By Evan Mantyk

Advertising for it is everywhere. If you haven’t seen it, you just haven’t been paying attention. A brilliantly colored image depicts a Chinese woman striking an airborne pose. But what is Shen Yun really all about? What does a performance involve? Whether you are a poet, an artist of any stripe, or just an interested ticket buyer, a closer look reveals an artistic vision worth exploring.

What Is Shen Yun?

Shen Yun’s orchestra

As the ad suggests, dance is the centerpiece. Classical dance and folk dances from China’s many ethnicities are set to a live orchestra that combines Chinese and Western instruments. They’re augmented by an array of costumes and props and an animated backdrop that performers interact with. In more contemplative moments, a sprinkling of vocalists sing operatically in Chinese and a soloist may perform on the two-stringed erhu. The journey through a few dozen pieces is guided by two smiling hosts who both speak fluently in English and Chinese.

I have taken my family, including two small children, to see Shen Yun for the last few years. In a word, we love it. (You can read my poetry about it “I Love the Dance” and “Upon Seeing Shen Yun.”) But there is more to this story than just another individual review or a wonderful family experience.

Shen Yun was founded by a group of Chinese in New York, in 2006, who were fleeing persecution by the communist regime in China. Its backstory is not unlike that of the Renaissance, when Greek scholars fled the invading Ottoman Empire in the 15th century and ended up bringing their ancient culture to the artistically fertile shores of Italy. Now, ancient China has been reborn—and where else but in America?

What Is Classical Chinese Dance?

If there is a star to the performance, then it is classical Chinese dance. The classical school of dance we are most familiar with in the West, ballet, was developed in the grand court of French King Louis XIV less than 400 years ago. Classical Chinese dance, however, is essentially a priceless antiquity that dates back at least 3,000 years to the grand courts of Chinese emperors. Imagine ancient Greek or Egyptian statues at a museum coming to life and demonstrating for you the dance forms of their advanced cultures which have now been lost. That gives the rough idea of the vast historical value Shen Yun has harnessed.

Cynthia Paniagua, choreographer and ballet and folkloric dancer, who saw the 2018 production at Lincoln Center, in New York City, said “I absolutely loved it. I was mesmerized. As a dancer and choreographer, I was just taken away by the grace, the beauty, the culture and also the technique was just flawless… history, spirituality, it’s all there.” (All audience quotes from the Epoch Times.)

Athol Willoughby OAM, former renowned ballet dancer, who saw the 2017 Production in Melbourne, Australia, said, “I think it’s just magical. This is the fourth time I’ve seen the Shen Yun Company and I can’t believe how perfect they are. I was never going to come again because I can’t stand the fact that they’re so perfect. It makes me jealous. If only we could get that perfection in classical ballet. We try but somehow or another we just don’t get there.”

Classical Chinese dance is its own system or school of dance and contains a dazzling assortment of flips, leaps, tumbling techniques, and difficult postures—it turns out to be the origin of many of the spectacular Chinese acrobatic and gymnastic techniques you’ve probably seen elsewhere.

Shen Yun depiction of Han Dynasty hero Han Xin.

Also, classical Chinese dance involves an acting component that you probably haven’t seen elsewhere. It lends itself to storytelling—something like a mixture of ballet and Shakespeare: the grace and elegance of the human form on one hand, and on the other, rollicking theatrics that can be stunningly dramatic or hilariously comic.

Famous actor and comedian Tim Allen, who saw the 2017 Production in Los Angeles, said, “I get the sense of humor, it seems culture non-specific. Comedy is comedy, and I love the comedy music. I can tell right away when something is funny even though I don’t speak Chinese. It’s quite wonderful.”

Thus, about half the pieces take us into a narrative, from ancient legends of heroes and maidens to scenes from classic novels. The most poignant pieces are perhaps those depicting modern scenes where peaceful practitioners of Falun Dafa are persecuted in communist China.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of the Hong Kong Catholic Church, who saw the 2017 Production in Taiwan, said, “They hold fast to the truth, but do so in a peaceful way. They hope that even those who have done wrong can ultimately understand and turn away from misdeeds. This is different from a political power struggle; they persevere because of their faith.”

A Profound Story for the Modern Era

The varied strains of the pieces all come together under a profound frame story of the Creator coming to earth to impart classical arts and culture that today are under attack. It’s an exciting story both inside the art and outside it as Shen Yun is in fact banned in China and there are detailed accounts of harassment and anti-Shen Yun campaigns carried out by Chinese consulates and overseas Chinese media around the world.

