What is Shen Yun and why do I see it everywhere?

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — If you’ve run the road, surfed the internet, or hit the Tri-Cities restaurant circuit in the past few months, you might have noticed ads for a certain performance popping up everywhere.

“Shen Yun: China Before Communism” hits the Tri-Cities on Tuesday, and according to event listings, performers will bring “a unique blend of stunning costumes, high-tech sets and an orchestra unlike any other. others”.

China: ancient and modern

Shen Yun Performing Arts, Shen Yun for short, is a non-profit touring troupe with several key selling points. According to their site, Shen Yun performances aim to recapture ancient Chinese culture in a way that is no longer possible in mainland China.

Besides traditional dances and musical styles, Shen Yun promises a cross section of several dynasties throughout Chinese history. The production also uses a large digital screen as a backdrop to add depth and scale to smaller groups of performers.

Classical Chinese dance is described by the organization’s website as a complete dance system dating back thousands of years, and Shen Yun is expected to bring the “purest” presentation of this art form to the region.

China versus Shen Yun

According to their website, Shen Yun was founded in 2006 to “revive the essence of Chinese culture.”

The nonprofit Shen Yun Performing Arts Inc. documents state that the company was established to “advance the kindness of the FLDF and the universal principle of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance, to bring together talented performers of different nationalities to make relive the real, five millennia”. -old artistic tradition.

In this case, FLDF stands for Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, a health and spiritual movement that was banned in the People’s Republic of China in 1999 after being branded a cult and banned from practicing.

“What had happened in China before was that there was a bit of an emphasis on traditional ideas and philosophy after the communists took over,” said the ETSU professor, the Dr. Henry Antkiewicz. “So there was some interest in traditional things in China, one of them was an exercise practice called Qi Gong, and that was very popular in the 1980s. And that became the basis of the development of Falun Gong.

Dr Antkiewicz is a professor of history specializing in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and Japan. Throughout his career, Dr. Antkiewicz has accompanied ETSU students in China as part of a sister university abroad. Several years ago, he had the chance to try Qi Gong, and found it an interesting exercise.

“You had to register organizations, so Li Hongzhi registered Falun Gong and that was very important for the rest of this decade.” says Dr. Antkiewicz. “He has become extremely popular in the country. Authorities estimated the membership to be around 70,000.

As the number began to increase, Falun Gong’s impact on local government and party members also increased. In 1999, tensions between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Falun Gong came to a head.

“Of all things, they held a vigil in front of the compound where Communist Party leaders lived in central Beijing,” Dr Antkiewicz said. “Now it’s right next to the Forbidden City, that palace of ancient emperors, so it’s a very important place in the city.”

The vigil gathered around 10,000 to 15,000 people, who then remained in the square without saying a word.

“It didn’t irritate anyone, they didn’t hand out any leaflets or anything like that, but they made their presence known,” Dr Antkiewicz added. “And that scared the authorities because you’re not supposed to do that. Only the communist party is there to organize people, if someone else takes care of the organization then it might develop in suspicious directions.

In response to the rally, the practice and teaching of Falun Gong was banned. Two years before the incident, Li Hongzhi, now the founder and leader of Falun Gong, had left China to seek asylum in the United States.

“The peaceful protest of Falun Gong did not seem threatening at all,” Dr. Antkiewicz said. “But that’s enough to scare people who want control – complete control – of politics and [to] make sure things go as planned.

Once the practice of Falun Gong was banned and continuing practitioners began to enter the prison system, rumors began to circulate outside of China that many were being mistreated or abused.

“There has been talk of people suffering in the prison system and other bad things that happen to them.” says Dr. Antkiewicz.

In June 2021, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights detailed multiple allegations by more than a dozen UN researchers, saying they had received credible reports that “the forced removal of bodies in China appear to target specific ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities who are detained, often without being told the reasons for the arrest or being issued arrest warrants”.

According to the report, groups targeted for organ harvesting included Falun Gong practitioners, members of the Uyghur minority, Tibetans, Muslims and Christians. The report said the issue had previously been raised with the Chinese government in 2006 and 2007 with little evidence of change.

Falun Dafa? Organ harvesting? What does it have to do with dance?

For members of Shen Yun Performing Arts, spirituality goes hand in hand with performance. According to their website, every member of Shen Yun is a divinely-sourced Falun Dafa practitioner.

“Throughout history, nearly every culture has looked to the divine for inspiration,” their documents read. “Art was meant to uplift, to bring joy to both the people who created it and experienced it. It is this principle that drives Shen Yun artists and their art.

The dance itself is a method of both practicing and preaching Falun Dafa, in a way. Founder Li Hongzhi says the act of Shen Yun, literally translated as the beauty of divine beings dancing, is a way “to offer deliverance to the human world.”

In addition to the spiritual perspective of the performers, the show also has a political impetus. Marketing materials state that the show itself is designed to raise awareness about the plight of Falun Dafa members in mainland China, including the aforementioned organ harvesting allegations. Shen Yun documents allege that the CCP targeted the show in the United States in an attempt to silence the performance.

While that may seem like a far cry from the beautiful backdrops and movements planned for the Martin Center, Shen Yun says the act is as much a preservation as a performance.

“Classical Chinese dance dates back thousands of years,” says the Shen Yun website. “Dynasty after dynasty, it has been enriched and refined, becoming one of the most complete dance systems in the world. In China today, it is regularly mixed with military or modern dance styles to the point that people don’t know exactly what they are looking at. Only Shen Yun performs classical Chinese dance in its purest form, preserving its traditional aesthetic as it was originally passed down.

Falun Gong/Dafa founder Li Hongzhi defines classical Chinese dance in the Shen Yun documents, describing an ongoing struggle between the troupe and the Beijing Academy of Dance for control of the direction of the art form.

“There is a question of what is ‘traditional’ in China, and let’s say traditional dance,” Dr Antkiewicz said. “If you travel to China, especially if you go to where the terracotta warriors were in the first empire 2000 years ago in Xi’an, China, you can see shows of what they regard as traditional dancing.”

From a historical perspective, however, Dr. Antkiewicz said there may be lost details and distortions of art that have not reached modern audiences on either side.

“What I think Falun Gong is doing with their Shen Yun group, this dance troupe, is showing that they have that kind of connection to Chinese precedence. They also choreograph their material, they make their costumes as historical as possible, but there is a very long time that has passed.

And how did it end at ETSU?

This particular show is presented on campus by the Memphis-based Falun Dafa Association of Tennessee, which has operated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization since 2011, according to ProPublica records.

News Channel 11 staff contacted both Shen Yun Performing Arts and the Tennessee Falun Dafa Association. for comment regarding their expectations for Johnson City, but have not been contacted in response.

Regarding their use of the Martin Center for Performing Arts, ETSU Senior Director of Strategic Communications Joe Smith said Shen Yun praised the facility as one of many touring productions and special events that use the place. No one at the university is tied to the show, Smith said, including student organizations.

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