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Surprised by the politics in shows like Shen Yun?

ShenYun12(2) (Small)

At Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Chinese performnace troupe Shen Yun featured drummers, dancers and propaganda that surprised some audiences. Some were OK with the message, but some were offended.

In the days since Shen Yun Performing Arts, the Chinese drum and dance troupe, left Atlanta to move onto the next stop on its perpetual tour, conversation continued to rumble about the shows they’d performed at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Some loved the performance, but commenters on Inside Access were upset by the Falun Gong politics of the show, “subtle as a taser shot to the noggin,” the AJC review said. It’s not that commenters necessarily disagree or deny that persecution has taken place in China. They were surprised to see it — especially a few violent scenes,  one involving a taser and another where a mother and child are beaten — in a show promoted as a music-and-acrobatic spectacular

Wrote Marilee Coughlin:

While the dancers are fabulous, and the costumes are gorgeous, I felt like I was at a revival or brain-washing session. … it was billed as a family show, but I question whether children should see a show where a mother and child are beaten by black-shirted men and the mother dragged off stage, apparently dead – then on the garish screen, she can be seen “ascending” accompanied by monks. Creepy sums up parts of the show quite well.

Local Falun Gong groups sponsored the show, but people I’ve heard from said it wasn’t adequate warning that politics might enter into a performance touted as family friendly. The show has taken a drubbing in international press, but AJCer Howard Pousner talked with several audience members who weren’t offended by the message, but they weren’t expecting it either. (You can read his entire story, “Many Atlantans OK with Chinese dance trouple’s politics.”) Several said they were fine with it: they wanted to know the other side of the story.

Here’s what another commenter, KJ, had to say:

My recommendation for the show’s creators.. [sic] If you want to focus on the message and political struggle, do it. The world would write rave reviews about a play or show that took an issue straight on. You probably couldn’t do the show in China or that would be the last show, but I believe the rest of the world prefers an “in your face” approach. State your message and stir it up.

I asked for a response from the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre’s PR agency, and received this statement from J. Barkley Russell on behalf of the local presenting organizations, not Cobb Energy Centre itself:

On behalf of the presenting organizations, we acknowledge the concerns expressed by some attendees at the Shen Yun performances regarding the sensitive content in certain sections of the show. As in years past, our brochures, window posters, website and press releases disclosed the show’s presenting organizations, New Times Cultural and Education Center, Inc. (NTCEC) and the Southeast US Falun Dafa Association—they have presented the show since it began appearing in Atlanta, four years ago.

In the future we will consider adding information to our materials that references the show’s content. We hope this has addressed your concerns.

I didn’t see this show, but in the commercials, billboards, and even the press materials, I didn’t see anything explicit about the show’s point of view, except for a passing reference about Chinese traditions before Communism.

On my own, I would have stayed to watch. Reporterly curiosity means I sit through a lot of things the surprise me, whether they delight or horrify. But it’s entirely different to see a show for work than to see a show with friends or family.

I wonder how common an experience this is. The closest situation I can recall is an early screening of “Million Dollar Baby.” The the mood in the theater changed as the movie became less about boxing and more about — surprise! — assisted suicide.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience on this. Have you been surprised or offended by an unexpected political message in art, whether on stage, in the movies or elsewhere? What responsibility do organizations and venues have to tell audiences beforehand? Should audiences be expected to do their own digging?

For instant updates, follow @insideaccess on Twitter.

79 comments Add your comment


January 22nd, 2010
6:39 pm

RJ, half of my above post was being sympathetic towards Falun Gong, you’re right. But, the other half delt with the issue you raised. You ask if it’s appropriate to deceive the audience in a marketing campaign. I agree that isn’t appropriate but I don’t believe the audience was deceived in this show. I think the message was more humanist that political. I didn’t think the show asked people to engage in controversial subject matter, like Million Dollar Baby, because the themes in the show were more about universal values, not controversial political issues, that’s all.


January 22nd, 2010
8:26 am

It is unfortunate (as well as instructive) that no one seems willing to address the issue I raised. Rather, the thread is being hijacked by those who either practice or are sympathetic to Falun Gong in an effort to steer us toward a discussion of the merits of the movement.

It is a common tactic of such groups to put forth this twisted syllogism: “Persecution is not valid. We are persecuted. Therefore, our ideology is valid.” Further, anyone who has the audacity to question any aspect of the movement is lumped together with its persecutors.

For the record, oppression is bad. So is deception. Shen Yun evidently wants to cruise silently, like a U-boat, through theaters across the world, only to surface and make its intentions known at the raising of the curtain. Please do not feign surprise that anyone should object to such subterfuge.


January 22nd, 2010
7:50 am

To be honest, I don’t see what the confusion is here. When I think of Shen Yun my first thought is of the triumph of the human spirit. Even the Shen Yun website lists this as a main focus. “The human spirit triumphs over adversity in powerful, thought-provoking dances” is written very plainly for all to see even on the link from the story above. Any individual with even the slightest knowlege of the persecution and human rights issues within China’s borders would not be shocked but would applaud Shen Yun performances. Sure, they are making a statement with the performance, but I tend to disagree with people who are surprised and feel it was misplaced politicism. This show is, as it is billed — Classical Chinese dance and music with state of the art digital animations and scenery combined to depict an ispiring journey of human triumph over adversity with themes of kindness, compassion and courage. You can’t get any more straight forward than that.