This spiritual story contains a stirring message that is resonating across languages, cultures, and age groups, earning praise from arts communities around the world—from New York’s Lincoln Center to Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera to great theaters in Japan and Taiwan. And it is a global phenomenon: Traveling to 20 countries on five continents with a new production every year, Shen Yun’s five touring companies are creating what might literally be the biggest show on Earth.

There is something universal in China’s 5,000-year-old culture, as can be seen in the commonness of Chinatowns, Chinese takeout, and martial arts in almost every corner of the developed world. Now, Shen Yun seems to be revealing a new layer of culture that people are quickly identifying as self-evidently beautiful and sublime.

Take for instance, the penetrating final words from perhaps the most famous classical work ever written in the West, the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven:

Do you sense your Creator, O world? (Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?)
Seek Him above the canopy of stars! ( Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!)

These lyrics (written originally by German poet Friedrich Schiller) fit perfectly into Shen Yun’s theme.

As one audience member, Dr. Henry Wall, recently remarked after seeing Shen Yun’s 2018 Production in Texas, “There is a Creator, he wants you saved and go to heaven, if you’re good you go to heaven. [These] divine concepts, tradition, family—those were to me really good things for culture to have.”

Today, in a world where classical arts often struggle to survive and new and bizarre art forms are often difficult to digest, the idea of a divine culture of clear beauty made by the Creator that is now under attack, as it quite literally is by the Chinese communist regime, is perhaps the greatest story of our time.

Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett said, after seeing Shen Yun in Sydney, Australia, “Exquisitely beautiful… The level of skill, but also the power of the archetypes and the narratives were startling.”

Is Shen Yun Falun Dafa Propaganda?

Despite the accusation, Shen Yun is not Falun Dafa propaganda. Just as Handel’s Messiah and da Vinci’s record-selling work “Salvator Mundi” (pictured here) are not Christian propaganda, Disney World is not Disney propaganda, and the Thor movies are not Norse mythology propaganda. Art and entertainment speak for themselves. (Although, if you go by one Merriam Webster definition, these might all be technically propaganda. I refer to the loaded, negative sense of the word.)

Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, is a peaceful spiritual practice brutally persecuted by the communist regime in China. The totalitarian regime utilizes real life-destroying propaganda against Falun Dafa. According to Shen Yun, many of its performers practice Falun Dafa and many performers and their families have faced persecution in China.

Apparently, critics who make such demonizing statements fail to see the bigger story and can’t tell real propaganda, which is a crime against all of humanity, from peaceful artists expressing themselves with extraordinary bravery. It is a terrible faux pas that such critics have made. I suspect they are blinded by extreme political correctness and, ironically, a new form of bigotry. Audience members without any agenda are seeing Shen Yun for what it is.

Kieth Merrill, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, who saw Shen Yun in California, said, “In today’s world where everybody is being so politically correct and so careful about expressing your views and about being who they are and about having faith, I love it when somebody has the courage to stand out, present a big commercial presentation like this, and make it very clear who they are. They’re people of faith … and I applaud them for that.”

What Is Falun Dafa?

Photo of Falun Gong practitioners before arrest

Falun Dafa is one of China’s many privately passed on qigong or cultivation practices. It was made public in 1992 by Master Li Hongzhi. It became hugely popular until it was banned in 1999 by the Chinese Communist Party, which saw the spirituality of Falun Dafa as a threat to its officially atheist government. The human rights abuses, detailed by Freedom House, Amnesty International, and countless eyewitness accounts, are truly atrocious and a matter of urgency.

To understand the blunder of calling Shen Yun Falun Dafa propaganda more fully, one only needs to look at the name Falun Dafa itself. The first word, “Falun,” literally means “Law Wheel,” and refers to a symbol much like the swastika that has long been used in Buddhism. Even before Buddhism emerged 2,500 years ago, the symbol was widely used in ancient India and is also found among cultures around the world, from ancient Greece to the Native Americans. Before the Nazis used the swastika, it was held throughout the world to be a symbol of good luck.

The word “Dafa,” simply means “Great Way” or “Great Law”—not unlike the trendy phrase “The Tao of…” which itself means “The Way of…”—“Way” and “Law” are simply common ways of identifying a spiritual path and spiritual principles throughout cultures around the world. Thus, despite its foreign sounding name, Falun Dafa is a fitting representation of man’s spiritual aspirations.

