Is it entertaining to mix Chinese art with religion and politics? Yes, when there is a compelling story behind the art.
Shen Yun is advertised as a cultural spectacular, a celebration of 5,000 years of Chinese dance and music.
My wife was so enticed by the idea of graceful and acrobatic dancers in colorful costumes encapsulating the history of China that she insisted we go. I bought tickets as an anniversary present, and the dancers and an impressive orchestra followed through, fulfilling our high expectations for a night of beautiful performance art. The show includes several opera singers performing songs with spiritual messages.
I did not tell my wife the background of the religious group that puts on the show, but we were talking about it on the way out. You cannot walk away from Shen Yun without a mixture of marvel at the high level of dance, music and cultural celebration interspersed with alarm at the treatment of religious dissidents in China.
Evangelical Christians have a long familiarity with the persecution of groups that do not submit to the Chinese government’s strict guidelines for the practice of religion. Many people don’t know much about Falun Gong, a relatively new religious movement started in China in 1992. Its founder, Li Hongzhi, wrote a book drawing on Buddhist and Taoist tradition and circulated a system of reviving ancient religious disciplines including meditation, breathing exercises and spiritual beliefs.
The movement became so popular and widespread that it alarmed the Communist regime in China, which viewed it as a threat to the state. In 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong members launched a protest in Beijing calling for religious freedom.
China responded by branding the group as dangerous heretics who were a threat to the stability of the state, blocked internet access to websites mentioning Falun Gong, and began arresting and torturing members of the group, according to human rights organizations.
Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa as it is also called, has continued to spread within China and throughout the world. In 2006, members of the movement organized a touring celebration of the arts as a way to celebrate traditional Chinese culture, while also spreading word about religious persecution in China.
Whatever the motivation, the tribute to the arts works. The level of talent onstage, with a large troupe of professional dancers performing stunning choreography, and in the orchestra pit, where classical instruments blend with traditional Chinese instruments, is a visual and auditory feast. Shen Yun translates to “the beauty of divine beings dancing.”
The series of dance scenes, backed with animation projected on a screen to help tell the stories, is breathtaking. Each scene features about 15 to 20 dancers on stage, some scenes with all men and some scenes with all women, enacting folk stories or historical snapshots of Chinese civilization.
We see a harvest celebration dance on the banks of the Yellow River, a fanciful tale of a monkey king defeating an evil toad, a Mongolian dance that relies on the clicking of chopsticks for its rhythm, and a young boy born with magical powers who defeats a dragon that lives in an underwater palace.
Especially enchanting are the female dancers wearing long flowing silk sleeves that are highlighted by the choreography in a palace setting, and another scene where the dancers wave fans that look like lotus leaves as they gracefully cluster into human flowers.
The scenes for the male dancers are heavily acrobatic and sometimes involve the dancers playing the drums, such as their depiction of the Tang Imperial Drummers.
While some art critics have been bothered by the political and religious undertones of Shen Yun, especially the two disturbing scenes that depict Chinese oppression of Falun Gong, art can sometimes be the best expression of both religion and politics. If political dissent can be expressed elegantly with beauty, art, dance and music, most of us will listen to the message and enjoy the show.