The lengthy read: Shen Yun appears just like a kitsch dance troupe. But Beijing sees it as being the propaganda wing from the Falun Gong movement, and a menace to their rule and hounds the dancers from town to town, attempting to sabotage their shows

If you reside in a major city within the western hemisphere, you’ve most likely seen the look: a Chinese lady floating with the air, dress billowing out behind her, using the caption Shen Yun Art That Connects Paradise and Earth. The adverts are for an organization located in upstate New You are able to that presents spectacles of Chinese traditional dance, where a large cast performs intricate, synchronised routines towards the pop-eastern sounds of the live orchestra. Every year, Shen Yuns ads shoot up around the globe prior to their touring season from banners hanging from streetlamps in The city to billboards looming over La freeways.

The organization has five separate touring troupes that do a dizzying schedule, a type of Cirque du Soleil from the east supported by a apparently bottomless publicity budget. They’ve performed the Lincoln subsequently Center in New You are able to and also the London Coliseum. In one week last spring, they hit Philadelphia, Honolulu, Charlotte now, Might and Huntsville, Alabama. Then Barcelona, Salzburg, Bremen, Baden-Baden and Paris.

Like a troupe whose influence stretches completely from Bogot in Colombia, to towns in Kentucky which have surely nothing you’ve seen prior seen 40 Asian individuals exactly the same week, not to mention 40 Asian individuals exactly the same theatre, Shen Yun is astonishingly far-reaching. Its hard to make a group which has done more to create Chinese art to unlikely corners around the globe.

Based on the Chinese government, however, Shen Yun may be the singing, dancing face of Falun Gong that the government describes like a malevolent anti-society cult leading its supporters to self-mutilation, suicide and murder. Inside a 2012 statement, china embassy in Washington issued a warning to Americans who may have been swayed through the posters appearing out and about. They happen to be staging the so-known as Shenyun Performances in america recently in the promoting Chinese culture and showcasing the oriental charm, the statement reads. But actually, additionally for their tacky taste and occasional artistic standards, the performances were full of cult messages and implied attacks from the Chinese Government.

Wherever Shen Yun goes, china government follows. In Ecuador and Ireland, Berlin and Stockholm, theatres and native governments have reported receiving letters or visits from Chinese embassies trying to shut lower the dance show. In Feb 2014, Jrg Seefeld, the big event manager from the Stage Theatre on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, in which a Shen Yun performance was scheduled, received a trip in the Chinese embassys cultural attache, who tried to help things. Seefeld declined, and also the show ongoing. I am from East Germany, he told the Berliner Zeitung. With china it is just like it was once with this rulers. They’re simply scared.

Shen Yun reports a catalogue more insidious tries to silence the audience. Just before their shows in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville this past year, the audience states the vehicle tyres from the shows presenters were slashed. In 2015 in Chicago, someone allegedly tampered having a truck covered in Shen Yun ads, flowing corrosive chemicals within the brake and accelerator pedals. The troupe states that Chinese spies photograph their movements and hear on their own telephone calls. They report suspicious break-ins, where the only products missing are passports and laptops.

It’s very easy to dismiss Shen Yun like a campy curiosity, but Falun Gong practitioners have grown to be probably the most blunt opponents from the Beijing government. And thus a kitschy dance show has turned into a preoccupation for that Chinese government among the battlegrounds which the battle for that minds and hearts of westerners and overseas Chinese is going to be won, one ribbon dance at any given time.

On a cool The month of january night in Toronto a few years ago, I introduced my mother and girlfriend to some Shen Yun performance in the The new sony Center for that Performing Arts, a 3,000-seat theatre that generally hosts travelling orchestras and Josh Groban concerts. I’d asked my mother along since i thought she might want to consider this specific undertake Chinese culture. Her mother, Gar Yin Hune, would be a Chinese opera singer who found Canada within the 1930s included in a travelling show made to bring eastern art to folks of The United States, particularly towards the immigrants employed in Chinatowns over the continent.

The show started using the seem of the gong, because the curtain rose on the wall of dry ice that gradually spread to show a large number of dancers in brightly coloured, flowing costumes. What adopted within the next two hrs would be a parade of unconnected Chinese dances that leaped from place to place and story to story. There have been vignettes in the classic folk tale The Monkey King and dances from Mongolia and Tibet, all performed with impressive athleticism and precision, before a forecasted backdrop that whirled through animated images that appeared as if scenes from the gaming.

