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Performing Arts

The earliest area Shen Yun performances are on Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 2 and 3, when the Chinese dance and music company will take the stage at Dayton’s Schuster Center. Those willing to pay a minimum of $80 will experience the group’s bombastic retelling of China’s history spanning thousands of years. (Submitted photo)

Tin Can Economy | Can we forego the propaganda?

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On highway billboards and small-town bulletin boards, gas station windows and restaurant foyers, there she is.

A smiling woman bounds across a cerulean-hued backdrop of an ancient temple, beautiful pink silks rippling from her limbs, below the words “Shen Yun.”

Yes, it’s Shen Yun season, and the ads are ubiquitous, even in our little village. All throughout downtown Yellow Springs, in a surprising number of shop windows, are those cerulean posters promoting Shen Yun Performing Arts Company’s upcoming performances in the area.

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The earliest is on Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 2 and 3, when the Chinese dance and music company will take the stage at Dayton’s Schuster Center. Those willing to pay a minimum of $80 will experience the group’s bombastic retelling of China’s history spanning thousands of years. It’s a polychromatic ode to the country’s traditional customs and culture, showcased in song, dance, instrumentation and elaborate costuming.

Strange, though, that something that should be as innocuous as “The Nutcracker” is essentially religious-political propaganda.

At its core, Shen Yun is an over-the-top commercial for the cultish Falun Gong, a spiritual group that has ties to far-right organizations and a penchant for profiteering off racist, homophobic and anti-evolutionary views.

Shen Yun, which means “the beauty of divine beings dancing,” was a troupe founded in 2006 by a group of expatriate Chinese Falun Gong practitioners. The stated purpose of the performing arts company was to revive Chinese culture and traditions as they allegedly were before the Chinese Revolution — a goal not unsurprising given that Falun Gong was banned in China in 1999 for a laundry list of reasons. 

Following several years of growing notoriety in China during the mid-’90s, the group’s founder, Li Hongzhi, had attracted “tens of millions of adherents,” and had thousands of Falun Gong stations throughout the country, according to political scientist Maria Hsia Chang in “Falun Gong: The End of Days.” Worried by the possibility of practitioners having greater allegiance to their religious sect than the official state party, China’s government cracked down and began enforcing an anti-cult law. Falun Gong was kicked out, moved to upstate New York and held onto certain grudges.    

Perhaps the leaping lady on the Shen Yun poster makes people miss the small “China Before Communism” slogan. The message is subtle, but still there.

It wasn’t just Li’s supposed influence that led to the Communist Party banning Falun Gong — Li’s beliefs were patently dangerous. As The New Yorker notes, Li held that evolution is a fraudulent science, that people of different races will be separated in Heaven, and that homosexuality and promiscuity are unnatural. Time magazine also reported that Li believed aliens were attempting to control humans through science — and that a battle for human consciousness between those aliens and the enlightened few will take place after a judgment day. Li also said that American magician David Copperfield can actually levitate.

Since landing in the U.S. and headquartering themselves in the Hudson Valley, Falun Gong has staged thousands of Shen Yun performances all over the world. Their 2024 lineup features over 150 scheduled shows throughout the world — from stages in Dayton and Houston, to Italy, the Czech Republic and beyond. Shen Yun brings in a great deal of money from this impressive globetrotting. In 2022, the nonprofit reported more than $229 million in total assets and over $46 million in revenue. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the majority of the money made from shows goes back to the Hudson Valley Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, which then trains more Shen Yun performers.

It should be said that the group’s expenses are $13.5 million, and I can only assume that much of that goes to the aforementioned advertising blitzkrieg.

That a sizable portion of Shen Yun’s revenues come from the performances themselves, makes this a good time to describe them in some detail. As most reports go, they’re bizarre.

Dance sequences are dubbed “Goodness in the Face of Evil,” “The World Divinely Restored” and the like. At some point in the show, the Falun Dafa (synonymous with Falun Gong) is introduced in a skit that involves a lovely young practitioner being abducted by “organ-harvesting” communists. A vocalist cries out, “Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas. Modern trends destroy what makes us human.” Near the grand finale, Mao Zedong appears on the digital backdrop and obliterates a faux community with an earthquake. Then, a tsunami appears — in the center of the wave, a red hammer and sickle manifests alongside the bearded vestige of Karl Marx.

But what of Shen Yun’s incredible assets? Well, here’s the rub to bring it on home.

In addition to its worldwide dance sensation, Falun Gong has its own media outlet: a newspaper called the Epoch Times, founded in 2000. Again, maybe readers have seen advertisements for this publication online (I sure have) or in print in newsstands in large cities.

Leading up to the dramatic 2020 election — wherein Joe Biden defeated incumbent and ignoble huckster and criminal Donald Trump — the Epoch Times directed millions of dollars to support Trump’s campaign. After his loss, innumerable articles were published regurgitating blatant lies about the “stolen election.”

