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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 27th, 2010
1:33 am

Can you Fa lun gong people jump off a cliff? Let me tell you who watches this show every year. People like my mom, who is a big fa lun gong follower, left her husband and daughter. She wants me to see the show in order to save my life, because if I don’t agree with her my family and I will die and perish forever. While it is easy for my mother to give up her family with the support of the cult, but it is not easy for me to give up the love for my mother. My parents were a loving couple before my mom placed this cult and its evil leader above her own self and her family. She believes what the evil master, Li Hong Zhi, says that her loyalty to him and the cult will benefit her family but in fact the fanatical behaviors of these fal lun gong maniacs have damaged she and our family entirely.

My mother has left us and now and spends much of her time meditating and selling tickets on the streets of L.A. She and the others who sell these tickets try to tell prospective customers that the tickets are to a Chinese cultural show. However, this is not the case at all.

I saw the dvd of this show. It’s nothing but FA LUN GONG. Yes, this is America which is a free country. If shen yun wants to mix art and cult together, they ought to better inform prospective audiences clearly about the show’s content. Stop lying!

Fa Lun Gong people, you could call me any names you want. I have experienced the heart breaking moments with mom. The pain you caused to my family is unrecoverable. And I know I’m not the only one. How about the woman worked in Intel. Divoced with her husband when her daughter was only few months old to follow the cult. Now the girl is 9 who has never seen her mom once!

Fa Lun Da Poop stop making false arguments: Cults tear families apart, while many religions teach harmony and family values. What you are offering to the public is a destructive way of life that will bring more harm to any society that embraces it.

Mela Wu

January 26th, 2010
11:38 pm

Hello, Everybody,

I just want to share my experience and understanding with Shen Yun.

In my company, there are four people of different background have seen Shen Yun in the past, and they all loved it and bought the tickets to see it again this year. Plus all of the Chinese people in the company are going to see the show. Now with a branch of about 50 people, there are over 100 tickets sold! People loved the show so much and that is clear statement on the quality and contents of the show.

I am not sure why we need to be watching a show without a message. ALL great art production has a powerful message, and if the message is centered on universal values, then it has the best message. Besides, that is what the Chinese culture is all about, about values, about different messages. No stories would be passed along without a message.

Chinese culture is rooted in Falun Gong’s message of Truth Compassion and Tolerance, every traditional culture is as well, except the Chinese culture is older and more mystic.

In terms of the persecution, I think that is the climax of the show, it is the best part of the show. This part is what moves the people with conscience to tears and begin to question what could I do. This is not political. This is about LIFE, about ART inspired by life. It is Live art.

What is so political about raising awareness of Falun Gong being persecuted, raising awareness in such a gentle and beautiful way is the greatness of the artists.

Suspend for one moment of what is bothering us, and looking from another angle, you would see the real show. “With eyes, you could not see the Mount of Tai” this is a Chinese saying, about how people are not able to see the magnificence of the great mount of Tai though they have eyes.

For people who have missed it, I think it is time to notice the Mount of Tai by emptying the glass.

Good day.


January 26th, 2010
11:05 pm

@Where is the truth

Really incredible extrapolation from nothing to a definitive accusation. Never said the theatre was half empty. Have said a lot of substantive things which no one will address because they’re too busy changing the subject. Oh, come to think of it, that’s what you’re trying to do…


January 26th, 2010
8:39 pm

The author of the article asks us:
Have you been surprised or offended by an unexpected political message in art, whether on stage, in the movies or elsewhere? My answer is no.

Our rights to freedom of speech in America mean that art has every right to show spectators what is happening in the real world, even though you may not have heard about for one reason or another. In this example it is the nature of Communism to disallow religious freedom, so that in and of itself is not news. Unfortunately people are getting tortured and killed over there, and that’s really unacceptable since China is a member of the U.N. and genocide is strictly forbidden by its members. That is news.

As a freedom loving American, I’m very sorry to those who are not comfortable with facing up to the fact that innocent people are getting killed for their beliefs. Especially when what those people believe in is as harmless as a doctrine of “be more compassionate, more truthful to yourself and others, and be more tolerant of others”. Even if you do not believe what they do, you must be willing to recognize their right to believe in it and speak up for it. That is what being American means.

Where is the truth?

January 26th, 2010
7:31 pm

After reading RJ’s message, I thought the theatre was half empty when the show was finished. I did some online search and found those videos. I don’t care who produced those but they are real person talking, and the theatre was almost full when the audience gave the standing ovation.

By definition, RJ is a liar.


January 26th, 2010
7:04 pm

Here is another link. I would rather to hear some comments from experts on Shen Yun:


January 26th, 2010
6:49 pm

Northern Californian

January 26th, 2010
5:20 pm

Wow, Cyrus. You are comically over-the-top. It’s actually funny.

I’d wager whatever you name that RJ is not a Red.

Northern Californian

January 26th, 2010
5:08 pm

Hear-hear, Luna Wang. You said it perfectly.

Northern Californian

January 26th, 2010
5:05 pm

I saw this show in Northern California, and was so appalled that I asked for (and did not get) my money back. The people in here who are referring to the “state of the art graphics” wouldn’t know state of the art graphics if they walked up and introduced themselves. How many ways did the coreographer figure out to line up 6 lines of 3 dancers, then twirl clockwise?

Falun Gong sock-puppets who’ve gotten on to Yelp in SF, Sacramento Press, Vancouver Sun, UK Telegraph, et al, and made your comments… It takes a while to see it, but the words look canned.

This show was Falun Gong propoganda from the time the curtain first goes up, right up through the dozens of people walking out of each act, until the last time the curtain comes down. It’s shameless; it’s mediocre; and it’s false-advertising. I’ve seen better Chinese dancing for free.

“Before It’s News”, NTDTV, Epoch Times, Shen Yun and Falun Gong are all the same organization, and do NOT advertise what the show is actually about. Like others, that’s the part that bothers me most; the false-advertising.

And, I tell you, I want the Chinese government to fold. They DO torture. They DID run The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution. They SHOULD be out of business. We SHOULD NOT be unquestioningly be buying everything we can from China, because it’s so economical.

This government never adequately paid for The Great Leap Forward, and that’s good enough for me.