In between each dance, two Masters of Ceremony emerged from stage to carry out some stilted patter a powerful-jawed Caucasian man inside a tuxedo traded scripted jibes in impressive Mandarin having a pretty Chinese lady inside a pink silk dress. In the finish from the first act, the MCs required to the level to announce another routine. China includes a lengthy good reputation for spirituality, the person described. But in China you can be arrested or perhaps wiped out only for meditating. Together with his fixed smile and familiar gesture he introduced the following piece: The Power Empathy, a scene from contemporary China.

The curtain rose on several youthful students relaxing in peace, meditating and studying oversized yellow Falun Gong books. The dancers performed elaborately pantomimed good deeds helping a classic lady having a cane, chasing lower a lady who’d dropped her purse. However when one unveiled a Falun Gong banner, all of a sudden a trio of males putting on black tunics emblazoned having a red hammer-and-sickle joined. The communist thugs started beating people up, clubbing and kicking innocent Falun Gong supporters.

Within the melee, among the attackers twisted his ankle and fell down. A Falun Gong specialist attempted to assist his hurt foe, lifting him up and transporting him on his back as the villain ongoing raining punches on him. Within the pieces climax, the communist lifted his fist for that final blow. He allow it to hover in mid-air, shaking, after which in just a minute of hysteria that advised me, above all else, from the moment when Keanu Reeves cannot bring themself to kill Patrick Swayze within the third act of Point Break gradually dropped it, too moved through the youthful mans empathy to carry on.

The youthful Falun Gong practitioners gave him their book. The reformed thug pirouetted round the stage. Everybody sitting and meditated together, and all of a sudden the setting exploded right into a kaleidoscope of colourful animations priests climbing down from paradise, women in dresses swirling around, enacting a type of orgy of celestial pleasure, presumably designed to mirror the interior ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment. All of a sudden, the previous communists leg was healed. He ran, he jumped, and so the cast pointed towards the screen, and also to the ultimate image assertive, meditating and beatific, peaceful using the world.

The lights emerged for intermission so we came out in to the lobby, blinking and dazed. Outdoors, a youthful lady by having an audio recorder was cornering patrons and requesting their reactions. The following day, the headlines spoke on their own: Toronto Showgoers Obsessed on Shen Yun Shen Yun Extraordinary on the Entirely Unique Level, States Toronto Entrepreneur. The dozen articles counseled me printed within the Epoch Occasions, a Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper.

Since its beginning, Shen Yun is going of their method to minimise its link with Falun Gong.Within the posters made to attract the culture enthusiasts of Berlin or London, the performers simply share an old artform. Shen Yun started in New You are able to in the year 2006 by elite Chinese artists, the foundation story on their website reads. They came plus a shared vision and fervour to bring back the lost realm of traditional Chinese culture and share it with everybody. The organization doesnt create a practice of expanding about this story in media. Regardless of the constant touring and the necessity to promote the show, the audience rarely grants interviews.

The actual story of Shen Yun, however, begins like a story of spiritual repression. Falun Gong (sometimes known as Falun Dafa) is really a spiritual movement that emerged from the qigong boom in China in early 90s a surge of tai chi-like practices that claimed to advertise health through specific movements and breathing. Falun Gong was out of the a number of other types of qigong for a few reasons. First, Falun Gongs mysterious leader, Li Hongzhi, hadn’t just produced some specific exercises, but had mapped out a whole spiritual worldview that looked suspiciously just like a religion. Second, by the 90’s it had been becoming remarkably popular, by having an believed 70 million practitioners, including high-level people from the Communist party. Towards the Chinese government, the truth that a quasi-religious organisation stubbornly outdoors party control could inspire huge figures of individuals to action was reason behind concern. The apparently harmless sight of middle-aged people exercising around the block started to resemble a threat.

Li fled China, as well as in 1998 grew to become a lasting resident of america, when they have been based since. In China, the federal government started to hack lower. On 25 April 1999, greater than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners silently collected in Beijing to demand an finish to government harassment. It had been the biggest protest since individuals in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and also the Chinese government responded having a harsh attack. They outlawed Falun Gong, arrested thousands of people, and initiated a propaganda campaign that saw daily newspaper articles warning people concerning the harmful cult. Together with democracy, Tibet and Taiwan, Falun Gong grew to become among the governments most forbidden subjects.

