Just as it is impossible for me to articulate with any certainty the moment I entered adulthood or began to believe that human life on Earth would not last past the twenty-second century, I cannot tell you when I first became aware of Shen Yun. The most pervasive forms of local advertising often feel like this—like nursery rhymes or urban legends, or something implanted in your most tender consciousness by a social version of natural law. When Texans hear the name Jim Adler, their souls reply with “Texas Hammer.” Michiganders know that God filled the sky around the Detroit airport with clouds and with billboards for Joumana Kayrouz. New Yorkers know the Cellino & Barnes hotline better than they know their Social Security numbers. And, for many Americans who live in or around the ninety-six cities where the Shen Yun Performing Arts troupe is set to perform this year, the words “Shen Yun” conjure an indelible yet incomprehensible image: a flat, bright shade of lilac, a woman leaping in the sky with a fan-shaped white skirt and billowing pink sleeves, and the enigmatic phrase “5,000 Years of Civilization Reborn.”
Shen Yun has lived in the pink fluffy insulation of my mind for a while now. Last year, the ads were goldenrod yellow, like dehydrated urine, and they said “Reviving 5,000 Years of Civilization.” The year before that, the ads (“Experience a Divine Culture”) were green. The year before that, the Shen Yun poster featured two women dancing, wearing birthday-cake-frosting colors, and for months I sat in the subway reading but in no way processing the phrase “Absolutely the No. 1 show in the world.” These posters were so uncanny and contentless that the easiest explanation for their existence was that my brain had simply glitched and invented Shen Yun the way John Nash invented his roommate in “A Beautiful Mind.” Shen Yun was a Baader-Meinhof object: once I saw it, I started to see it everywhere. Shen Yun greeted me silently at the bus stop and loomed over highway exits, following me around on the physical plane of existence the way anything you shop for on the Internet starts to follow you around online.
Then, over the holidays, I went home to Houston, where my parents live. On Christmas Day, my dad told me that he had something special planned for the family. “It’s this show,” he said. “It’s supposed to be spectacular. It’s called Shen Yun.”
“What?!” I said.
“Mike and Lilly saw it,” my dad said. “They said it was beautiful.”
“It’s real?” I said. “What is it?”
“Oh,” my dad said. “It’s dancing. Beautiful . . . dancing. Really fabulous, traditional dancing.”
“Is it like Cirque du Soleil?” I asked, furiously Googling Shen Yun on my phone, something that had never occurred to me to do before. (Why look up a figment of your own imagination?) I was seeing a lot of search results that involved the word “cult.” I clicked on one link, and then closed it, realizing that I did not want to spoil what lay ahead of me—a free journey into the fantastic unknown.
On the day of Shen Yun, I developed chills and a fever, which I immediately decided to ignore in the interest of seeing Shen Yun. My family drove to the fancy concert hall downtown, where the lobby was full of people in suits and cocktail dresses. After we took our seats, two hosts with animatronic smiles, speaking both Chinese and English, began introducing a series of dances, which were called things like “Goodness in the Face of Evil” and “The World Divinely Restored.” The female dancers moved in hypnotic swirls; the male dancers jumped and flipped. Behind the stage was an enormous screen upon which digital backdrops—ancient temples, royal gardens, the cosmos—appeared, along with digital dancers who would walk to the bottom of the screen and then pop out, via the appearance of a living dancer, on the stage. The colors were near-neon and unnatural; they reminded me of the glowing hues of Photo Hunt, the tabletop bar game. The hosts started talking about a spiritual discipline called Falun Dafa, and then introduced a dance in which a beautiful young follower of Falun Dafa was kidnapped and imprisoned by Communists, who harvested her organs. “I’m hallucinating,” I whispered to my brother in the dark.
“Would everyone like to learn a little Chinese?” one of the hosts asked. He intoned a phrase and asked the audience to repeat it. “That phrase means ‘I love Shen Yun,’ ” he said.
I felt my forehead. The dances continued, sleeves swirling, skirts rippling. A man came onstage to sing a song in Chinese, which was translated on the screen behind him. “We follow Dafa, the Great Way,” he began, singing about a Creator who saved mankind and made the world anew. “Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas. Modern trends destroy what makes us human,” he sang. At the end of the song, the row of older white people sitting behind me clapped fervently. In the final dance number, a group of Falun Dafa followers, who wore blue and yellow and clutched books of religious teachings, battled for space in a public square with corrupt youth. (Their corruption was evident because they were wearing black, looking at their cell phones, and, in the case of two men, holding hands.) Chairman Mao appeared, and the sky turned black; the city in the digital backdrop was obliterated by an earthquake, then finished off by a Communist tsunami. A red hammer and sickle glowed in the center of the wave. Dazed, I rubbed my eyes, and saw a huge, bearded face disappearing in the water.