Sure, there’s the occasional article on the “multitude of health benefits” from apple cider vinegar, but the publication’s editorial page and the overt far-right slant of its news stories often feature ludicrous and conspiratorial headlines denying climate change and spreading falsehoods on the origins and effects of COVID-19.

All told, the Epoch Times is a neoconservative rag that daily bangs as many war drums as it can, aiming to incite greater political distrust against supposed U.S. adversaries (mainly China) and stoke resentment against the “woke” left.

So why is all of this relevant to the Yellow Springs reader?

Well, let’s not forget the number of Shen Yun posters that litter the village. And let’s also remember that this is a multi-million-dollar dance troupe with direct ties to a fringe religious cult that also bankrolls conservative conspiracies and hawkish projects bent on worsening U.S.-China relations to frightening ends.

If I can help it, I want no complicity in theaters of war. Lord knows this country doesn’t need my help. Just last month, the U.S. Senate greenlit a $14.5 billion military aid package to Israel to continue its indiscriminate genocide against the Palestinian people. I realize that our tax dollars are largely beyond our control, and that with every purchase of gas or milk, a fragment of our spendings indelibly goes to finance the newest tomahawk missile.

It may be easy to tell ourselves that ethical consumption under capitalism is impossible, but I believe we still have some autonomy; we can still intervene in smaller, more local ideological realms provided enough information.

Shen Yun masquerades as a family-fun, cultural experience for all, but I suggest that is not so. Despite its colorful, cerulean claims, the performances are easily digestible propaganda for the upper crust that props up ahistorical and orientalist views of China, and has direct ties to a group with explicit overtones of racism, homophobia and anti-intellectualism.    

As such, I’d recommend Yellow Springs business owners take down their Shen Yun advertisements immediately. 

*Tin Can Economy is an occasional column that reflects on object, form and scale. It considers the places and spaces we inhabit, their constituent materials and our relationship to it all. Its author, Reilly Dixon, is a local writer, gardener and amateur winemaker. He works in production and as a writer for the News.

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8 Responses to “Tin Can Economy | Can we forego the propaganda?”

  1. Karl Wiseman says:

    Great read and thoughts. Liked all the defending thoughts against the article as well not because I agree but because of the free education. I think you should go a bit further and suggest the reader/patrons replace the Shen Yun adverts with “eat the rich” propaganda. Go hard or go home! We’ve endured our industrial working class education program long enough. Time to turn this ship toward our most certain communist future. Patriot Caucus stand back and stand by!

    P.S., love the image of the old capitalist idealists in the comments clutching their pearls!

  2. The Gods Must Be Crazy says:

    Take what you need and leave the rest! You can’t please everyone. Most religions are evolving or they end up with empty parking lots. LGBTQ issues are important but they still are only one issue that society faces; too often our supporters practice tunnel vision. It is a free country; my gender is my business, and if it offends you, that’s your prerogative.

  3. The United States of America takes the First Amendment rights of people very seriously. So, if you and your friends believe that a pine tree in Glen Helen is God and you form a religion around that, you are welcome to do so, so long as you harm no one. We have a host of ridiculous religions in the United States, starting with the “blossoming” capitalist-based Evangelical movement that believes in a strange eschatology and Orange Jesus.

    A while back I wrote theatre reviews for the Epoch Times, as it appeared at the time that they were just anti-communist ex-patriots who wanted to stop repression by the Communist government in China. It was later revealed to me that there was a connection between the paper and Falun Gong. The editors I submitted reviews for the New England Epoch Times were very cooperative and professional.

    I attended performances of the Shen Yun dancers and met people who seemed to be in extraordinary health and very nice. Albeit I found the show a little weird despite fine dancing and was approached about Falun Gong on one occasion and started looking into it. I was under the mistaken impression that it was like a form of Buddhism. But then I submitted a review of a gay play, and it was rejected with comments that the paper was a family publication. That ended my association with the paper.

    I was very glad in a way because the paper now has embraced the Orange Jesus. What looked like a normal activist paper against the communists in China to protect spirituality, revealed itself as a publication that lacked the integrity to see Trump and his minions for who they are. Lesson learned.

    In our country, unlike China, you are free to believe whatever you want, so long as it is not harming others. Many conservative religions dislike LGBTQ people who are far more egregious in their statements than the Epoch Times, but none of them should be given a pass simply because they have fine dancers. That said, we live in a free nation, not Communist China.

  4. Sera Chen says:

    Reilly, please come and visit China. You seemingly chose to ignore China’s policies of torture, organ harvesting and re-education of the Falun Gong because they were getting too large and their beliefs were counter to the Communist Party. Yes, by all means, take down those pesky Shen Yun leaflets, stifle free speech and join in the condemnation of those that the Communist Chinese party want to destroy. When you’re done visiting the few remaining Falun Gong in China, go and visit the Uyghurs in the re-education camps in Xinjiang.

