What Am I Clapping For? Shen Yun’s Religious Propaganda or Creative Art?
Commentary by Walter Hesford
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?