31.9 F
Sunday, December 10, 2023
HomeCommentaryWhat Am I Clapping For? Shen Yun's Religious Propaganda or Creative Art?

What Am I Clapping For? Shen Yun’s Religious Propaganda or Creative Art?


Related stories

Ask an Evangelical: Who or What do Evangelicals Believe God Is?

Who or what do evangelicals believe God is? Is God for them an image of a human man but not a woman? Do evangelicals believe in scientific evolution or do they believe each and every species was individually created?

Be Alert. Vigilance Is Needed.

How can we stay vigilant and actively engaged? Vigilance must begin inside our spirits. Courageous self-examination of our motives, but also of our deeper strengths, is called for.

The Beatitudes: A Dividing Point Among Christians 

In my social media feeds lately, there have been some Christian ministers telling the same story: Parishioners are complaining or upset over sermons. What are the sermons? Many are ones involving the Beatitudes.

All Civilian Lives Matter Says Military Ethicist

Directly targeting civilians or exposing them to disproportionate harm in war is wrong for the same reasons that it is wrong to kill or harm innocent people in peacetime. People who pose no threat to others deserve respect and protection from violence regardless of their nationality or group identity. To violate that respect in war is not only a war crime but a moral crime.

An Atheist Celebrates Christmas

How does and Christian-turned-atheist celebrate Christmas?

What Am I Clapping For? Shen Yun’s Religious Propaganda or Creative Art?

Commentary by Walter Hesford

Comment bar

In April, my wife, a friend and I were part of a packed audience that for more than two hours applauded religious propaganda during a performance in Spokane’s First Interstate Center for the Arts.

Our friend had said that we would be seeing a group called Shen Yun, which performed traditional Chinese dances. She had been wowed by this group on YouTube, and she knew we enjoyed traditional Chinese dancing when we lived in China. Since she was buying the very-expensive tickets, and since she was doing the driving up from the Palouse, we thought, “why not?” We looked forward to the event.

I clearly should have done some research. Yes, there was wonderful, graceful and acrobatic dancing to admire. As a lover of Chinese classical novels, I especially enjoyed sketches based on “The Journey to the West” and “Outlaws of the Marshes.” However, surrounding such sketches from beginning to end were songs and dances that presented the history, the philosophy and the theology of Falun Gong, also known as Fulan Dafa.

Shen Yun’s Roots in Falun Gong

The extensive program notes made clear Shen Yun’s roots in this organization. Since I follow what’s happening in China, I knew that members of Falun Gong were persecuted for their beliefs and their explicit opposition to Communist Party ideology (religious groups that want to be tolerated play it safe and keep quiet about how their beliefs might conflict with those of the Party). Thus, I was prepared for the dance sketches that presented this persecution and the defiance of the Falun Gong, and of course they earned my applause.

I was not prepared, however, for the religious motifs and messages presented from the opening to the closing sketch and especially in the songs. The first dance performance, “From Heaven to Save All,” featured “the arrival of the Creator, God of all gods” who calls on other deities to “follow him to the earth to save all life.” Since I had a vague understanding that Falun Gong basically drew on Daoist and Buddhist teachings, an understanding later confirmed when I read the long Wikipedia entry on Falun Gong, I thought the figure of a Creator God might just have been introduced to appeal to Western audiences.

Creator God in Dance and Song

That belief in a Creator God, however, is integral to Falun Gong doctrine, and that became apparent in the song “To Relay the Creator’s Call.” This song describes devotes of this group “Striving to relay the Creator’s call/ Revealing on stage the glory of a culture divine/Breaking the spell of atheism and evolution …” Modern thought has corrupted our original divine nature, the song continues. All “await the Creator’s deliverance back to Heaven,” the song concludes.

A later song, “The Creator Alone Can Save Us,” and the final sketch “Divine Renewal of the Human World,” repeated the same message. It was conveyed with great visuals and the performers in the last scenes were dramatically engaging. So, of course, we applauded, though I must admit that the constant attack on modern thought, including evolution, made me queasy.

Noticing on the program notes that one of Shen Yun’s sponsors was The Epoch Times also made me queasy, as I had some suspicion that this newspaper supported right wing causes. My suspicion was confirmed when back home I consulted its own website and the Wikipedia entry on this newspaper. Praised by right-wing broadcasters such as Sean Hannity, it supports far-right causes and regimes internationally and in the U.S. It is an avid supporter of Donald Trump, as is Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong.

