Shen Yun: Art, Truth, Politics clash at Kennedy Center

Chinese music, dance spectacle stirs political pot. Photo: Shen Yun/Pittsburgh poster

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2013 – Chinese music and dance troupe Shen Yun concluded its brief 2013 visit to the Kennedy Opera House this past weekend with two final performances of its 2013 touring show. Highlighting past and present Chinese history, culture, tradition, and performing arts, Shen Yun 2013 impresses audiences with smooth choreography, vivid costuming, and exotic music that sounds traditional but has been cleverly re-shaped into an easy-to-grasp Westernized Chinese score. 

An unexpected surprise: All this color and pageantry is set against an unexpectedly lavish video background whose imagery is cast as traditional yet modernized Chinese art that surprisingly, on many occasions, leaps into life and becomes part of the action. 

What made this production interesting for the politically minded Washingtonian was the fact that this and other Shen Yun performing troupes are supported by Falun Dafa (probably better known here as Falun Gong). Founded by Li Hongzhi, Falun Dafa describes itself in its own literature as “an advanced self-cultivation practice of the Buddha School” embodying a discipline in which “assimilation to the highest qualities of the universe—Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance)—is the foundation of practice…based on the very laws which underlie the development of the cosmos.”

It would be fair to say that, based on scant reports trickling out from China, that a majority of Americans, if they’ve heard of Falun Gong at all, regard it as a somewhat off-the-wall religious cult that the Communist government doesn’t much like. While that perception misses the mark considerably, it’s not our purpose in this review to delve deeply into the religious and secular politics of this issue, save to touch upon its significance and symbolism with regard to Shen Yun’s performance here. 

Suffice it to say that the Chinese government in a general sense had little issue with Falun Gong up to and including the 1990s. But the movement—part religious, part philosophical, part ethical—began to lock horns with the government late in that decade to the point that the government—like all Communist governments—began to sense a danger to its absolute rule and turned decisively against Falun Gong.

Since then, the movement has been actively persecuted in China and an unknown number of its followers have paid the highest price for their beliefs while many others have gone into exile. All this, while seemingly extraneous to Shen Yun’s recent performance, actually lies at its core. At its core, the show is really an exotic pageant of protest against what believers regard to be an unjust regime. 

It’s not a stretch to observe that, like many fundamentalist Christian communities, Falun Gong regards a major part of its mission as getting back to the basics with regard to religious and secular practice and tradition. It’s clearly at odds with the totalitarian regime that persecutes its members. But, as evidenced in its performance, it also opposes key aspects of Western science, including evolution much in the way that some fundamentalist Christian systems believe in the literal truth of the Bible and reject Darwinianism as a possible flavor of the Creation story. 

It’s Falun Gong’s religious, scientific, political, and what it views as its pure, artistic approach that drives the pageantry of Shen Yun’s production. Often, this motivation is not apparent at all. At other times, it’s blatantly obvious as in the musical skits in which Communist officials brutally beat contemporary adherents to the movement; in the animated scenes where heavenly forces materialize, a bit like an armada of Power Rangers, to thwart injustice; or in the periodic art song intervals in which Chinese operatic singers, accompanied by an accomplished pianist, extol the perfection of their beliefs and condemn the evil of their persecutors.

(Promo video below, launches immediately on most players.)

All this is, quite simply, propaganda, although it’s propaganda with a light touch should you chance to see it in person. It’s not really offensive, save perhaps to a stray Chinese government official who might have chanced to take in the show. But none of this undercurrent is mentioned or alluded to in Shen Yun’s promotional literature, a fact that a number of reviewers have taken issue with.

In some ways, though, this issue is a two-edged sword. Example: Whatever their individual political beliefs, those who’ve seen the first three installments of the Washington National Opera’s “American Ring” cycle can’t have failed to notice that the “American” imagery, not to mention the treatment of Richard Wagner’s mortal and immortal characters, have all been re-tailored to promote nonstop visual and symbolic criticism of American capitalism rather than extolling American virtue or even the Germanic heroism of the original. 

Aside from this reviewer and a few others, however, few seem to have been bothered by this bizarre portrayal of America, doubtless because it’s the current—if false—received wisdom on the subject in most quarters of academia, the artistic world, and for that matter, official Washington. And yet, in spite of the fact that these productions reproduce Wagner’s music, characters, and settings in their way, they are pure, anti-American propaganda, even though not necessarily perceived as such. It’s for this reason that the propaganda of the “American Ring” has largely gotten a pass. 

We suspect, however, that any “American Ring” whose installments evoked the entrepreneurial, pro-capitalist symbolism of Ayn Rand, for example, would have been tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail by critics and audiences alike before the final curtain had a chance to fall. Rand’s view of the world, while embraced by some, is simply not part of the accepted “narrative” of our current time and is therefore routinely ridiculed, dismissed, or condemned. 

For the Chinese Communist government, Shen Yun productions are doubtless just as unfashionable as Rand’s philosophical point of view because they oppose the primacy of the Party line. Had they favored the current regime, we almost certainly would not have seen the kind of negative comments we’ve observed in newspapers and other media that have bothered to review these performances at all.

In short, every country’s approved “narrative”—right or wrong—receives either adulation at best or limited approval at the least. Opposing views are routinely condemned without much forethought. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way things work at present, and perhaps they always have. Whether something is propaganda or not tends to remain in the eyes of the beholder. 

Which brings us back to Shen Yun’s actual production. As we’ve already noted, it was thoroughly colorful and entertaining, though perhaps not as lavish as the Chinese state-supported troupes we’ve see here on occasion. That’s at least part due to the much greater funding provided official, government subsidized productions. Shen Yun’s budget is clearly not as great as Beijing’s, but they make maximum and impressive use of the resources they have, right down to each meticulously tailored costume.

Frankly, we enjoyed the Shen Yun’s performance ourselves. The dancing and acrobatics were excellent, the mixed Chinese-Western orchestra was highly accomplished and professional, and the projected, animated backdrops were entertaining if occasionally over-the-top. They weren’t, in fact, “cheesy” as some reviewers have complained, but rather, were based on traditional Chinese art and art forms, something these reviewers consistently fail to note. 

On the other hand, like some others, we, too, wish the producers and publicists had been more honest about the political and religious aims behind their production. For us, this is not a sin of commission, but of omission. Even so, there are deeper, if less obvious currents running throughout this production—currents that may not even have occurred to Shen Yun’s producers or creative team. 

The very nature and subject matter of this production actually serves cautionary tale for American audiences. As the U.S. itself gradually slips toward political intolerance for opposing points of view, the low-level controversy surrounding Shen Yun’s mostly gentle, colorful, and (usually) low-key Chinese artistic and religious protest serves as a reminder to all that the intolerance for and persecution of opposing viewpoints can and increasingly does also happen here. That’s perhaps not the parable Shen Yun intended to convey during its recent appearances. Yet it’s still ominously present for anyone who chooses to understand. 

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four.)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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