“Was that . . . ” I said to my brother, wondering if I needed to go to the hospital.
“Karl Marx?” he said. “Yeah, I think that was a tsunami with the face of Karl Marx.”
Shen yun, according to Shen Yun, means “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” (It can also be translated as “the rhythm of a divine spirit,” or, more simply, “god’s melody.”) The Shen Yun Performing Arts organization was founded in 2006, in New York’s Hudson Valley, and put on its first touring show in 2007. By 2009, there were three touring Shen Yun companies. Today, there are six companies, each consisting of forty or so dancers, all of them trained at the Fei Tian Academy, which is situated on a four-hundred-and-twenty-seven-acre campus established for Falun Dafa practitioners in upstate New York. The dancers are accompanied by an orchestra that incorporates Chinese instruments; each troupe includes about eighty people. In addition to the ninety-six American cities it is touring this year, Shen Yun will visit Vancouver, Berlin, Auckland, Taipei, Daegu, Aix-en-Provence, and dozens of other places.
Shen Yun is a nonprofit. In 2016, it reported more than seventy-five million dollars in assets and more than twenty-two million dollars in revenue. Given the amount of money the organization seems to spend on advertising, it is hard to believe that it could be in the black, but the Guardian has reported that each city’s Shen Yun advertising campaign is sponsored by the local Falun Dafa association. The ad blitzes are carefully coördinated—“Shen Yun Ads” is basically a season on the calendar now. In January, I decided to double-check my woozy memories and buy a ticket to see Shen Yun again, at Lincoln Center. After the purchase went through, I received a survey that asked me which of the thirty-six different versions of the Shen Yun ad that ran in New York—Newsday spots, Metro North posters, brochures in the mail—had convinced me to buy tickets. Shen Yun saturation has reached such a ludicrous intensity that it has, in recent months, become a meme.
Part of the seeming strangeness of Shen Yun could be attributed to a latent Orientalism on the part of Western viewers—including those of us who are of Asian descent. But the real root of Shen Yun’s meme-friendly eeriness is that the ads brightly and aggressively broadcast nothing at all; this is why it’s so easy to imagine them popping up in Ebbing, Missouri, or in the extended Blade Runner universe, or on Mars. The ads have to be both ubiquitous and devoid of content so that they can convince more than a million people to pay good money to watch what is, essentially, religious-political propaganda—or, more generously, an extremely elaborate commercial for Falun Dafa’s spiritual teachings and its plight vis-à-vis the Chinese Communist regime.
The Chinese Embassy, for its part, warns the American public to “stay away from the so-called ‘Shenyun’ performance of the ‘Falun Gong’ organization so as to avoid being deceived and used by the cult.” Whether Falun Dafa—the name is used interchangeably with Falun Gong—is a cult, in either a strict or loose sense, is debatable. Its practitioners have no record of violence, and the organization does not appear to be coercive. Its stated central values are “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.” The organization’s Web site notes that the “Falun,” meaning an “intelligent, rotating entity composed of high-energy matter,” is planted “in a practitioner’s lower abdomen from other dimensions” and then “rotates constantly, twenty-four hours a day.” Most of the group’s practices fall roughly within the traditions of Tai Chi and Qigong, and the group itself can be situated within China’s long history of apocalyptic sects promising redemptive transformation, such as the White Lotus Society, which dates to the Ming dynasty.
Falun Gong was founded by a man named Li Hongzhi, who registered the group with the Chinese government in 1992. (In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square Protests, the Chinese Communist Party established a registry of social organizations, in order to head off political upheaval.) He soon attracted “tens of millions of adherents,” the political-science professor Maria Hsia Chang writes in “Falun Gong: The End of Days.” Falun Gong started holding enormous gatherings; by the mid-nineties, there were more than two thousand Falun Gong practice stations in Beijing alone. Troubled by the possibility that a large part of the population was becoming more loyal to Li than to the Communist Party, the government began cracking down on Qigong groups and banning sales of Falun Gong publications. By 1999, the government was estimating that the group had seventy million adherents; that year, more than ten thousand of them staged a silent protest in front of the central government compound, in Beijing. An arrest warrant was issued for Li, who had already immigrated to Queens, New York. The Chinese legislature subsequently passed, and began violently enforcing, an anti-cult law.
