Shen Yun: Critique and Commentary


Robinson Lee, Staff Writer

“5,000 years of civilization reborn.” The tagline that accompanies every billboard, magazine, poster, and TV advertisement related to Shen Yun is everywhere. The Shen Yun performances stipulate the idea that in the midst of an oppressive Communist China where traditional, spiritual, and artistic values have been compromised, Shen Yun is one, if not the only, show that exists as a preserver of long lost arts and dances. And when taken into context of a larger U.S. who doesn’t have firsthand experiences with Chinese culture combined with an overall negative view of Communism, Chinese or otherwise, it is easy to see how Shen Yun can captivate audiences with its “oriental,” “foreign,” and “friendly” shows. Simply put, Shen Yun is capitalizing off of a combined cultural and political perspective that many Americans have about China in order to sell tickets and sell a message. I have been to two Shen Yun shows in my short and meager life, and I enjoyed them on an artistic level, but the show when I saw it in 2019 pushed a very unsettling message. 

In one of the dance routines a vocalist sang “Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas. Modern trends destroy what makes us human.” Now this quote in itself is quite revolting as it suggests that not adhering to a religion and evolution are a vice. But this quote exemplifies the larger picture for Shen Yun on a political level. But first, some background is needed.

Shen Yun was founded by members of the Falun Gong who are practitioners of a spiritual movement that has both Taoist and Buddhist characteristics. As such, it shares many of the practices and ideas of each religion’s philosophies. Falun Gong promotes meditation and elimination of physical desires to reach enlightenment. It also interestingly appeared during a time in China when there was renewed interest in spiritual practices similar to Falun Gong in the 1990s. But what sets the Falun Gong apart from other movements is its persecution by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

The Falun Gong was active in the 90s, but they have since been labeled as a cult by the CCP with propaganda staining their name in China. This has roots in the Falun Gong separating themselves from the CCP’s direction, as many movements during that period were kept on a leash. By doing so the Falun Gong made themselves targets of the CCP’s persecution. China’s persecution plays directly into the reason why the Falun Gong’s campaigns carry around the perspectives of the “dangers of modern science”. It’s no doubt that the CCP’s persecution of the Falun Gong has shaped how they perceive Chinese Communism and how they communicate their opposition to the CCP, but this persecution is foundational to understanding the Falun Gong today and how they came to spout these words. 

From these experiences of persecution and its outlawing in China, the Falun Gong has channeled anti-CCP messages through Shen Yun. I believe that the quote “Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas. Modern trends destroy what makes us human,” was primarily shaped to be an attack against the CCP and Communist ideals. Science, evolution, and atheism are commonly associated with Communism and can be traced into what the Falun Gong believes that the CCP represents.

 I do believe that they are horribly incorrect in the idea that science, evolution, and atheism are harmful. But this political belief that Shen Yun is pushing is actually more in line with a more American perspective that Communism and more specifically the CCP, is a danger and a threat to individualism and the general well-being of people. I am even more convinced when one of their last songs showed a tsunami with Karl Marx’s face on it showing it devastating a city. By trying to align themselves with general American perspectives on political ideologies, Shen Yun is unapologetically trying to sell more tickets to grab people’s attention and agree with “American values” albeit in one of the worst ways possible.

This ties in to the cultural aspect Shen Yun has across America. At AHS, many of us come from Chinese backgrounds, and even those who don’t definitely know people who are. We have first and second hand experiences with Chinese culture whether it be with family structures, friends, or the food that we casually eat. 

But most places in the U.S. scarcely have the same access to Chinese culture that we do. In some ways, Chinese culture and people are seen as foreign, mysterious, and even fascinating, attributes which can be summed up in the antiquated term “oriental”. In some places Chinese-Americans are still treated as such, especially with the new instance of the coronavirus, which has led to Chinese-Americans, and even broadly Asian-Americans, being treated as outsiders, foreigners, or at its worst, dangerous. So when a local Caucasian American, living in somewhere like Wyoming sees Shen Yun, it may be one of the few times they may get to experience Chinese culture. That small experience may shape their perspective of Chinese culture and Chinese-Americans which is a big role when we are talking about traits that represent such a vast array of people. 

Shen Yun is in a position where they can introduce everyday Americans unfamiliar with Chinese culture to see that it is wondrous and create positive impressions. As I see it, they have the power to create such positive impressions and change, but they just aren’t doing that. Instead, they are opting to use outrageous quotes and aggressive advertising to get their point across. Maybe instead of filling shows with flagrant criticisms of science, they could focus more on the history and contributions of China and people who have spent their lives in Chinese culture. Shen Yun has its place despite its flaws, but it should be showing the best of what Chinese culture has to offer and the ideas that come with over 5,000 years of tradition, not cultish remarks about science or evolution.