating that the group had seventy million adherents; that year, more than ten thousand of them staged a silent protest in front of the central government compound, in Beijing. An arrest warrant was issued for Li, who had already immigrated to Queens, New York. The Chinese legislature subsequently passed, and began violently enforcing, an anti-cult law.

Li has been open about his beliefs that evolution is fraudulent, that people of different races will be separated in Heaven, and that homosexuality and promiscuity are unnatural. He told Time that aliens were attempting to control humans by making us dependent on modern science. (He intended to be metaphorical, he later said.) A San Francisco man named Samuel Luo has claimed that his mother and stepfather refused essential medical treatment because of Falun Gong’s teachings that sickness is based in karma; he has also claimed that they came to believe that it was the gods’ plan to eliminate the gay population. Luo set up a Web site called The Untold Story of Falun Gong in 2007, and Falun Gong responded by complaining to the domain provider. The organization also threatened to sue the International Cultic Studies Association for bringing Luo to a conference as a presenter. Other religions resist modern medicine, and many faiths have held racist views or have opposed homosexuality (or both). But Falun Gong’s defensive reactions not only to criticism but to basic journalistic inquiry can suggest an institution that would prefer people not ask very many questions. In response to a list of questions related to this article, a representative from Falun Gong’s information center, who had previously clarified a few points over the phone, sent an impassioned, six-hundred-word e-mail expressing dismay at some of the details mentioned in the questions and arguing that negative stories about Falun Gong make it easier for the Chinese government to wage its campaign of persecution. The representative asked that he not be quoted at all. He did not answer any of the questions. (I separately requested comment, multiple times, from Shen Yun, but never heard back.)

Falun Gong insists that thousands of its members have been killed in state custody, and three high-profile researchers—the journalist Ethan Gutmann, the human-rights lawyer David Matas, and the former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour—maintain that China has been harvesting thousands of organs annually from imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners, but many experts dispute this. (In 2017, a lawyer who has defended hundr of Falun Gong members told the Washington Post that he knew of only three or four members dying in prison, and that he had never heard of organs being harvested from live prisoners, as Falun Gong claims.) The fact that both Falun Gong and the Communist Party communicate via propaganda makes it almost impossible to understand what’s really happening; a decade ago, the journalist Joseph Kahn, in the Times, described the rise of Falun Gong as “probably the most mysterious chapter in the history of China over the last 30 years.” Falun Gong members are genuinely persecuted in China, but stories about this have petered out in the press. And, in China, state censorship of dissent is growing. Under these circumstances, Shen Yun can be seen as a baroque and surreal last-resort call for help and attention.

Falun Gong also has its own media outlet, a newspaper called the Epoch Times, which was founded in 2000. (The chairman of the newspaper’s board has said that it is “not a Falun Gong newspaper,” because “Falun Gong is a question of an individual’s belief.”) The paper skews conservative: among its recent pieces are stories headlined “Why We Should Embrace President Trump’s Nationalism,” “Government Welfare: A Cancer Known as Communism,” and “President Trump, Build the Wall.” It also is the world’s foremost purveyor of Shen Yun content, publishing such stories as “Excited Fans Welcome Shen Yun at Taiwanese Airport,” “The Vivid Storytelling of Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra,” and “Shen Yun Audiences Already Waiting for Next Year.” That last piece begins:

It was only fitting that Shen Yun Performing Art’s last North American performance, on May 10 in Philadelphia’s Merriam Theatre, was completely sold out. Audiences around the world have lauded every performance. Some are moved to tears others are left completely speechless.

This is perhaps due to the power of Shen Yun’s mission.

The article adds, “It might be a little overwhelming to imagine what it feels like to experience 5,000 years of Chinese culture in just two hours.”