Li has been open about his beliefs that evolution is fraudulent, that people of different races will be separated in Heaven, and that homosexuality and promiscuity are unnatural. He told Time that aliens were attempting to control humans by making us dependent on modern science. (He intended to be metaphorical, he later said.) A San Francisco man named Samuel Luo has claimed that his mother and stepfather refused essential medical treatment because of Falun Gong’s teachings that sickness is based in karma; he has also claimed that they came to believe that it was the gods’ plan to eliminate the gay population. Luo set up a Web site called The Untold Story of Falun Gong in 2007, and Falun Gong responded by complaining to the domain provider. The organization also threatened to sue the International Cultic Studies Association for bringing Luo to a conference as a presenter. Other religions resist modern medicine, and many faiths have held racist views or have opposed homosexuality (or both). But Falun Gong’s defensive reactions not only to criticism but to basic journalistic inquiry can suggest an institution that would prefer people not ask very many questions. In response to a list of questions related to this article, a representative from Falun Gong’s information center, who had previously clarified a few points over the phone, sent an impassioned, six-hundred-word e-mail expressing dismay at some of the details mentioned in the questions and arguing that negative stories about Falun Gong make it easier for the Chinese government to wage its campaign of persecution. The representative asked that he not be quoted at all. He did not answer any of the questions. (I separately requested comment, multiple times, from Shen Yun, but never heard back.)
Falun Gong insists that thousands of its members have been killed in state custody, and three high-profile researchers—the journalist Ethan Gutmann, the human-rights lawyer David Matas, and the former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour—maintain that China has been harvesting thousands of organs annually from imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners, but many experts dispute this. (In 2017, a lawyer who has defended hundreds of Falun Gong members told the Washington Post that he knew of only three or four members dying in prison, and that he had never heard of organs being harvested from live prisoners, as Falun Gong claims.) The fact that both Falun Gong and the Communist Party communicate via propaganda makes it almost impossible to understand what’s really happening; a decade ago, the journalist Joseph Kahn, in the Times, described the rise of Falun Gong as “probably the most mysterious chapter in the history of China over the last 30 years.” Falun Gong members are legitimately persecuted in China, but stories about this have petered out in the press. And, in China, state censorship of dissent is growing. Under these circumstances, Shen Yun can be seen as a baroque and surreal last-resort call for help and attention.
Falun Gong also has its own media outlet, a newspaper called the Epoch Times, which was founded in 2000. (The chairman of the newspaper’s board has said that it is “not a Falun Gong newspaper,” because “Falun Gong is a question of an individual’s belief.”) The paper skews conservative: among its recent pieces are stories headlined “Why We Should Embrace President Trump’s Nationalism,” “Government Welfare: A Cancer Known as Communism,” and “President Trump, Build the Wall.” It also is the world’s foremost purveyor of Shen Yun content, publishing such stories as “Excited Fans Welcome Shen Yun at Taiwanese Airport,” “The Vivid Storytelling of Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra,” and “Shen Yun Audiences Already Waiting for Next Year.” That last piece begins:
It was only fitting that Shen Yun Performing Art’s last North American performance, on May 10 in Philadelphia’s Merriam Theatre, was completely sold out. Audiences around the world have lauded every performance. Some are moved to tears others are left completely speechless.
This is perhaps due to the power of Shen Yun’s mission.
The article adds, “It might be a little overwhelming to imagine what it feels like to experience 5,000 years of Chinese culture in just two hours.”
Aside from the organ harvesting, the homophobia, the anti-evolution ballad, and the Karl Marx apparition, the thing I found most odd about my Shen Yun experience in Houston was the hosts’ explanation of Chinese classical dance. This art form seemed to resemble both ballet and gymnastics, they said, but, they explained, ballet and gymnastics had in fact borrowed the traditional techniques of Chinese classical dance. The dancers were showcasing a tradition that was thousands of years old, they went on—a tradition that had been single-handedly rejuvenated by Shen Yun. It was impossible to see a show like this in China, because of the Communist regime, they told us.
In February, I called up Emily Wilcox, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan and the author of the book “Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy.” “I studied Chinese classical dance at the Beijing Dance Academy for a year and a half,” she said, “and, a few weeks after I came back to Michigan, a group promoting Shen Yun came up to me at the mall, handed me a flyer, and gave me the whole spiel about how Chinese dance is banned in China. It was hilarious to me, and so ridiculous, and, in a way, it inspired me to write this history in my book.”