Furthermore, I would like to write briefly on the violence topic. I do not feel there are any inappropriate moments in the show for younger audiences. My 6 year old son has seen Shen Yun and I did as any parent should do… use the scenes that show persecution with physical violence as a learning moment. The triumph of the human spirit is not with a sword or gun but rather with peaceful demonstration. Did Martin Luther King, Jr. ever carry a gun during a march? No. Throughout history we can see several instances where man has triumphed over persecution through compassion and grace. No matter what your religious or political views this point resonates throughout the perfomance.

Thank you Shen Yun!


January 22nd, 2010
1:47 am

I saw Shen Yun, and wouldn’t call the message “political”, fundamentally it was more of an uplifting humanistic message. Depicting a person persevering in their faith, even in the face of deadly oppression, and then going to heaven highlights a very basic moral theme across different religions and ethnic backgrounds. It is actually a hopeful message and one that is necessary for people. If everyone caved under pressure from immoral powers, it wouldn’t be long before people didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, that’s especially the case for people living under a dictatorship. This scene in Shen Yun wasn’t depicted with gore or fake blood or bad language, just with classical dance and classical music, so how could that be offensive? What’s more this scenario really does play out in China for thousands of people of different religious or political beliefs, people persevere in their beliefs in the face of a cruel torture and murder there on a daily basis, this is exposed over and over again by different human rights organizations, its not something made up. Isn’t that what is truly offensive? If everyone were as offended as they should be by that, its quite possible Falun Gong would not put so much or even any effort into raising awareness on this issue. Is this issue subjective?


January 21st, 2010
8:29 pm

Hugo, rather than defending Falun Gong– which is not under attack here– why not address the issue at hand: should Shen Yun be allowed to purposely deceive individuals about the content and purpose of the show? I think not.

Let there be a truthful, candid acknowledgement of the purpose of the show before individuals buy tickets. Shen Yun wants to promote Falun Gong. Great! Just disclose that ahead of time.


January 21st, 2010
6:42 pm

Shen Jun was amazing. I rec reading at least the Lunya, or first intro in the book of Falan Dafa, (It can be read free on line on the falun dafa website) prior as it will give you some insight into the complex symbolism and traditional underpinnings of the dances, music and vocals. Ignore the opinionated rantings and see this for what it is….creative, heart warming and truthful. There are some scenes showing symbolic violence that has been well documented world wide over the past 10 years or so. These scenes are certainly not graphic and evoke compassion in the viewer.
Any child of any age has been exposed to much more upsetting stuff on a typical episode of Sponge Bob. It gave us an opportunity to talk with our kids about what freedom and respect religion has here in America. Chines history is wrought with violence and oppression of women and children and of spiritual practices. This show was a great place to start teaching our children about the realities of communism in China, and the need to always protect our rights here in the States.


January 21st, 2010
3:45 pm

There is a significant difference between going to a movie that ends up having an unexpected subplot and attending a performance that touts to be a celebration of Chinese culture but, in actuality, is a pretext to subject individuals to a quasi-religious ideology. The latter is kind of like going to hear about a great vacation opportunity only to realize you’re captive to a time-share condo sales pitch.

As stated previously (on the Inside Access blog referenced above), virtually the entire Shen Yun performance to which my wife and I were subjected last Friday was imbued with Falun Gong ideology. Also noted was the reaction of a professional theatre critic for the Telegraph in London who called it “propaganda as entertainment”. Others commentors expressed the same sense of betrayal upon realizing the true nature of the program. This is not one man’s humble opinion.

The performance itself was mediocre at best. Yet this is not a surprise given the main purpose of this group is to serve as a vehicle to surreptitiously propagate their “message”. One wonders why they are not forth-coming as to their intent given the alienation that ensues when audience members realize they’ve been duped– much less paying for the privilege.

Art in all forms has always served to challenge, provoke, advocate, and inspire. When it is done well– whether or not the goal is popular– it has served that purpose. When, on the other hand, individuals are beguiled as to the substance of a performance, it ceases to be art. It is pure deception.


January 21st, 2010
3:30 pm

People suck. Thank god for political messages in entertainment. At times, they have changed the world. I like it when a singer sings about an issue. And I would like this too.

BTW, that girl in the pic is

74 Dawg

January 21st, 2010
3:23 pm

What about the politics (and political correctness) in many Hollywood Offerings? Should theaters put a disclosure out front on every George Cluny or Oliver Stone movie?


January 21st, 2010
3:01 pm

Million Dollar Baby is a good comparison–if you just look at Shen Yun’s website, you won’t come away with the impression that you’ll witness a persecution scene.

I saw it with my daughter (5); the political/religious content didn’t offend me. She loved the costumes & dancing, and I enjoyed that aspect, too. I’m not the type that would suddenly change my political/religious beliefs based on one performance, and I didn’t feel that they were indoctrinating me into the faith–though I could have done without the “encore”.

Had I done even a cursory search for the show on Google, I would have found the info I needed to make an informed choice on page 1 of the search results for “shen yun”. Above the fold, there’s a link to the Wikipedia page (good sources, balanced piece): . And that page links to one about Falun Dafa/Gong: .

Just below the fold on the search results page, you’ll find the link to the “propaganda as entertainment” article: .

And as for whether Falun Dafa/Gong is a cult or a religion and whether Shen Yun supports/is tied to that group, to be honest, I don’t care. People believe some wacky stuff in this world, some of which makes it on stage/in movies/in books, etc. That’s just the nature of art.

I’m more offended by the fact that religious persecution still goes on in China. Even established religions that are “allowed” to be practiced in China are still censored by the government–Chinese catholics cannot be taught some of tenets of the faith, for instance. FWIW.