Stefania Fusero asks if the Shen Yun show really is reviving a traditional Chinese culture that is neither known nor cultivated in China, or whether it is a “powerful echo chamber that transmits and amplifies an incessant campaign of denigration of the People’s Republic of China and of communism in general.”
By Stefania Fusero
Published on NCW, May 18, 2022
The Italian public will soon be able to admire the famous show “Shen Yun – China before Communism”, on tour in various locations of the peninsula between May and June 2022.
This is the presentation of the show on the website of the Arcimboldi Theatre in Milan:
“Shen Yun represents Chinese culture as it was before it was destroyed by decades of communism. For five thousand years, China had been home to a deeply spiritual culture that treasured virtue, kindness, loyalty and integrity. But when the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949, the first thing it did was to erase traditional Chinese culture, its values and beauty.
Based in New York, Shen Yun Performing Arts is bringing this lost world back to life. Five thousand years of civilisation are reborn.”
The acclaimed music and dance show was born in New York in 2006, it was taken for the first time on tour in 2007 and today there are six Shen Yun companies touring the world.
The company’s site is located in New York State, Orange County, in the huge (1.73 sq km) Dragon Springs residential complex, which is the headquarters of Falun Gong (aka Falun Dafa), registered in the US as a Buddhist church, which in addition to the Shen Yun location, includes an orphanage, schools and temples.
What is Falun Gong aka Falun Dafa?
Falun Gong, founded in May 1992 by Li Hongzhi, was born as a spiritual movement that combined the traditional Chinese practice of qigong with the apocalyptic teachings of its founder and absolute master, as illustrated in his books Zhuan Falun and Falun Gong.
The Falun Dafa or Falun Gong website, whose official motto is ‘Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance’, provides an introduction to the discipline: “Falun Dafa includes the cultivation of a Falun, or ‘the wheel of the law.’ The Falun is a rotating intelligent entity made up of high-energy matter. The Falun that Master Li Hongzhi installs in a practitioner’s lower abdomen from other dimensions rotates constantly, 24 hours a day. (True cultivators can acquire a Falun by reading Master Li’s books, watching videos of his nine lectures, or listening to them on audio, or studying with Falun Dafa students) … The rotating Falun has the same qualities as the universe, and is the miniature of the universe. The Buddhist Falun, the Taoist Yin-Yang, and everything in the World of Ten Directions are reflected in the Falun. The Falun provides salvation for the practitioner when it rotates inward (clockwise), as it absorbs a large amount of energy from the universe and transforms it into Gong energy. The Falun provides salvation for others when it rotates outward (counter-clockwise), because it releases energy that can save any being and rectify any abnormal condition … ”
The movement was banned by the Chinese government on July 22, 1999 – when it is estimated it counted 2 to 10 million – perhaps many more – followers in China alone.
The first criticisms of Falun Gong did not come from the Chinese government or Communist Party, but from the world of science, the media and former followers, and in 1996 articles began to appear which criticised the group’s unscientific tendencies and the divine status of its founder. Falun Gong immediately mobilised and between 1996 and mid-1999 organised over 300 protests against critical articles appeared in the Chinese media.
Since freedom of the press in China is conditional on maintaining social harmony and stability, in the face of the threat of public unrest posed by the Falun Gong protests, the media officials in question tended to meekly comply with Falun Gong’s demands, going as far as firing the journalists in question and publicly apologising to the group, as happened for example with a television in Beijing. This only intensified the aggressive pressure of the movement on the mass media.
When a Tianjin academic journal published a critique of Falun Gong by the distinguished nuclear physicist He Zuoxiu, 6,000 Falun Gong members occupied the university in protest, demanding a retraction of the article. The occupation lasted for over three days, then escalated into a riot, leading to the arrest of 45 people.
Falun Gong reacted by gathering over 10,000 members around the government and party headquarters in Beijing, which were held under siege for twelve hours. It was April 25, 1999; on July 22nd Falun Gong was banned as an “evil sect” and its members arrested – not its founder Li Hongzhi, however, who had been residing in New York since February 1998.
Falun Gong has been campaigning relentlessly ever since against the Chinese government and Communist Party, which it has accused of mass detention, torture, even organ harvesting and trafficking. For their part, the Chinese authorities stated that “Li had broken numerous laws, threatened public security, was responsible for over 1,000 deaths (mainly of members who committed suicide or refused medical treatment), and that members had infiltrated in the Communist Party to overthrow the government “(Xinhua, the main Chinese news agency).
Given the cold war climate in which we are immersed, it comes to no surprise that in the Anglo-Saxon-led Western world Li has been generally described as a sort of contemporary Gandhi fighting against a ruthless regime of oppression and that he was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1999.
Over the years Falun Gong has managed to create a powerful network that includes media, software, food, cultural products, fashion, beauty and entertainment.