    By the way, have you ever even been to a Shen Yun performance?
    I doubt it.

  5. BFW says:

    Maybe the dancers just want to dance. Maybe the audience just wants to see them dance. Maybe it is something beautiful to view. Just maybe….Padre Pio actually did levitate or could be in two places at once, like Santa. Maybe.

    Anyway, Best Wishes, and Merry Christmas, too!

  6. Bjean says:

    Padre Pio is believed to have had the gifts of levitating and bilocation, so these are things that some believe. Some simply dance for the same reason birds sing. Have yourself a peaceful little Xmas!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Oh my goodness! If you have something to say, why don’t you just say it!

    Merry Christmas to All!

  8. John Moran says:

    This article is an exercise in religious bigotry, and full of misinformation.

    Falun Dafa (aka Falun Gong) is a peaceful spiritual practice based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Any fair-minded reader can learn about the practice at falundafa.org or faluninfo.net. There are tens of millions of practitioners around the world, including millions in China who face horrific repression and human rights violations at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

    The author’s hateful smearing of Falun Gong as a dangerous cult has no factual basis, but it echoes the CCP’s decades-long propaganda campaign to vilify Falun Gong, to incite hatred and justify ongoing persecution of Falun Gong members in China. See, e.g, Matas and Kilgour, Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong For Their Organs (Seraphim Editions 2009), at p. 19: (“the Chinese government labeling of the Falun Gong as an evil cult is a component of the repression of the Falun Gong, a pretext for that repression as well as a defamation, incitement to hatred, depersonalization, marginalization and dehumanization.”). Matas and Kilgour’s book (p. 19) goes on to explain that Falun Gong actually “has none of the characteristics of a cult.”

    Similarly, Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the persecution of Falun Gong, wrote in his book Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China (Pantheon Books 2004) at p. 223 that the “cult” label was designed to “[cloak] the government’s crackdown with the legitimacy of the West’s anti-cult movement.” Johnson went on to explain (p. 224) that: “The group [Falun Gong] didn’t meet many common definitions of a cult: its members marry outside the group, have outside friends, hold normal jobs, do not live isolated from society, do not believe that the world’s end is imminent and do not give significant amounts of money to the organization. Most importantly, suicide is not accepted, nor is physical violence….[Falun Gong] is at heart an apolitical, inward-oriented discipline, one aimed at cleansing oneself spiritually and improving one’s health.”

    It is reckless for YS News to spread the CCP’s “cult” smear, which is used to justify persecution, torture and imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners in China to this day. (See, e.g., US State Department Report on International Religious Freedom: China, https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-report-on-international-religious-freedom/china/, which notes that the millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China face propaganda campaigns, harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, severe discrimination and other “gross violations of human rights”).

    As for the article’s other attacks on Falun Dafa, it is true that Dafa teaches conservative sexual ethics, including that homosexuality is immoral, but I’ve never seen any reference to such an issue in a Shen Yun performance. Dafa is tolerant, and does not advocate any form of discrimination or maltreatment against gay people. Dafa teaching on homosexuality is pretty much indistinguishable from any of the world’s major religions (at least in their standard forms). You may disagree with the teaching, but the disagreement is not grounds for depicting Falun Dafa as a “fringe” or “dangerous” group. As the Falun Dafa InfoCenter puts it, “we make no attempt to impose these views on others, certainly not to non-practitioners.” (https://faluninfo.net/misconceptions-intolerant/).

    Similarly, there is no basis for the accusation that Falun Dafa is “racist.” Dafa teaches that all human beings were made in the image of gods and should be treated with compassion and respect. For example, one of the most recently published Dafa teachings, “How Humankind Came to Be” (available at https://en.falundafa.org/eng/articles/20230120A.html), states: “When divine beings made man, they did so at the Creator’s behest, and He instructed them to each make human beings in their own unique image. For this reason there are the White, Asian, Black, and other races. While their outward appearances differ, the souls within them were given by the Creator. And that is why they have common values.”

    Finally, it is misleading to suggest that Falun Dafa supports “far right” politics. Support for right-wing politics is not part of Dafa teachings, and Dafa practitioners have diverse political views. Dafa’s founder, Li Hongzhi, has consistently taught that Dafa should have nothing to do with politics, including in some of the practice’s most important texts. It is true that some individual Falun Gong practitioners operate the Epoch Times, and the newspaper is considered right-wing. But the Epoch Times does not speak for Falun Gong generally, and does not purport to.

    It is inaccurate and unfair to smear Shen Yun based on the conduct of others just because they share the same spiritual affiliation. I doubt that YS News would apply such guilt-by-association reasoning against members of other more commonly-known religious groups. I think that any free-thinking reader who sees the Shen Yun performance will be glad that they did, and will realize how far off the mark this article was.

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