Chinese Culture Before Communism

It is also paramount to realize that Falun Dafa in itself is representative of Chinese culture, which was always deeply spiritual before communism took hold in 1949 and actively started destroying traditional culture during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Shen Yun depicts the Monkey King from Journey to the West

The emperor was “The Son of Heaven,” social change was “The Mandate of Heaven,” and the founders of Chinese medicine, writing, and music were all regarded as gods on Earth. Falun Dafa’s teachings involve Buddhist and Taoist concepts that are commonly found throughout thousands of years of Chinese culture. For instance, the famous Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, is entirely framed by a Buddhist monk and Taoist priest talking to each other and by ideas of karma, predestination, and reincarnation. The other famous Chinese novel, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, takes pilgrimaging Buddhist monks as its main characters—just imagine if Prince Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, and the Count of Monte Cristo were all Christian monks! That is the depths of the spirituality of Chinese culture before communism.

For us in the West, who grew up in school systems where teaching Darwinian evolution is mandated and teaching belief in a great and good Creator is considered scandalous, it is difficult to imagine what such a spiritual culture looks like. Shen Yun gives us an excursion into this delightfully charming and profoundly fascinating world of ancient China. Trying to fit it into a modern Westernized box is a far less rewarding exercise than simply marveling at what it can tell us about the tectonic plates shifting beneath our civilizations and cultures.

 


Due to popular interest, below is a running list of Shen Yun news as it relates to poetry and the arts.

Updated Feb. 3: Reviews from Other Poets about Shen Yun

Shen Yun’s story and aesthetics are resonating across the arts. After publishing the above piece, I came across a number of other poets commenting after seeing a Shen Yun performance for themselves. Interestingly, they often liken the artistry of Shen Yun to the discipline and eye for beauty involved in writing poetry.

“It’s physical poetry. It’s poetry through dancing,” said Victoria Chang an award-winning American poet and writer, “If you watch very carefully, you see how every movement is very precise, they train very hard to make it look very easy.”

Noted Australian poet Rod Moran said, “I think it’s a very, very impressive, wonderful poetry about it. Everything from the costuming, to the music, to the storylines, and the pure beauty of the dancing is just breathtaking. As I say, so far it seems to be one part of a gigantic poem. It’s beautiful.”

See Shen Yun and post your thoughts in the comments section below—or better yet, post a poem!

Updated Feb. 27: Sold-out in New York City and London

Shen Yun’s growing success around the world continues to reinforce its artistic rise and a shift in the arts world. A look at how Shen Yun fared at two cities that are among the world’s greatest standard-bearers for Western arts today is evidence of this.

Last month, Shen Yun had a run of sold-out performances in New York City at the David H. Koch Theater of Lincoln Center—the home of the Metropolitan Opera, American Ballet Theatre, New York Philharmonic, and New York City Ballet.

After the New York performance, award-winning international photographer Alexander Berg said, “The storytelling through movement, no spoken language was used, and the narrative, it really worked. And here we are, people from all different nationalities, I had people speaking Spanish on the side of me, and I think we all understood the story, the visual story.”

Across the pond, Shen Yun has had another run of sold-out performances this month in London. Award-winning actor Martin Freeman, known for his leading roles in “The Hobbit” trilogy and the crime drama “Sherlock,” said, “It was lovely, really skillful, I loved the color, I loved the music.” He took his young daughter and said they were “Riveted… It held us for two hours and that’s a good thing!”

Performances in Florence and Rome, Italy, scheduled for next month, have already sold out.

 

 

 

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36 Responses

  1. Lenore

    I am a dancer and have been using Chinese medicine is my main source of healing for over 25 years. Thank you for this wonderful article!

    Reply
  2. Leonard Dabydeen

    Thanks, Evan Mantyk. Inspiring ad presentation. In a few days I’ll be seeing Shen Yun Performing Arts at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. I am excited!!

    Reply
  3. Fgm

    Wow. Something so obvious for so long and you just went and put it into words. Way to go… So easy yet so profound!

    Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    Evan,

    Some breathtaking footage embedded here. I forwarded the posting to my daughter, who is an accomplished dancer.