In this crisis, Li disappeared in the public eye for pretty much annually, departing supporters battling to learn how to react to their new position as political pariahs. When Li reemerged, states Andrew Junker, a sociologist at Valparaiso College that has written extensively about Falun Gong, it had been with a brand new message. There would be a transition to some religious and millenarian interpretation, states Junker, a sign the finish of days are here.

Inside a much-circulated interview with Time magazine in 1999, Li spoken about Falun Gong supporters getting the ability to levitate, and spoke in more detail a good extraterrestrial invasion. Since the start of this century, aliens have started to attack the human mind and it is ideology and culture, Li stated. Once the interviewer requested him if he was a person, Lis response was intentionally enigmatic: You can consider me as a person.

Falun Gong practioners protesting against their persecution by the Chinese government in London in 2009. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty

With this shift in rhetoric, Li also reinforced his position as leader. He was represented as being in charge of winning the cosmic battle while people were fighting the earthly battle here on the political sphere, says Junker. Out of this crisis, a new version of Falun Gong emerged. Practitioners who had always been discouraged from concerning themselves with earthly considerations found a way to fold political concerns into their spiritual practice, in a strategy known as clarifying truth. This meant, in theory, to try to correct the misinformation that was emerging from the Chinese government.

David Ownby, a professor at the University of Montreal and the author of Falun Gong and the Future of China, says that the Falun Gong practitioners who arrived in North America in the early 2000s had been far from political. They were perfectly patriotic, nationalistic Chinese people, Ownby says. Most of them had immigrated for economic reasons. They werent dissidents at all when this started. The irony of the crackdown is that, by banning the practice, the Chinese government had inadvertently turned thousands of hitherto apolitical actors into outlaws and activists.

In the interests of clarifying truth, Falun Gong practitioners began speaking about politics. Falun Gong followers formed media groups such as the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television, which are critical of the Chinese Communist party and have become key partners in pro-democracy movements. The Chinese government hadnt really counted on the fact that Falun Gong had a big presence in the diaspora, says Ownby. And in Canada and the US, they became very good at buttonholing journalists and members of parliament. The Chinese government kind of freaked out.

During this time, at the turn of the century, you saw hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners protesting in the streets, sitting outside Chinese consulates and passing out pamphlets. There were sympathetic articles in mainstream newspapers documenting their persecution. But what followed this flurry of media attention was inevitable: compassion fatigue. The facts on the ground that Falun Gong practitioners have been persecuted, imprisoned and killed remain as true as ever. But western sympathies have shifted. As China has grown in power, human rights abuses have become increasingly overlooked. And while Tibetan protesters and pro-democracy activists have generally had the wests sympathy, Falun Gong occupies a more ambivalent space.

Despite Beijings insistence, Falun Gong is not a cult; its a diffuse group without strong hierarchies, and there is no evidence of the kind of coercive control that the label suggests. But it is strange. Without the ballast of tradition, all new religions can feel absurd, and some of Lis stranger comments have given the group the aura of an eastern version of Scientology. Falun Gong has moralistic, socially conservative beliefs, preaching against homosexuality and sex from wedlock. The audience is secretive, and it has a inclination to embellish and distort. For a long time, the Epoch Occasions claimed that vast sums of individuals have renounced china Communist party, counting on figures which are impossible to ensure.

All this makes them feel alien and under supportive towards the liberal westerners who’d be their natural allies. Falun Gong practitioners appeared to be repressed, sure, but there is something unnerving concerning the groups bizarre worldview. In a certain point, persecution doesnt breed sympathy it breeds a type of contempt. The tenth time someone hands a pamphlet concerning the Chinese government oppressing Falun Gong, your impulse isnt to create for your local representative, its to mix the road.

It’s within this context with Falun Gong persecuted in China, and treated more and more warily in the western world that Shen Yun emerged. For Falun Gong supporters who’d spent years doing the emotionally draining work of protest, sitting outdoors United States Chinatowns absorbing the indifference of passersby, its easy to understand why promoting dancing show could be an attractive alternative.