Wilcox told me that Chinese classical dance is one of the predominant forms of dance in the contemporary Chinese art world. “It’s the form that professional dancers pay most attention to,” she said. “And, crucially, it’s actually a very new art form.” In the early nineteen-fifties, Wilcox explained, Chinese dancers, driven by a nationalistic impulse to create a form that could truly represent China, and drawing inspiration from historic art objects, nineteen-twenties Chinese opera, and various types of folk performance, began to shape a new tradition. “Dancers in China emphasize the fact that Chinese dance is an artistic innovation,” Wilcox said. “They’re interested in the possibility of newness, diversity, finding something new in Chinese history rather than re-creating the same thing.”
“Have you ever heard anyone say that ballet or gymnastics came out of Chinese dance?” I asked.
“I have never heard that before, no,” Wilcox said. She then pointed me to several Chinese-classical-dance performances on YouTube, all of which were markedly more expressive and nuanced than what I saw at Shen Yun.
In the book “Contemporary Directions in Asian-American Dance,” Yutian Wong notes that the glowing profiles Shen Yun publishes about its dancers “consist of stories in which former Chinese nationals can only discover the essence of Chinese culture by learning and performing classical Chinese dance choreography outside of the People’s Republic of China.” Shen Yun insists that it is a singular source of generative purity—that five thousand years of culture were reborn in upstate New York in 2006. Wong suggests that Shen Yun’s claims to purity are a way for Falun Gong practitioners to reclaim their identity from persecution—and that they’re bolstered by a preëxisting tendency on the part of Western audiences to perceive Asian bodies, and Asian culture, as “authentic.”
On a freezing evening in early March, I took the train uptown for my second viewing of Shen Yun. I got to Lincoln Center early and began chatting up strangers. The crowd was heavily Asian; little girls with long black hair were running around in poofy department-store dresses. The first two groups I approached did not speak English. A fiftysomething man with a Turkish accent told me that he and his wife had come for his birthday. A stylishly dressed black couple told me that they usually bought tickets to Alvin Ailey for birthday celebrations, but this year they had decided to try Shen Yun instead. A white couple in their seventies from Long Island was also celebrating a birthday. I asked everyone what they were expecting from the show. Dancing, acrobatics, beautiful colors, athleticism, “really traditional culture,” they said. I also asked what had prompted them to buy tickets. Some people mentioned the billboards, others mentioned the TV ads. “I get so many mailers at my apartment,” one person told me. Another said, “I saw that quote from Cate Blanchett!” (According to the Epoch Times, Blanchett saw Shen Yun, with her family, in 2011, and found it “exquisitely beautiful,” as countless ads since have proclaimed. A representative for Blanchett did not responded to a request for comment.)
As the Epoch Times later noted, the theatre was full. When the curtain went up, white fog rolled off rows of smiling female dancers, and everyone gasped. The dance program was exactly what I had seen in Houston. The two hosts were identical to the previous hosts in manner and bearing, down to their pauses and gestures. They brought to mind hologram flight attendants on a plane that would never land. The vocal numbers, though, were different from the Houston production—instead of the song about atheism and evolution, a soprano in an evening gown sang a song that began “Many today are far from the warmth of home / Separated by great distances from those they love.” It seemed likely that this was Shen Yun’s way of molding the production to local tastes; the other vocal number bemoaned the busyness of modern life.
On the digital backdrop, the heavens were constantly opening up. The colors reminded me of early-two-thousands going-out tops, and Lisa Frank, and the glittery posters of fruits and vegetables that I used to see at the bazaar when I lived in Kyrgyzstan. Everything was as monotonous as a screen saver, until the hosts began talking about persecution. “There are people outside this theatre right now who were sent by the Chinese government,” the man said, setting the audience aflutter just as the dance with the organ harvesting began. At intermission, I looked outside for people who appeared to have been sent by the Chinese government—I didn’t see any, but what do I know—and asked a woman selling Shen Yun merchandise what I might do if I was interested in joining Falun Dafa. “We recommend that you go to the Web site, where you can download teachings and exercise videos,” she said, smiling. “You know, everything you see in this show is true.” At the end of the show came Mao, the Communist earthquake, the hammer-and-sickle tsunami, and the enormous face of Karl Marx. A quarter of the audience started filing out of the theatre during the bows; others gave Shen Yun a standing ovation.
“What’d you think?” I asked the man sitting behind me.
“You know,” he said, pausing. “You know, I thought it was really, really great!” The expression on his face was one of compassion and forbearance but not necessarily of truthfulness—it was, I thought, the look of someone who, in about nine minutes, would be on the 1 train, wondering, as I have been wondering, how something could be so much more and so much less than what it seemed.