Ubiquitous Shen Yun ads spin off Twitter memes and profiles on Falun Gong

If it’s spring it must be time to see Shen Yun, the mysterious Chinese dance troupe that charges a small fortune for its performances in top culture venues around the country.

Their ads are so widespread, there’s a Twitter discussion about how their billboards can be found even on Mars.

Few people know that Shen Yun represents a quasi-Buddhist group known as Falun Gong and that the Chinese government seems to persecute its followers even more than they hate Christians and Muslims. Which, considering the Nazi-style internment camps for Muslims in western China and the government’s crusade to destroy Christian churches, is saying a lot.

Fortunately, there’s been a few articles out about the group, including one by the Seattle-based The Stranger that calls the dance spectacles “dissident art.” There’s also one that came out last month in the San Francisco Chronicle that begins thus:

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably seen a billboard or heard dozens of ads for Shen Yun Performing Arts.

In the Bay Area, people are so used to seeing the ads on TV and on the sides of buses come December, people even joke winter should be renamed "Shen Yun season." Since I started writing this article about two minutes ago, I've already seen a Shen Yun spot run on KTVU…

Shen Yun bills itself as "the world's premier classical Chinese dance and music company." They have performances in 93 cities around the country, from Billings, Mont., to Little Rock, Ark., to three Bay Area locations. The dress code suggests you might want to wear a tuxedo or evening gown since you're "in for a special treat." If you buy a ticket to a show (which run from $80 to $400 in San Francisco), you can expect two hours of traditional Chinese dance accompanied by a live orchestra.

And yes, it’s here in Seattle from April 2-7.

And if you're to believe Shen Yun's own advertisements, you'll get so much more. The hyperbolic 2018 ad promises the performance will "move you to tears" and change how you see the world…

Some people who go to the show complain they didn't know what they were in for. Because nowhere in the effusive advertisements is it mentioned that Shen Yun has a political bent. Shen Yun translates to "divine rhythm," and according to the show's website, the artists who put on Shen Yun practice Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a belief system that encompasses meditation, tai chi-type exercises, and "strict morality" (smoking, alcohol, and extramarital or same-sex sexual relations go against the teachings).

The Chronicle reporter couldn’t get through to a Shen Yun spokesperson, but a writer for the New Yorker did in a much longer piece that just came out. She opens with an account of a performance she saw in Houston.

After we took our seats, two hosts with animatronic smiles, speaking both Chinese and English, began introducing a series of dances, which were called things like “Goodness in the Face of Evil” and “The World Divinely Restored.” The female dancers moved in hypnotic swirls; the male dancers jumped and flipped. Behind the stage was an enormous screen upon which digital backdrops—ancient temples, royal gardens, the cosmos—appeared, along with digital dancers who would walk to the bottom of the screen and then pop out, via the appearance of a living dancer, on the stage. The colors were near-neon and unnatural; they reminded me of the glowing hues of Photo Hunt, the tabletop bar game. The hosts started talking about a spiritual discipline called Falun Dafa, and then introduced a dance in which a beautiful young follower of Falun Dafa was kidnapped and imprisoned by Communists, who harvested her organs. “I’m hallucinating,” I whispered to my brother in the dark.

The performance quickly switches from cool Chinese historical stuff to a pantomime outlining persecution that Falun Dafa (or Fulan Gong as I’ll be referring to them from now on) suffer through in China. I’m well aware of the rumors about the Chinese using Falun Gong prisoners as unwilling organ donors and one of the last pieces I wrote for the Washington Times in 2010 concerned a Capitol Hill news conference where China was accused of a grisly international organ harvesting industry in which an estimated 9,000 Falun Gong members had been killed for their corneas, livers, kidneys, lungs and skins.

The reporter goes on to describe how a large corps of performers based in New York’s Hudson Valley puts on Shen Yun performances around the country to spread the Falun Gong gospel. (I do wonder what it is about upstate New York that makes it so attractive to, say, unusual groups. The Unification Church has likewise been based up there).

The group has $75 million in assets but, as the reporter says, considering the zillions of dollars it spends to blanket metro markets in non-stop ads for months, it’s hard to believe they’re still in the black. However,

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.”

I’m surprised people still attend these performances, as I thought word has long been out that, midway through, viewers get a lecture on Falun Gong. The Guardian put out a very long and detailed piece about the troupe in December 2017 that included a lot about their religion, its founder Li Hongzhi and the following:

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.

I dunno. Seeing what China is doing to its other religious minorities these days, I’m tempted to believe Falun Gong’s claims. Over there, truth is stranger than fiction.

So here we have examples of how journalists took this group’s religious connection seriously, did fairly thorough coverage (when possible) and performed other leg work to help us understand how Shen Yun and the Falun Gong are basically one. As the Guardian relates, Falun Gong followers realized early on they weren’t attracting much attention in the West through demonstrations outside of Chinese embassies. So they decided to go the art route, spreading their message via gorgeous dance spectacles in expensive concert venues.

So if you attend one of their performances, enjoy the music and acrobatics, but don’t be surprised if you get a religion lecture halfway through. Be sure to grasp their central message: That they, not the Communists, grasp the essence of being Chinese and that the current rulers in Beijing are just a blip on a 5,000-year horizon.

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