The spearheads of the group’s propaganda, in addition to the Shen Yun show, are undoubtedly The Epoch Times newspaper and the New Tang Dynasty television network, which together with other media in various capacities related to Falun Gong, have been able to create a powerful echo chamber that transmits and amplifies an incessant campaign of denigration of the People’s Republic of China and of communism in general.
In a parabolic success track, The Epoch Times has metamorphosed from a small newspaper which was originally distributed free in the streets of New York, into one of the most powerful digital publishers in the USA.
The most significant turning point occurred between 2016 and 2017, when the newspaper changed its editorial policy: whereas until then it had usually stayed out of US politics, it unequivocally and vocally sided in favour of Donald Trump, who had supposedly “been sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party of China”.
This stance has somewhat changed the Anglo-Saxon media’s perception of Falun Gong, and in recent years, liberal-leaning media have begun publishing rather critical articles and reports on the nature of Falun Gong and questioning how the publishing empire led by Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television has been able to grow so rapidly in terms of both its revenue and ability to influence public opinion. Suffice it to mention a 2019 NBC article, a New York Times investigation, and an ABC Australia documentary, both issued in 2020.
Now that Falun Gong and the Epoch Times have de facto become part of the Trump galaxy and of the US ultra right, Master Li’s anti-scientific and reactionary beliefs are beginning to be exposed: the theory of evolution is a fraud; feminism, homosexuality and mixed marriages are against nature, so the children of mixed couples will not be able to go to heaven; aliens attempt to control humans through addiction to modern science and so on and so forth.
The ABC documentary specifically focuses on the daily life at Dragon Springs headquarters, where Internet access is tightly regulated, the use of medical treatment is opposed, and adepts are encouraged to cut ties with non-Falun Gong family members. In short, an environment in which the followers are isolated from the outside world and are strictly controlled by the Master, which suggests that we are in the presence of a real cult.
According to Heather Kavan, a lecturer at Massey University, New Zealand, who did a year’s ethnographic research on Falun Gong in 2008,
Characteristics associated with cults include: an idolised charismatic leader who exploits people by letting them believe he – and it usually is a ‘he’ – is God’s mouthpiece; mind control techniques; an apocalyptic world view used to manipulate members; exclusivity (‘only our religion can save people’); alienation from society; and a view of members as superior to the rest of humanity. If we employ these criteria, Falun Gong could be described as a cult. By his own account Li is the exclusive saviour of the world. He teaches that members are superior to ordinary people, and they must relinquish ‘affection for kinsfolk, love between a man and a woman, an affection for parents, feelings, [and] friendship’. Also, Falun Gong activities take up large amounts of the practitioners’ time each day. To be sure, practitioners are free to exit Falun Gong whenever they want, but this freedom is a physical reality, not a psychological one. As the Chinese members I met had no exposure to other spiritual paths, they believed the peace they experienced in meditation is only available through Falun Gong. Moreover, if they are left behind in the apocalypse they will suffer horribly”.
Let’s go back to where we started, that is, to the Shen Yun show, or “the beauty of divine beings who dance”, which consists of a troupe of dancers accompanied by an orchestra including traditional Chinese musical instruments and makes use of modern digital technologies.
Here we do not intend to question either the skill of the artists or the quality of the show itself, but we firmly believe that spectators have the right to know that their good money goes to pay for what is essentially political-religious propaganda. It is also important to add that the assumption on which the alleged uniqueness of the show is based, i.e. that it would enable to approach a culture otherwise irreparably destroyed by the Chinese Communist government, is totally groundless.
Traditional Chinese culture is cultivated and disseminated not only in schools, academies, theatres and other dedicated venues, but also through such popular mass media as public television.
Indeed, it is even improper to speak of traditional Chinese culture as if it were a codified unicum: one should not speak of Chinese “opera”, for example, because there are over three hundred various regional theatrical styles. And what about the different cultural, musical and dance traditions that characterise the 56 ethnic groups that make up the People’s Republic of China and are actively promoted and cultivated in a country which is proudly multi-ethnic?
A fascinating traditional dance shown on national China TV
ABC News – Foreign Correspondent – Who Are the Falun Gong?
Nathan Rich – China Uncensored is Falun Gong
Nathan Rich – Tracking the FAR-RIGHT Falun Gong on a Map
Heather Kavan, Massey University – Falun Gong in the media: What can we believe?
People’s World – Shen Yun: The Falun Gong cult’s anti-communist propaganda roadshow
Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker – Stepping into the Uncanny, Unsettling World of Shen Yun
Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, NBC News – Trump, QAnon and an impending judgment day: Behind the Facebook-fueled rise of The Epoch Times
Kevin Roose, New York Times – How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine
General Consulate of the PRC in Auckland – Why Falun Gong is a Cult
Embassy of the PRC in USA – Exposing the Lies of “Falun Gong” Cult
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