For all of the competing narratives around Shen Yun, one place to locate a obvious form of its founding is incorporated in the words of Falun Gongs leader themself. Since 2000, Li has delivered lengthy speeches to Falun Gong practitioners at worldwide conferences. The speeches are part condition-of-the-union, part papal address, an inquisitive combination of the mundane and also the spiritual. They’re collected at, the center of great importance and Falun Gong online activity.

The speeches veer from moments of folksy, practical advice to warnings about apocalyptic forces. In one Q&A session, Li might respond to your questions about game titles (they’re adding to humankinds destruction), investing (its your personal money, so regardless of whether you let it rest both at home and place it staying with you is the own business) and just what may happen to Chinese citizens who havent quit the Communist party once the Fa-rectification is finished and also the material world as you may know it ends (they’ll, regrettably, be condemned).

Li also speaks over and over about his need to alter the world, and the homeland particularly, through the strength of Shen Yun. Within an appearance in the 2014 New You are able to Fa Conference, Li offered his account from the groups origins. How did Shen Yun first get began? he requested. There was several Dafa disciples active in the arts who wanted to make use of their professional skills to reveal the persecution and save sentient beings. Based on Li, these early performances werent excellent. It distressed him to determine his spiritual practice symbolized by such mediocre art. Therefore the Master walked in. If your dance show would save people, it will have to be considered a top-notch dance show. Afterwards I figured: Ill lead them by doing this. Which was how Shen Yun was initially established.

Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong, in New York in 1999. Photograph: Henny Abrams/EPA

Since then, Shen Yun has expanded considerably, from a single troupe to five companies of 40-odd dancers. The performers are trained in a school, the Fei Tian Academy in Deerpark, New York, part of a 427-acre retreat that was built as a refuge for Falun Gong followers fleeing persecution, and includes a Tang-dynasty style temple. The company is a mixture of professionals and full-time students who perform unpaid. One former dancer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that dancing for Shen Yun was exhausting. During their four-month tours, he worked long hours, studying in the morning before performing at night, then packing up and moving on to the next city. Though he isnt a member of Falun Gong, he says sharing their message felt like an important act of political activism. I felt like it was for a good cause, he told me. Sometimes you volunteer and theyll make you pay for everything. Here they were nice enough to cover expenses.

In each city Shen Yun visits, shows are presented by the local Falun Dafa association. This means that local Falun Gong followers must raise the needed funds, provide the publicity and lay the groundwork to make the show successful. Over the years, in speech after speech, Li has talked extensively about Shen Yun marketing and production. In one speech, Li admonishes his followers for not working hard enough to bring out the crowds. He also encourages followers not to emphasise the Falun Gong connection. You neednt insist on telling people that Shen Yun has ties to Falun Gong and make a big fanfare out of it, he tells them.

What emerges from a decades worth of Lis speeches is a strange story: a massive dance company led by a messianic figure who both communicates with celestial beings on a higher plane and takes care of local marketing. It is as if the Dalai Lama spent his spare time producing Gilbert and Sullivan revivals. Shen Yun is not a mere dance performance, but a chance to save the worlds sentient creatures and dissolve evil. For followers, then, the success of Shen Yun is freighted with significance: the fall of the corrupt communists, the salvation of family members left behind in China, and the spiritual fate of the world, all tied together and dependent on the dance performance of groups of lithe twentysomethings on stages across the world.

One day last year, I spoke to Leeshai Lemish, one of Shen Yuns Masters of Ceremony, from his hotel room in Korea. Lemish was supposed to be performing with Shen Yun in Seoul that evening, but their performances had been cancelled at the last minute under suspicious circumstances. Now he was frantically trying to figure out what had happened.

Lemish is an Ohio-born Israeli-American who came to Falun Gong as an adult after studying Chinese at Pomona College in California. Today he lives at Falun Gongs upstate New York retreat. And since 2004, he has worked full time for Shen Yun, acting as an MC during performances and working on the shows website and publicity in non-touring months.

Weve had a few crazy days, Lemish told me. After days of making calls, he thought he had figured out what had happened. The cancellation followed a familiar pattern: four Shen Yun performances in Seoul were nixed at the last minute after the theatre received a letter from the Chinese embassy. In a thinly veiled threat, the letter asked the venue, which is controlled by Koreas state-run television station, to consider the overall picture of the Chinese-Korean relationship and cancel the performances. Now Lemish and the troupe of nearly 80 dancers, musicians and crew were stranded in Seoul. For Lemish, the cancellation was just the latest proof of the global reach of the Chinese government. You dont realise how evil this stuff can be, he told me.