    Reply
    • Evan

      Thank you, C.B. To be honest, I have for most of my life felt a bit disconnected from dance. When I was young I was most ardently an artist, later a dabbling musician, and finally a writer and poet. Shen Yun opened my eyes to dance as a very powerful form of communication and artistic expression. This was reinforced when I read sections of the Iliad and the Odyssey which feature dance as a marker of civilization at its height. Below is from Pope’s translation of the Odyssey:

      Swift at the word, obedient to the king,
      The herald flies the tuneful lyre to bring.
      Up rose nine seniors, chosen to survey
      The future games, the judges of the day
      With instant care they mark a spacious round
      And level for the dance the allotted ground:
      The herald bears the lyre: intent to play,
      The bard advancing meditates the lay.
      Skill’d in the dance, tall youths, a blooming band,
      Graceful before the heavenly minstrel stand:
      Light bounding from the earth, at once they rise,
      Their feet half-viewless quiver in the skies:
      Ulysses gazed, astonish’d to survey
      The glancing splendours as their sandals play.

      http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/3160/pg3160-images.html

      Reply
  5. James Sale

    This is a wonderful, informative and expressive article, Evan, and of particular note are your evocative historical parallels: for example, with the sacking of Constantinople and how this enabled the Renaissance to occur in the West, despite its seeming tragedy. But then you have a great sense of history. It’s almost quaint that we now have to sound apologetic about the idea that some people go to heaven, and some don’t. It’s not just the Chinese authorities who live in ignorance: ‘Elitist’, they cry, all the absurd modern intelligentsia who seem to think our eternal destiny is a matter for their personal approval and consent and that heaven is some form of elitist conspiracy that isn’t ‘fair’, or more accurately, ‘equal’. From the dawn of our time here on Earth, humans have always known that there is a reckoning coming – the Egyptians knew it, the Greeks, and the Chinese – all the serious civilisations, including the Hebrews. The Hubris of our time, whether it be through political oppressions, or hippy universalism and pluralism (God, wouldn’t do that – God’s a god of love!), is discounting the Judgement. On the contrary, we must – to use the lovely phrase you use in your article – seek the ‘mandate of heaven’, or find the Tao, the way. This is great stuff – well done.

    Reply
  6. Leonard Dabydeen

    Jan. 23, 2018 : Shen Yun Performing Arts at the Living Arts Centre, Mississauga, Ontario – a magnificent show. Thanks for the ad info guide, Evan Mantyk. Helpful.

    Reply
  7. Kremena

    Fantastic review and explanation of the bigger picture! Hopefully more people will watch Shen Yun and benefits from its superior artistry and energy!

    Reply
  8. Poutama

    Thank you for this very informative and righteous articles- So it has a history of 5000 years versus the Communism, introduced in 1848 as “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. ” The Shen Yun show is a two+hours therapeutic session with all those positive energies with spectacular sights and sounds. Unforgetable and not to be missed!

    =-hour +

    Reply
    • Evan

      Dear Poutama,

      Yes, you bring up a good point, which is about the healing power of performing arts in general and of music, of dance, of color in particular. This is something that traditional Chinese medicine tapped and which is now being studied in the West in fields such as Music Therapy. The Chinese character for medicine contains the character for music. This is an interesting article from a medical doctor on that connection and relates to Shen Yun as well
      https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-jingduan-yang/arts-health_b_1421645.html

      It should also be noted that performing arts and healing also have a long heritage in the West. In the ancient Bible story, it is the young Hebrew David who heals King Saul with his songs. The current Broadway musical Farinelli and the King highlights the real life events in which the voice of the (castrato) opera singer Farinelli was used to cure the depression of Spanish king Philippe V in the 1700s. Here too at the Society we have a poem on the healing power of music from major poet and artist Sally Cook:
      http://classicalpoets.org/blue-star-and-other-poetry-by-sally-cook/

      Reply
    • Evan

      Thank you, Bro.

      Some writers also throw around the term “proselytizing” when discussing the show and I think this relates to the same point. According to Merriam Webster “to proselytize” is “to recruit someone to join one’s party, institution, or cause,” and certainly any commercial enterprise would like you to buy their merchandise and subscribe to their particular set of goals and values, which include frequenting their product and brand. That is the natural avenue of arts and entertainment.

      Also, as explained above in the section “Chinese Culture before Communism” it is a longstanding cultural trait in China that people wear their ideas more boldly on their sleeve and the outer form of the manifestation is somewhat less significant. The Monkey King, probably the greatest hero in all of Chinese culture, who China even named its greatest space satellite after, is in fact a Buddhist priest on a mission to obtain Buddhist scriptures. Outside of a religious context, taking such a blatantly religious character to such heights just hasn’t been done for in the Western culture (we have supporting characters like Friar Tuck in Robin Hood and isolated works like Moses in the Ten Commandments or Exodus: Gods and Kings). His inner form (Buddhism) is put out front and accepted like a t-shirt one might put on or take off (as the communists today prefer), and the fact that his character is presented as a completely unrealistic cross between a cartoon monkey, a warrior, a priest, and a god is overlooked. Another, example is found in traditional Chinese painting, which looks at the meaning and background and character of the artist as carrying as much or even perhaps more weight than the objective quality of what has been portrayed. The meaning of the tree and waterfall matters more than the fact that it isn’t a great depiction with good proportion and shading. Back to the main point, to call Shen Yun “proselytizing” is ironically to be engaged in our own Western brand of proselytizing and the bleaching out of rich and wonderfully colorful culture.