Who Is Li Hongzhi?

The Wikipedia entry on Li Hongzhi reveals some disturbing positions. He is ardently anti-homosexual and expects his followers to be strictly heterosexual. Hongzhi is also against mixed-race marriages. He considers himself divine and might well be seen by his followers as the divine figure who descends to earth to save the world in the last dance sketch we applauded in Spokane.

We don’t have the heart to tell our left-leaning friend who bought our tickets what her money is supporting.

Certainly, the Shen Yun dance company has the right to promote its religious views. After all, other performers, knowingly or not, do the same. Consider the great orchestras that present a requiem mass by Bach or Mozart. I’ve also enthusiastically applauded these religiously-informed works of art.

Still, our experience in Spokane makes me think about who I am supporting when I attend an event in a performance center, theatre or sports arena. Who owns the team? Who profits from a successful show or movie? What are the beliefs of those who make money from my attendance?

What am I clapping for?

Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.




5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I totally agree we should consider who profits from our support, monetarily and otherwise. We can apply that to the products we purchase, the states or locations in which we choose to spend our travel dollars, and a host of other ethically informed decisions when we “vote with our pocketbooks.” Thank you for highlighting the opportunities we have in our daily life to affirm our values and beliefs.

Julie Banks

Your friend deserves to know what she is “supporting” with her $$, rather than kept ignorant. I hope you share your commentary with her, if you don’t have the heart to tell her directly.

Kurt Queller

When I first saw internet trailers for Shen Yun, I was sure I wanted to see it; the colorful pageantry is bewitching, and the technical brilliance of the the dancing and acrobatics is (I suspect) unsurpassed anywhere. In a word, breathtaking. But the ideological and cultic underpinnings are, indeed, disturbing. The propagandistic aspects of the spectacle are oddly reminiscent of Chinese Communist spectacle — just at the extreme opposite end of the political spectrum. God forbid we should ever fall under the sway of any such totalitarian ideology.

Albert Roman

You bring up a good question. When I saw Shen Yun, I was clapping for the boldness and bravery of these Chinese performers, some of whom experienced mistreatment in China at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How many violently persecuted groups today, or for that matter throughout history, ever responded to brutality in such a peaceful way by creating world class entertainment as a means to raise awareness? For that, I applaud Shen Yun.


This article is a little careless with the facts, and would have been more accurate if the author did some fact-checking beyond looking at Wikipedia. It’s false to say that Li Hongzhi is “against mixed-race marriages.” In fact, mixed-race marriages are very common among Falun Gong practitioners. The claim that Li is “ardently anti-homosexual” is also misleading. Falun Gong teachings (like most of the world’s major religions) include conservative sexual ethics, such as that homosexuality is immoral, but Li has never advocated maltreatment or discrimination against gay people. The Falun Dafa Information Center has addressed these and other common misconceptions concerning the practice: https://faluninfo.net/misconceptions-intolerant/. Also, it is not true that Li is an avid supporter of Donald Trump. (It’s true that support for Trump is or was widespread among Falun Gong practitioners, but practitioners have diverse political views and Li has consistently taught that Falun Gong itself should not be involved in politics).
I also wish the article considered the remarkable benefits (e.g., improved health, mental well-being, sense of purpose in life) that millions of Falun Gong practitioners around the world enjoy through their practice. With its focus on perceived negatives, the article missed the more remarkable story.
Finally, I agree it’s important to understand whom the dollars we spend are supporting. I hope the author and others are just as concerned with money they pay to companies that prop up the CCP in China, or that cooperate with the CCP in its vicious persecution of disfavored groups like Falun Gong practitioners or Uighurs or Tibetan Buddhists. 

Walter A Hesford

Thanks to all who have commented on this column. I do sympathize with the struggles of Falun Gong in China. I have read some of its material, and also many issues of the Epoch News, finding disturbing its right-wing views. A Chinese friend with whom I correspond mentioned that often repressive regimes (such as prevails now in China) produce reactionary organizations. We see this happening all the time in history. Walter


The Communist Party is rooted in atheism, hence its opposition to all faith groups. Is there really a religious group that can play it safe under Communism in China? Is it Buddhism governed by CCP members, underground Christians, or Muslims in the concentration camps?

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x