Lemish acknowledged that Shen Yun has been reticent when it has come to publicising its ties to Falun Gong. Were trying to figure out whats the best balance here, said Lemish. As were getting more established, were getting more transparent. The very fact that he was talking to me represented a major shift in the groups approach, he said. Slowly, the group was revealing their Falun Gong connection.

When I asked Lemish about whether Shen Yun was actually controlled by Li Hongzhi, he became evasive. I may not want to say a lot about it, just because of security issues, he said. You have a spiritual leader kind of figure, so theres a lot of security issues involved for us. Things like slashing our tires. Things like spies.

A Shen Yun performance

Lemish keeps a running tally online of all the attacks he claims his travelling group has experienced. We have people in our company who were persecuted in China, said Lemish. Theres a dancer who lost her father, who was tortured to death. You have people who have spent time in jail, a lot of people lost family members. You have people who regularly get visitors from the public security bureau at their parents home in Beijing. You dont want to forget that were out here celebrating Chinese culture and all these great stories, but theres something very dark happening.

To try to sort out the truth about Shen Yun is to stand between two forces, both buffeting you with propaganda, and figure out which way to lean. The propaganda charge against Shen Yun sticks because it feels true. The shows message is clumsy, and presented with all the subtlety of Maoist revolutionary theatre. Many of the things Shen Yun depicts that Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed for simply meditating, that the Chinese government violates its citizens human rights in countless ways are true. But the vision of China they present, and their zealous insistence that this is the one true vision, is distasteful to patriotic Chinese people who understandably do not like to be told that their homeland is evil. Like Cuban exiles in Miami, the people behind Shen Yun see their homeland in a specific context, which grows increasingly distant the longer they are away.

After the Shen Yun performance in Toronto, I made my way into the lobby and tracked down the shows presenter, who introduced himself as Joel Randall. A fortysomething Caucasian with sharp features and a quiet intensity, he smiled broadly as he explained that he was a devoted Falun Gong practitioner who had been inspired by the beauty of Shen Yun and was determined to show it to the world. Later I learned his real name is Joel Chipkar, a real estate agent who has appeared in the media as vice-president of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto.

It is wrong to think of the show as Falun Gong propaganda, Chipkar told me. The aim was to counter government propaganda. Theyre the ones that have been responsible for the destruction of traditional Chinese culture for the past 60 years, he said. During our conversation, my mother wandered over. Chipkar shook her hand. As you know, the Chinese culture was steeped in spirituality, he told her. Everyone respected the belief in gods. And then in come the communists and destroy it all.

My mother interrupted. I dont know if they were religious that way, she said. Some of it was just plain superstition. Chipkars vision of China as a god-fearing nation didnt match her own conception of the country, which had been shaped by her childhood as the daughter of Confucian-ish pragmatists who didnt seem to give much thought to the gods. Chipkar insisted that it was all about the spirit, it was all about gods, and the two of them argued, politely, as the rest of the audience filed out of the lobby and into the cold Toronto night.

And this, of course, is what Shen Yen is fighting: a battle for the very essence of what it means to be Chinese. The show tries to reframe the years of communist rule as a blip in the grand historical narrative of a country. Its the same argument that underpins so many dissident political movements: the idea that those seeking to topple the government represent the authentic soul of a nation.

At that moment, a screen in the lobby was playing an ad for an upcoming show by the National Chinese Acrobats. Chipkar looked at the screen and frowned. The practice of Chinese acrobatics was only formalised and promoted under the communists. During the cold war, Beijing used the National Acrobats as a diplomatic tool sending those strong, skilled bodies across the world as the living embodiment of the countrys triumphant revolution.

Chinese culture is not acrobatics, Chipkar said firmly. Its not juggling and jumping through hoops and standing on each others heads. Thats not Chinese culture, he said, gesturing at the ad. Next week, Shen Yun would be gone, and this other vision of China would take its place, telling a new story to its audience. On screen, men in colourful uniforms hurled themselves through the air. Girls with arched backs balanced atop slightly larger girls with arched backs. A dozen women in red skirts and calf-high red boots smiled radiantly, arms outstretched, circling the stage while balanced on a single gleaming bicycle.

A longer version of this article first made an appearance in Hazlitt, the internet literary magazine

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