      Reply
  9. Fan Yu

    A comprehensive, insightful, and relevant review of a wonderful performing arts group.

    Reply
  10. Shen Yun Performing Arts fan

    This article is a boon for this site. Shen Yun Performing Arts has, naturally, been dubbed “poetry in motion”.

    I have seen it many times but decided a few years ago not to go again. I would look around the auditorium at the performances and see that it was fully booked. If I’m here, I thought, someone who has not seen it is not getting a seat.

    Shen Yun Performing Arts has five companies, including orchestras, that tour for five months each year. Maybe when they have a sixth, I will go again.

    Or if I’m bought a ticket as a present. It does happen to a lot of people.

    Reply
    • Evan

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, ideally, we could have more performing arts coverage. When we launch a magazine, it will definitely be a top consideration.

      Reply
  11. Daniel Magdalen

    A very good article, which touches upon the main aspects one would be interested in when learning about Shen Yun. Indeed this widely spread prejudice about „propaganda” should be dismantled, as it is not only something incorrect, but it can also have the effect of leading people away from a profound aesthetic experience. Moreover, the values one may grasp from Shen Yun artistic narratives, such as wisdom, sincerity, compassion and human harmony seem so far from any negative notion like “agitprop art” that they make such labels appear ridiculous when associated with this refined performing arts group. To illustrate universal values like the above, which can only be beneficial to human experience, in an exquisite aesthetic expression is what Shen Yun should be praised for, not criticized. In my view, very few performing arts groups manage to achieve this: to enrich not only one’s aesthetic sense but also one’s worldview and fundamental life-guiding principles, as this is an expression of a complex and multifarious culture, spanning over thousands and thousands of years. Shen Yun has extracted an essence of that culture and succeeded in presenting it to us in an intelligible, intelligent and delightful way.

    Reply
    • Evan

      Thank you, Daniel, for your insightful comments. I think “essence of that culture” is a perfect description.

      Reply
  12. Grace

    After seeing this incredible show, I felt compelled to learn more about pre-communist China. As a retired teacher and life-long learner, I have the luxury of extra time… and what an inspiring way to spend some of it! Every year I go back to see the show, learn more, then plunge back into my studies. Thank you very much for this informative article, I have followed the links and have found them very helpful on my quest.

    Reply
    • Evan

      Thank you, Grace. I too am a teacher and draw a lot of inspiration from the class. Especially for Global History, it is easy to fall in the trap of thinking that pre-modern times were backward, dark, and generally unpleasant. The narratives are driven by economics, by a corrupt thirst for power, and by exploitation of the weaker segments of society or weaker races and peoples. In fact there was incredible beauty, artistry, wisdom, and moral discipline in golden ages throughout history and throughout the world, with wonderful heroes, leaders, artists, and scholars, and these brilliant parts are really the driving narrative, what every culture wants to work toward and what is worth studying and being inspired by.

      Reply
  13. Rob

    This was a wonderful review, had the chance to see Shen Yun in London last week – completely agree they are poetry in motion

    Reply
  14. Rosemary

    Thank you for this comprehensive article, which is full of insight. I also saw Shen Yun in London last week. Speaking with several audience members after the performance, everyone was impressed and the show exceeded their expectations. That is the Shen Yun effect, and I agree.

    Reply
  15. lisa Lee

    Thanks for this wonderful article. I had invited a group of friends to see Shen Yun show last week in London, Dominion Theatre. All my friends enjoyed it so much, and told me that they would definitely come back next year, and bring more friends to see the show.

    Reply
  16. Paula

    This article is so well written that I shed a few tears, thankyou for bringing this to our attention and I love Shen Yun!

    Reply
  17. Evan

    Thank you, Paula. I think that is the first time anyone has ever said that about my prose writing. I am flattered.

    Reply
  18. R Clark

    We enjoyed the performance in Cincinnati, OH, and it was marvelous! Unfortunately, I lost our program, and I would really like to have a copy of the poems which were sung by your amazing vocalists. Is there any way I can get a copy of them? Can you recommend a resource online where I might find them?

    Reply

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