What is Shen Yun, and why am I seeing it everywhere?

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – If you’ve been running the road, surfing the Internet or frequenting the Tri-Cities restaurant circuit in the last few months, you may have noticed advertisements for a certain performance popping up everywhere.

“Shen Yun: China Before Communism” is coming to the Tri-Cities on Tuesday, and according to event listings, performers will bring “a unique blend of stunning costuming, high-tech backdrops, and an orchestra like no other.”

China: Ancient and Modern

Shen Yun performing arts, Shen Yun for short, is a traveling non-profit performance troupe with several essential selling points. According to their site, Shen Yun shows aim to recapture ancient Chinese culture in ways that are no longer possible in mainland China.

Alongside traditional dances and musical stylings, Shen Yun promises a sampling of several dynasties across Chinese history. The production also utilizes a large digital screen as a backdrop to add depth and scale to smaller groups of performers.

Classical Chinese dance is described by the organization’s website as a comprehensive dance system dating back thousands of years, and Shen Yun is slated to bring the art form’s “purest” presentation to the region.

China vs. Shen Yun

According to their website, Shen Yun was founded in 2006 in order to “revive the essence of Chinese culture.”

Shen Yun Performing Arts Inc. non-profit documents specifying that the corporation was created to “carry forward the goodness of FLDF and universal principle of Truth, Compassion and Forbearance, to bring together talented artists of different nationality to revive the true, five-millennia-old artistic tradition.”

In this case, FLDF stands for Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, a health and spiritual movement that was banned in the People’s Republic of China in 1999 after being labeled a cult and banned from practice.

“What happened in China before is there was a little bit of emphasis on traditional ideas and philosophy after the communists took over,” ETSU professor Dr. Henry Antkiewicz said. “So there was some interest in traditional things in China, one of them was an exercise practice called Qi Gong, and this was very popular in the 1980s. And this became the basis for the development of Falun Gong.”

Dr. Antkiewicz is a history professor with a focus on Eastern Europe, Russia, China and Japan. Throughout his career, Dr. Antkiewicz accompanied ETSU students to China in connection to a sister university overseas. Several years ago, he had the chance to try Qi Gong, and found it interesting as an exercise.

“You had to register organizations, so Li Hongzhi registered Falun Gong and that was really big for the rest of that decade.” Dr. Antkiewicz said. “It became extremely popular in the country. The authorities estimated that the membership was about 70,000 people.”

As numbers began to rise, so too did Falun Gong’s impact on local government and party members. In 1999, tensions between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and Falun Gong came to a head.

“Of all things, they performed a vigil in front of the compound where the communist party leaders lived in the center of Beijing,” Dr. Antkiewicz said. “Now, this is right next to the Forbidden City, that palace of the former emperors, so this is a very important place in town.”

The vigil gathered around 10,000-15,000 people, who then remained in the plaza without much more of a word.

“It didn’t irritate anybody, they didn’t pass out leaflets or anything like that, but they made their presence known,” Dr. Antkiewicz added. “And this frightened the authorities because you’re not supposed to do this. Only the communist party is there to organize people, if somebody else is doing the organizing, then it could develop in suspicious directions.”

In response to the gathering, the practice and teaching of Falun Gong was banned. Two years prior to the incident, Li Hongzhi, the founder and leader of Falun Gong today, left China seeking asylum within the United States.

“The peaceful demonstration of the Falun Gong did not look like it was threatening at all,” Dr. Antkiewicz said. “But this is enough to frighten people who want control – complete control – of politics and [to] make sure things are going their way.”

Once Falun Gong’s practice was banned and practitioners began entering the prison system, rumors began floating out of China that many were mistreated or abused.

“There has been talk about people suffering under the prison system, and other nefarious things happening to them.” Dr. Antkiewicz said.

In June of 2021, the UN Human Rights Commissioner detailed multiple researchers claims by over a dozen UN, stating that they had received credible reports that “forced organ harvesting in China appears to be targeting specific ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities held in detention, often without being explained the reasons for arrest or given arrest warrants.”

According to the report, groups targeted for organ harvesting included Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghur minority members, Tibetans, Muslims and Christians. The report states the issue had previously been raised with the Chinese government in 2006 and 2007 without much evidence of change.

Falun Dafa? Organ Harvesting? What does that have to do with dancing?

For members of Shen Yun Performing Arts, spirituality goes hand-in-hand with performance. According to their site, every member of Shen Yun is a practitioner of Falun Dafa drawing from divine sources.

“Throughout history, almost every culture looked toward the divine for inspiration,” their materials read. “Art was meant to uplift, bringing joy to both the people who created and experienced it. It is this principle that drives Shen Yun performers and their art.”

The dance itself is a method to both practice and preach Falun Dafa, in a way. Founder Li Hongzhi says the act of Shen Yun, literally translated to the beauty of divine beings dancing, is a way to “offer deliverance in the human world.”

In addition to the spiritual perspective of performers, the show has a political drive as well. Marketing materials state the show itself is designed to bring awareness to the plight of Falun Dafa members within mainland China, including the aforementioned claims of organ harvesting. Shen Yun materials allege that the CCP has targeted the show within the United States in an attempt to silence the performance.

While this may seem like a far cry from the beautiful backdrops and movements slated for the Martin Center, Shen Yun states that the act is as much preservation as it is performance.

“Classical Chinese dance dates back thousands of years,” Shen Yun’s website says. “Dynasty after dynasty, it was enriched and refined, becoming one of the world’s most comprehensive dance systems. In China today, it’s regularly mixed with military or modern dance styles to the point that people don’t know what exactly they’re watching. Only Shen Yun performs classical Chinese dance in its purest form, preserving its traditional aesthetic the way it was originally passed down.”

Falun Gong/Dafa’s founder Li Hongzhi defines Classical Chinese dance in Shen Yun materials, outlining an ongoing struggle between the troupe and the Beijing Dance Academy for control over the art form’s direction.

“There’s an issue of what is ‘traditional’ in China, and let’s say traditional dance,” Dr. Antkiewicz said. “If you travel to China, particularly if you go to where the Terracotta Warriors were in the first empire 2000 years ago in Xi’an, China, there are performances there that you can see of what they consider to be traditional dance.”

From a historical lens, however, Dr. Antkiewicz said there may be lost details and distortions of the art that haven’t reached modern audiences from either camp.

“What I think the Falun Gong is doing with their Shen Yun group, that dance troupe, is to show that they have this kind of a connection to Chinese antecedence. They choreograph their material as well, they make their costumes as historic as they possibly can make it, but there’s a very long timespan that has elapsed.”

And how did this end up at ETSU?

This particular show is brought to campus by the Tennessee Falun Dafa Association based in Memphis, which has been in operation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit since 2011, according to ProPublica records.

News Channel 11 staff have reached out to both Shen Yun Performing Arts and the Tennessee Falun Dafa Assoc. for comment regarding their expectations for Johnson City, but have not been contacted in return.

As to their use of the Martin Center for Performing Arts, ETSU Senior Director of Strategic Communications Joe Smith said Shen Yun rented the facility as one of several touring productions and special events that utilize the venue. No one at the university is connected to the show, Smith said, including student organizations.

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